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March 2001 American Cinematographer

The Frozen Moment

On Swordfish, cinematographer Paul Cameron and director Dominic Sena team with Reel EFX to push the use of still-camera arrays even further.

Film, like every other facet of life, has its share of trends. Whether it's the gauzy black- and -white close-ups of the 1930s and 40s, the gratuitous zooms of the 70s, or the dolly-zoom Hitchcock homages prevalent in scores of student films (and a few notable modern classics like Jaws and Goodfellas), eras in film history can often be easily identified by their technical fixations.

The current rising cinematic fad, the multi-camera array, first gained widespread popularity in a Gap clothing ad that featured a flashy "frozen moment" of a Khaki-clad swing dancer suspended in mid-aerial as the "camera" deftly circled around him. Further popularized by the smash sci-fi hit The Matrix (see AC April '99), still-camera array shots soon began appearing in scores of commercials, music videos and films. In fact, one of The Matrix's more infamous multi-camera array shots was recently spoofed in the comedy Scary Movie, further imprinting the technique on the public's collective visual consciousness.

While shooting the upcoming summer release Swordfish, director Dominic Sena and cinematographer Paul Cameron sought to create an adrenalized, eye-popping opening sequence that would impress even today's savvy, image-saturated audiences.

"At the beginning of the film, we introduce our main character, Gabriel Shears [John Travolta], in a very impressionistic way," says Cameron, who had previously partnered with Sena on last summer's action thriller Gone in 60 seconds (AC June '00). "We start out with a scene of Gabriel delivering what is essentially a monologue, and we shot that part of the sequence in a very stylized way, using Swing-and Tilt lenses. Then, in the first reverse shot, we see that 20 S.W.A.T. officers are pointing guns at him. They walk across the street toward a bank, where we realize that the entire intersection is basically under siege; inside the bank, 30 hostages are wrapped in C-4 explosive and ball bearings. When one of the captors brings a hostage outside, there's some confusion, and one of the S.W.A.T. officers shoots the bad guy. The hostage immediately tries to get back into the bank., but the S.W.A.T. guys try to pull her away. However, they don't know that she's wearing an electronic threshold, she explodes in a massive blast that sends people and cars flying, as well as ball bearings ripping through the air."

For the subsequent sequence depicting the horrific destruction caused by the blast, the filmmakers raised the visual ante by using Reel EFX's Multicam still-camera array. (For more in-depth analysis of the hardware, see Short Takes in AC Dec. '99.) "Dominic wanted to do a shot that really set the stage for the film," Cameron relates. "We've all seen hostage scenes before, and we've seen explosions as well. So how do you come up with an opening that will have an impact on people and show them something they're not used to seeing? We wanted to devise a shot that that really showed the extremes of destruction that would occur after an explosion like this. In most still-camera array shots, the camera usually circles around the subject in a cylindrical sort of way on the same nodal point. Our objective was to turn our shot into much more of a traditional dolly move, except that the camera would theoretically have to travel at about [300 mph] to cover our move, while rolling at 250fps, to capture the 1.5 second event and spread it over 30 seconds of screen time. So instead of merely circling the event, we were dollying by and through the event - even passing through half of a police car and the wall of a coffee shop - as cars and S.W.A.T. officers are thrown into the air, often right up and over the [virtual] camera [dollying past]."

Executing such a sequence demanded extensive planning and preparation by all departments in order to accurately predict the needs of the lighting, stunt, physical-effects and visual effects departments. With well over two dozen pieces of action occurring within the brief shot, the timing of each individual element had to be pinpointed down to the split second. "We wanted to stay true to the fact this was an exploson, so whatever took place during and after the explosion had to be realistic," Cameron notes. "To plot things out in the most effective way, we first designed the shot with a lipstick camera and a small model. Then [visual-effects supervisor] Boyd Shermis did a previsualization based on the lipstick camera tape. Working from that pre-vis, Boyd collaborated with Mike Meinardus, the specil effects coordinator, and Dan Bradley, the stunt coordinator, to plan out the timing of the various events down to the hundredths of a second. The level of precision required was just amazing. If you looked at the previsualization, you'd see that if a stunt man left the ground jut two-hundredths of a second late, we would have already passed him [in our move]. Creating this whole event was kind of like taking a magic trick and showing it in slow motion. It had to be incredibly precise and realistic, because otherwise people would see right through it."

Jim Gill, the owner of Reel EFX, Inc. of North Hollywood, California, explains, "The stunt people and the effects people had a logic controller that they could program with sequences to fire their effects and stunts, as well as [triggering] pulse to fire our camera array as if it were essentially another stunt event in their sequence. Awe also had a spread-sheet that mapped out the camera number and specified which thousandth of a second to fire it in order to capture the right moment for each element. {For a pass of a stuntman being yanked back,] each stuntman had to be launched with his cables tight before our rig could be fired. For instance, if a stuntman was intended to fly over Camera #82, we knew that Camera #82 needed to fire 8.3 seconds into the sequence."

Given the level of complexity involved in the sequence, it became readily apparent that shooting the scene "live" in one take was impossible to choreograph to such minute timing. It was therefore determined that the shot should be split up into several separate passes that would be composited later. "In talking to prospective users of our system," Gill adds, "our first question is, 'How much screen time do you want to create?' We'll then take the number of frames that that amount of screen time would require and basically put a [still] camera in place of each [frame's perspective]. So if you have a 24-frame shot, we'll shoot with 24cameras in the array. From there, we look at the subject that you're shooting and begin to determine the shutter speed and the frame rate. Both of those factors are independent of each other; for example, you can shoot one-minute exposures and have a frame rate of a thousand frames a second.

"For the Swordfish shoot, Boyd and the filmmakers had done tests to determine the frame rates at which they wanted to shoot each event, as well as the necessary timing of each element. Given that information, we had 134 [Canon EOS still cameras fitted with 35mm prime lenses] covering a 200-degree arc for the exterior sequence, and another 69 cameras for the interior of the coffee shop 9see diagram on facing page0. What you'll see onscreen is carefully timed and staged so that you'll see the explosion and its shock wave advancing toward the camera [at 1000fps]. The cars' windows are then shattered and holes are shredded into the side of them [from the ball bearings] as stuntmen fly past the lens. We then go inside the coffee shop, where you see all of the display cases breaking."

A paramount concern for any prospective user of a camera-array system is the added difficulty of lighting for what potentially may be a 360-degree shot. "Lighting for the camera array is one of the things that we warn people about," notes Gill. "Early on in our work with the camera-array system, we did this shot that involved a bunch of soccer players kicking a ball in the rain at night. The crew set up a big rain tower and made a nice shower, but the poor guy responsible for lighting the scene had to contend with the idea of backlighting the rain for a 360-degree shot. Well, of course, you can't - you really have to pick a sweet spot in the move and light for that, since there's no way you can light the shot nicely from all of the different angles. It would be [360 degrees] of flat lighting."

Once the Swordfish team had worked out the path of the array and the total number of cameras - which in turn determined the final effective frame rate of the shot - they broke the shot down into primary elements that needed to be photographed. This list included background plates, the explosion itself, more than a dozen stuntmen being thrown back by the blast, and cars that needed to be torn to shreds and hurled through the air. "One of the preliminary issues during scouting was the orientation of the location [in Ventura, California] in relation to the light," Cameron reveals. "Ideally, we planned to shoot all the background plates with perfect backlit sun; while trying to achieve that goal, however, I had to shoot the first three-quarters of the day with almost frontal light and sidelight, which we had to manipulate so that it would resemble backlight. Much like one would approach a normal day exterior, where you'd try to cheat people into backlight, we planned on having each element of the scene in backlight all the time while capturing our various perspectives with the camera array - which effectively involved a move of more than 200 degrees."

To accomplish this ambitious lighting cheat, Cameron, the 1st AD and the effects and stunt teams hashed out the scheduling of each departments needs while plotting out a way to pull the sequence off. "The approach we came up with was to break the shot down to thirds," Cameron details. "The first two sections of the shot were out in the intersection, which we planned to shoot in one day; the interior of the coffee shop would then be done on a second day. On the day when we went to shoot the first two sections, though, the weather could not have been less cooperative. We actually began with the second half of the sequence for the light, doing passes on the stuntmen flying back. That entailed shooting 10 or 15 passes just of the stuntmen, one by one. Given the rainy, overcast weather, though, I had to emulate the backlight ideal as much as possible.

"In the intersection," elaborates Cameron, "we used a crane to hang a 40-by80 that we had built with quarter gridcloth, as well as blacks that we could bring in and out as the sun changed. In addition to the overhead light-control rig, we had two 15-by-6k BeeBee Lights and some Xenons to create one direction of 'sunlight.' However, on the first day it became immediately apparent that we would be fabricating every element because of the weather. We had intended to shoot the first section within a three-hour window, but that wasn't realistic because wee had also planned to ratchet seven stuntmen into the air at once. By the time we got there to shoot the scene, though, we wound up ratcheting the stuntmen one by one, and each of those passes was pretty time consuming in and of itself. You have to test the firing of the cameras, get all of the stunt people ready, do the shot, and then go back and make sure that all of the cameras fired correctly and there were no technical problems. Only then are you ready to harness the next stuntperson."

In lighting the stuntmen and car elements, Cameron sought to "control the existing light and then edge the [various elements], emulating one direction of sunlight," he says. "It was extremely frustrating because it was one of those days where the conditions varied. At one moment, the sun would be so bright that we could barely tent in the performers to get an edgelight; then it would get dark and we'd have to fly in our overhead silk with the stuntmen's rigging, which was somewhat difficult to maneuver. Half of the time, the two BeeBee lights could barely put an edge on the performers, and during the other half of the day, they were way too overpowering. You can't shoot a shot like this for a week, so we had to make do with the pressure and lack of time. What started out as a very well-planned scientific process came down to the most basic, raw elements you can face as a cinematographer. Over the course of the three days it took to do the sequence, we got hit with every possible weather condition. I'd have to say that the hardest aspect of this shot was that the condition of [natural] light was so different from the first take to the last."

However, by placing his trust in the still-array's motion-control-like performance over multiple takes - as well as the visual-effects department's ability to pull difference mattes from the varied footage - Cameron could make calculated photographic cheats of certain visual elements. For instance, during takes of just the stuntmen, a fair amount of equipment could be left in-shot, because only the stunt actor's movements would be extracted from that particular element. "Naturally, the biggest challenge, aside from the weather, was getting the equipment out of the way for the background plates and shooting those plates at the right time. Of course, with all of the weather problems we had, only the background plates in the first of the shot's three sections were done in the correct lighting conditions. I had to light all of the the other background plates as best as I could with the two BeeBee lights. I even shot some plates when we had totally lost the light. In those instances, I would light surfaces of the buildings so that when the effects team pulled that section of the plate, they could at least use the light skipping off the buildings as a reference.

"It's one thing to show up on a film of this size and execute a certain number of setups," Cameron concludes, "but at the end of the day you know what you have, and the next day's dailies just confirm it. In this case, what we thought was a perfectly timed element might not prove to be perfectly timed later during compositing. It's not a process I'd recommend for every movie, that's for sure. However, it was great working with Reel EFX, because they also wanted to take this type of shot to the next level. I'm sure they've been beating the hell out of the same camera move over and over for a couple of years now, so engineering this sequence - a pipe-dolly move that goes up and down in elevation and through cars and walls - was a real challenge for them as well. With all of the technology we now have in the film industry, we've reached a very high level of visual standards; on this project, though, we've taken one of the oldest photographic technologies - still cameras - and worked with ideas that hark back to the work that Eadweard Muybridge did with those stills of a horse trotting along."

Reprinted courtesy of American Cinematographer

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