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BLENDING FOUND FOOTAGE & CINEMATIC STORYTELLING

In their vision for Into the Storm, director Steven Quale and cinematographer Brian Pearson ASC needed to balance two ideas.

 



INTO THE STORM


“We had seen some found footage films where, in our opinion, the camerawork felt too heavy-handed or too nauseating to watch,” says Pearson. “So we aspired to make our film very smooth and watchable, but with a sense of immediacy and a feeling that the characters were involved in photographing the events they were witnessing. We did take some liberties with the found footage concept, as there were points in the movie where we felt it was imperative to show the actors’ reactions without the need to justify who exactly was shooting at that moment.

It was most important that we captured the performances and their emotional content. And we did do our best to deliver the found footage feeling in a smooth and watchable way.”


Pearson and Quale had previously made Final Destination 5 together. The budget for Into the Storm was reported to be around $50 million.

Choosing the right camera and workflow would be crucial to success. Pearson says he tested more than 25 cameras, ranging from Contour and GoPro to DSLRs, RED, and ARRI ALEXA models. In the end, the majority of the film was shot on ARRI ALEXAS with Codex recorders, supplied by Fletcher Chicago (now Cineverse). Tom Fletcher was happy to recommend Codex, saying "the reliability of Codex recorders made them ideal for this demanding shoot. They worked seamlessly with both the ALEXA M and ALEXA PLUS cameras and we didn’t have any problems. Codex also provides a rock-solid workflow for handling the large amounts of data generated by a production like Into the Storm."

“We chose ALEXA with Codex because we wanted, first of all, dynamic range, and secondly, resolution,” Pearson says. “We wanted a camera that would allow the visual effects company to do the work they needed to do effectively. Dynamic range became the most important factor for us because we had to shoot the film in Michigan in the summer, where the average is 25 days of sun in July and August.”

Of course the story unfolds mostly under overcast skies. And the visual effects aspect of the project was extensive, including many sky replacements and many practical tornado effects like blowing rain and debris as elements in the foreground. An important part of Pearson’s approach was covering the actors with giant silks. Most of the time, he used Black Lite Grid for this purpose, with as many as three 40 x 60ft frames held overhead by construction cranes in exterior situations.
 


“They gave the reflections a dark sky quality,” he says. “We knew that visual effects would eventually erase the background elements with sun on them and add stormy skies, and we knew that sometimes the backgrounds would be back-lit, side-lit or even front-lit by the sun. Dynamic range and the ability to hold enough detail and resolution in those areas was very important and so using a camera that had only 10 or 12 stops of dynamic range just didn’t make sense. The ALEXA gave us 14-plus stops, and with Codex and ARRIRAW, it gave us plenty of resolution to roto the actor’s hair against these bright backgrounds as well as the debris and rain in the foreground. The effects company felt very comfortable with the level of detail.”


A-camera/Steadicam operator Peter Rosenfeld played a key role in communicating the found footage feel without making the audience uncomfortable. “He did a fantastic job,” says Pearson. “There were shots that began in a second floor hotel room. He’d have to run out of the room, down the hall, down two sets of stairs, across a pool deck, hop into a van, and then land the frame. In other scenes, we relied on his excellent instincts to find the moments the actors were giving us. We did a lot of rehearsals during which Peter worked with an earpiece so he could hear the actors, and then he let his natural curiosity guide him. Steve liked Peter’s fluid, long takes and used them without editing as much as possible.”

Quale and Pearson scheduled the bigger 360-degree masters for dusk, which allowed for shooting in any direction with no trace of sun. Pearson would remotely adjust exposure during the shot. Master Prime lenses provided an extra stop. Opening up to T1.3 gave them an extra 10 to 15 minutes of shoot time at dusk.”


“THE RELIABILITY OF THE CODEX RECORDERS MADE THEM IDEAL...”


“By this time, Peter had been working with the cast on a scene all day, and we could do four or sometimes five takes of an entire roaming master between the time the sun left the set and the time it was too dark to record a usable image,” says Pearson. “That became an exciting way to get coverage with more freedom for the camera and with fewer visual effects.”

The camera package included two ALEXA M models and two ALEXA Plus models. For handheld shots, the Codex recorders rode in backpacks worn by a grip who followed behind Rosenfeld. Lens metadata from the ARRI Master Primes and Fujinon Alura lenses was recorded and delivered to visual effects. DIT Dane Brehm also created a lens data archive system that could record lens data from the Optimo zooms, which were not lens-data enabled. The lens data was important for visual effects, especially in shots that included zooms, so that the visual effects company could track in the tornado effects with much less guesswork. The Codex Capture Drives were cloned using a Codex Transfer Station (SAS). On set colour was achieved with Fotokem’s nextLAB Live system and the monitors were Sony BVM-F250 OLED models.

Making it all come together in the digital intermediate was essential for Pearson.

“I’ve always been very lucky in my collaborations with Steve that we’ve had a good amount of time in the DI to really polish the look and get it as close as possible to our original vision,” he says. “We had nearly four weeks in the DI suite. We did an entire pass of the film in about a week and then spent the next two weeks going over it, massaging and refining the colour and contrast shot by shot as visual effects shots were dropped in. Sometimes images we’d shot in the middle of the day were cut against shots done at dusk. In these instances there are going to be subtle changes in the feeling and quality of the light, so it’s a matter of balancing and blending and then refining as much as possible among all these various shots to make the sequence play seamlessly.”

Pearson says that in spite of the heat and humidity – not to mention the artificial wind and rain – the equipment performed dependably.

“We want to immerse the audience in the most realistic, docu-drama kind of setting as we could, so they really feel that they are with the characters and in the situations, with the tornadoes all around them,” he says. “And hopefully the combination of the handheld camera and finding those moments in a very naturalistic way, along with the sound effects, visual effects and all the surrounding elements in the film, gives people a sense of what it’s like to be inside a tornado.”


Images courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures

 



 
 
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