This holiday we're re-running some of our most popular articles, in case you didn't see them the first time. Today: You don't have to rely on digital methods to give a film a distictive "look". Phil Rhodes explains.
There was a time – around the release of The Matrix and Saving Private Ryan, in the late 90s, where green was somehow in. Posting on a cinematography forum at the time was to be assailed from all sides with requests for information on how this was achieved, invariably concentrating almost exclusively on the subject of film stocks, processing, cameras, lenses, and grading, and how they were used and modified to make these movies look the way they did. This sort of inquiry is made in respect of all kinds of film, but particularly those with a very overt and identifiable visual style, such as the inevitable teal-and-orange of the summer action movie, or the cool white crispness of an accomplished science fiction such as Minority Report.
The case of Ryan
Particularly in the case of Ryan, this isn't necessarily an unreasonable line of enquiry. The film famously used bleach-bypass processing to increase contrast and decrease saturation, and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński had the coatings stripped from his lenses to create flare and softness intended to approximate period optics. Narrow shutter angles were used to limit motion blur, creating a staccato look to fast movement that's particularly visible when an explosion throws debris into the air, and it comes raining down. The shutter timing was deliberately slipped, notionally blurring the entire image vertically as the film begins to move while the shutter is still open, but as a practical matter visible mainly in highlights such as live flame. This last technique became so popular that Arri eventually released the Timing Shift Box for the Arriflex 435 Advanced camera, which had always been capable of in-shot shutter angle changes in order to compensate the exposure of speed ramps. With the TSB, it became easy to duplicate the effect used in Spielberg's film, or even to add random or manually-controlled fluctuations to the extent of the effect.
Saving Private Ryan was a fantastic-looking movie, and won the Academy Award for best cinematography, as well as being nominated by the ASC for their outstanding-achievement award. It was, you might say, an extremely camera-oriented film, and the technical approach had an influence on these successes that's noticeable to the layperson. But here's the thing. If you look (which you easily can, via google) at behind-the-scenes stills shot during the production, which were shot on conventional colour stills film and did not use any of these specialist techniques, you'll discover that it still looks quite a lot like Saving Private Ryan. Okay, Photoshop may have played a part in that, but the main reason for this is something that I don't think independent filmmakers talk about nearly enough: production design.