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Super 16 Renaissance Keeps Growing

Super 16 Renaissance Keeps Growing

Articles - Directing

? “The issues/58/images are amazing,” says David Ayer, writer-director of Harsh Times, which he shot in Super 16 withcinematographer Steve Mason. “People who have seen the film swear it’s 35mm.”

Last year, MM reported on “The Super 16 Revolution” (Issue #54, Vol. 11). Citing Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Ernest Dickerson’s Never Die Alone, Spike Lee’s She Hate Me, John Sayles’ Silver City, Melissa Painter’s Admissions and Fernando Mereilles’ City of God as examples, the cinematographers we spoke with at the time all told of the aesthetic and economic values of the format, which was invented by Swedish cinematographer Rune Ericson.

In the 12 months since that article appeared, the revolution has continued; even in our digital age, Super 16 counts some of Hollywood’s most legendary DPs as fans. Here, we speak with cinematographers Amy Vincent, Steve Mason and Vilmos Zsigmond about the unlikely renewed interest in this 40-year-old format.

Going With The Flow

It was the year of Hustle & Flow at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Craig Brewer wrote and directed the film about DJay, a small-time hustler and pimp who is going through a midlife crisis. As DJay begins to realize his dream of creating music, he inspires those around him. A line from one of the film’s characters, successful rapper Skinny Black, expresses the essence of the story: “Everybody got a dream.”

?“I was surprised by how much detail you can see on an HD monitor without a hint of grain”
—Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC

The line could just as easily apply to the making of Hustle & Flow, Brewer’s dream project come true. After its Sundance screening, Paramount Pictures anted up $9.5 million for the film (which also won the Audience Award). Amy Vincent, ASC won the Cinematography Award for her soulful rendering of issues/58/images that pull the audience deep into the emotional flow of the story.

Vincent says the decision to produce Hustle & Flow in Super 16 was only partially motivated by the relatively modest $2.5 million budget. She explains that Brewer wanted to work quickly, with small, mobile cameras, but that the story called for the aesthetics of film. “The introduction of Kodak’s new Vision2 film stocks, in conjunction with the digital intermediate process, now makes shooting Super 16 an excellent option,” she says.

Hustle & Flow was produced almost entirely at practical locations, where Vincent leveraged available light to amplify moods and establish environments. One setting was a darkened strip club without a single white light. The costumes and backgrounds are saturated reds and blues and help set the tone of DJay’s world.

Vincent covered the action with two ARRI 16SR-3 cameras and an Aaton A-Minima with Zeiss prime lenses, and recorded issues/58/images on Kodak Vision2 7218 (500T) and 7212 (100t) films. She explains that the broad exposure latitude of the new generation of negative films enabled her to record subtle details in the darkest shadows and brightest highlights without the grain usually associated with Super 16. “The new films see the world the way we do with our eyes,” Vincent says.

The camera movement in the film was achieved with simple dolly moves and a substantial amount of handheld work. No cranes or Steadicams were allowed. Vincent explains that shots made with the handheld camera feel more “visceral” and are designed to support the emotional tone of the scene.

The negative was processed at FotoKem in Burbank, California. Later, the edited film was scanned on the Imagica 2K scanner and converted to digital files. Vincent timed the film for shot-to-shot continuity in interactive digital intermediate sessions (DI) at FotoKem with colorist Walter Volpatto, utilizing the Quantel IQ color-correcting software in conjunction with a DLP 2K projector and Truelight look-up tables (LUTs).

“We could isolate anything in any shot, put a window around it and manipulate just that part of the image to make it darker or brighter, and also alter colors or contrast,” she explains. “There are so many amazing tools at your disposal in the DI suite, but with Hustle & Flow we kept it all very true to what was originally exposed on the negative.”

t to b: Josh Hopkins and Diane Keaton star in Surrender, Dorothy; Taraji Henson, Paula Jai Parker, Terrence Howard and Taryn Manning in Hustle & Flow

Fast and Furious Times

Harsh Times was scripted by David Ayer (Training Day, The Fast and the Furious), who drafted the script nine years ago, when his career was just getting underway. The story focuses on two boyhood friends, played by Freddy Rodríguez and Christian Bale, who are driving around South Central Los Angeles, bent on raising hell until trouble inevitably intercedes. Ayer decided to “scrape together” the money to produce and direct the film himself, rather than surrendering creative control to a studio.

Ayer chose Australian-born cinematographer Steve Mason, ASC, as his collaborator. “Steve connected with the script on an emotional level,” says Ayer. “He convinced me we could shoot in Super 16 without compromising. One of the advantages was that we could shoot long dialogue scenes with an 800-foot magazine on the camera. The issues/58/images are amazing; people who have seen the film swear it’s 35mm.”

Harsh Times was mainly produced in South Central Los Angeles, with an important sequence filmed on location in Mexico. “Super 16 was the perfect format for this film,” says Mason. “We only had a 26-day schedule and had to move quickly and shoot a lot of film in all kinds of different conditions. We shot night scenes on streets lit with just a few sodium vapor lamps that our crew mounted high up on telephone poles. We filmed inside cars with very fast Zeiss lenses stopped down to (T-) 1.4 with just a little LED light.”

Mason was dealing with multiple skin tones, while generally covering scenes with two ARRI 16SR-3 cameras frequently placed at opposing angles. He used the Kodak Look Management previsualization system to give the dailies timer at LaserPacific in Los Angeles visual references for his intentions for each scene.

Surrendering To Super 16

Legendary DP Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC recently lensed Surrender, Dorothy, a television movie featuring Diane Keaton, for director Charles MacDougall. Zsigmond has compiled some 70 narrative credits during his storied career, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter and Deliverance. But Surrender, Dorothy marks the first time he has worked with 16mm since his student days in Budapest.

Keaton plays a grieving mother whose 23-year-old daughter was killed in an auto accident. She is searching for answers during a visit with some of her daughter’s friends who are sharing a summer home in the Hamptons. The film was produced on a 20-day schedule at practical locations in and around San Diego.

Most coverage was shot with two side-by-side Panavision Elaine cameras mounted with 4:1 and 10:1 zoom lens used for variable focus. The shorter lens was usually used to cover master shots while the longer one was focused on close-ups that director Charles McDougall used for cutaways.

Zsigmond set the mood with soft light motivated by open doors, windows, lamps and other visible sources that ring true with the audience. He rated the Kodak Vision2 7218 film for E.I. 1000 while shooting the darkest scenes and compensated with ND filtration on lenses in bright exterior shots. After the film was edited offline, the conformed negative
was scanned at 2K resolution at Burbank’s Modern VideoFilm, where Zsigmond
timed the movies as well. “I was surprised by how much detail you can see on an HD monitor without a hint of grain,” he says. “I would use this format again on the
right movie.” MM

“The issues/58/images are amazing,” says David Ayer, writer-director of Harsh Times, which he shot in Super 16 with cinematographer Steve Mason. “People who have seen the film swear it’s 35mm.”

“I was surprised by how much detail you can see on an HD monitor without a hint of grain”
—Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC

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