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The Super 16 Revolution

The Super 16 Revolution

Articles - Directing

The cast and crew of Admissions (2004): Amy Madigan, Melissa Painter and Paul Ryan; and Lauren Ambrose

Let’s begin by giving credit where credit is due. A Swedish cinematographer named Rune Ericson conceived and invented the Super 16 film format more than 30 years ago. Ericson had an elegantly simple idea for producing more cinematic, “independent” movies on minimal budgets. So he asked some film manufacturers to eliminate the perforations on one side of the traditional 16mm film frame, creating an approximately 40 percent larger area for recording issues/54/images. The result was a dramatic improvement in the quality of issues/54/images optically blown up to 35mm for distribution to cinemas.

Where a traditional 16mm frame offers a 4:3 width to height aspect ratio, the Super 16 format provides a more cinematic 1.85:1 aspect ratio—giving moviemakers more horizontal space and creative flexibility for composing shots.

Ericson’s concept was almost free of cost. It didn’t make any existing cameras or post-production hardware obsolete, nor did it require capital investments for new gear. Existing 16mm cameras and lab machines were easily and inexpensively retrofit for the new format, and there was no effect on the price of film. In 2002, Ericson received a special Award of Commendation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his innovative idea. The Academy noted that, since the 1970s, more than 500 motion pictures have been produced in the Super 16 format. Though most were produced in Europe, in more recent years, the Super 16 trend has been gaining traction in the Western hemisphere, as well.

An informal survey revealed that four venerable members of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) have recently collaborated with notable directors on five upcoming Super 16 productions: Rebecca Miller’s Rose and the Snake, Ernest Dickerson’s Never Die Alone, Melissa Painter’s Admissions, Spike Lee’s She Hate Me and John Sayles’ Silver City. But even before these films hit theaters, DP Cesar Charlone helped show off the format this February when he squared off with five other Oscar nominees for his work on Fernando Mereilles’ City of God.

In fact, it was Charlone’s work that inspired Matty Libatique, ASC and director Ernest Dickerson, ASC to shoot Never Die Alone in Super 16. Libatique also collaborated with Spike Lee on the Super 16 production of She Hate Me. Other ASC members Haskell Wexler, Ellen Kuras and Paul Ryan followed the same path.

All four cinematographers report that the decision to produce their films in Super 16 was motivated by aesthetic values as well as economic realities. They also agreed that the remarkable convergence of advances in both film and digital intermediate technologies have made the Super 16 format a viable creative and financial option in 2004.

Rose and the Snake
Rose and the Snake is the third time that Ellen Kuras and Rebecca Miller have joined forces, beginning in 1995 with Angela. They earned critical raves and awards at Sundance in 2002 for Personal Velocity, which was shot on Mini-DV. The pair felt Rose and the Snake called for the dream-like texture of a film look.

The original story, scripted by Miller, focuses on a widower named Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his teenaged daughter Rose (Camilla Belle). Jack organizes a Utopian commune during the 1960s with the goal of raising his daughter in an idyllic environment. The commune fails, and their relationship shifts into a new phase when Jack brings another woman and her two sons into their lives.

A house and other sets for the commune were on a bluff overlooking the ocean on Prince Edward Island on the eastern coast of Canada. Miller and Kuras treated the setting as an essential ingredient in their recipe for creating a tactile sense of isolation. They had 35 days to shoot the film and were committed to staging scenes in real-time continuity.

Kuras opted to record the entire movie on the new, low-grain 500-speed Kodak Vision2 7218 film. She explains that gave her the ability to work in tight spaces at low key light levels with only little dabs of fill light from a bounce board or Chinese lantern.

“We had sparse, stylized lighting and situations with extreme contrast,” she says. “I’ve used this film on commercials, so I knew highlights weren’t going to blossom. There is just a slight halation that gives the film kind of a rounded feeling. I also like the way it reproduces colors, and the combination of speed and low grain, which was ideal for a digital intermediate process resulting in 35mm blow-ups.”

Kuras generally covered the action with two handheld ARRI SR3 cameras with a set of zooms and a wide-angle Canon lens. She explains that handholding the camera generated a sense of presence and immediacy that helps draw the audience deeper into the story. She describes a scene where the camera rolled for 20 minutes. It begins in Jack’s room, where she had one camera covering the action. He leaves his room and walks down the hallway to Rose’s room, where the second camera was ready to roll.

“It’s an intimate story, so we wanted to give the actors the freedom to follow their instincts,” she says. “We blocked scenes and rehearsed, but didn’t overdo it. Sometimes, in dimmer light, I ‘pushed’ the film a stop, and it still held details in the shadows and highlights without a build-up of grain—even in settings with extreme contrast.

DMX stars in Ernest Dickerson’s Never Die Alone (2004)

“It’s a dialogue-driven movie with a lot of emotional moments,” she continues. “In one scene, Jack and Rose are talking in a tree house. The whole area was about five-and-a-half square feet. It’s one of the most intense moments I’ve experienced while shooting. I watched and listened to what they were saying, which cued when and where we should move the camera and when it should stop.”

Never Die Alone
Matty Libatique had similar stories to tell about shooting two totally different types of films. Never Die Alone was his first collaboration with Ernest Dickerson, who began his career as a cinematographer, most notably with Spike Lee, for whom he shot She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X. Never Die Alone is a dark urban drama about a man who returns to his hometown seeking forgiveness for crimes he has committed, but whose victims are consumed by a need for revenge.

DMX plays the main character, who dies very early in the story, but appears in many flashbacks. The visuals are augmented by voiceover narration, extracted from the dead man’s audiotape journal. Libatique shot most of Never Die Alone in available light, using two handheld ARRI SR3 cameras with Zeiss prime and Angenieux zoom lenses. The cameras were generally positioned at oblique 45 to 180 angles.

“Everything about the handheld shots was instinctual and motivated by the characters,” he says. “There is a sense of immediacy. You feel connected to the characters in a more intimate way. I knew we weren’t going to be able to totally control lighting at many of the disparate locations where we were shooting, but I felt confident we could finesse looks by adjusting light, darkness and color rendition in post.”

The movie was filmed mainly on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, with a few interiors at nearby practical locations and on a few sets on a low-budget stage. They had a 19-day shooting schedule and a very limited budget.

Libatique took a painterly approach to the choice of film stocks. He used the new Kodak Vision2 7218 film to render clean-looking issues/54/images for flashback sequences, and he “pushed” the 500-speed Kodak Vision 7279 film by almost two stops by rating it for an exposure index of 1200 for contemporary scenes. Those issues/54/images are grainier with more distinctive color separation. It’s a visual clue for the audience that the characters’ lives are deteriorating. “I believe the audience intuitively interprets those visual clues,” he says.

After the film was edited offline, the conformed negative was scanned and converted to digital files with a Thomson Spirit DataCine at Cinesite in Los Angeles. Libatique and Dickerson collaborated in putting final touches on the film while timing it for shot-to-shot and scene-to-scene continuity with colorist Jill Bogdanowicz.

“It’s a flexible, creative process,” Libatique says. “The digital issues/54/images are projected on a 30-foot wide screen. We could ask Jill to isolate a face or anything else and make it lighter or darker and also alter colors and contrast. It’s an almost immediate and interactive response, so we just kept going until it looked and felt right.”

Libatique explains that the processed digital files will be “stretched” in the computer into anamorphic, widescreen format and recorded onto 35mm color intermediate film, which will be used as a master for generating release prints.

Admissions is about a conflicted relationship linking a mother and her two daughters. One of them is mentally impaired and the other is academically brilliant. Director Melissa Painter wanted the imagery to graphically represent the entwined identities connecting the mother and her daughters, including the conflict between their interdependence and need to be individuals.

The 18-day shooting schedule took place at practical locations in Los Angeles with a small crew, a sparse budget and a talented cast including Lauren Ambrose, Amy Madigan, Christopher Lloyd and John Savage.

Painter and Ryan decided to film the story in Super 16, using a vintage Panavision Elaine and ARRI SR3 cameras with zoom lenses. His palette included a blend of the new 500-speed Kodak Vision2 7218 film for night and darker interior scenes, and the 200-speed Kodak Vision 7274 negative for daylight exteriors.

Their main visual reference was Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, which was photographed by Sven Nykvist, ASC. Ryan concentrated on using the expressions on characters’ faces and their eyes to speak a non-verbal language about their feelings.

The backgrounds were visual subtext that established a sense of time and place. Ryan says that he didn’t have the budget, time or crew for big lights, but knew that the dynamic range of the negative would record details in highlights and shadows. He shot many interiors in the family home by using available light for ambiance, with key light coming from practical fixtures and dabs of soft, sidelight to bring out dimensions and other nuances in the characters’ faces. Ryan will add the final touches to the issues/54/images during digital timing sessions.

These stories are just a snapshot of a fast-evolving trend. Stay tuned for more. MM

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