Claudio Miranda went to great lengths to lessen the bluescreen use in Tomorrowland after persuading Director Brad Bird to turn a 65mm film into digital 4K.
Director of Photography Claudio Miranda isn’t sure why he gets chosen to shoot ‘Sci-fi’ movies with lots of VFX and blue screen work but it isn’t holding him back – an Oscar for blue screen heavy Life of Pi is a testament to that. That movie was shot with six Alexa cameras paired on three Cameron Pace Fusion rigs with ARRI / Zeiss Master Primes and many weeks in a Taiwanese wave tank. Futuristic Oblivion was next with Tom Cruise and to avoid using too much blue screen Miranda and Director Joe Kosinski designed a projection system for what was called the ‘Sky Tower’ sequences where many of the scenes are set. The staging required the use of a 500 foot screen front projected by 21 projectors with a large choice of sky scenes as moving plates (shot on RED cameras in Hawaii). The Sky Tower is a living quarter perched 3,000 feet up in the sky. ““If we had done it blue screen then all your art department choices like textures would have to change. If it originally was going to be gloss it would have to be semi gloss, no chrome is allowed because it just ends up being blue. You could put chrome in but the effects would have to go on top of it. But now we’ve got real chrome we can put the glass in and now we have a real environment. I can use smoke if I want to, I can do anything! I can have the sun where I want to. Sometimes I would move a nice looking cloud to go behind them and would nudge it over a little and maybe loop a certain section that looked great right behind the actors. So it’s all in-camera, you’re making choices and lighting choices because you have the real thing.“ commented Claudio.
“Initially for Tomorrowland Director Brad Bird wanted to shoot film – 65mm and 35mm. I wasn’t so sure, for instance for Oblivion it would have been impossible. So I know digital has advantages over film, the main thing is low light considerations and where you can get away with low light. We had a couple of scenes at Cape Canaveral’s Space Centre and it couldn’t have been lit with cranes because it would have made it look too heroic, because you couldn’t get a light high enough to make a nice moonlight. If low light was all you could do then lights shining up at a building would also be too heroic, this place was meant to be perceived as being bare. So I already knew that I had to shoot some digital so we just did some tests against each other and it just started sliding in that direction. Brad was really worried about the feel of digital but I’ve done a lot of movies that I don’t think ‘feel’ digital. All the way from ‘Benjamin Buttons’ I’ve tried not to make it feel like it’s electronic or synthetic. I’ve seen people use film and make it synthetic and ‘digital’.
To persuade Brad to go digital was mostly a show and tell type of journey for Claudio. He ended up strapping seven cameras on a shotmaker, on a single bar and shot them daytime and night time for an A/B test. “We projected it all 4K on a big screen – what Brad really wanted was IMAX resolution 15 perf, that was his goal for day and at night. I showed him all the tests, natural light daytime, natural light night time in downtown LA.
“Film just kind of died. I would normally be lighting it but we didn’t, we were just showing A to B. I was saying to him about the Sony F65, this was a one camera package to shoot everything and he was thrilled in the end. Now he says he was so happy that we went in this direction. He feels sad that he didn’t do it in film as far as an emotional standpoint.”
Digital v Film cameras
Claudio admitted it was a good test for him too. “I tested three different digital cameras, RED, ALEXA and Sony f65 and film with IMAX 15 perf film, 8 perf, Panavision 5 perf, regular 35mm, I did it all! I do feel however that there is a camera for every show, a lot of people says that I shoot Sony a lot of the time but if Brad is going for a 4K release and really wants to see Tomorrowland in it’s finest detail this is the way to go.
“Brad wanted that IMAX experience, that huge ‘negative’ experience, we ended up with the f65. We did use the f55 as well but it wasn’t totally flushed out for us, the f65 is still the premier image, it’s still sharper. But we used the f55 for some stunt work with a lot of fast motion stuff and some steadicam work but that was still only about 1 or 2% of the movie.
“Brad likes to do a lot of off-speed but at the time, it’s not true now, it wouldn’t do variable frame rates, it did 24, 25, 30 and 60. Sometimes we wanted to speed up the scene or wanted to do it at 22 frames or 20 frames.
Sony F65 - Weight?
“My operator didn’t mind using the F65 and he in fact likes the weight better. My jobs are mostly on dollies and cranes, that’s where my primary camera moves come from, it doesn’t really matter at that point what the shape of the camera is. I’m not a huge fan of handheld, it’s not where I go. The things that make a difference with cameras is lenses and the DI treatment. When I was doing the camera test I felt that they are kind of the same now, the key things for cinematographers is now ‘how do you light the set’? How do you compose it. What’s your process for DI, how do you get the information from the camera you have? I think those are the things against the labels, people are very ‘labely’.
‘I’m not one to go overly warm or overly cold, I hate clipped and crunchy, I hate tight shutters, I hate 48 frames, I hate anything above 24…”
The movie is a full 4K feature with a little bit of 2k when there are some fast pans going on but Claudio says that you won’t be able to tell. “When we’re in the city and in the wide shots it all 4k. To honour 65mm Brad wanted to shoot the movie in this aspect ratio which is kind of special, which is 2.2. For IMAX I’ll go 1.9.”
When Claudio first read the script with Brad he admits he nearly didn’t get the job! “It was because I wasn’t very excited. But for me it isn’t my excitement level it’s just me in my head wondering how I was going to make this movie. I always try to put as much as I can in-camera.
“On Tomorrowland there is a lot of reality with set extensions on the back with rockets landing and things flying over the top. But whatever she (main character Casey Newton) is standing on is real. We went to a museum in Spain called the Calatrava and a large part of her walk through Tomorrowland is done at that location which is very futuristic – there’s a lot of that in the movie because it’s real and goes with the feel.
“We always push for real locations to the extent of when we filmed young Frank Walker, the George Clooney character, we went to one of those sky diving fair places to really push the air on him so he’s really falling. Obviously there is blue screen behind him. I was amazed that VFX wanted tons of interactive smoke so a lot of the smoke they actually used. I’ve never heard of a company wanting to use smoke in front of a blue screen. I was thrilled that we were allowed to put tons of atmospherics in front of blue screen. That just makes the smoke as it passes through feel more real because it is real!
“The big thing are the walls and immersions which we called the ‘Monitor set’. I did a monitor wall which George Clooney thought was funny as he had just come off the movie Gravity with its media wall. It’s not really front projection it’s more like LED. We made a sphere this time of LED panels and stuff like that. It’s for the interactive light so what they’re watching is really lighting them. “
“We built this massive set which was called the Bridgeway Plaza and it was huge and a lot of the background interactive light that you see is in-camera, this strange kind of light effect that looks very synthetic but is completely in-camera. There was a lot of things that I did that people might think are blue screens effect but we did in-camera, you know ‘That looks so artificial but perfect for Tomorrowland’ but it’s in-camera. There’s an effect where the main character is involved with a tragedy. There’s this ethereal light that’s happening in the background and I knew how I wanted to create this weird thing but it looks like a kind of underwater effect that’s happening behind them. We created it with moving lights, diffusions and smoke and atmosphere but it looks like it’s this strange underwater energy that happening but it’s all in-camera. It was shot in Spain at Calatrava in one of the buildings and we are just lighting inside one of the buildings in the background, it was perfect for the mood of that tone.
“Being able to create these effects is another advantage of digital. After doing the projection thing on Oblivion we got tons of calls by people from Gravity, Interstellar and others to see how we did it. Interstellar was interested in doing projections and that kind of light. I thought it was nice to be in a set where you could turn on the camera and no blue screen. I’m not a fan, if you can get away from it and not do it I’m totally for it. It feels real, it gives you choices to possibly make silhouettes, not light people if you don’t have to , I just think it looks better than the alternative.”
“If I see the camera not acting right I’ll take it to another lab and look at it and see how people are de-bayering or de-processing it. That’s where I find a lot of people are doing the RED wrong because of bad processing or a bad curve on it, or people keep it linear, there’s no S curve to it. It’s the way you treat the camera and the look. I wasn’t really a fan of the RED until the new Dragon sensor, it looks smoother now I think. Initially it looked affected, skin looked two dimensional, there was no roundness to skin and that’s what I look for in a camera, the dimensions and the colour that come out of the sensor. What can I get out of the sensor? I just want to get neutral.
“I don’t go into LUTs and looks too much. There’s a little correction that makes it look not so terrible. We have a little contrast LUT that we kind of agree on. I want to know where my highs and lows are so I can retrieve them later. I don’t do anything really fancy, I light by my monitor which makes me really fast. I use my meter now and then maybe outside when it’s overcast and I want to maintain the look that I set.
“For the lens choice we wanted to be super sharp so we used Master Primes and Fuji Premier zooms.
Disney’s Tomorrowland is released world-wide in May.