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A Snapshot of the Super 16 Revolution in Filmmaking

ICG Magazine July 2007

What do Shortbus, The Passage, Good Time Max, Parasomnia and The Dukes have in common? Answer: They were all produced in the Super 16 format with the cinematographers adding painterly touches to the looks during digital intermediate (DI) timing. One film was mainly produced on sets, and the others primarily at practical locations ranging from city streets and interiors in New York City and Los Angeles to an urban area and mountains in Morocco. The production schedules were relatively tight and the budgets were slim. The latter was a factor in choice of format but there were also aesthetic considerations. Shortbus was lensed by Frank DeMarco, The Passage by Jim Denault, Good Time Max by David Klein, Parasomnia by Christian Sebaldt, ASC, and The Dukes by Michael Goi, ASC.

(L-R) Company grip Massoud Maach and DP Jim Denault prepare to shoot a scene for The Passage .
Photo by Sonny Malhotra
© Silverwood Films

A little history: The 16 mm format was proposed as a standard for amateur filmmaking in 1923. The image area was one-third the size of a traditional 35 mm frame with an additional three millimeters on either side for perforations. In 1932, the industry adopted a standard for sound films by replacing perforations on one side of the frame with an optical audio track. By then, the 16 mm format was also being used to produce educational and scientific films, documentaries, and eventually low-budget movies. In 1966, Rune Ericson, a Swedish cinematographer, was preparing to shoot a film in a small boat during a six-month journey around the world. He planned to modify a 16 mm camera to use more of the frame and record images in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio that was the widescreen standard in Europe. Ericson put his plans on the shelf when the picture was cancelled. Four years later, he modified an Éclair NPR camera to shoot Lyckliga Skitar (Blushing Charlie ) in the wider aspect ratio. The modified camera was dubbed the "Runescope."

His idea sparked a revolution in low-budget filmmaking, initially in Europe and eventually around the world. By the time Ericson received an Award of Commendation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2002, it was estimated that more than 500 films produced in Super 16 format had played on cinema screens around the world. The Super 16 revolution in the independent film genre has shifted into high gear during recent years with the convergence of advances in film and DI technologies.

Sebaldt was shown a prototype model of the new ARRIFLEX 416 Super 16 camera during a visit to the ARRI factory in Munich, Germany. Call it coincidence or fate. Soon afterwards, Bill Malone invited Sebaldt to read his script for Parasomnia , a scary story with a romantic twist that he planned to direct. They had collaborated on FeardotCom in 2002.

The story: During a visit to a hospital, an art student named Danny notices Laura, a young woman stricken with an exotic disease. She only awakens for minutes or hours at a time. Danny doesn't notice that a demented patient named Volpe has designs on Laura. He falls in love and brings her home. With his tender care, Laura stays awake for longer periods until Volpe invades her dreams.

Malone opted to produce the film in Los Angeles, which enabled him to recruit a stellar cast and crew who were happy to work close to home. He and Sebaldt filmed an ambitious 120-page script in 28 days, mainly on three sets at Santa Clarita Studios with a few days at a local hospital and some exterior locations.

"Cherilyn Wilson was perfect in the role of Laura," Sebaldt says. "She is young, beautiful and naturally pale. I overexposed her skin tones to make them cooler and shot from lower angles, which gave her a spookier and more dominant look. I shot some of her scenes at a higher frame rate for a slightly dream-like effect, other scenes at 21 or 22 frames per second to add energy, and some scarier moments at four frames per second. "The new camera is lightweight, compact and quiet, and the viewfinder is incredible," Sebaldt says. "I could easily judge focus and lighting while the camera was rolling and the Ultra Prime T1.3 lenses are crystal sharp without flaring."

Sebaldt mainly covered the action with a single camera that was usually moving on a Steadicam or jib arm of a Panther dolly, or occasionally handheld. He recorded images on KODAK VISION2 7217, a 200T film that he slightly overexposed at E.I. 160.

"We shot a handheld daylight sequence in a moving car," Sebaldt says. "I exposed the negative so the exterior didn't blow out and faces weren't too dark, because I knew we could tweak the shot in DI, and make the outside darker and faces a little brighter." Sebaldt took digital still images of all set ups, and selected five or six a day to manipulate in Adobe Photoshop as visual references. After the negative was processed by FotoKem, dailies timer Scott Maloney at Modern VideoFilm transferred the images to digital files in HDSR 1920 x 1080 RGB format, matching the looks indicated by the digital stills. In the DI, Sebaldt will desaturate colors in spooky scenes and make romantic scenes a bit warmer.

The Dukes was directed by veteran actor Robert Davi, who also co-authored the script and produced the film. It was his first turn at the helm. Davi recruited a talented cast, including Chazz Palminteri, Peter Bogdanovich, Joseph Campanella, and Bruce Weitz. The story blends comedy and drama with a liberal dose of nostalgia. It is set in Los Angeles, where The Dukes were a popular doo-wop group during the 1950s. The main story takes place in current times where two Dukes, George and Danny, are struggling to make a comeback.

During their first meeting, Davi told Goi that they had a $600,000 budget, and that they would be shooting at practical locations ranging from a private home and suburban streets to a tunnel on Malibu Canyon Road. They watched movies directed by Fellini, Antonioni and Bresson for inspiration, and strived for a film noir look.

"As we scouted locations, it was obvious that we would be shooting in every type of natural light with a cast that had multiple skin tones," Goi says. "I had shot Red Water , mainly at exterior locations, so I knew that the [KODAK] VISION2 stocks would give us the latitude needed to shoot in any natural light for an organic look."

Goi helped the budget by arranging to use two 24-year-old Panaflex Super 16 cameras, a.k.a. Elaines, which were available under the Panavision program for first-time directors. He had also seen a demonstration of the new inDI TM system developed by LaserPacific, and recommended that this would give them an affordable DI option. They had an ambitious 25-day shooting schedule with many moves, so Goi covered most of the action with the two Elaine cameras from different perspectives. He occasionally used an ARRI 16SR 2 camera for slow-motion and high-speed shots. His film palette consisted of two KODAK VISION2 stocks. He used 7218, a 500T emulsion, at night and for interiors, and 7205, a 250D film for daylight exteriors.

LaserPacific did the front-end lab work, including scanning the film with a Spirit DataCine and converting it to HD dailies. Goi extended his role into the DI suite in collaboration with LaserPacific colorist Tim Vincent.

"We isolated and toned down harsher daylight elements in a few shots, and also smoothed out some skin tones," he says. "There was one daylight scene where it was almost dark by the time we finished shooting. We evened it out in DI. In general, we wanted warm skin tones and rich images."

The DI took five days. Goi says that the postproduction is a natural extension of the cinematographer's role, but cautions that it isn't a substitute for a well-exposed negative or artful camerawork.

Good Time Max marked Klein's third collaboration with director James Franco, who also co-authored the script and portrays Max. The story dissects a complex relationship between two brothers, Max and Adam, who had a close connection during their childhood. Adam lives up to his potential and becomes a successful surgeon. Max is a drug addict with a hedonistic lifestyle who lives on the streets of Los Angeles. During their initial discussions, Klein and Franco decided that it was important to frame the film in 2.4:1 aspect ratio. Klein explains that the environments are like characters in the story, and that they also wanted to show the brothers interacting without cutaways. Klein shot a Super 16 test framed in 2.4:1 aspect ratio. The processed negative was scanned at HDSR resolution and recorded out to film in 35 mm anamorphic format.

"That convinced everyone that this was a viable approach," Klein recounts. "The main story tracks the relationship between Max and Adam during several years of their adult lives. We had a 25-day schedule, mainly at practical locations in Los Angeles. There were also sets for a bar, office and lobby. Doug Chamberlain did great second unit work for about a week, including a few pick-up shots and the brothers as kids."

Klein covered the action with either an Aaton A-Minima or an ARRI 16SR 3 camera and Cooke S4 prime lenses, depending on the shot. The camera was frequently handheld, tracking with the characters. In larger scenes on sets, he tended to light spaces rather than faces, giving Franco and the other actors freedom to follow their instincts. Klein chose from a palette of three VISION2 stocks, 7218, 7205 and 7217, like an artist choosing the right paint. He took digital stills of different set ups, and manipulated selected images with a personal computer each evening to indicate his intentions for subtleties in colors, contrast and grain, based upon settings, locations and the emotional flow of the story.

"Knowing up-front that we had a DI saved us precious time in production, since I knew we could do things like flag light off walls and reflections off windows in backgrounds in a few minutes, rather than doing it on the set," he says.

Good Time Max also used the inDI process at LaserPacific. It was Klein's second collaboration with colorist David Cole, following in the wake of Clerks 2 . They timed the DI in a cinema-like environment with the images projected on a 33-foot wide screen. It was an interactive process that was budgeted to take 40 hours.

"David and I were able to communicate with kind of a verbal shorthand after we set the look during the first day and a half," Klein says. "I'd ask him to make a scene a little bluer or to intensify the grain a bit. He knew what I meant by 'a little' and 'a bit.'" Basically, they made Max's scenes a little harsher-looking with slightly desaturated colors and a bit more contrast. The differences are subtle.

((L-R) Actors Sook-Yin Lee and Raphael Barker in a scene from Shortbus , shot by Frank deMarco.
Photo courtesy of ThinkFilm. (2006)

Shortbus was the second collaboration for DeMarco and writer/director John Cameron Mitchell. This contemporary story focuses on a subculture of young people living in Manhattan and Brooklyn who frequent an underground salon called Shortbus. They considered working with one of the high-end HD cameras, and shot tests with 35 mm film-outs. The results convinced DeMarco and Mitchell to shoot in Super 16 format coupled with an optical blowup to 35 mm film instead.

"We decided a film look would be more flattering to the actors, who are young and attractive people," DeMarco says. "The Super 16 format would also be easier and faster to set up and light with, and it didn't require a lot of cables and technical support. We felt it would feel more comfortable for the actors to not have a lot of tech people on the sets, especially during the intimate scenes."

DeMarco generally covered the action with two handheld Aaton XTRprod cameras mounted with Canon zoom and older Zeiss T2.1 prime lenses to give the images a more tactile feeling. One camera was generally on a close-up, while the other one covered a two-shot. He used 800-foot magazines to cover a long scene, which enabled him to shoot for 22 minutes before reloading. DeMarco added Bolex Super 16 cameras for additional coverage of the finale scene with scores of extras.

He used the KODAK VISION2 7218 stock for interiors, sometimes shooting entire scenes in available light, including the warm illumination rendered by flickering candles. He utilized KODAK VISION2 7205 film for the movie's few daytime exteriors. After production was wrapped, Mitchell happened to run into Tim Spitzer, managing director, and John Dowdell III, DI colorist, from Goldcrest Post Productions (New York). Dowdell had done the film-to-tape transfer for the DVD release of Mitchell and DeMarco's film Hedwig and the Angry Inch . That chance meeting led to a decision to time Shortbus in a DI environment and record out to 35 mm film.

The film was scanned at 3K resolution, and converted to a 2K digital file for the DI. Dowdell seamlessly intercut animated shots of a bird's eye view of New York City with live-action footage while timing the DI in an interactive environment with the filmmakers. They timed the film for consistency and occasionally isolated elements of shots and fine tuned saturation, brightness and contrast using Power Windows extensively.

DeMarco concludes, "Even with the best preparation, you never know exactly how to shoot a scene until you are actually in it. I strive to keep my finger on the pulse of every scene as it unfolds, and wasn't afraid to make substantial changes at the last possible moment. The DI was a perfect choice for Shortbus, because it extracted every last bit of information out of the tiny Super 16 negative, and captured the tone and mood of what I shot."

Denault describes The Passage as "a cross between a love story and a thriller'more of a thriller." The independent film was produced in Morocco, which is also the setting for the story. The script by Neil Jackson was inspired by an incident that occurred while he was performing in Oliver Stone's Alexander in 2004.

"He was staying in a spooky old hotel in the mountains," Denault says. "One night he heard a strange noise and went out of his room to investigate, using the flash on his camera to see in the darkness. That sparked an idea for a script about two guys from the West who are traveling in Morocco. They meet a beautiful woman who offers to show them the sights. They travel to the mountains, where the second half of the story takes place in a dark maze of underground tunnels."

Jackson, Stephen Dorf and Sarai Givaty were cast in the leading roles. One of the men falls in love with Givaty's character, which could cost them their lives. Denault is not about to reveal any more of the story, which was in DI timing when we went to press.

It was his first journey to Morocco. The film opens with scenes filmed in Marrakech, which he describes as a big city with culture and art. The second half of The Passage was filmed in and around a small ski resort in the mountains, including many shots in a maze of underground tunnels lit with candles and the flash of a still camera.

"I really enjoy working on this type of film because you have to be more resourceful and figure out how to work within the limitations of the budget and schedule," Denault says. "We came to a quick consensus to produce it in Super 16 format because film can handle extreme contrast, and the look relates to the way we see the real world with our eyes. It's like looking at the individual brush strokes in paintings."

He describes a night scene in the big square in Marrakech that was jammed with people who were selling food and other things, and pushcarts with little lights and gas lamps. Denault notes that there was no way to light the square as naturally.

His camera package arrived only a few days before they were scheduled to begin shooting on a very tight schedule. The first thing he did was go to the square and shoot tests with the 7218 stock, mainly on the dimmest setting that his meter read.

"We used little lights on the actors' faces to bring them out of the background," Denault says. "We were wide open at T1.3 on the primes, and at T2.5 on the zoom. We must have been four stops underexposed at times. We shipped the film to DuArt in New York. They emailed me still frames of the dailies that boosted my confidence. The timer at the lab told me everything looked great and that pushing the film worked fine." The lab sent him full resolution JPEG files that gave him the confidence to shoot in the darkest environment rather than relying on his light meter readings.

Other locations included the characters climbing up a steep hill that was dotted with stone huts where the Berber shepherds live in summer. The huts also serve as barns for sheep. They shot scenes from dawn through dusk and into the night. The only artificial light at twilight was a battery-powered Sun Gun a character used as a flashlight. For scenes shot in the maze of underground tunnels, Denault wanted the audience to feel the darkness. He chose from a palette of films depending on the environment. Denault used KODAK VISION2 7201, a 50-speed daylight for most daytime exteriors, 7205 as they got into twilight, and 7218 for everything else.

He timed the DI with Doug Delaney at Post Logic Studios in Los Angeles. "It's amazing what you can do with Super 16 films by manipulating colors and contrast in DI," he concludes.