By Bill Desowitz
The first thing Michael Mann said before discussing Collateral—the tense thriller from Dreamworks about a hit man (Tom Cruise) and cabbie (Jamie Foxx) thrown together by chance—was that he had nothing to say about why he replaced cinematographer Paul Cameron with Dion Beebe, ASC three weeks into shooting. He wasn’t about to pit one craftsman against another and he wasn’t going to ruin the chance to work with them again. What Mann would discuss with Below the Line was the creative and technical challenge of shooting digitally in L.A. between dusk and dawn with the Thomson Grass Valley Viper FilmStream and Sony/Panavision HDW-F900 cameras. “Film doesn’t record what our eyes can see at night,” said the director, known for his creative portrayal of light. “That’s why I moved into shooting digital video in high definition—to see into the night, to see everything the naked eye can see and more: streetlights reflecting off the bottom of clouds, silhouetted palms against the sky…I had to figure out how we were going to evoke that three-dimensionality.”
Below the Line: Tell us about
the challenge of doing this
Michael Mann: I wanted to evoke L.A. at night and have that be the world of the movie, since it starts at 6 p.m. and ends at 4 a.m., and I wanted to see into the city. Motion picture film can’t get me there in terms of sensitivity and colors—it’s not as painterly a medium. [With digital] I could manipulate colors. If I didn’t like the color of red, we’d take a couple points out of the red right then and there when we were shooting. And I wanted as much depth of field as I could get. When you find the right technology, it’s important to find the aesthetics inherent to that technology. I didn’t want to make it look like film. I wanted to make it unique to what video does.
BTL: You wanted to play to its strength?
Mann: That’s a perfect way of putting it…so we had different precepts. There were certain vapor lamps—apricot color—and we were taking 10 to 15 percent out of the reds. We did a lot of that.
BTL: You really got the amber look of L.A. at night.
Mann: Our eyes adjust to it. We don’t realize that the color represented on high-def video is the real color. But then I wanted to subtract the theatrical convention of a key light and fill to feel more of the truthfulness of characters because of extremely low light levels. So that moved me to video and very low levels of illumination. We also got into the issue of lights because we wanted to shoot in a cab.
BTL: And that was a whole other challenge?
Mann: Right. Somebody brought back from Japan these photo-luminescent panels, which were made of vinyl and as thin as a piece of paper, and we launched into an R&D effort to develop those into our lights from inside the cab. So we had these 8×12” or 4×12” white mylar panels that had a photochemical emulsion, and they became the source of all of our illumination. It was like a very soft light around somebody. In other words, it’s like lighting with fill and no key. The most interesting thing about it is that I found it to be more like working with the Ansel Adams zone system of previsualizing what you want the finished product to look like, and then using the initial principal photography just to make the raw material that I’m going to then manipulate [as a DI] with [executive producer/colorist] Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3.
BTL: You used these two cameras. How are the Viper and Sony/Panavision F900 different from one another?
Mann: The Sony camera had two more stops in the high end so you’d see more detail before our whites would clip. And the Viper camera would make a different color record. It was lustrous, particularly in the mid range and particularly with reds, yellows and oranges.
BTL: And what about the 20 percent you shot on film?
Mann: [We shot on film] when we were on stage and it made sense to use traditional lighting.
BTL: Why these two cinematographers in particular?
Mann: They’re both really good and I have a lot of sympathy for both of them. It’s very, very difficult to come to this medium from traditional cinematography because everything you’re doing is counterintuitive. Throw away your light meter because you’ve got a Sony high-def monitor right in front of you. You want to see what you’re getting—that’s what you’re getting. There’s no guesswork. You don’t like it, change it. The second thing is, you’re not protecting your shadow areas, you’re protecting your whites, you’re protecting your highlights. You’ve got to make sure they don’t cook because you can’t retrieve it. Whereas you can always see into the darker areas—you can always induce the blackest black you can get, but you can’t recover whites.
BTL: Sounds like it wasn’t easy to achieve.
Mann: Well, we drove the R&D ourselves from six months out because I had previous experience with this on Robbery Homicide Division, which was a guerilla style of working in episodic television. We shot everything with the F900 camera. It was an excellent camera. But we had a different set of requirements. Going further back, on Ali I wanted to see the gray clouds against the black sky that you see on a moonlit night in Miami in summer. You can’t see it on film, so that was the first thing I ever shot in high-def. That’s when I saw that there’s tremendous truth-telling in visualization when you weren’t using lights.
BTL: Tell us about working with production designer David Wasco and your location managers Janice Polley and Julie Hannum in finding these wonderful L.A. locations and utilizing them so effectively.
Mann: David and his wife Sandy, who’s a set designer, are a terrific team. They’re available, completely artistic, and I’m involved in all of it so it becomes a big collaborative effort. I know L.A. really well. I came to know the city for the first time in ’71, but learned the city in ’95 when I directed Heat. I was prowling with an LAPD commander in plain clothes. He was a really great guy and we’d just roll—robberies in progress and homicides, and in the city of Los Angeles, not just Malibu and Sunset Strip. We knew the locations and probably three or four great candidates competing for every place we shot.
BTL: And what was it like working with editors Tim Miller and Paul Rubell?
Mann: I liked Tim’s sense of timing and work with dialogue scenes—he worked on Get Shorty and Men in Black. His comedic timing made him perfect. And Paul, who I worked with on The Insider, really knows how to do it.