Question: You?ve used VariCam on a variety of projects. Let me ask you about your overall views concerning the camera?s performance.
Primes: Its combination of stunning image quality, incredible latitude, gorgeous color space, compact dimensions and great variable speed capabilities make the VariCam a marvelous camera. I helped get the word out about the VariCam and was very happy to see its well-deserved success in the marketplace. VariCam’s curves, colorimetry and image quality were ahead of its time.
Question: You’re well known for the movies and television shows you’ve shot,
but you’ve also done commercials. What’s your experience shooting commercials with the VariCam?
Primes: Although I came to LA in 1975 as a commercial director/cameraman, I had evolved into drama and was no longer really known as a commercial shooter. I hadn’t shot any commercials on HD before I did Reveal, a spot for Fuel, Fox Network Group’s 24/7 action sports channel.
I met Peter Uys, who co-directed the spot with Fuel’s vice president of marketing and on-air promotions and creative director Jake Munsey. Peter and I became friends and when he began planning the Fox spot with Jake he invited me to shoot it. We brainstormed over the course of a year before production began.
Part of the concept was to create a trompe l’oeil effect in a single continuous take within which the audience would see legendary graffiti artists moving 200 times actual speed via time-lapse photography. The audience would clearly see the artists working in a room, but the camera suddenly pulls back from a corner to reveal that the graffitists are now outside in a geometric space. The camera continues to sweep up and back in a dramatic 360° move to reveal a large set full of graffiti artists working, moving ladders, painting over each other’s work, all at 200 times normal speed. The coup de grace occurs as one of the artists spray paints over a stencil and pulls it away to reveal the rainbow-colored Fuel TV logo.
It was a hell of a concept and, because the crane had to move 200 times slower than normal, it required the incredible rigidity of Image G’s giant 35-foot Bulldog Crane designed for motion-control work. I chose the Panasonic VariCam because time lapse can only be done on film or with the VariCam and we needed to see our work right away, speeded up to presentation time so we could plan our next take.
The spot was pre-visualized in Maya to design the move and configure the humungous crane and track. I designed the lighting in Maya and LightWave to determine the modeling and mood without creating distracting shadows from the behemoth Bulldog spiraling above the set.
Question: It sounds like the shoot was incredibly complex.
Primes: It took a full day on Stage 1 at Raleigh Studios just to assemble and position the Bulldog Crane. We drew the outline of the set on the stage floor and hung three large banks of ETC Source Fours focused through draped soft diffusion. The lights were hung, focused and metered long before the set was built below them.
It took almost two hours to shoot a take that would be speeded up to a little less than 30 seconds. We were privileged to work with a great crew including the brilliant Digital Imaging Technician Ryan Sheridan who, among other things, devised the in-camera modifications that allowed us to run the VariCam at extreme time-lapse rates. Our extended engineering and computer stations consisted of an entire system for the Bulldog, a full DIT station for the VariCam including the hard drive-based Frame Rate Converter, and a Macintosh compositing station to render and check the morph between the real room’s concave corner and the exterior convex corner. It was clear as crystal that we were on the cutting, bleeding edge of technology.
Question: You’ve used the VariCam on other assignments. Tell us about them.
Primes: Most of my career has been in film. I came to HD in 1997 with the
first progressive-scan production ever made: Theo Plays Chopin, shot with an experimental camera from Gary Demos and MIT. In 2001 I shot Forgotten Valor with the cameras designed for George Lucas to shoot Star Wars. I discovered the VariCam through teaching at VariCamp workshops. We chose the VariCam, after a rigorous comparison of nine cameras and four film stocks for the ABC pilot, Quarter Life. The producers, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (the creators of thirtysomething), were sure they could see the quality difference between film and digital. We proved them wrong.
Question: What have you found to be different about shooting HD? Does it impact production?
Primes: The thing that makes me a huge fan of HD is its ability tolet you immediately see what you’re getting with accuracy and precision. Every cinematographer tries to find the edge of his comfort zone. No medium sees like your eyes. It takes some years to learn to see like film. But with HD and a properly-calibrated monitor, you’re seeing an accurate image, the real thing. It allows you to go to your edge and beyond. It allows you to be bolder. My communication about visual texture with the director is instant and accurate.
Question: Talk a little about the VariCam’s dynamic range and color rendition.
Primes: Traditionally, engineers leaned toward brighter, full range, saturated images, but cinematographers often preferred darker, lower key and less saturated images. Some years ago the great Japanese cinematographer Zensyo Sakamoto was about to shoot a war epic set largely outdoors in daylight in the snow. He urged Panasonic’s engineers to rework their image processors to capture the entire dynamic range of the sensors. This not only allowed Sakamoto to capture the full range of the harsh contrast of his subject, something previously only accomplished with film, but it also produced a gorgeous, smooth curve that cinematographers adore. The engineers thought that curve, which they called Film Rec, would only be used to transfer tape to film. But at a demonstration of the VariCam to members of the American Society of Cinematographers, when we switched to Film Rec, they loved it, jumping to their feet and enthusiastically praising the imagery. I believe you can capture about eleven stops of latitude with the Varicam, which rivals the dynamic range of film.
Question: What do you say to colleagues about the VariCam?
Primes: I’ve coached a number of colleagues using the VariCam on projects for the first time. I always tell them it’s a user-friendly camera, it makes gorgeous images, and you’ll love it!