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Darren Aronofsky's 'Black Swan' Shot on ARRI Super 16mm, Canon 7D, Canon 1D Mark IV, and Canon 5D Mark II

12.22.10 @ 11:11AM Tags : , , , ,

I finally saw Darren Aronofsky terrific Black Swan last night, and the wonderfully textured, handheld 16mm cinematography of Matthew Libatique, ASC is one of the film’s many highlights. There were a couple of shots that looked eerily familiar to me, however: the scenes taking place on a subway train. Here’s why: I recently shot on a New York City subway with a Canon DSLR, and Black Swan in fact did the same thing. In addition to the ARRI Super 16mm camera, Aronofsky and Libatique employed a Canon 7D and 1D Mark IV on the film itself, and shot the ballet rehearsals on a 5D Mark II.

Here’s a clip of the film’s kinectic cinematography in action:

By itself, the fact that a DSLR was used on a feature film is becoming less and less newsworthy. But I think it’s important to note that DSLRs are not being used because they’re better than film (indeed, the subway shots look a bit soft and lack the organic grit of the rest of the film, despite the addition of grain in post); they’re being used because they go places that a full-size film rig can (or should) not. Similar to the reasons the crew on the TV show House used a 5D to shoot their season finale, Black Swan employed DSLRs for their maneuverability and accompanying (lack of) crew size. Here’s Libatique on their DSLR use (see below for the link to the full interview at American Cinematographer):

It was a single-camera shoot except for maybe one day, and our main camera was an Arri 416, which we used with Arri Ultra Prime 16 lenses. We used a Canon 7D or 1D Mark IV for all the subway scenes; I could just carry a 7D and shoot on the subway all day with a very small crew. I did some tests with my wife beforehand to figure out my ASA, my stop, and how I was going to deal with the focus. I didn’t use any rigs with it because I wasn’t trying to shoot in the traditional way. I tested a bunch of different exposures and then brought the footage to Charlie Hertzfeld at Technicolor, who put it in the system so I could look at the highlights, the moiré and the resolution. Then I went back to the drawing board to do more tests. The 7D has more depth of field than the 5D, but I needed that because I didn’t have a follow-focus unit and needed to work really fast. I shot everything documentary-style. I did all the focus pulls by hand, and we’d just look at it on the camera’s monitor. I ended up shooting on a Canon 24mm lens at 1,600 ASA to get as much depth of field as possible at a stop of T8.

Interestingly enough, Libatique was employing the DSLRs for their compact body size, not their large sensor size — which makes sense, given the imaging sensor on the aforementioned DSLRs are in fact a good deal larger than a Super 16mm film frame (see illustration at left). Libatique stopped the Canon DSLR down to f/8 to give the shots a shallower deeper depth of field, which would more closely match that of the 16mm sensor used to shoot the rest of the film. So next time anyone harps on the Panasonic GH2 or or any other Micro 4/3 camera as having “too small” a sensor, ask them if they saw Black Swan. These diminutive $1,000 DSLRs have a larger imaging sensor than the camera used to shoot Black Swan and a whole host of other films.

Link: Interview with Black Swan DP Matthew Libatique, ASC

[via EOSHD]


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  • I love stories like this … People who shoot at the highest levels simply don’t need all the gear that newbies obsess over.

    • You are correct, and we see this all the time. A real professional only uses something for the result. If a small camera can do it they have nothing to prove and do not need to pose off with flashy top end stuff. Only notice and insecure untalented people do this. It is the same with music. 24 bit 32 bit who can hear all of that? Was the music or film good, yes or no. I can get results out of the 7D then I will not worry about the Red One.

  • Great movie. Didn’t even notice the difference in the subway shots, though I wasn’t looking for it and am not a cinematographer myself. Thanks for bringing it to our attention…

  • “Libatique stopped the Canon DSLR down to f/8 to give the shots a shallower depth of field”

    I think you mean a deeper depth of field…

  • Love Aronofsky’s films (The Fountain is one of the best visual films there is) and was looking forward to this, but I didn’t know they were using the EOSs. They shot Pi 100% guerrilla with no permits, so he certainly seems to be a fan of run-n-gun filming, which is their biggest strength – and most importantly he can make it look great.

  • 1600 asa? I have a 7D, and 1600 ASA image is horrible, how did he do that ?

  • @YGJK i’m assuming he used de-noising software to clean it up before editing.

  • Ow ! Thanks you two ! Incredible “neat video”.
    But too bad, not for avid media composer ;(

  • I just saw the movie and I have to say the grain was incredibly distracting. It took away from the film considerably, and as a colorist, I know that just a few subtle tweaks to each shot would have made it really shine. Gritty and raw, yes, but when I spend 108 minutes looking at dancing blue pixels where there should be only black really made think that someone screwed up pretty hardcore.

    • You must have been watching it on a digital projector. I saw it in 35mm and I swear that I thought it was shot on 35mm. Digital projectors are the WORST thing to happen to cinema. I install them as an engineer and notice a horrible difference in quality.

    • I agree. The grain was over the top in a way that made it hard to watch the drama. Distracting, particularly in some of the earlier scenes. It was like watching through a semi-opaque shower curtain. And, yes, this was a 35mm print.

  • Interestingly enough, the wobbling jello effect the 7D and 5D have was possibly intensionally left in the film, the way David Lynch artistically used the “defects” of his Panasonic HVX200 .

  • I thought the grain was comical as well in the theatre. Was not noticeable when I watched on dvd recently.

  • This is a crazy late time to add to these comments, but I was reading about the state of digital projection here, and it got me thinking about going to see This Means War last weekend. I went to the arclight in hollywood, digital projection, not sure about 2k or 4k, but the opening 20th century fox logo was beautiful. And sharp, and then the movie started. This was a film originated on 35, shot by russel Carpenter, the dp of Charlies Angels, True Lies, and Titanic, all beautiful movies. This film though had awful looking 35mm grain, it was incredibly distracting. It was like the 35mm grain was sharpened beyond the necessity of the image. In fact, it makes me never want to see a 35mm movie in digital ever again. Just an interesting though I had.

  • Ethan Adelsman on 02.23.12 @ 12:25AM

    You haters are always gonna hate! I thought the movie looked amazing.