On Act of Valor, cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, ASC pushed the small-camera envelope, shooting the feature almost entirely with Canon EOS 5D Mark II HDSLRs (AC Feb. ’12). For his latest project, the video-game adaptation Need for Speed, Hurlbut combined the latest in small-camera technology with a few established digital favorites to create a visceral action experience, putting viewers in the driver’s seat in cars traveling over 180 mph.
Directed by Scott Waugh (a co-director on Act of Valor), Need for Speed follows Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), a mechanic by day and racecar driver by night. After reluctantly teaming with a former NASCAR driver, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), in an effort to save his struggling auto shop, Marshall ends up being framed for the murder of his best friend. Two years later, out of prison and hungry for revenge, Marshall lands a spot in a super-secret, winner-takes-all race against Brewster. To get to the race, he must get across the country in 45 hours. Brewster doesn’t make it easy, however: he places a high bounty on Marshall’s head.
“We did a slew of camera tests for this movie because we wanted to make sure to find the tools that would best tell the story,” attests Hurlbut. “It was a five-day test involving interiors, day exteriors, night exteriors, night driving and a trip to Willow Springs International Raceway, where we took the cameras up to 180 mph to see how they held up. We put nine cameras to the test: Red Epic, Sony F65 and F55, the Black Magic Digital Cinema Camera, Canon EOS 1DC and C500, GoPro Hero3, Arri Alexa and an Arri 435. We put them all through their paces, including racing around the track at full speed to look at rolling shutter and the stresses of that kind of speed. We assembled all the test footage and then went to Technicolor, where we worked with [colorist] Mike Sowa to create the look we had in mind for the final.
“Scott and I sat in the screening room and watched all the footage, with no identification as to which camera was which. At the end of the screening, we agreed on Camera #6, which was the Canon C500 — an underdog in the test for sure! The images just felt alive, very real, and we all loved that. So, that became our A camera for the entire shoot.”
The filmmakers also tapped several other cameras, exploiting each for its strengths. Hurlbut explains, “The Alexa has great latitude, so we used an Alexa Plus for day exteriors and interiors that involved extreme contrast, often putting it on a Russian Arm. I knew I could put the Alexa on that and just let it run, and it would handle the deep shade and bright sunlight. The Canon C500 requires much more precise exposure, and I’ve found that it’s a lot like exposing film. It energizes subtle colors like film does, with great color depth; it was perfect for our car interiors, when we were often seeing deep-green grass out the window, cyan sky ambience in the chrome, or red bounce in the car from sunlight kicks on the hood. I also think skin tones on the C500 are superb; the sensor sees flesh tones the way Kodak film stock does.”
A big concern to the cinematographer was the number of night sequences in the film. “We wanted our nights to have a very polished, urban feel, and with the C500, we saw great detail at night — depth I’ve never seen before, actually. We were able to shoot a race starting on the outskirts of town and heading into the city center — about a 4½-mile stretch of asphalt — without one Condor! In some spots on the outskirts, we added Cobra-head street lamps, but in most cases we’d just send our Bucket Truck team out with cans of Streaks-n-Tips to spray down existing streetlights or kill every other one to increase contrast. I would crank the C500 to ISO 2,500 or 4,000, which had about the same noise as the Alexa at 800 ISO. That enabled us to shoot the action like a sequence in a play, using just a few additional lights to create depth. We’d shoot the full 41⁄2-mile stretch in one take, first pulling the cars, then pushing them, bringing in the helmet cams and other rigs. Here and there I’d add a touch of light, but that was it.
“I also knew we could use the C500 for high-speed work,” he adds. “It can do 120 fps, and when we shot that material I didn’t need to adjust my lighting; I just increased my ISO. To shoot high speed on film in the old days, we had to light everything for 120 fps, scrim down for 24 fps, and then pull out the scrims to shoot high speed. But with the C500, we lit it at 1,600 ISO at T2.5, and when we went to 120 fps, I just increased to 4,000 ISO.”
Hurlbut notes that 4,000 ISO is “a little noisy” for his taste, but he knew Need for Speed’s post work would include Cinnafilm’s Dark Energy image processing, which he had used on Act of Valor. “Dark Energy just vaporizes digital noise and compression artifacts in the image, and it did a great job of cleaning up the 5D footage on Act of Valor,” he observes. “We did a Dark Energy pass on the entire movie this time, removing the digital noise and then going back and adding film-grain texture that feels organic and burned in.”
No matter how good, every new technology involves growing pains, and using the C500 as the A camera on a major feature production was no different, according to Hurlbut. “The camera was released about two months before we tested it,” he recalls. “It looked like a Hasselblad — no electronic viewfinder to speak of, and it was really not set up like a film camera. We tested all the third-party accessories available at the time, and none of them worked flawlessly. But we just loved the camera’s size — it’s only 4-5 inches long, which is phenomenal if you want something you can embed in tight spaces. So, two weeks before principal photography, I consulted with my camera team. We realized specialized gear would be necessary to turn this camera platform into a system, and my key first AC, Darin Necessary, led the innovation at Revolution Cinema Rentals with reps from Element Technica. Element Technica really stepped up and created custom hardware for us, including a new cage, a power base with p-tap power, four video outputs, a top bracket and block-powered side supports. And they did it all in two weeks.
“As a result, we were able to shoot 80 percent of Need for Speed on the Canon C500,” continues Hurlbut. “The Alexa was our B camera, a [Canon EOS] 1DC was our C camera, and our D camera — the one we’d blow up, light on fire or toss off a bridge — was the GoPro Hero3. Most people use GoPros for 12-frame or 24-frame cuts, but we used them for 4 to 6 seconds. There’s an amazing shot where the GoPro is on a car as it goes off a bridge and crashes onto the rocks below; that was all real and all GoPro.”
Not everything went perfectly, however. “We ended up accidentally destroying two C500s and two 1DCs,” Hurlbut admits. “One of the C500s got hit at 90 mph, and all that was left was the circuit board. About an hour later, a homeless man brought us our 14mm Cooke lens, which had ricocheted two blocks down the street!”
Hurlbut estimates the production’s final camera package comprised 15 C500s, four Alexas, 11 1DCs and 20 GoPros. (A Vision Research Phantom Flex was brought in for a few 300-fps shots.) Such an arsenal of cameras required a camera crew the size of a small army, but Hurlbut notes that the production “started with 13 camera assistants and actually found that was more than we needed, so we cut down to 11. We basically had all of the cameras pre-rigged for anything we might need. We had cameras rigged for handheld or crane or car mounts, all ready to go at a moment’s notice. I divvied the assistants up: one was helmet cam and GoPros, one was responsible for studio-mode rigs, one dealt with all the crash cams, one was assigned to action cameras on the Russian Arm, and so on.”