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Viper/Glendale Studios story

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These days, shooting a theatrical feature with state-of-the-art digital cameras is no longer the sole province of a handful of cutting-edge directors with big budgets to play with. Just ask Mars Callahan. He’s a relatively unknown but up-and-coming director whose new film is Where Love Is, a tale about the romantic and existential travails of the male animal in the new millennium. It stars Cuba Gooding Jr., Matthew Lillard, Anne Heche and Gina Gershon – as well as Callahan who also wrote the screenplay. The dialogue-driven comedy-drama finished lensing in mid-January at Glendale Studios after a brief one-week shoot. And though the budget was moderate (in the neighborhood of $5 million), the camera setup was anything but that.Arrayed in front of the fairly simple set were the film’s photographic workhorses: four Thomson Grass Valley Viper FilmStream digital cinematography cameras, shooting simultaneously. The film’s director of photography, David Stump, ASC, was also able to coax from Grass Valley several still-in-the-development-stage LUTher boxes, with built-in three-dimensional look-up tables that enable real-time color-corrected previsualization and imaging. And Thomson also provided its newest color-correction monitor for a video display that could be eyeballed.“It’s amazing I’m able to step in with the latest technology,” marveled Callahan, who talked to Below the Line during a break in shooting. “This is the stuff that’s usually reserved for a Michael Mann or David Fincher movie.” The film’s triple-threat man is not some geek early adopter of the latest in technology. Callahan was motivated to go digital as a cost-conscious way to obtain his vision for the film—an amalgam of the extremely long takes director Alfred Hitchcock used in Rope and the rapid-fire interchanges in Howard Hawks’ My Girl Friday classic and other screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.The principal advantage for the director was to be able to turn the digital cameras on and let them run with impunity—without fear of spending huge sums on film negatives.Whereas film cameras can go about nine minutes before they run out, harnessing the Vipers to Sony’s HDcam SRW digital tape recorders made it possible to go non-stop for 20, 30 or 40 minutes at a time. (The cost for a 40-minute blank cassette tape is only about $75.) That allowed more fluidity from the actors, who were able to get halfway through an entire scene, and Callahan, if he wished, could stop them and back them up, picking up the scene without interrupting for reloads.“It’s like shooting a play on film,” he said “The only way we’re able to execute this is in shooting in HD. We would not be able to make this film if we were making it on 35mm with the constant camera reloads, and the amount of film, and the time we take between takes and resetting everything and checking the gate, and four cameras running. The postproduction bills would be astronomical with the amount we’re shooting, if it were film.”Though motivated by budget considerations, Callahan didn’t feel he was short-changed by using digital cinematography. With the Viper FilmStream system, he noted, “you get the film look, and it looks gorgeous—it’s remarkable how far the technology has come.”When Callahan, whose last film was Poolhall Junkies, with Christopher Walken, decided to go digital on Where Love Is he interviewed cinematographers with experience in the digital realm and wound up choosing Stump, who had lots of experience shooting digitally. He also happens to be head of the American Society of Cinematographers technology camera subcommittee. He worked with rental house Plus 8 Digital to come up with the four-camera Viper configuration he used for the movie.“It was pretty much a book-rate rental,” he said, though Plus 8 had been generous in providing technical backup, as had Thomson Grass Valley, whose only subsidy to the shoot was by providing the color-corrected monitor. Stump tried to get hold of Grass Valley’s new Venom on-camera media storage unit for the shoot but was turned down. “They don’t have that available for commercial consumption—it’s still being developed,” he said. “The Venom gives you the ability to record the Viper untethered, without a cable or fiber-optic connection, which gives the operator more freedom. Had I been able to get the Venom recorders, I would have done all of my Steadicam work untethered.”Despite Stump’s extensive digital experience, being cinematographer on Where Love Is was unique in a number of respects. “I’ve done a number of digital shoots, but not with four Vipers and television-style pedestals and all the gear that we had,” he said. “I don’t, in fact, think anyone has shot a movie like this because we used both motion picture and television technologies to make this film.”There were other unique elements to the shoot for Stump. He assembled the camera, grip and electric crews himself. “There are very few actual productions put together this way,” he said. “By doing this I was able to pick and choose operators who could work in both the film and television styles and who were really, really experienced with these digital cameras and especially with the Viper. There aren’t many of them yet because the cameras haven’t been around that long.”Stump’s assessment of the Viper? “It’s a great looking signal and a great looking picture. It’s a light and efficient camera. You can get lots of good lenses for it. And you can record it to HDcam SRW.”“We’re making history and we’re making it on a low budget,” enthused Joy Czerwonky, the film’s line producer. “It’s very rare to have such cutting-edge toys when we’re at this budget. And to have the geniuses that invented this stuff and are out there marketing to the big studios supporting us is fantastic.”In the world of independent filmmaking, she added, “we don’t always get the opportunity to have such incredible talent and have such good scripts and also get a chance to complement those two things with incredible technology.”

Written by Jack Egan

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