Inferno is the seventh feature film collaboration between director of photography Salvatore Totino ASC and director Ron Howard, and the first to be shot on a digital format. Their previous credits together display a wide range of subject matter and visual styles: The Missing, Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Angels & Demons, and The Dilemma.
Following up on the worldwide successes of The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009) is Inferno, the third highly anticipated adaptation in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series of novels. Inferno is the latest addition in the $1.2 billion film franchise, and it required its own unique approach to colour, contrast, camera movement and composition. In the story, the main character is the target of a manhunt, for reasons unknown to him. He must solve an intricate historical riddle while on the run. Haunted by feverish visions and intense headaches, he must find out what has happened to him, and why.
The film re-teams director Ron Howard, who most recently directed the acclaimed Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, with Tom Hanks, who returns in one of his signature roles playing the quick-thinking and resourceful Langdon. Hanks explained, the enduring attraction of the franchise. “There is something Dan Brown has figured out – everybody likes a good puzzle, especially one you can actually figure out the clues to one at a time and solve,” he says. “These movies give that to the audience – it is almost an interactive film, and it has been like that since The Da Vinci Code.”
Borrowing its title from Dante’s masterwork, the Latin word for Hell, Inferno has the added component of a psychological thriller. Hanks explained at the premiere, “Hell for Langdon in the movie is both a state of mind and a very physical experience because he is wracked with pain in his head and he is tortured by the fact he is ignorant of the reasons why.” Inferno is the most visually stylistic film in the series so far, with a series of cryptic dream sequences that take audiences inside Langdon’s head and lend an entirely different feel than previous installments. That is precisely what draws director Ron Howard to this series – out of 23 feature films made over more than three decades as a director, the only sequels he has chosen to helm are Angels & Demons and now Inferno. “There have been characters that I love as much as I love Robert Langdon, but I always want to push myself to do something different. It’s more interesting than repeating yourself,” Howard explains.
The film takes many of its visual cues from the architecturally vibrant cities where it was filmed, including Budapest, Venice and Florence. At the same time, it exudes a more realistic tension than the previous films, according to Totino. The team wanted Inferno to look very different from the other two films. The previous two films in the series took place in churches and chapels, with big, bold strokes of god-light – like an Italian painting. Inferno is more modern, more believable, according to the film makers. There’s less religion and overall it is much more plausible, having to do with a biological threat.
Early on, Howard told Totino that he could shoot film if he so desired. But the cinematographer considered the logistics of shooting in far-flung European locales and the difficulties of shipping and processing film, and decided instead to go with ARRI ALEXA XT cameras with built-in Codex digital recording. The images were framed in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio in order to better incorporate the cityscapes. Totino also made use of the ALEXA Mini in situations where he needed a smaller camera. The camera is usually moving, and is often handheld. The lenses were the legendary Cooke S4s.
Although many of the scenes set in Venice, Florence, and Istanbul were shot in those cities, some scenes were shot in Budapest, doubling for those cities. Very often, a single location within the film would actually be shot over different locations in different cities, and it was the job of production designer Peter Wenham to make those transitions seamless. For the drone scene chasing Langdon and Sienna through Boboli Gardens location, the camera team had to deploy two drones; one to follow the actors and the other to film the action.
Visual effects were provided by Double Negative in London. VFX Supervisor was Jody Johnson and the
VFX Producer was Paul Edwards.
Digital Imaging Technician Francesco Sauta helped Totino set up an in-set camera LUT that was sent to CO3 dailies colourist Matt Wallach along with the exposed mags. “During the preparation, before filming, I had my monitors calibrated and perfectly matched with the monitors used by CO3 for the dailies,” says Sauta. “Every CDL or LUT created on-set would be exactly the same in the dailies. On-set, I was creating LUTs and CDLs for every set-up. And, for every exposed mag I was making a safety back-up on my system.”
Those CDLs and LUTs were also shared with the 2nd unit DIT. “Sal asked me to prioritise image quality control and uniformity in the look for all the cameras,” says Sauta. “Communication was important. I wanted to make sure that the 2nd unit DIT and the colourist were constantly informed of the choices in terms of LUTS for every scene. We shot in three visually-rich cities. Therefore, we decided to strive for a look that was organic to the story and the beautiful locations where we filmed. The challenges were related mostly to adapting to the different locations while keeping the look and the workflow consistent and uniform.”
On-set colour correction was smooth, thanks to Sauta. “From a creative standpoint, ARRIRAW is like film negative, similar to having a canvas to paint on,” he says. “In my opinion, Codex is the most reliable technology. It allows for the QC of material, editing of metadata, creation of deliverables and archiving of original camera data. Because of our workflow, I decided to use Codex Thunderbolt & SAS readers. We shot a lot of footage, usually with multiple cameras, every day. With the fast pace, I wanted to be flexible and accurate at the same time. My aim was to guarantee that no frame was left without grading and quality control.”
Totino most recently lensed the next installment of the Spider-Man franchise, Spider-Man: Homecoming, for director Jon Watts. Totino also recently shot Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest, as well as Concussion for Peter Landesman. Other impressive credits include Changing Lanes, directed by Roger Michell, People Like Us for Alex Kurtzman and Oliver Stone’s powerful American football drama Any Given Sunday.
Totino has also gained a reputation as one of the finest commercial and music video DOPs. He has over 500 commercials, having contributed to high profile campaigns like Jack Daniels, Nike, Jaguar, The GAP and H.I.S. Jeans, winning a Clio Award for the latter. He has also lit music videos for such celebrated bands as Radiohead, REM, Bruce Springsteen, Sound Garden, U2, and many others.
Totino says that all involved are very happy with the images in Inferno. “I just feel that the ALEXA is the closest thing to film,” he says. “I like the look. It’s not as chronically over-processed as some of the other cameras. I have teenage kids, and they understand and appreciate when something looks really electronic and over-produced. It looks fake to them. It’s not about resolution. When you get caught up in having the highest resolution, you’re moving away from the aesthetics, from what is really important – what’s coming from within you, what’s in your heart and your head.”