As cinematographer on Mutant Chronicles, Geoff Boyle not only shot most of the film against green screens, he also did it using a state-of-the-art digital camera, the Thomson Viper. I interviewed Geoff on set in June 2006.
Can you explain to me what the Viper is?
"The Viper is a camera that was launched by Philips when it was Philips - it’s now Thomson Grass Valley - four years ago. I did the launch of it for the National Association of Broadcasters show four years ago. Then we showed it at the Cannes Film Festival that year as well. Basically Thomson - or Philips, I’ll stick with Thomson - had the idea that if you were going to use a camera for digital cinema there was no reason to have all the compromises that are built into television cameras. Television cameras have a whole load of compromises built in to compensate for transmission, for cathode ray tubes, for all kinds of things. They damage the picture effectively and limit the picture. Thomson thought: if you’re doing digital cinema, wouldn’t it be a good idea if we just ripped all of that out, threw it away and made a camera that gives you everything that’s possible out of the chips. And they went ahead and did it.
“Now when they did it, they actually didn’t have a way of recording it! And they knew that. They just figured that someone would come up with a way of recording it. Which is what did happen: a company called Director’s Friend made a hard disk recorder, which was dreadful, and then SU, whose machines we’re using now, came up with a workable recording system. Because there’s so much data coming out of these. It’s something like: the camera that was used for the second of the recent Star Wars films, the Sony F900, this puts out something like twelve times as much data as that does. So you’ve got an enormous amount of information coming through - and that’s the reason we’re using it. We’ve got very detailed green-screen special effects shots and we get far more information with this than we could get with any other camera.
“People are experimenting with other cameras at the moment. I’ve tested all of them against each other, I tested in Los Angeles at the same time as Disney were testing them all and I came to the same conclusion that they all did. The Viper was best. There might be political reasons for using the Panavision at times or the Ari but that’s a different matter! On pure quality grounds, it was the Viper. We actually now have what I am convinced is - at the moment, and the field changes very quickly - but at the moment it’s by far the best camera and without doubt the Zeiss Digi-prime lenses we’re using are way ahead of anyone else’s."
How does that affect your work as a cinematographer?
"I’m finding it great fun because it works more like film than like video. If you’re working with Sony cameras you’re required to make decisions about what the picture looks like while you’re shooting, because you have to make the best use of the data that’s there. Whereas with this, there’s so much data that I can go: well, maybe I’ll have that bright and maybe that bit will be darker, but I’ll leave that till post. Then I don’t have the crew and cast standing around while I fiddle. So this is a much, much faster way of shooting.
“What I have in front of me is a Truelight box where I have, before we started shooting, generated certain looks that the film would have in certain sections. There’s only two looks in fact: there’s one at the start which is harsh, a middle one which is more gentle and warm, and we go back to the first one to finish it. I try to use the analogy of a rock’n’roll concert where you start fast, you slow down and you finish fast. But those looks only apply to the monitoring, they don’t affect the recording at all. The system we use in Truelight, we’re enabled by using that to put the look that I want on the rushes that are being edited, the special effects guys see the pictures as I want them to see them. All of that’s done without losing any of the original data, and it means that at any time we can change our minds. But we’re not going to!
“And I sit in my hotel room each night, using a program called Speedgrade to check individual frames that are recording onto a hard disc there. I take frames back to my hotel room and apply the grades that we’ve got to them using Speedgrade to make sure they’re what we want. You’ve seen the prints that I made yesterday which are the look that we’ve decided will be applied to those. I then do tweak them occasionally, play with them and just see if the look would be better one way or another, which is the kind of thing we’ll be doing in... eighteen months’ time! A year and a half from now, which is when we do the final grade."
Given that this isn’t coming out until 2008, by which time distribution technology will have moved on, are you envisaging this as a 35mm print or do you expect it to be digitally projected?
"I’m not actually worried about that at all. I’ve been heavily testing and researching that for years now. Having seen some recent test of split screen, I’m convinced that the new digital projectors are probably better than film for projection. But there’s a simple reason that there won’t be the fast uptake of digital projectors that there has been of digital post and digital shooting now - and that’s cost. What everyone fails to take into account is that it may be savings for the studios, in terms of costs of prints and so on, but the studios don’t own the theatres. A theatre owner buys a 35mm projector for $30,000 and it lasts him twenty years. He buys a digital projector and by the time he’s got all the accessories he requires he’s spent a quarter of a million dollars - and it’s out of date in two years.
“So the business model, as far as I’m concerned, I just can’t see it working. The projectors are dropping in price and the business model will work but I don’t think the uptake will be anything like as fast as anyone predicts. Unless the studios then agree to subsidise the projectors to save their print bills, which is a possibility. And I do love a story that James Cameron told at NAB this year which was: he was complaining that Titanic had only made $1.8 billion dollars, and the reason it didn’t take two billion is because the film prints wore out. And if he’d been projecting it digitally, he would have made his two billion from it. He said his next one would be digital."
How does all the green-screen on this film affect the lighting and the camerawork?
"Hugely. I’m working to get it as smooth and even in key as I can because there’s so much post work to do, I’ve got to try and make their life easy and to make it as automated as possible for them. That means making sure that none of my key lights, none of the lights that are lighting the actors spill onto the green. So they’re terminated. And making sure that none of the green spills onto the actors. It’s a difficult balance at times but it does seem to be working okay.
“There are restrictions at times, where we’ve been shaking the camera a lot on some of the battle sequences. When we’re using green-screen, we can’t do that. We have to add that shake in post. But what we’re doing is quite nice. They’re actually analysing the shake from handheld pictures against normal backgrounds and then tracking that over the green-screen ones so you’ll actually get real camera shake, not computerised camera-shake! Which I think is really cool. I think that sums up the whole approach that we’re doing on this: to use the technology but to use it in a way that doesn’t look like technology."
Are you and Simon Hunter working well together?
"I think we’re working very well together. We created the idea of what the look of it should be very quickly and I think we have a very similar approach to the way shots should be done and how we work. And we’re working incredibly quickly together which is great. Simon knows what he wants, and when he’s got it he moves onto the next shot."
Does the storyboarding help?
"Oh, storyboarding helps enormously. But it does cause confusion at times, when Max our AD adds notes saying ‘dialogue here’ to remind us it’s not just the pictures!”
interview originally posted 6th October 2008