Focus On Film

Spinotti, Ratner Choose Film for Tower Heist

Published on website: October 27, 2011
Categories: 35mm , Feature Films , Focus On Film , VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219/7219
Scene from Tower Heist. Copyright: © 2011 Universal Studios.
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Scene from Tower Heist. Copyright: © 2011 Universal Studios.

Over the past 20 years, Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC has made half a dozen projects with director Brett Ratner, including X Men: The Last Stand, Red Dragon, and The Family Man. Their latest endeavor is Tower Heist, a caper flick starring Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller as a mismatched pair of would-be burglars.

After several projects done using digital formats, Spinotti chose to photograph Tower Heist on 35 mm Kodak film. “It was great being back on film,” says the two-time Oscar® nominee (The Insider, LA Confidential). “All my working life, Eastman Kodak film has been my main tool. I’ve lived through the technological progression, with each new stock getting better and better.”

The decision to shoot Tower Heist on film wasn’t a scientific or empirical calculation. “Brett has done all of his movies on film,” says Spinotti. “The look of film was closer to the idea he had in his head. One of the references we talked about was the original The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3, a very well-made and beautiful movie shot by Owen Roizman (ASC). The decision of format is like deciding to get married. It’s not something you work out on paper with numbers. It’s about the idea of the movie, and what feels right.”

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Scene from Tower Heist. Copyright: © 2011 Universal Studios.

Tower Heist has comedic and action elements, strong characters, and an impressive supporting cast including Casey Affleck, Téa Leoni, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick and Judd Hirsch. But the look the filmmakers devised included a strong dose of realism.

Production started in the autumn of 2010 on practical locations in New York. Once winter arrived, the operation moved indoors to stages in Brooklyn. One of the biggest sets was a recreation of three floors of the Trump Tower, which in reality looms over Columbus Circle in Manhattan.

Spinotti and his crew used two Arricams with Panavision G-series anamorphic lenses. The film stock was KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 throughout, with the exception of one night scene and some nighttime aerial shots that open the film. Spinotti asked for high quality HD video taps on both cameras, connected to large on-set HD monitors for reference, a tool he had become accustomed to.

“Lenses and film stocks have continued to improve, and the result is a very high quality image,” says Spinotti. “Anamorphic is still the best-looking medium with which to photograph the image.”

The biggest set pieces included scenes that play out against the backdrop of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. A second unit filmed scenes and effects plates of the actual parade. Later, three blocks of the parade were reconstructed, floats and all, for scene with the main cast.

The production also spent extensive time on the Trump Tower apartment set, where most of the third act unfolds. For scenes where the cityscape is visible out the windows, Spinotti preferred to shoot with green screen backdrops rather than a Translite. The cityscapes would be composited in later by the visual effects team.

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Brett Ratner

“That allowed me to create more specific lighting conditions in the apartment – twilight, dawn, mid-day,” he says. “When we were shooting in the other direction and the cityscape was not in the shot, I had Translites brought back in. That way, I could light the Translite and use it to put reflections in the shots. Sometimes I used the Translite to create fill light. That gave these interiors scenes a more realistic feel.”

These scenes and others were fine-tuned in postproduction, which was handled at Deluxe, with dailies timed by Company 3’s Sean Dunckley. The color timer was Jim Passon. “It was a joy to go into postproduction with Stefan Sonnenfeld and his team at Company 3,” says Spinotti. “Doing color timing from filmed images is very rewarding, because all the colors are there. Film creates a very fat image, with a lot of information and depth, and vibrant colors.”

Spinotti says that Ratner is a good friend. “He brings so much enthusiasm and storytelling talent to the project,” says the cinematographer. “He is extremely particular, and he wants to bring all possible accuracy to the film down to the last frame. You always have to add something to your knowledge, and for me this film was a great experience in green screen. Company 3 did fantastic work in the scanning, and the visual effects people were very precise. It was a laborious shoot, but with Brett conducting the orchestra, it all came together beautifully.”