The DPs behind Reminiscence and Outer Banks share their creative process and a look at the low-light revolution.
This is a sponsored post brought to you by Sony.
From CODA to Loki, Reminiscence to Outer Banks, there is a surge of productions that have nothing in common visually other than one thing—Sony VENICE.
Why? It has to do with color science.
Paul Cameron, ASC, created the spellbinding looks of the futuristic, sometimes underwater world of neo-noir Reminiscence starring Hugh Jackman. Gonzalo Amat, ASC, evolved the dramatic look of action-adventure mystery Outer Banks to a bold second season.
No Film School spoke with both illustrious DPs to talk about the process of creating those looks, and how color science, low light, and skin tones played a role in their use of Sony VENICE.
Inside the crazy production of Reminiscence, and why Paul Cameron needed Sony VENICE
When Paul Cameron initially sat down with first-time director Lisa Joy to talk about the unique script, the conversations about the analog romantic thriller were clear. The two referenced film noir and Body Heat, and how to create a rich environment set in the future.
Among other things, Reminiscence had an unusual challenge of needing symmetrical live projections of people's memories. Cameron ended up making a special cylindrical screen with 20K projectors to throw on a 45-degree angle that would be very dark compared to a reflective screen. This feature was one aspect that made Reminiscence a low-light challenge.
“As much as Lisa and I wanted to shoot on film, we gravitated towards the Sony VENICE,” said Cameron. “I'd shot some 2500-based material in the past and I felt comfortable shooting the scenes that we needed for Reminiscence at 2500 with live projections. Plus, I've shot a few movies with the VENICE and many commercials. It's just a go-to digital system for me because I just particularly like the log space and the color of the camera.”
The live projections were just one challenge on the production involving light. Another was the water. In the not-so-distant future of Reminiscence, Miami is mostly underwater due to the post-climate-catastrophe rising sea levels.
“One of the themes in this movie has to do with kind of how the world is changing, naturally as well,” said Cameron. “And in this case, flooded. So cut to maybe 20 nights standing in four feet of water outside New Orleans. It's challenging to move lights and check the cranes and shoot all the projection angles, figure out the map and where you want the horizon lines. So, definitely, the water was a challenge, and then fight scenes in water and underwater sequences with fights. It was a lot of very wet days, but I own a very good pair of waders now.”
For Cameron, who designed projections and elaborate rigs for Reminiscence, knowing and operating the camera is something he embraces.
“I like features like the variable NDs," he said. "I can manage my depth of field very easily. I've always been a person who, when something comes out, I open the box and turn it on or plug it in or whatever, and I figure it out. So, it's like, we want to go to 2500 mode? I'll do it. I'm very protective of the camera. I'm happy to change NDs and ISOs, and do a lot of the basic stuff on the camera.”
Why the low-light revolution is here to stay
For years it seems like films have been getting darker, with filmmakers pushing digital sensors to their limits. For audiences, that hasn’t always been well received. (Like, for example, with the last few seasons of Game of Thrones where everyone basically complained they couldn’t see anything.)
But at the forefront of this innovation are shows that are doing it successfully. And right now, shooting in low-light means shooting with Sony VENICE, using the secondary High Base ISO of 2500.
“We were very happy in the past shooting film, and still to this day, on 500 ISO, ASA, is basically the highest stock we have in motion pictures,” said Cameron. "You can push it up stop, maybe it's 640 or 800, but it's a little muddy into the thousands. Suddenly, you've got a system that performs almost identically at 2500 ISO. And there's only a very slight loss of some color saturation that you're easily able to push back in later. There's very little signal to noise there.”
As Cameron explains, having the ability to shoot this dark is a strategy that completely changes the stylistic possibilities.
"What strikes me the most about shooting at 2500 is how your eye sees," he said. "Suddenly, you have this super low-light level, and you're actually seeing more information on the monitor than your eye is seeing. It is a strategy, for sure.”
According to Gonzalo Amat, this is part of a natural evolution that has to do with the basic need to schlep less gear around.
“I think there's a tendency to shoot with available light to shoot with less movie lights, less generators, less condors, stuff like that because that just takes a lot of manpower,” said Amat. “So if you can shoot an interior with practicals, then why would you shoot with movie lights? I think there's a tendency to do this because now the cameras are so good in low light. I don't think it's going away anytime soon. I think this is going to be the new norm.”
On Outer Banks, dual ISO was the default setting
When Amat came on as the DP of Outer Banks, the showrunners had already created the look during the first season. Amat was tasked with evolving that look into new territory for season two.
“Basically, the idea was to try to evolve the look and make it a little cooler, play with more available light, less fill, silhouettes, and make it a little more bold than the first season,” said Amat. “And then, depending on the scene, we would also kind of discuss the specific way of evolving the look of the series. ”
For a show that’s become known for that golden magic-hour look that drenches the islanders, shooting Outer Banks would always partly rely on available light.
“I don't think there was one day that we did not use the dual ISO," Amat said. "Sometimes we use it for interiors just because we didn't have enough light or sometimes we use it for exterior nights. That was a default setting shooting outside because we want it to get as much as possible as the world would offer. Our lenses are slower, so you need all the light you can get from the dual ISO, which is a bit different of a dynamic on set with the way that we filmed this project.”
The more intuitive the color science, the better for DPs
For DPs, digital has completely transformed the art of cinematography. And while it’s great to have LUTs and log to work with, the closer the color science is to film, the better.
“When you look at a print, it's perfect,” said Cameron, of shooting on film. “It has the right tone. It's like a photograph. But when you look at a log space, a sensor, you see the bias of the sensor. It's always been daunting to me why the science is set up that way. I feel with the Sony, it's much truer even with a basic look up table on there through a [calibrated] monitor, properly exposed and lit. It looks pretty amazing. It's pretty true to a film stock for me. I apply a lot of film looks, LUTS that I've built with proper color science over the last year. I've applied those and rebuilt them for VENICE.
"When you see other digital systems in the rec709 space, you see bias. One might be a little magenta, a little open in the mid-way. Whatever it is, I see the differences and the bias of the different systems. With the VENICE, I feel like it pulls kind of a browner, yellower, truer skin tone with the LUTs and the color science I'm used to building LUTs with.”
Today, the moment of truth comes down to the DI for the movie. But hopefully, as Cameron puts it, this is a moment where you already know what you’re getting.
“When you're doing the DI, it’s like you're watching someone drive this beautiful car, and they're shifting gears, and you see them happy driving down the road, working in that color space with their hands and their eyes and to see the comfort level they have with color-correcting," he said. "I think for cinematographers, directors of photography, the more photographic and simple the sensors are and the color science are to get a very filmic image, the better off we are. ”
Advice for DPs
Both Amat and Cameron are DPs who create brilliant, innovative looks on incredibly diverse productions. So what’s their advice for you to get to where they are at?
“The important thing for cinematographers is to shoot,” Cameron said. “You need to shoot, you need to light, to start building the language of how you want to present yourself visually.”
Amat said, “There's two ways. You can either shoot all your own material and build up your resume, which I think is probably the best way to learn because you're still the boss in your department, and you're learning by doing mistakes. The other is to try to work your way up through the camera department or lighting department, which is also great because you see how other people work and solve problems. But you don't really work on the muscle of making your own decisions, so that's the one you have to work on because that's what you do all day. ”
Cameron also suggests shooting the type of work that you want to do to hone in on that muscle.
“What’s your style?" Cameron said. "What do you want to do? You want to do dramatic work, then start shooting dramatic stuff. You want to do music videos then go out and shoot a couple of videos or shorts. But the important thing is to do it. It's the discipline of shooting all the time and getting inspired. You need to be inspired by your craft and art and life. And you need to be disciplined to get up every day and then service that dedication to craft.”
Amat also concludes with the advice to let it all hang out in your reel.
“Shoot as much as you can, stay humble, listen, and then just try to shoot as varied as you can," Amat said. "People will respond to different things in your reel. Even if you gravitate toward some type of material, you should still try to have a little bit of everything on there, because people will see something and they will identify with it and then ask you to shoot their film.”