HD Video Pro Magazine's December issue provides us with a more technical look at the cinematography of Skyfall:
Secret Agent Man
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, captures Skyfall, the 23rd film in the James Bond spy series
BY KEVIN H. MARTIN
For actors playing James Bond, their third outing as Agent 007 usually proves to be the make-or-break effort. After Dr. No and the still remarkably engaging From Russia With Love, Goldfinger became a worldwide breakout hit that well and truly heralded the arrival of Bondmania while proving, as ads proclaimed, "Sean Connery is James Bond." Thirteen years later, Roger Moore's third film The Spy Who Loved Me popularized the series anew for audiences welcoming his lighter-than- air take on the spy. While Timothy Dalton never made a third film (owing as much to legal rows between filmmakers and MGM as to audiences unprepared to take Bond so seriously), Pierce Brosnan's The World Is Not Enough gave some indication that the third time was not the charm and provided impetus for the series reboot that followed two films later in 2006.
2012's Skyfall marks Daniel Craig's third turn in the role after the surprisingly successful Casino Royale and the follow-up Quantum of Solace, a film less well received, but still esteemed by some Bondophiles. After director Sam Mendes accepted the gig, he recruited his Jarhead and Revolutionary Road director of photography, nine-time Academy Award® nominee Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC. The cinematographer admits to having seen only a few of the early 007 adventures when he was very young, so visual homage was never in his game plan.
"While we looked at some recent films to see how action sequences were handled," Deakins explains, "there wasn't any-thing we felt had to be carried over visually. My process begins with the script, and ideas evolve through discussion with the director and while scouting locations, which on this film happened in India and China.
Beginning with 1965's Thunderball, Bond films expanded their scope by shooting in anamorphic, a process that continued up until the last two films, lensed in Super 35. At Deakins' urging, Skyfall became the first originated-on-digital film in the series, shot with ARRI ALEXAs. The cinematographer had gotten his feet wet digitally with Andrew Niccol's In Time, and after showing Mendes some low-light tests, he won the director over to the ALEXA.
"The tipping point has been reached, and now it's beneficial to shoot digital," he declares. "I don't light any differently, but can rely more on sources, augmenting those a bit when necessary. We did quite a bit of shooting with candlelight, and the advantages at those low levels were very striking. Aesthetically, the ALEXA has a nice roll-off from highlights to shadow, how it renders color contrast. We pick up more tonal range in skin, so makeup has to be subtly done and sets finished to a higher quality as well. These issues would be much more significant if you were shooting with a 6K camera. Personally, though, I don't like the artificiality of those systems; a higher pixel count doesn't help make things look any more right to my eye."
Shooting almost exclusively on ARRl/Zeiss Master Primes, Deakins used an array of ALEXAs to capture Bond's world, including two prototype Studios dependent on beta firmware, the Plus and ALEXA M, which sports separate head and body components, allowing it to fit into tight spaces. While the original ALEXA had an electronic viewfinder, Deakins "twisted a few arms, then screamed
and shouted a bit," with the Studio's revolving mirror shutter and optical viewfinder (courtesy ARRI Media) the result. Though the final product would be cropped to 2.35, Deakins shot in 16:9 mode, recording in ARR1RAW 2.8K via Codex onboard recorders, which employ a virtual file system permitting viewing in a variety of file formats and resolutions. Whenever Deakins elected to shoot handheld on the Plus, the Codex onboard recorder was mounted on the camera itself.
Deakins' longstanding relationship with EFILM continued, with their proprietary Colorstream timing system installed on set. "Josh Gollish worked closely with them and Codex Digital throughout," says Deakins of the DIT, who performed similarly on In Time. "I could look at a color-calibrated image on set, but if I couldn't adjust the camera to get the desired image, then I could make adjustments on the Colorstream. The changes would go with the metadata and files through dailies to the DI process as an on-set correction."
With levels on consumer and prosumer monitors inclined to float too much, Gollish had his hands full getting things calibrated to the cinematographer's liking. "Roger had sketched out a specification for what he wanted to happen, so we had to devise a way to make sure his monitor and every other monitor on set would show exactly the same image that would appear in dailies [the film relied on Colorfront's On-Set Dailies system). Roger's eyes are like those of an eagle, good to an eighth of a stop. I knew if I could find hardware to support it, we could have our Colorstream monitors calibrated precisely."
Gollish found some off-the-shelf boxes that, when added to the pipeline, would let him put a correction into every outgoing feed, but there was a question of reliability. "The boxes might work on a test bench, but with all the power skips and crashes, you wouldn't dare bring them on set." After some reverse engineering, the power system and output connectors were made safe and robust, and Gollish was able to color-profile each monitor so it would hit AIEXA's wavepoint consistently.
Deakins chose to mix handheld work with conventional coverage in an unconventional manner. "Some action was covered fairly statically with a hard-mounted camera, while a few dramatic scenes used handheld to get a bit more immediacy and energy." While some huge productions carry equipment to cover any possible contingency or directorial whim, Deakins finds such an approach wasteful. "We carried the same equipment every day that I'd carry on any film," he reports. "I often work with Aero Crane's jib arm and Power-Pod remote head, and while we did use other rigs—Ultimate Arm for car work, Cablecam, a 100-foot Technocrane for one night, a Bradley Engineering-designed track rig that could chase down an escalator, plus special slider rigs on computer-controlled tracks that ran lights as well as cameras— those were brought in only as needed."
While the main unit didn't do as much location work as was initially intended, leaving the UK only to visit Turkey to flesh out second-unit work done there on the pre-title sequence, the film still includes exotic locales lensed by second-unit director Alexander Witt, who was on the film as long as Deakins himself. By and large, Witt worked independently from the main unit, though to provide a very specific guide for the opening in Turkey, Deakins and Mendes had a
previsualization made to provide a specific guide for what was needed.
After part of the MI6 building is blown up (a quarter-scale miniature pyro shoot that Peerless Camera composited into live-action), Bond's boss M (Judi Dench) sets up shop anew, below ground. "It's an underground bunker system that harkens back to the Second World War," Deakins explains. "So you've got these old Victorian tunnels beneath London with damp, decaying architecture. My thought was that they would retrofit the place with modern light sources, so I had the art department design high-tech fluorescent fixtures that contrast with the environment while also giving a nice graphic touch, as you see these 500 lubes receding into the distance."
Deakins sought to differentiate the film's international locales with colors that reflected each distinct environment, explaining, "We go from underground London to Shanghai, which is like a whole new world with its intense blue saturation. Then, in Macao, we see an older Chinese world of reds and golds."
Production designer Dennis Gassner, a longtime Deakins collaborator on Coen Brothers' efforts and a returnee from Quantum of Solace, created the bulk of the film's international settings on the backlot and stage at Pinewood. His imaginative constructs feature prominently in a striking night sequence with Bond stalking an assassin through an all-glass office building in Shanghai, which Deakins likens to a "hall of mirrors" and undoubtedly will be compared to Quantum's showy and stylized shootout during a performance of Tosca. Built on the large 007 stage at Pinewood as a combined interior/exterior, the office set was surrounded by two large LED screens representing huge advertising billboards.
"The only light sources come from these billboards outside, the biggest of which was about 60x40," says Deakins. " The images on these screens reflected on the glass surfaces in the offices, and 1 wanted double reflections and triple reflections, which would be nonuniform because of distortion in the glass.
I don't know how you could have done this with CG because it's all about the interaction, how real reflections kick off surfaces and the light refracts. We were keen to do as much live and in¬camera as possible, and with an extreme-looking environment like this, every bit of reality helps ground it that much more. "
Repeatability in the lighting cues was a key to choreographing the action. "When the scene was being rehearsed, there was input from Daniel and the other actor, as well as Sam and Roger," Josh Gollish states. "Action beats were worked out almost like a ballet, with camera and performer movements finding a kind of synchronization with the light coming off the LED screens. Normally, you can't build a repeatable pattern with a dimmer board, but we created a path for the board operator. When everybody had settled on a good master for movement, we could re-create the light cues again and again for every take, or even change the timing if they wanted to try a different pace."
The sequence used CG to provide moving traffic on the streets below, which was the province of VFX supervisor Steve Begg, who also oversaw the efforts of the film's second unit and splinter unit and had supervised Casino Royale. I laving begun his career with miniature and matte painting work under old-style maestro and 007 veteran Derek Meddings, Begg's indoctrination into the CC. world came on Goldeneye when he
used a Matador system to create animated lighting, but he remains partial to model work and in-camera effects.
"The Bond folk like mixing old-school effects with the new," he explains, adding that part of his challenge on this film was not to handicap Deakins' vision. "I knew Roger wouldn't be comfortable dealing with a load of bluescreen and greenscreen, so we often used white, gray or black backdrops, depending on the lighting situation. Keying and extractions on the ALEXA has been terrific, so that was a big help. During the big sequence at Skyfall Manor, we have shots looking outside through an open doorway. If these shots had been done on location, Roger would obviously have chosen to blow the exposure out. We hung white outside the set's doors, then, in post, we percentaged-in little bits of detail from the landscape plates, which gave it all a very realistic overexposed look in keeping with Roger's approach."
Impressed by their significant recent credits, Begg chose Double Negative as the film's main VFX vendor, though work was spread among eight companies, including Cinesite.
THE RULE OF THIRD-SCALE
Like the pre-title sequence in Turkey, the finale at the manor was previsualized extensively due to overlap between main unit, second unit and splinter unit, plus the need to coordinate with Chris Corbould's physical effects. "We had to be able to seamlessly dovetail between live-action, CG and miniature work for the copter crashing into the manor," Begg notes. "I've always been a fan of miniatures in a big way, and with digital here to stay, I think they may come back in a big way, since you can see your results immediately. The interaction between physical objects carries a random factor that you don't necessarily get using CGI since serendipity can't be programmed for."
One-third-scale miniatures of the copter (built at Pinewood using rapid prototyping techniques by the Prop Shop), Skyfall Manor and Bond's trademark Aston Martin DB5 were all utilized for the fiery climax, which was shot by DP Peter Talbot at rates between 40 and 48 frames per second. MPC assembled the various elements, embellishing with matte-painted environmental work as needed. "Getting 85% of the show in-camera and using CG for sweetening has gotten us some very nice results," adds Begg.
Deakins timed the film in sessions at London's Deluxe 142 and EFILM in Los Angeles. "Except for O Brother, just about everything I've done in D1 has been finished at 4K," he states. "This time, we combined the 2K-effects work with our 3K-set stuff and had it all up-rezzed to 4K for DCP" Skyfall also will be released in IMAX, another first for the long-running series. "We kept the frame clear (above and below] so a 1.9:1 aspect ratio would work for them," says Deakins. "IMAX had their own enhancement process involving sharpening and a saturation boost, but I didn't like what it did to the ALEXA files, which were very clean. They wound up transferring it just as we captured it."
While Deakins, with his strong predilection for dramatic films, thinks it unlikely that he'd shoot another Bond, he (sub-consciously?) paraphrases Sean Connery, admitting he should "never say never." Regardless of who does the shooting and what format is used, we all know James Bond will return, HDVP
For more information on Skyfall, visit the film's official site at www.skyfall-movie.com.