Hitchcock is a new film by director Sacha Gervasi, filmed and told by cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth . After a run of incredible productions, Cronenweth’s credits are at the very cutting edge of digital cinematography – they include: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, and many others. It is no understatement to say he is a world expert in modern digital workflow, especially with the RED Epic camera, which he again used on Hitchcock. (What is also interesting to note for fans of the RED camera is that much of the film was shot on the RED Studio’s Sound stages and around the offices of RED).
While the film is both entertaining and immensely enjoyable, with stunning performances from a very heavily made up Anthony Hopkins paired with the brilliant Helen Mirren as Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife) – the film also brought a surprisingly tight and almost indie workflow to what is a major Hollywood picture. Hitchcock is quite possibly the largest theatrical feature that was done with the smallest post dailies infrastructure of all time.
In what may be a first for any major studio film, advances in digital technology and workflows by Light Iron meant that there was no post-house during production, just one man – with one cart – that handled all rushes, dailies, DIT, data wrangler, utility, partial playback, dailies, rendering, syncing (assistant editor work) and backup.
And all of this was done under the eye of a studio who had previously voiced concerns about the role of the DIT.
That one person was freelance DIT Brandon Lippard (Magic Mike, Resident Evil, Think Like a Man, In a World).
While many indie films have worked for years without the benefit of large infrastructure backup, most, if not all, major features normally use a lab or post house to provide serious support and workflow in the area of rushes, syncing and dailies. The move to doing this on set was not however budget driven, by all accounts it came from DOP Jeff Cronenweth’s intimate understanding of what he wanted, coupled with the ability to move much faster and more responsively.
fxguide spoke to both DIT Brandon Lippard and Michael Cioni of Light Iron who provided the ‘OUTPOST’ cart gear and ultimately who also did the final grade and assembly of the finished film.
The look or rough color timing of dailies on set is in one sense no way vital as it is a temporary look that is not locked in, and yet it is also key as this is what everyone ‘gets used to’ in the edit. Many projects have added ‘temp looks’ to dailies only to discover their influence on the look of the final film is far greater than had been anticipated. As such, the ‘rough’ timing has become an important topic for on set dailies. “The goal here is to always get the dailies to look as close to the DP’s vision as possible. Now there are limitations to onset dailies, the biggest being time. The exciting thing, however, is that there are now more powerful imaging tools onset than ever before, thus so much more is possible,” explains Hitchcock’s DIT Brandon Lippard.
“On a typical day on Hitchcock,” adds Lippard, “I would sit down at the monitors with Jeff and talk over the look of that particular scene. Nine times out of ten I would be applying a look similar to what he was viewing. Typically, I was just giving the shots a little more “pop” before passing them off to editorial. The technology also played a role with viewing multiple looks, at times, to see what was possible. Case in point: we were shooting a shot from the last scene of the movie at a beautiful Bel Air home. Initially, Sacha, the director, had imagined shooting this on bright and sunny LA day. Unfortunately, we were stuck with slightly rainy overcast weather. Sacha came over to me to see how far we could “push” the look towards what he had imagined. Instead of waiting for months to get into the DI, we were able to play with some looks right there on the spot in between setups. Having this type of color timing ability enables for in-the-moment creativity.”
It’s funny, I had a flash while working on this movie – I wondered, “what would Hitchcock, who was such a pioneer in this field, have thought about this technology?” I can’t help but think that he would have been an early adopter
“One of the cool things about this technology is that it raises the bar from viewing the footage in downres’d files or HD and allows us to push in to the RED 5K footage and watch in real time. This was particularly handy for Hitchcock because we were able to zoom in on Tony’s makeup to make sure it was holding up and the seams weren’t separating. Everyone from Sasha to the makeup FX team were thrilled to have this tool at their disposal. If needed, teams would gather around the OUTPOST cart to check details in the dailies. I got a kick out of the fact that, on more than one occasion, I was surrounded by Academy Award winners looking over my shoulder utilizing this technology, scrutinizing their work to keep them at the top of their game.”
Ian Vertovec graded the film at Light Iron, this team have worked with Jeff Cronenweth on two other feature films. “So our relationship with Jeff is fairly significant. What we proposed on this film was not to have a DIT…or a lab, but to do everything on the Outpost cart with a single operator,” Cioni says, pointing out that not only was the process different but the various film’s that Cronenweth have shot and then graded with Light Iron have all been very different. “This film is a period piece…it is not desaturated – it looks period, with a sort of technicolor look, but it is modern, it is not a low saturated, sepia tone, ‘period look’. It has a classic feel but it has been modernized. This is very different – we wanted it to look modern – but with flavors of the past, – and that is what is cool about Hitchcock that does that blend very very nicely.”
“What you are seeing is the Epic, and very soft controlled lighting, and good color correction – good smooth, even nothing too heavy in the grading, nothing too contrasty. It has a lot of scenes that are warm and fuzzy, but a lot of this is Jeff just being a genius – he is out of control – he is good at this stuff,” Cioini states.
But while the grade was impressive, it was the handling of all the on set by just one person that Cioni feels was the most impressive technical aspect of this production. Pointing out one operator “downloaded from two A unit cameras, checksumed, did three copies, watermarking, sound syncing, color correction, sound slipping, rendering out the AVID MXF outputs, web outputs and uploads, iPad outputs and uploads, ProRes files, naming of Scene and Take, and delivery to editorial and the studio. In the past, this took a small army of people and a hundred thousand square feet of infrastructure.” Cioni explained. “Today, it’s a cart and a smart, talented operator.”
Technically the production shot typically three to five hours of material a day. The Cart was fitted with two 12 core Tower Macs fitted with three Red Rocket cards. “Two cards with say 60 minutes of material could be downloaded in around 15 mins in total,” Cioni says. The production used RedColor 3 on the EPICs (monitoring) and in post.
This was one of the first Fox Searchlight films shot on the RED Epic camera, the studio naturally had questions about the technology. “After talking with Jeff they would come over to the cart where I would demonstrate the latitude of the image using the OUTPOST cart. Normally you would need to take the footage to a DI house to view this way. Because of this technology, the studio was able to see what was possible with the footage right there on set”
Cronenweth has since used the OUTPOST cart and Lippard on various TVC (commercials). He felt he had built a relationship with the DIT and while Cronenweth felt he did not need a classic ‘DIT’ – he did want to use his version of a DIT now for his TVC workflow, with Lippard driving the Outpost cart as he did on Hitchcock.
The process clearly worked from Fox Searchlight’s point of view as they contracted two more features since shooting Hitchcock to be filmed this way.
Cronenweth used a classic soft frost for the film. The result is very ‘creamy’ visuals, the look is rich yet subtle, very smooth and “a perfect look for the period element that this film required,” commented Cioni. The Epic was shooting 5:1 RedCode, with ARRI Ultra Primes in a wide range of focal lengths. Cronenweth also used some long zoom lenses.
The movie initially was going to be shot on film, the director had actually planned to shoot on film, given the period nature of the material, after all the film Psycho was itself shot in black and white. Much of the production team came to Hitchcock from Oscar winner The Artist – which was also shot on film and in black and white. Cioni argues that film would be ‘obvious choice’, (even before the fat suit issues of being able to hide more in terms of prosthetics seams was factored in). It started at film but after “seeing heaps and heaps of tests the production chose Epic,” he says. “It just looked just as good as film, but it was even better in some ways – and also that it was faster….this was about what it meant to be able to direct an actor in a huge fat suit like this”, shooting quickly was key.
During tests as it became apparent how important it was to have a full high resolution split on set, Cronenweth apparently walked up, pointed to the monitor and said “don’t forget if we shoot film this isn’t here!”.
The film had about 300 effects shots, and these were processed separately and handed by various effects companies such as Furious FX, which got 2K DPX RedLog – unity settings. The final conform was done combining the finished 2K DPX effects shots and the source .r3d files in Light Iron’s Quantel Pablo suites. Fox only wanted to do a 2K final grade and mastering, but the footage was framed and shot for 4K (from a 5K file).
Cioni believes that the “unique image texture combination of Hitchcock can largely be credited to the capture workflow of shooting 5K, but framing and only working with a 4K window in the center of the picture (4K extraction) in combination with the classic soft frost.”
Hitchcock is now showing in the USA, and elsewhere over the Christmas period.