Behind the Lens: Paul Cameron ASC on Total Recall
COW Library : Cinematography : Paul Cameron, ASC : Behind the Lens: Paul Cameron ASC on Total Recall
Cameron, who studied at State University of New York's Purchase College Film School and joined NABET (National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians) while he was in college, started his career shooting commercials and music videos. In 2003, he won top cinematography awards at both the Clio Awards and AICP Awards for his photography on the BMW featurette Beat the Devil with director Scott. He won another Clio--his third--in 2008 for the VW Golf Night Drive spot with director Noam Murro.
Len Wiseman gave me a call and said he wanted to meet about Total Recall. He and I had talked a while back about Underworld. We wanted to work together, so it was fantastic to get the chance to do so.
The approach to the film was to go back to the original Philip K. Dick 1966 short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. We wanted to find what worked in that story and contemporize it into its own story. There's a certain quality to the original film that's lasted through time. The biggest difference with this movie is that it's a more serious story in a more visual world. The core issue of what's real and what isn't, if he's a double spy or not...those aspects are the same. In terms of plot, this movie centers on the United Federation of Britain and Vilos Cohaagen (played by Bryan Cranston), the character who is running the world. Colin Farrell's character is one that started in the resistance, fighting against Cohaagen and then becomes a double spy infiltrating and finds himself caught between the two realities.
Colin Farrell's character is one that started in the resistance, fighting against Cohaagen and then becomes a double spy infiltrating and finds himself caught between the two realities.
Structurally, the film has a strong plotline. With regard to the look of the film, Len and I talked about sci-fi movies and the films we're familiar with that set the bar quite high, from Blade Runner to Minority Report, two incredibly visually sophisticated films. Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and shot by cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, ASC is timeless and still holds up visually.
Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel. With regard to the look of the film, Len and Paul talked about sci-fi movies and the films they were familiar with and that set the bar quite high.
Once Len started in on previsualization and initial concept drawings with production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, it was quite obvious that the movie's scale was pretty grand. I think for Len, it's a merging of this incredible Philip Dick world and having a contemporary action story in the middle of it. There were aspects of Philip Dick's world that we couldn't avoid, like the hover cars that we've seen in Blade Runner and Minority Report, things that Dick has created that are shared throughout the films. For me, both of these films were visually rich, and it was about being aware of these previous films and moving past that to develop looks for the film that come from the material and the director and the production designer's visions of the movie. I felt this was really challenging because you have to have incredible communication with everyone involved, especially the VFX vendors D-Neg and MPC. Since I am photographing these worlds that are getting merged with CG and graphics and layered, I have to be able to communicate what the shot feels like, where the light shines, and so on.
When I signed on to the film, it was a 2D anamorphic feature being shot on film and I couldn't have been happier. As we approached production, however, Sony asked us to consider shooting digitally, specifically with RED cameras because the RED Epics had just been used to shoot The Amazing Spider-Man 3D. Both Len and I wanted to shoot on film and held out as long as we could. As we got just under two weeks of pre-production, the studio made a decision to switch over to digital.
DP Paul Cameron.
That put me in a very difficult position. We were less than two weeks out from production, and the Epic had primarily been used for 3D production up until then, although it had been used a bit on films like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But nothing was manufactured or ready for production. There were no follow-focus brackets, for example. It was a mad scramble to get the basic productions elements ready for production. At the same time, creatively, I had already shot tests on film. I didn't know what else to do but re-shoot the tests and put the RED Epic camera through the same paces. In the end, we used very little film, only in crash housings for second unit.
For me, format is primary, and the second most important thing is the glass, the optics. Regardless of whether you're shooting film or digital, it's really determined by the optics. I'd already chosen C and E anamorphics, which are the older anamorphic lenses from Panavision with very distinctive qualities. I had two sets altered for first and second unit; Panavision Vice President, Optical Engineering and Lens Strategy Dan Sasaki put in ventricular mirrors to increase flaring and halation. The good news was that I had these lenses. The challenging news was that we were switching to digital.
DP Paul Cameron at viewfinder on the set of Total Recall.
Then we got the body of the Epic ready. I took the camera through its paces and tried extreme lighting, mounting the camera to a car rig and driving 80 mph and putting it into a high speed skid to see if it could take G force, put it in rain housing. We tried to emulate any possible situation that may create problems for the camera down the road. Lighting was the most interesting aspect for me. When you see the film, there's a lot of extreme flaring and halation. It was a big question if I could do that with the Epic sensor but the tests showed we were in pretty good shape. We could do most of what we planned to do in film. In a nutshell, the experience using the RED Epic was good and the whole Cine Red workflow works well.
The only challenge, like any digital cinematography, is that even though you think you understand the sensor it can throw a few surprises at you. When shooting on film, the cinematographer knows when he's pushing things. He knows where the edge is. It's different with digital; there are subtleties, certain flaring situations that cause color shifting on the sensor. When you're working four and five cameras 15 hours a day, it's hard to look at every shot. It challenged my color timing on a few shots when there were things we didn't catch in principal photography.
There are subtleties, certain flaring situations that cause color shifting on the sensor.
Also, we'd made the choice to shoot anamorphic and this was the first Epic anamorphic feature. The sensor doesn't accommodate the full 2:1, so we were never able to use the wide-angle lenses the way we wanted to. The challenge in general in anamorphic photography is on the wide end you have the most distortion on the edges of the lens. As you go longer in anamorphic, issues are reduced drastically. In the wide-angle focal lengths, we had some issues. We had a 20mm C Series lens, the only one in the world, and that lens is probably 30 years old. It's in great shape, and Dan Sasaki serviced it, but it had extreme distortion roll-off on the edges.
Director Len Wiseman on the set.
I started on the movie in January, four months ahead of the shoot, which began at the end of April. Len wanted a very real looking movie, and his approach was to find as many practical locations as possible. The movie was shot in Toronto, and we picked some large post-modern locations in Toronto with formidable interiors that were ideal for the post apocalyptic reality that is the United Federation of Britain. The University of Toronto has fantastic concrete interiors that function very well as terminal areas or cargo bays for the China Falls transportation device. We also used Roy Thomson Hall, a beautiful concert hall in central Toronto that functioned as the terminal for the United Federation of Britain
The theory behind utilizing existing locations was that everything above a certain interior line would be VFX, and everything below would be practical, so our challenge was how to keep it practical. We went to great lengths to do this. We built six high-speed hover cars on custom racing chassis with center gimbals raising the cars up about three feet off the ground. The driver and gimbal operator below drove the actors more than 70mph. It was a thrill ride as they hurled down the road banking and spinning!
Colin Farrell atop the car. The driver and gimbal operator below drove the actors at more than 70mph.
The chase takes place on an upper roadway and then drops down an elevator shaft to a lower roadway. We utilized an airfield for the upper roadway and then an expressway for the lower road, a massive freeway structure that goes through Toronto. The idea was that the car chase and surrounding footage would be as practical as possible and then D-Neg, the main VFX vendor, would map the CG world around it. And that's how it worked. When you see the movie, all the camera moves for all the car chases are real. All aerial shots are also practical. We just did dynamic moves mostly based on pre-vis. Most of the big full CG shots are aerial moves with CG mapped over.
It's a big VFX film, rooted in two different worlds with more than 1,500 VFX shots. Of that, there are probably only 12 or so full CG shots. In addition to D-Neg, which was the primary company, MPC did additional work that was awesome.
At the end of the movie, in a night scene, the ship is coming to the colony, and for me the challenge was how to make the last 15 minutes of the film visually rich and as beautiful as possible. There was a lot of pre-production and planning. At the last moment, Len said, "Let's do it at night," and I was so happy. It was massive lighting. We positioned four 25x60 Soft Boxes on travelers around this huge set. LRX Lighting in Toronto manufactured motorized 20Ks + Raptors. I flanked the set with two towers of JARAGs, rock n' roll lights used to blast audiences, and 60 Atomic 3000 DMX strobes. There were probably 200 units used to emulate the chase effect of traveling through the earth. It was a pretty massive lighting set-up but the light movement rocked.
Quaid (Colin Farrell) fights off Federal police inside the Rekall Tripping Den.
For me, one of the best aspects of putting the film together with Len was reviewing images that tended to be rich and darker. That was a great surprise to have a director supportive of a very rich looking film. Len favors a darker, more saturated world, and he likes darker images. Now that I've just finished the color timing, with Steve Bowen at Sony Colorworks, I'm extremely happy. The sets are unique and extremely beautiful, although they, and the lighting posed challenges.
You read a script that takes place in the future and have ideas of what this world looks and feels like. I was pleasantly surprised to see conceptual art that was visually rich and challenging and within the realm of what we've seen but much greater, I think, than what people have seen in other movies. I hope people enjoy this version of the story.
Thanks also to Debra Kaufman for coordination and additional editing on this piece.
Title image: "Total Recall" movie title treatment by Aaron Garden. Quaid (Colin Farrell) seated in the Mind Trip Chair inside the Rekall Tripping Den.
All photos by Michael Gibson. © 2012 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.