When John Stockwell asked me to do a film set in the Bahamas about sunken treasure, greed, fun, and really hot chicks, I was in. I had never done a movie on the water. MGM was producing the film and at the time was making a big push to shoot the entire movie digitally. They wanted me to shoot on the Sony F-900 and they kept on talking about bottom time – being able to stay underwater shooting for longer lengths. On underwater housing for film you have a 400′ load. That is equivalent to about four minutes of bottom time. With an HD camera you could shoot for 50 minutes. I wanted to be fair to the studio and do a test. I wanted film. They wanted digital.
It was a shootout like no other: three days in the Bahamas. Peter Zuccarini was my choice as the underwater film cameraman and Al Giddings would be the Sony F-950 digital cameraman. They both had talent dressed in the same swim suits. They had all the same props like flashlights, knives, etc. They had three days to blow my mind with their art of cinematography under the water.
One thing that was amazing to me when we arrived at our dive site was the clarity of the water. I had just gotten my Padi diver certificate in the Pacific Ocean and had about three feet of visibility. Here I was looking at 75-100 Ft. of vis. I then realized that I would never have to dive to light my underwater scenes at night, I could do it from the boat and that is exactly what we did. We positioned the actors and the camera in ways to bring out the depth of the water at night as well as closing it in all around you so that you never knew what was coming. After the night work that we did on the test Pete came up to me and said, I have never seen someone light underwater from a boat on top of the water. I asked him how it looked, and he said it looked like nothing he had ever seen.
So that became my process. I had a very difficult time equalizing to begin with so it made it that much more productive if I didn’t have to get in the wet suits and the diving gear all the time.
I feel as a cinematographer you can get too caught up in the backgrounds and lighting them. It is about the characters and the performance, not about the background. We want to make it look beautiful but if you ask a movie goer if he or she saw that cool stuff in the background they will always say no, I was looking at the actor or actress’s face. I will go at it a different way on this next film “Deadfall.” I’ll be taking what Roger Deakins did on “No Country For Old Men,” and only lighting the areas that the characters inhabit will be my mantra.
My idea for this film was to reinvent how underwater photography was done. I was able to do this with the assistance of a Digital Intermediate (DI), my colorist Frank Romano, Pete Zuccarini and his kick ass team, my lighting, grip, and camera team. This was something that was not done around this time. It was very expensive and not very many films were using this digital process, they were finishing photo-chemically. I had come from rock videos and in the telecine process we had tons of tools to make our videos kick ass, but the film digital post process was limited. The director and I wanted the camera to have no rules, to be able to spin around and not see lights, to be a helicopter, a crane, and a dolly all in one shot. We would not roll out by taking off our fins and sitting on the bottom and sending down tons of light so that I could get skin tones below 25′. I would inject that skin tone to 60′ of depth and let Pete rock out in a world that was liquid. Pete told me it was so inspiring to work this way, to not have all the limitations that there normally are when you dive to 60′. Once we got back to LA and looked at footage it was a no brainer. There was vitality in the actors and actresses faces at 50′. They looked alive and sexy as hell. The HD colorspace even with its 10 BIT 4:4:4 range could not deliver skin tones. So film it was.
Topside we had many scenes to showcase including Jessica Alba‘s beauty as well as Paul Walker‘s incredible good looks. I knew I would never stay on schedule if we did any lighting at sea, so I made that call early on. I selected a film stock that needed very minimal fill light and that was 5245. I picked a boat that was white so that the natural bounce off of it would fill in the actors faces without having a light or bounce cards. The other thing was to keep it small. This is what makes John Stockwell such a genius. He told me, “keep your footprint small on the water. If the sea hands us rough waters, we can duck into a bay and continue to shoot.” His vision was proved on day one. Everyone had their support boats, their anchor boats, their make-up boats, their lighting and grip boats. It took us hours to position them and then the minute we wanted to turn around they were in all of our shots. John asked all of them to leave and we made the movie from the picture boat, where we put sound, make-up, wardrobe, and craft services and my camera boat that Ricou Browning Jr. and I designed called the Corinthian.
It was the most bad ass catamaran you had ever seen. With its dual Honda out boards this baby would do 25 knots with a crew of 20 on board as well as a 30′ technocrane and a six camera pkg. with support. Everything was done from this flotilla and we stayed on schedule and on budget. My key grip Scott Howell was instrumental in keeping my bearings. He had done tons of films on the water and I looked to him for insight.
On land it was very interesting. We had this drug dealer’s home that was right on the point in Lyford Key. The scene that we will be discussing is a pivotal scene in the film where Paul Walker’s friend Scott Caan tries to convince Paul to go for the money and fame and not to do the right thing, which is walk away from this impeding disaster. Both John and I felt that this would be great at sunset, the mood and the tone would be right. But we all know that sunset last about 15 minutes at the max. I had to come up with an approach to deliver the director’s vision.
We would do an establishing shot 15 minutes before the sun set. This was this cool technocrane shot that Roberto De Angelis and I came up with to show the point, the boat, the house and the sunset all in one sweeping move. Once we nailed that I brought in three cameras to shoot the coverage while the sun was setting.
Scott Caan’s direction is all natural light as well as the wide shot of being on their backs. You can literally see the sun going down in the coverage.
You can see that they are right on the edge of a cliff, so for Paul Walker’s coverage, while we were in twilight mode and we had lost the sun, we moved them off of the edge so that my gaffer Dan Cornwall and his team could swoop in with an 18K with ROSCO full and one half CTS and push that through a 8×8 Half Soft Frost diffusion for his mediums and close-ups.
I used my Minolta color temperature meter to match the color exactly, which came in at 2400 degrees Kelvin. I found that Rosco half soft frost looks great for that semi diffused look that you get from the sun at sunset. When all was said and done, we had expanded this particular sunset for about an hour and 30 minutes.
I have asked world renowned underwater cinematographer Peter Zucarrini to write a small blog about shooting “Into the Blue,” as well as our work together with the 5D underwater. Stay tuned for that in the coming weeks. Above is a little teaser of his stunning work on this film. Working side by side with him was an amazing experience. Together I felt we were unstoppable in delivering a world that know one had experienced before.
On a side note, there is a great new app that puts the power of the gel swatch book in your iPhone. I have used it three times already on Deadfall. Here are the specs: Gel Swatch Library. It offers colors and diffusions from Rosco, Lee and GAM. It gives their color along with transmission data and graphs. Enjoy. Stay tuned for the Camera Schedule and Breakdown on Deadfall, how I go about it, and why it is so important to do this sooner rather than later in prep.