Michael Mann Takes a Shot in the Dark With Public Enemies

Set mostly in Depression era Chicago, Public Enemies, an adaptation of Bryan Burrough’s nonfiction book, follows the attempts of FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Bale) to hunt down notorious criminals John Dillinger (Depp), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum).

Mann, determined to step beyond the conventions of the typical period flick, a sub-genre generally married to classical film forms and dipped in a sense of nostalgia, chose to shoot Public Enemies with Sony F23 digital cameras.

Wanting to anchor his audience in the now of 1933, Mann chose the F23s—with their lightweight, mobile carriages, capacity for extreme depth of field and high sensitivity to light—as the ideal vehicle to bring new life to this famous crime story.

Public Enemies co-producer Bryan H. Carroll, who has made four pictures with Mann, says that the potential of HD as a creative medium has been clear to Mann and company since Ali. But going digital on this picture was not always a given.

“After a couple of experiences shooting digitally, I think Michael had the idea of returning to film,” says cinematographer Dante Spinotti, “of shooting the project in a more traditional, filmic language using 35mm cameras, dollies, etc.”

To get a sense of what they were up against, the film team set up a mock street scene behind their production offices—complete with vintage posters, streetlights and period cars—and tested several cameras (both 35mm and digital) side-by-side. They shot multiple samples with each camera, first from daylight to sunset, then twilight to nighttime.

“We then went through the process of scanning the film and comparing the two files,” Spinotti continues, “putting both files back on film to compare the results. The sharpness of the F23 was very impressive, especially when you do the comparisons to 35mm in head-to-foot and head-to-knee shots of people, when sharpness becomes critical.”

“The camera has a very deep depth of field, with sharpness and detail that is amazing,” Carroll explains. “Michael never wanted the film to be nostalgic, like you’re watching the past. He wanted to drop you into the story as if 1933 is now. Everything you see, from the cobblestones the characters walk on to the granite within the buildings, all those details help to bring you into that era.”

“I think the allure for Michael Mann, and obviously for myself, was to be able to shoot this period film in a very modern, agile, aggressive and, I think, dynamic camera style,” adds Spinotti. “One of the things that made this movie so interesting to shoot was the ability to get close to the story, close to the actors with the camera; to apply a language that is so energetic and so modern.”

Rob Willox, Sony’s director of marketing for professional content creation products, explains that for Sony, translating digital into the traditional filmic lexicon of moviemakers was an important step.

“The F23 was the first camera to really work with terminology that is filmic,” says Willox. “The exposure is in traditional photography measurements like f-stops or t-stops; we simplified the menu to make it more workable for a cinematographer.”

The camera is designed to feel and function in terms familiar to the moviemaker, but its specific capacities are the camera’s ultimate sales pitch.

“Mann likes to use available light and often works at night,” Willox explains. “In this film you have night scenes with black cars, with Tommy guns going off and so on. To be able to shoot those blacks and be crystal clear was an advantage with this camera. To be not only sharp, but to reveal enough information there so that you can have contrast; to be able to distinguish backgrounds from foregrounds from objects was crucial. And with the F23s, you have enough head room on the exposure to allow you to push and pull the image once you get into post, to bring the exposure up or down without introducing noise [grain] and other digital artifacts into the image.”

Spinotti relates how the camera’s extreme sensitivity to light was applied to story: “In one scene,” he explains, “we shot on an incredibly long stretch of road. In a traditional film approach to this scene, we would have needed to have some conventional ways of lighting that stretch of road night. With the F23s, all I used were a couple of tiny panels on the dashboard and some small lights on the eyes of the drivers and the passengers. We modified the headlights to increase their power when we were shooting from inside the car looking forward, and those headlights would light the road, which was flanked by forests and trees.

“In the far distance we had some HMI light units backlighting the mist and the sky; that would outline the shape of the forest. So you can really work with a simplified kit.”

This ability to work in low or existing light, to capture environments in great detail and to shoot with a mobile, lightweight camera, made all the difference. But perhaps the greatest advantage these digital systems provided Mann and his crew was the ability to see—on set—what would appear on screen.

“With digital, what you see is what you get,” Carroll emphasizes. From the on-set viewing monitor to the screening room where dailies were viewed, the images only changed when the moviemakers manipulated them.

“Given that kind of consistency,” Carroll continues, “when Michael is on set, he sees what the scene will look like [when projected for audiences].”

The camera menu allowed the moviemakers to adjust the color palette as they shot, augmenting the image in real time. “Being able to paint on the fly is a huge plus for a creative person like Michael,” Carroll concludes.

“The magical, fundamental, historical breakthrough is that as moviemaker, you are actually looking at what you are doing,” says Spinotti. “We used to have to wait for the screening of dailies to really be sure of what we had on film. Now, those of us who are making the movie have a chance to see what we are doing when we are shooting. We are no longer shooting in the dark.” MM

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