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The Cinematography Of The SDS-70 Demo Film

                                By Michael Huss, Director Of Photography


Bigger is not necessarily always better, but when it comes to film and an originating format, bigger definitely is better.  The idea of shooting a demo film to show what the SDS-70 process could do was a great opportunity to work with something that could have a potential major impact on the whole movie going experience.  There was a chance to do something new.

We needed not only to show what SDS-70 could do, but we had to do it in a way that would be appealing and interesting. Too many test or demo pieces show off the technical aspects of things but are not all that exciting otherwise.  In the everyday world of film and television, we are all used to seeing material that takes us in, that captivates us in emotional ways.  So the feeling was that we needed to shoot material with this large format system that would hold the audience both for its technical achievement as well as for its general interest.

We also knew that we didn’t have an unlimited budget to do what we wanted to do so we decided to shoot exteriors only and to not shoot sound.  One effective way of showing the quality of an image is to compare it to other similar images.  It seems like such a simple idea but the reality of it is that we can all look at a film and critique the visual aspects of it, but it’s always against what we remember as the alternative image.  It’s not very often that we can see both the images on the same screen so that the impact of one is easily contrasted with the other.

That thought process led us to design the opening of the demo to be shot on 35mm, in a 1:33 format.  This way, we felt that we could display a somewhat typical movie image to set up the SDS-70 images that would follow.  We also felt that we needed to have a spokesperson with stature open the film and to help us introduce the new concept to the audience.  When Walter Cronkite enthusiastically agreed to do that we were elated.  So we had our spokesperson and we knew we would open on 35mm, so now the question was, where best to do that?

We decided that the film would be shot in New York for a variety of reasons and once that decision was made, where to do the opening became obvious to all of us.  If we could get into the Edison Museum, the birthplace of motion picture technology, and have Walter Cronkite there, we would be able to make our point clearly.  After much negotiating and agreeing to a schedule that would enable us to shoot in the Museum just prior to its closing for a 2 year renovation, we got the go ahead and we were ready to proceed.

The Arri 535 from CSC, the HMI lighting package and crew descended on the Edison Museum during a torrential rainstorm which proved to be somewhat disruptive even though we were only shooting interiors. Setting up the 6K’s outside the frosted windows of the Edison Workshop was slowed down by the rain, as was the load in of the rest of the equipment.  We had to take extra care not to carry in mud or drip water on any of the furniture or the floors of the lab.  The room itself has been maintained and preserved just as it was when Edison himself was working in it and we had to make sure that it stayed as it was.
We managed the set-up in slightly more time than was allotted but all in all we were okay.  Our star arrived, got into wardrobe and make-up and we began shooting.  In the rush of getting everything together, the concentration was on getting it done.  But sometime during the shoot, when things calmed down a bit, the realization set in that we were in the presence of one of television’s greatest personalities, shooting in the lab of the man who might be the father of the film industry, in the pursuit of trying to introduce something to that industry that could be equally significant.  Walter Cronkite was wonderful to work with and his enthusiasm for SDS-70 was incredible, and it comes through on screen.
 
So now we had our opening and a blueprint for the real test footage and now we had the true task in front of us.

CENTRAL PARK

The objective with all of the shooting we were planning to do was to create material that would clearly show the depth of what the system could do.  We wanted to show how the viewer could be “immersed” into the picture, almost into the screen.  We wanted to be able to control those viewers’ senses, to bring that extra thing to the experience.

We wrestled long and hard about the idea of trying to do a narrative short film, to be able to grab the audience with a story as well.  But the logistics of doing that at the time were far too great to make it practical so we opted for more of a “demo” kind of piece where we could selectively decide on shots and sequences for a particular reason and not have to be burdened with the other issues of trying to tell a story.

Since we were starting to shoot in the fall and we were in New York, one of the most beautiful location spots in the city is Central Park.  As a native New Yorker, I had spent countless hours in the park, for my own enjoyment as well as for shooting purposes.  And the quintessential Central Park experience has got to be a carriage ride on a crisp autumn afternoon.  

So we planned for a carriage ride shoot and made the decision not to use a full up camera car to follow the carriage but rather to shoot off the back end of our vehicle.  As much as I would have wanted the car rig, the cost of it and the manpower would put us over our budget right out of the gate and we had lots more to do beyond this shot.  We decided to go for the afternoon and have the carriage riding south so we could get what I hoped would be a warm cross light on the horse, the carriage and the couple.  Unlike a lot of other parts of the country, the New York weather is somewhat predictable and we set our sights on a particular weekday afternoon.

We had selected a dark horse drawing a white carriage, specifically to get the feel of the contrast we anticipated getting.  We rehearsed the ride several times on the east side of the park, got our couple primed and ready to look romantic and appreciate of the day they were having and determined that we were ready to go.  Other than some preliminary tests, this was the first real set-up and shot that we were making for our demo film.  The thrill of looking into the viewfinder of the Arri 765 and seeing the wide format and knowing what we were trying to do was a true rush for me.  With all of the talk of digital cameras, projection and the like, this was the big chance to see what could really be done with a wide screen, high-resolution format.

We did the scene a number of times, got into the rhythm of the mag changes and felt that we got what we were after.  The young couple in the carriage looked great in the light, as did the whole rig.  But I must confess that I wasn’t really prepared for what I saw when we looked at the dailies.   The image was the most detailed film image I’d ever seen on the screen.  It looked like we could count the hairs in the horses’ mane if we had wanted to.  The carriage itself looked so realistic we could see the nuances of the wood that it was made of.  We knew then that with music and sound effects we would have a clip that would literally put us in the park. 

And while I would like to have been able to use the camera car rig, the fact that we did the shot the way we did it helped to dispel the notion that working in 65mm is too cumbersome to be practical except for major projects.

As pretty as the park was on that day and as much as the forecast was for good weather for the next several days after that, we knew that we had to exploit it even more.  In our preliminary planning we had several contingencies for alternative locations depending on what was going on.  But our first choice was clearly the park and now that we had established the ride and the couple, we were ready to move ahead and do something more dramatic and subjective.

One of the primary choices was to rig our camera on to the front of a car and drive through the park and also over the Brooklyn Bridge.  The speed of the moving vehicle, coupled with the high frame rate would produce stunning images and accentuate the feeling of movement and speed.  To drive around the park, in a controlled environment, is a car buff’s dream.  To this cinematographer, this was the candy store of all time.  We decided to put the camera on the front of our production vehicle, again opting out of using a pre rigged camera car.  The shots were to be subjective, around the Park Drive, as well as objective, following our picture car, a blazing red M3. 

I was faced with a tough choice here since the car was mine and the chance to have my personal Grand Prix was right in front of me.  But I opted for the camera and looked at my wheels through the big finder.  Though we did not drive at a very fast pace, the sensation of movement is greatly enhanced by the clarity and detail in the images.  Again, looking at dailies was a thrilling experience.  It always is, of course, and there is nothing to compare that experience to in the digital world, and we felt that we were looking at something for the first time.  There have been 65 shoots for years of course, as well as material shot at off frame rates, but somehow the combination of all of the elements we had working for us created something that was for us, very special.   The car was so real; one could reach out and grab it.  The winding road of the Park Drive with its fall foliage was like an impressionist painting, the screen literally lit up with the imagery.

The Brooklyn Bridge proved to be equal to the task as well.  It’s a bridge dating back to the 1880’s and the girder work over the roadway, going by at speed was another way to force some perspective as well as enhance the feeling of motion.  With our rig still on our camera car, we drove over the bridge several times, late in the day and captured the golden sunlight of the October afternoon.  And again, our expectations were surpasses when we looked at dailies.  As we were going through this process, with all of the pre planning and preliminary testing that we did, we were particularly aware of the fact that we were working with off the shelf equipment.  We were helped immeasurably by CSC with the 765, testing lenses and going through the camera thoroughly, something that we would certainly under any circumstances.  But the best part was that once we got familiar with the system it really did become simple and the lenses we used were the stock ones, nothing new was made up for us. 

The one lens that we used sparingly was the zoom, it didn’t look as good as I would have liked it to, cutting with it against the primes.  We did use a bit, but mostly we were on the primes. 

NIGHT EXTERIOR CAR RIG

Shooting the Park turned out to be all we wanted it to be so we set our sights on the next part of the plan, a night exterior with a car rig, shooting available light in the hot spots of the city.

We explored the camera car route but ultimately decided upon getting our own vehicle and mounting the camera on a speed rail rig built by the grips.  We planned the shots out so that we would need to have the camera mounted both in the front of the car as well as in the rear.  There’s no question that either a tow rig or a true camera car would have been an easier choice, but with the prevailing circumstances of schedule, availabilities, and costs we elected to go the “build our own” route.

We started to put it all together in the mid afternoon of another beautiful New York Fall day, and by early evening we were ready to go. What experienced grips can do with speedrail, ratchet straps and sashcord is still amazing.  We had decided earlier in the week that what we wanted to shoot was the theater district, heading south on Broadway and 7th Avenue, shooting the neon signage and the buildings, getting that distinct New York flavor.

In this instance we used the Panavision reflex, hand held 65 camera rather than the Arri 765.  Although the physical package was a bit more cumbersome than the Arri, we rigged it on the front of the car to start with and were able to get what we wanted.  The video assist was an invaluable asset, of course, with our producers able to see every shot and camera angle that we did.  We worked with the 24mm lens and captured the imposing buildings and massive illuminated signs that line the streets.  The rig was perfect and the ride smooth enough to give us shots that were clean and steady enough so that the image on the 50’ screen wouldn’t disorient the viewer.  The play of color off the neon and the immersion of the viewer in the material created a breathtaking viewpoint of a scene that many have witnessed, but not in this way.

COUPLE IN FRONT OF THE FOUNTAIN

For our next setup we wanted to create a romantic setting for our young couple, making it as intimate as possible, but still sticking to an exterior environment.  We also wanted to shoot at the normal speed of 24fps to contrast with the 48fps recording inherent to the SDS-70 system.  These kinds of comparisons easily show the incredible quality, resolution and depth of the SDS-70 image.  We selected an outdoor café with a small waterfall in the background and worked with both the 40mm and 110mm lenses.

We had the camera on a dolly doing a lateral move across the scene and then went in for close-ups with the longer lens.  The results were startling in that the difference between the 2 different frame rates was the difference between a nice shot and a window looking into a real scene.  The film looked absolutely beautiful, with the Arri 765 performing flawlessly, and both the 40mm and 110mm lenses matching perfectly.

We did not go overboard in terms of production design but we were able to get enough going on in the shot to create the depth and interest that we were looking for.  Our overall plan was to shoot in situations that one might encounter in a real movie shooting situation to illustrate that the SDS-70 system is a workable one for narrative films and not just another large format gimmick for presentations.

SOUTH STREET SEAPORT

The allure of the water provided the impetus for the selection of the South Street Seaport in Manhattan as another location choice.  The combination of the sailing ships in the late afternoon bathed in golden light and the size and color of the vessels provided material which would make for more stunning images.  Working again with the Panavision system we had the camera on the dolly and created a wonderful move across the bow of the Peking, which looked gorgeous.  The red painted bow of the ship looked so life like that we could almost count the layers of paint on it.   The detail in the masts along with the natural look of the sky and Brooklyn in the background all added to the imagery.

Again, what we were after was to create scenes similar in structure to what we might encounter in a narrative film.  The 24mm lens gave us the scope of the Seaport and enhanced the size and dimension of the ship.  Seeing these dailies was truly exhilarating and proved to us once again the viability of the whole system and idea behind SDS-70.

The proof is always in the viewing and the projected print images of all of the material we shot literally jumps off the screen.  The detail and subtlety of those images would bring a good narrative story to life in a way not seen before.

Michael can be reached at:

Michael Huss Productions
1199 Park Ave
New York, N.Y. 10128
Tel. 212-688-5981


Behind The Scenes Photos Of The SDS-70 Demo Film




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