It has been a decade since Paul Cameron, ASC and Dion Beebe, ASC, ACS shot Michael Mann’s digital/film hybrid Collateral using Sony F900 and Thomson Viper HD cameras. The decision to shoot digitally was made by Cameron, who developed the look for the film, solving problems and fighting noise and other inconveniences at every step. The result was a landmark movie that foreshadowed today’s ubiquitous digital filmmaking, earning an ASC Award nomination in the process.
In a recent interview, committed film advocate Wally Pfister, ASC, BSC, noted, “With Collateral, we suddenly saw on the screen the night sky that we could see with our eyes, and that was revolutionary. Nobody had captured that in that way before.”
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Dion about Collateral, asking him to reflect on its challenges with the benefit of hindsight. Ironically, perhaps, Dion’s most recent assignment, Edge of Tomorrow, another film starring Tom Cruise, was shot on 35mm in the anamorphic format.
“Collateral was very much experimental,” says Dion. “We were trying many different techniques, really just feeling our way through it while pushing the technology as far as we could to get those results. Since then, digital really has come of age, and it’s an amazing format. On the other hand, it’s great that I can still choose film 10 years later. But at the end of the Edge of Tomorrow shoot, Technicolor London shut down.
“I, as well as many other cinematographers, really do want to continue to have the choice of film,” he says. “I think it’s such an important tool. It’s such an important reference in how we view films. Almost every film reference we have is exactly that: film.
“We have seen an emergence of what I think is a digital aesthetic,” Dion continues. “It’s a beautiful aesthetic, and it plays to the strength of that medium, which is the very open bottom of the curve. It can look into shadows; it’s got an amazing range. Digital gives us the ability to work from a base of ambient light, essentially. Because of that, you tend to light in a very different way. And I do think Collateral helped launch that because it played to the strengths of the format. We never set out to replicate a film look, but rather to discover a digital one.
“So, digital and film have very different aesthetics, at least in my mind. Yes, you can push digital and make it look like film, and you can punch the contrast, manipulate the blacks and even add grain. But if you approach digital cinematography for its strengths right now, it’s something like what you see in Her — a very open, soft palette, extending the bottom range. I think Hoyte van Hoytema [FSF, NSC] has a real grasp of the digital aesthetic.”
Not all projects would benefit from that aesthetic, however. “I think there are always going to be those projects that require a slightly different approach, a different use of contrast and lighting,” says Dion. “Film has a unique texture and tone, and digital has its own unique texture and tone. It would be a sad day if we lost the ability to choose between them.
“But the impact of digital on photography is unprecedented,” says Dion. “You can go out into a street and shoot under streetlights, whereas before, you had to light whole city blocks. Consider what Wally Pfister did on The Dark Knight and what Newton Thomas Sigel [ASC] did on Drive. Both movies work to the strengths of their media and achieve amazing results. I’m not saying you don’t need to light in digital — that’s a huge fallacy — but you can work toward these ambient levels. You’re still using lighting, but you’re using it in a different way, with a softer touch.”