Filed in: Awards, Camera, Gear

Digital Features in Running for Cinematography Oscar

February 8, 2009 05:32 | By

The nomination of films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire in the best cinematography category marks a bit of watershed for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences— both films were shot largely digitally. The former was shot predominantly with Thomson’s Viper Filmstream cameras, (as well as a few shots done with a Sony F23 and 35mm film for high-speed shots), while the latter relied heavily on Silicon Imaging’s SI 2K Digital Cinema Camera and as many as five different film stocks, as well as a Canon DSLR camera that was used to shoot crowd scenes. This is the first year that digitally acquired features have been in the running for the cinematography Oscar.

Slumdog Millionaire, which received a total of 10 Academy Award nominations including best picture, best director for Danny Boyle and best cinematography for Anthony Dod Mantle, is a love story about a teenager who rises from the slums of Mumbai to win the Indian version of the television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

For Dod Mantle, who most recently shot The Last King of Scotland and had previously worked with Boyle on both 28 Days Later and Millions, the plan was to shoot in the heart of the Mumbai’s infamous slums, capturing their energy and urgency on-the-fly.

“Danny Boyle and I had made four films together prior to this and we have developed a method and a trust,” says Dod Mantle. “We both have strong opinions about our work and about cinema in general and we always want to try to push ideas to the fullest.”

Boyle was adamant that he did not want to take large, cumbersome 35mm cameras into the slums. He wanted to use smaller, more flexible, digital cameras to enable them to shoot quickly with minimal disturbance to the natural flow and communities.

“I had to find a camera setup that would be ergonomic enough for me to throw myself around the slums chasing the children whilst, at the same time, withhold as much detail in the shadows and highlights,” says Dod Mantle. “We needed a digital camera with enough latitude to hold highlights and something very small so we could enter the children’s world at their level. Slumdog Millionaire needed a completely different tactical approach.”

They found the right combination in the IT-centric Silicon Imaging SI-2K Digital Cinema camera. It delivered over 11 stops of dynamic range and film-like digital content, which could be easily inter-cut with traditional film footage. The filmmakers originally planned to shoot specific scenes digitally and the rest on 3-perf Super 35mm, but Boyle was so pleased with the SI-2K performance that he gradually decided to shoot more and more with it.

Unlike modern HD cameras, which develop and compress colorized imagery inside the camera, the Silicon Imaging SI-2K streams 2K (2048×1152) data as uncompressed raw “digital negatives” over a standard gigabit Ethernet connection. An Intel Core 2 Duo processor-based computer embedded in the camera or tethered to a laptop up to 100 feet away, processes the digital negatives, where they are non-destructively developed and colorized for preview using the cinematographer’s desired “look” for the scene.

The digital negatives and “look” metadata are simultaneously recorded to hard drive or solid-state disk where up to four hours of continuous footage are captured on a single 160 GB notebook drive. The recorded files can be immediately played with the target-color look at full resolution, without the need for film scanning, tape ingest, format conversions or off-line proxies.

A customized camera support and recording package was built for the Slumdog shoot. They enlisted Pille Film of Wiesbaden, Germany to create a customized gyro-stabilizer for the base of the SI-2K Mini.

“Attaching a gyro to the base of the handheld unit enabled me to move the camera in a very unusual way, somewhere between handheld and immaculate Steadicam. I could make fast movements, throw the camera a certain way, swipe it up and sideways, and make a brake just before the gyro kicked in so it came to an abrupt stop. Boyle loved the results,” explains Dod Mantle.

Instead of using the traditional film-style camera body, they elected to use an Apple MacBook Pro notebook, running Windows XP, for the recorders, and built them into ruggedized backpacks, to be worn inconspicuously. Stefan Ciupek, the show’s technical supervisor and additional camera operator, coordinated the design and modifications of the camera system with Wolfgang Damm of Pille, whose team worked around the clock to get the 2K Mini rigs built.

Pille assembled four units for the production, and by testing them in a sauna, determined that the laptops would have to be packed in dry ice so they wouldn’t fail in India’s intense heat. Once shooting began, the dry ice had to be reloaded hourly. The production required up to 45 pounds of dry ice daily.

“I’ve done some odd things, but this was the oddest,” Dod Mantle says. “It was unknown territory and unknown technology, which was exciting.”