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BIRDMAN'S UNIQUE APPROACH IS REWARDED

Gregor Tavenner is the go-to first assistant cameraman for some of the best cinematographers in the world.

 



BIRDMAN


In addition to more traditional first AC duties, Tavenner has helped these DPs navigate the changes in tools and techniques that came with the shift to digital. For example, in 2011, Extremely Loud was the first studio feature in the United States to use the ALEXA-Codex-ARRIRAW workflow, which has since become the standard in the industry.


Last year, Tavenner worked shoulder to shoulder with Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki ASC AMC on Birdman, a feature film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone and Edward Norton. Equal parts comedy and pathos, the quirky story follows a washed-up actor who was once well-known for playing an iconic superhero. Keaton stars as the man who, against the odds, tries to restore his faded star by organising a Broadway play. Iñárritu asked Lubezki for a cinematographic approach that brings to mind Hitchcock’s 1948 classic Rope. Cinematographers William Skall ASC and Joseph Valentine ASC shot the entire film in in a series of very long shots. A handful of edits were hidden cleverly to give the appearance of a story unfolding in real time, in a single, continuous take.

Lubezki says that at first, he was reluctant to take the project on, because very long shots often mean that the lighting suffers. “But once I read the script with that approach in mind, it made complete sense,” Lubezki says. “It’s great to work with directors who don’t want to cover everything like TV. They’re not just illustrating dialog. Shots can have meaning, just as the words or the expressions of the actors have meaning. For Birdman, we were trying to tell the story with very long shots that make you feel as though you are in there with the actors. And the equipment helped make it possible, because the shots are insanely long – much longer than what a film magazine could do.” Birdman is made up of about a dozen such takes.


“That was part of the decision to go digital,” says Tavenner. “It was also about the nature of the practical locations and the lighting limitations they imposed. Also, I think Chivo had such positive experiences on his last film with Terrence Malick that he decided to continue with the ALEXA. And in the world that I work in, which is creating imagery for the cinema screen, if you’re using ALEXA, there’s no reason to use it at anything less than its highest quality, and that necessitates using Codex Recorders. If you’re shooting for the highest image quality, it’s obvious – you either choose film or ALEXA and ARRIRAW.” Fluid, delicate and responsive camera movement, both handheld and on Steadicam, was essential.

“The camera system had to be lightweight and ergonomic without sacrificing image quality. Birdman was one of the very first feature films to be shot with the new Codex XR module, which is built into the ARRI ALEXA XT. “That was absolutely vital to the whole design of the film, which was made with six- and seven-minute-long Steadicam shots,” says Tavenner. “Building the module into the camera facilitated that to a great extent. Leaving five or six pounds off the Steadicam rig significantly prolongs the stamina and enhances the agility and precision of the operator over a 14- or 15-hour day.”


"CODEX-ARRIRAW HAS PROVEN TO BE A DURABLE WORKFLOW..."


The camera gear included an ALEXA M model, which Lubezki could operate handheld with only a 20-pound burden. Tavenner followed him with a rucksack rig connected to the camera by fibre-optic cable Leica lenses were chosen for their dependability, quality and lightweight. At very wide focal lengths where Leicas were not yet available, Master Primes were used. Lubezki did only minor manipulation of the RAW image on set. From the recorders, the files went directly into the Codex Vault set up near the set, where three backup copies were made – one in the Vault’s internal archive, one on an external drive that was sent to a separate location, and one on an external hard drive that was sent to editorial, where Lubezki would do a quick color correction pass for dailies. In studio situations, especially at the beginning of the shoot, DIT Abby Levine set up a projector and a full set of DI tools for Lubezki to use each day.

“Codex Vault is a scalable, end-to-end dailies and archiving system designed for on- or near-set use. “Chivo and Bob Richardson both feel that set time is expensive, and that they’ll have maximum efficiency in the timing suite,” says Tavenner.


“Vault makes everything quite simple. You’re archiving and disseminating right there, throughout the day, so your time at night is minimised. To me, that’s such a common sense approach that I’ll employ it on every film I do in the future.” According to Tavenner, Lubezki’s previous experience with the workflow made the job especially smooth. “Chivo knew exactly how to utilise the system,” says Tavenner. “He was comfortable with the false colour system in the ALEXA, and once he had the correct exposure levels, he knew he was laying down a proper image that he could fool around with in the digital suite. He didn’t need to see all the iterations on the set.” Tavenner has seen the first AC’s job evolve – and expand – very quickly in recent years. “Before the digital age, you had two priorities – focus the camera, and manage the department,” he says. “Now, with digital, there are more choices to make. The management aspect of the job – people management and equipment management – has grown. At the same time, focus is even more delicate. At its best, it’s enjoyable. At its worst, it’s been difficult.

“The equipment is constantly being reinvented,” he says. “The number of options that are put to us – different post scenarios and different companies, not to mention different cinematographers – is amazing. Codex is so solid. They come out with new equipment, but the idea of the ARRIRAW workflow with Codex implementation has been one of the more stable examples of digital technology. Codex-ARRIRAW has proven to be a durable workflow that doesn’t ask cinematographers to sub-ordinate their process to the equipment. The equipment sub-ordinates itself to the cinematographer. “Some companies operate in a different world, a world of disposable, proprietary equipment, where the company moves on to a completely new design every year or two,” he says. “Competition is good, but when the post flows are so proprietary, that makes things more difficult than they need to be. With film, we had universal acceptance throughout the world. There were different manufacturers, but they used the same gauge, and it could be processed and printed. “Codex is helping in that regard,” he says. “Often on these movies, we do shoot with different camera systems.

“Codex remains open to and interoperable with other technologies, and that is important to me. Vault can handle a wide array of cameras and file formats – it can ingest Red, it can ingest Sony cards.

“On Birdman, the Codex recording and Vault made for a very efficient, very low maintenance system,” says Tavenner. “We delivered the footage to editorial and to the lab using standard hard drives with no interoperability concerns. We used the most versatile, high quality lightweight cameras that you can get today, even lighter than we could have been with film, and that allowed us to make the film with all the finesse Chivo and Alejandro imagined.”


Images courtesy of their respective owners





 
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