MAKING GHOST IN THE SHELL
Rupert Sanders made a bold opening move with the visually elegant Snow White and the Huntsman. Sanders’s feature debut was photographed by Greig Fraser ASC ACS, who made extensive use of film emulsion on the project, including a significant number of scenes shot in 65 mm film format. For his second feature, Ghost in the Shell, Sanders has teamed with Jess Hall BSC, whose resume includes a number of distinctive features shot on film, including Transcendence, The Spectacular Now, Creation and Brideshead Revisited. This time around, however, Sanders and Hall settled on an approach that combined large format digital cinematography, distinctive lenses, and a very controlled approach to colour.
Based on the internationally acclaimed Japanese Manga, “The Ghost in the Shell”, the movie stars Scarlett Johansson as Major. She’s the first of her kind – a cyber-enhanced soldier designed to stop the worst criminals and terrorists. Originally a human, during the course of the movie she relentlessly tries to recover her past, find out who transformed her and stop them from doing it to others. The production worked mostly in Hong Kong and at Stone Street Studios in New Zealand.
“We were looking for imagery that paid homage to the visual quality of the anime, but that also worked for what we were doing – a movie,” says Hall. “The large format came out of our need for something subtle and sophisticated enough to rival film in terms of colour reproduction, and the spatial resolution to work with all the different distribution types.”
Hall compared the colour, patina and texture of the source material to watercolor painting. He exerted an unprecedented degree of control over colour, working with lighting manufacturers to develop customized lighting tools, and often “timing” the movie on the set by manipulating the output of LED fixtures. He also collaborated closely with Panavision to tailor the Sphero 65 lenses.
“In manga, there’s a certain painterly quality as well as a certain kind of bloom or halation around highlights,” he says. “At the same time, I needed very high speed and high performance lenses, because we planned to shoot in Hong Kong at night using a lot of available lighting. The correct perspective – flatter, and wide angle, with a wide field of view but without distortion – was important so I asked Dan Sasaki at Panavision to build a 29 mm that could accommodate the 65mm format. This lens, the only one of its type in the world, became a very effective lens for us.”
In the bigger format, the 29 mm is roughly equivalent to a 19 mm in 35 mm. The ARRI ALEXA 65 was set to capture data at a rate closer to 5K, which saved about a third on data wrangling and associated costs.
“We originally thought we’d shoot certain scenes on the 65, but once we started testing, it felt like we wanted to shoot 90% of the movie that way,” says Hall. “So my idea was to shoot in 5-perf 65 mode, which records in 1.78:1. I wanted to frame in 1.85 anyway, because anime is always 1.85, and Hong Kong is such a vertical city. In testing, it felt like we were getting more image in 1.85. It felt very strong. And it made the difference between an affordable format and an unaffordable format.”
This approach captures less top and bottom margin, but Hall knew he could precisely control framing. The large format and rich image dovetailed nicely with the filmmakers’ desire for longer, more classical shots that develop. “The danger with the very sharp image is that you begin to see stuff you might not want to see,” says Hall. “That’s where the right lensing helps by making things a little more cosmetic.”
The Ghost in the Shell production at one point had more ALEXA 65s than any other shoot. Two ALEXA Minis with slightly different lenses were occasionally used in a rig to create a glitchy cyborg POV look with subtle perspective shifts.
Hall and his team used the Codex Vault for streamlined and bullet-proof data management. The Codex 512 GB and 2TB Capture Drives went from camera to Vault for verification, and the data was then piped via private fibre optic line to Park Road Post and colorist Jon Newell.
DIT Michael Urban says that considering the high data rate, things went smoothly. “When shooting at 5K on the ALEXA 65 you get about one hour on a 2TB card,” says Urban. “I think we averaged about two hours per day, so 4TB is a lot. But Park Road always designed the workflow to handle that much data. If the camera was reloaded before 2pm it was possible to get the footage pushed through the pipe and available for screening that night if need be.”
To minimise the variables, a single LUT was used for viewing at the DIT station as well as down the line. The LUT was built by Yvan Lucas in collaboration with Hall at SHED in Los Angeles. An online database that Urban built helped far-flung collaborators maintain consistency. “We ended up building about five CDLs for the whole shoot on set, if we needed to tweak the colour a bit,” says Urban. “I used two 25” Sony OLEDs as my main monitors, and working with Park Road, we had these set up to view in P3 colour space. So what Jess saw on the set matched exactly what he would see in rushes projected at Park Road.”
Urban’s company, The Rebel Fleet, supplied identical DIT carts for main and second unit that included Fuji IS-Mini LUT boxes, Live Grade, Resolve for live still capture, Tangent Devices Element Panel, and AJA routers.
“CODEX IS BUILT TO HANDLE A LOT OF DATA”
Urban points out that in order to view images from the ALEXA 65, the data must be processed through the Vault. “Codex is built to handle a lot of data,” he says. “We were very lucky in that Codex has a couple of guys who work locally in Wellington, New Zealand, so we had local support. Having Codex Wellington, LA and London it meant we were covered around the clock, which helped, and meant they could pull in gear or expertise when needed. Codex was very responsive and pulled out whatever stops they could to make sure we were covered.”
Using the ALEXA 65 was an eye-opener for Urban. “It was great to fully understand the benefits of the camera and of shooting large format,” he says. “Having so many pixels meant that the noise floor was drastically reduced when going from a 5K resolution to 2K screenings. Jess based it at 800EI but we knew we could call on 1000EI or 1280EI without noticing a jump in noise. At rushes you would never know. In my experience, even shooting ARRIRAW on the XT, you have to be more careful when introducing noise via EI or low light scenarios. The ALEXA 65 performs without comparison in low light.”
Dreamworks will release Ghost in the Shell in late March, 2017.
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