Saturday, July 02, 2005

Night Glows: Collateral on HBO-HD

Typical scene from
Last night I watched Michael Mann's 2004 thriller Collateral, recorded on my second HD DVR cable box (ye-e-e-s-ss!), and viewed on my 32" Hitachi plasma HDTV. The HBO-HD rendering was phenomenal. A great movie in its own right, and (I couldn't help feeling) a homage to Hitchcock's "bad guy's guilt splashes all over the wrong man's life" films, it was doubly good because of its tour de force cinematography.

Jamie Foxx, as Max, is the "wrong man" in Mann's opus. He's a late-night L.A. taxi driver who agrees to convey Tom Cruise, as Vincent, around the city to transact five quick pieces of business ... which turn out to be drug-world assassinations. Foxx takes major gas, but can't get away. So we're treated to scene after scene shot in the various kinds of artifical illumination you'd expect to find in a taxi cruising the nighttime streets of a major urb that never sleeps. The actors' faces, dark-toned for Foxx, pale for Cruise, show up only because they're bathed in the ephemeral glows emanating from tungsten and sodium street lighting, neon signage, taxi dashboards, laptop screens, cell phones — you name it.

There are also a number of interior scenes: fluorescent-lit hospitals, garish disco clubs, underlit parking garages, etc. Again, as with the exteriors, the cinematographic artistry is great.

It turns out that there are two surprises concerning the eye-candy camera work of Collateral. One, it was the work of two separate directors of photography. Two, it was mostly shot direct to video, not on celluloid. This article from American Cinematographer tells the story.

Paul Cameron (Man on Fire, Gone in 60 Seconds) was the lead cinematographer while the film was in preparation and during the first three weeks of actual shooting, after which "creative differences" with director Mann (Ali) sent him packing. His replacement for the rest of the film was Dion Beebe (Chicago). How interesting that such remarkable photography could be achieved without a unary force behind it.

The use of high-definition video cameras rather than film permitted, the article says, "the extensive night-exterior work in Collateral to make the most of available light in and around Los Angeles." Cameron: “Using HD was something [director] Michael [Mann] had already settled on by the time I came aboard. He wanted to use the format to create a kind of glowing urban environment; the goal was to make the L.A. night as much of a character in the story as Vincent and Max were.”

Two different types of video cameras were used for the night exteriors, the Sony/Panavision F900 and the Thomson Grass Valley Viper FilmStream. They had in common that they shot footage in "24p" — jargon for the 1080p/24 digital video format. So each frame nominally had 1,080 scan lines (but see below), scanned progressively, all at once, rather than odd-even interlaced. The cameras recorded what they shot on internal and external digital tape decks and/or computer hard drives.

To get the lively "glowing urban environment" look they wanted, the filmmakers had to "push" the video gain of their cameras above normal levels, at the risk of adding too much video "noise" to the night-lit image. This wasn't easy to meter, since what looked fine on video monitors on the set didn't necessarily look good on the final "film-out" — i.e., when the video footage was transferred to celluloid. In fact, special electroluminescent display panels were constructed to throw enough light of the desired "slightly cool green" color temperature on the actors' faces to hold HD video noise at bay. All this was done in the full, if counterintuitive, knowledge that the oddities of the eventual film stock used would alter those of the raw HD video images, giving the final result that was anticipated.

The shape of the 1,920 x 1,080-pixel video frame used for Collateral was 2.40:1, slightly wider than one of Hollywood's two most commonly used widescreen aspect ratios, 2:35:1. (The other is 1.85:1.) This entailed using two different strategies with the two camera types. The Thomson Viper camera could do "a native internal anamorphic squeeze." It used digital signal processing to narrow the 2.40:1 (or, actually, 2.37:1) image frame to fit within a 1920:1080 or 1.78:1 box, which would then be printed to film. Optics in the film projector would eventually unsqueeze the image back to 2:40:1.

The Sony F900 couldn't do that. It had to crop the image vertically from 1,920 x 1,080 to approximately 1,920 x 764, later optically squeezed for printing to film. That meant that there was less vertical resolution in the F900 footage than in the Viper.

Most of Collateral's interiors were shot right to film, the old-fashioned way ... with the notable exception of the ultra-dark office building where the movie's climactic sequence begins. I was blissfully unaware of any difference between the video footage and the direct-to-film. The only problem I had with HBO's rendition was that it was cropped to 1.78:1 to please the every-pixel-must-be-lit crowd, which resulted in some ludicrous framing, partiuclarly in the scene where Max talks to Felix, an underworld potentate, in his night club.

That quibble aside, I thought the look of Collateral on HBO-HD was good enough to be Exhibit A in any case that one might make for buying an HDTV right now, today!

1 comment:

Indie Film said...

I saw Collateral mostly to see how the image quality of the Sony Camera was. I was impressed with both the quality of the image and the movie. I've actually had the privilege of shooting on the Sony F900, (<= rented from him in fact for a shoot for Elysian Pictures Independent Film Company) it is a beautiful camera and makes even better images. The quality isn't quite as good as a true film image, but the benefits of using HD over film greatly outweigh its weakness... at least in independent film making. It won't be long before HD outshines film. They have the cameras that can do it, it's just that the data that it generates is so intensive that it is hard to manage without a ton of special disk-based recording gear.