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Miami Vice DIT

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Following on the success of Collateral, which earned a BAFTA win and an ASC Award nomination for cinematographer Dion Beebe, ASC, ACS last year, director Michael Mann is once again embracing the world of digital cinematography and teaming with Beebe for his upcoming release of Miami Vice.The film, which revisits the lives of ’80s pop-culture icons James “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), was shot on location in some 13 countries, using as many as four Grass Valley Viper cameras, as well as three Sony F900s and two F950s HD cameras.With that combination of cameras, from early preproduction the film’s digital imaging technician (DIT) Dave Satin took on a unique role. Satin explained that with customizations from Thomson, owner of the Grass Valley brand, he was able to control the Viper’s color gamma, (as well as the F900s’ and F950s’) from a remote tent, applying and manipulating the look of the film on the fly during production.“Basically, the picture was shaded and stylized by me, under Michael Mann and Dion Beebe’s direction, as we shot,” said Satin. “So most of the look of the film was created as we went. I created several master looks for the movie so to speak—day interior, day exterior, night interior, night exterior—and those were the files upon which I built the looks for each shot.”This is an unusual role for a DIT, but Satin explained that it became clear in his early preproduction meetings with the director that that’s the way he wanted to work. “It all depends on how the guy who’s running the show wants to work. So Michael was able to look at a completed shot that was already contrasted and graded to his liking, under his direction. I would match all the other cameras to the reference shot Mann was seeing on set and then he would shoot the scene.”This workflow pushed the role of the DIT further upstream, into parts of the acquisition process that traditionally are the purview of the camera department.“What I said to the camera department in general was, from the lens mount on forward it’s all yours, and from the camera head on back it’s all mine, and we’ll share the stuff in the middle,” said Satin. “Unlike other movies, I also had iris control on the cameras, which was something that DP Dion Beebe embraced instantly. But that’s not normally done.“We didn’t really know each other before the movie started and I said to him, ‘by the way, I have control of the iris’ and he said, ‘You do?’ I thought there may have been an issue there, but he was delighted with that because we could make minute changes to the exposure.”Satin explained that achieving that workflow was a big challenge. The remote functionality has been built into the Sony cameras from day one, but it would require customization of the Vipers.“I knew from that early testing that it was possible to create the look as we went,” said Satin. “So I immediately contacted the guys at Thomson who manufacture the Viper and discussed the possibilities of remote-controlling the Viper. And as it turns out, they were very helpful and they modified the software in the camera to allow it to be controlled by their stock control unit, which is called the OCP400. During the prep period and during the first few weeks of production there were guys from Thomson on the set with me all of the time, and we had three major software revisions and one hardware change while we were shooting the movie.“The cameras natively had that level of control built in, but there wasn’t a convenient way to be able to interact with it from an external device. I needed to be able to control every parameter of the camera from a remote position,” he said, adding that “It has this amazing palette of looks that you can make. It’s the most malleable camera that I’ve ever used in my life.”Combining footage from the F900s and the F950s with that of the Vipers also proved to be a challenge as the cameras have very different characteristics.“Dailies were an important part of the process for me, to be able to make sure that things continue to stay consistent. We were shooting in 4:4:4 widescreen mode, which is anamorphic,16:9. But in order to look at that footage in the screening room, that meant the Viper footage had to be squeezed and the Sony footage had to be cropped.”The squeezing and cropping was done at Laser Pacific, which produced the dailies and gave a tape-by-tape QC report.“A lot of my job is to hand off the best possible product to the rest of the post process,” said Satin.With an increasing number of productions deciding to try to shoot without a DIT, and manufacturers encouraging them saying “you can just shoot the way you always did,” Satin warns that the DIT plays a critical role with electronic cinematography cameras.“There’s a zillion things you have to do. Is there going to be a guy doing VTR playback? Well, of course. He needs downconverted pictures in the right aspect ratios with the right audio sync. Well, how does that happen automatically with no human intervention?”In fact, on Miami Vice Satin often had a second DIT, as well as a full-time maintenance engineer throughout production.“Nobody batted an eye when I said I need a full-time maintenance engineer with me on this movie—‘Ok you got it’—because were doing an action movie and stuff gets broken in action movies. That’s what happens,” he explained, adding, “We spent four weeks on the open ocean, and salt water and electronics don’t mix very well.”

Written by Scott Lehane

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