IN TIME Set Visit: Cinematographer Roger Deakins Switches to Digital

     October 7, 2011

Cinematographer-Roger-Deakins-image slice

Earlier this year, I got to visit the set of In Time, the new sci-fi thriller from writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, The Truman Show). While it was exciting to be on a film set and watch stunt work and interview stars Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, the real highlight of the day was seeing nine-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins working with digital for the first time.

Deakins used the Arriflex ALEXA camera system to shoot In Time, and camera’s capabilities seem almost as futuristic as the film’s settings.  Read on to learn about how a modern master is pushing the technological envelope.

in-time-poster high resolutionDeakins, for those who don’t know, has shot almost every Coen Brothers movie since Barton Fink, as well as The Shawshank Redemption, Sid and Nancy, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, just to name a few. He is easily among the top ten cinematographers working in Hollywood today*.

A 35-year veteran of the industry, Deakins made the switch to digital for In Time, employing the brand new Arriflex ALEX digital camera system. In Time will be only the fifth film commercially released in America to employ this camera. Other releases include Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Lars Von-Trier’s Meloncholia and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.

Of the several films to utilize the ALEXA, I have see Final Destination 5 and Drive, neither of which looked like film, and Meloncholia, which is perhaps the best looking movie that Von Trier has ever shot digitally. When compared to the similarly themed Antichrist, which boasted a more accomplished cinematographer and shot on the RED One system only two years ago, there is simply no comparison. The blacks are truer on the ALEXA, and though is still doesn’t look quite like film, it does carry an inviting and unique hyper-real shine that compliments work like Von Trier’s excellently.

The ALEXA represents Arriflex’s first major push into the digital world, (though they have released previous professional grade digital cameras) and aims to do battle with the RED Epic, which will make its’ American cinema debut with David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

in-time-Justin-Timberlake-Amanda-SeyfriedWhile I can’t speak for the RED Epic as I have not seen it in action, I can attest that the capabilities of the ALEXA are stunning. There were two, large, color-calibrated monitors projecting full fidelity video straight from the camera. In real time. And color timed. This may not seem like much, but it’s actually amazing.

Without getting too far into technicals, what this means is that I got to watch several takes of Deakins’ work, as he was doing them, in a pretty good approximation of what they will look like on screen. This opens up a huge number of doors for experimentation and could serve to speed post-production and save massive amounts of man-hours.

In an interview with Steve earlier this year, Deakins claims that the ALEXA gives him superior exposure latitude, which basically means that he can shoot things at night or with very little lighting and still get a picture, whereas he could not with film. To my knowledge, no prior digital system actually had a wider exposure latitude than actual film.

Cinematographer-Roger-Deakins-imageBut the evidence was there on the monitors. The set featured very few large lighting rigs and the most impressive shot of the day looked to be filmed in almost natural light.

The shot in question was a dolly in and out as a silhouetted Timberlake throws open a bank vault and encourages a mob of people to take as much time as they want. It wasn’t a very showy shot or even all that complex, but the detail of the shadows and the clarity of the image coming right out of the camera were like nothing I have ever seen before.

This is the kind of advancement that could change the way movies are made. And regardless of whether Deakins’ comments about exposure latitude were literal or not, the color-calibrated screens represent the first time I have seen digital do something that film simply can’t.

The times, they are a changin’ and In Time is part of the new wave.

*Other names of note, in no order: Bruno Delbonnel, Edward Lachman,  Emmanuel Lubezki, Steven Soderbergh, Bill Pope, Vilmos Zsigmond, Matthew Libatique, Vittorio Storaro, Emmanuel Lubezki and Christopher Doyle.

For more coverage from my In Time set visit:

20 Things to Know About IN TIME from Our Set Visit Plus a Detailed Report and New Images

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried On Set Interview IN TIME

Director Andrew Niccol and Producer Eric Newman On Set Interview IN TIME


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