The joy of microbudget cinema is that you get to do so many things yourself. The curse is that you have to. Simply put, I knew from the beginning that there was no way I could hire someone to shoot the film, no matter how much I wanted to. I'd shot plenty of video before, and created lots of computer animation, but never a live action feature film. I'd studied the photography in a lot of films, and in the end I convinced myself I could at least shoot this movie. I would have to stay within certain parameters, but maybe I could work the needs of the film around those.
ASPECT RATIOS: SHAPING THE MOVIE
We don’t usually think about it, but movies are shot in many different shapes. From the squarish Academy ratio (similar to the original “standard” 4:3 of television) to the insanely wide Cinemascope variants introduced in the mid-1950s, the aspect ratio literally shapes your images.
The natural choice would have been to shoot in the typical 16x9 widescreen of HDTV (center, above). But I wanted a more traditionally cinematic look for Chimera; I reasoned that a wide ratio could open up the scope of the picture, while the types of shots and locations could help retain the sense of enclosed space on board Chimera. I settled on a "scope" aspect ratio of 2.40:1, meaning the image is just a little less than 2 1/2 times as wide as it is tall. Today, I'd guess roughly half of all theatrical films are shot like this, while the other half are mostly 1.85:1: just a hair wider than HDTV. I would have loved to shoot with anamorphic lenses (lovely, but very expensive lenses that squeeze the wide image into the narrower frame of film or digital video), but it was far more practical to just shoot 16x9 with the plan of masking off the excess picture. That was good enough for Titanic.
SHOOTING IN 4K
Early on, I never really considered shooting 4k. My main editing PC had the horsepower (I hoped), but the cameras were expensive and outside of my experience. I wanted to rent a Canon C100 and record Apple ProRes footage to an external recorder, but even that was uncertain, due to costs. At one point, I even considered shooting on my Canon T4i DSLR camera. It was around that time that I met Dave DeCenzo, who offered not only a set of professional Cine lenses, but a set of Black Magic Cinema cameras, two of which were 4k. After a few quick tests, I happily accepted, and the entire movie was shot on 4k Black Magic, with the exception of one or two pickups after the main shoot and some shots of the gunners in the background, which were T4i shots left over from the "prototype trailer" we had shot the previous fall. Not only did the lenses and resolution increase the detail and sharpness of the picture but, they also allowed us to save time by shooting medium shots and closeups at the same time. Since we were finishing at 2k (just a little above HD resolution), I could easily crop a wider 4k image during the editing process to create closeups.
But one of the biggest advantages the camera gave us was its dynamic range. This is the range of brightness and darkness the camera can register before parts of the image start crushing into blackness or blowing out like a nuclear explosion. Cheaper cameras have a much narrower range, which often results in that "home video" look. The wider range of the Black magic 4k gave us a look that registers as "cinematic" far more than my original plans would have.
In part II, I'll talk about style and composition, and how the technical limitations influenced the look of the film.