Resident Evil: Afterlife, the fourth installment in the apocalyptic horror franchise and the first in 3-D, picks up six months after Resident Evil: Extinction left off, with heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) searching for survivors in a world overridden by a zombie plague. She begins in Alaska before flying to a decimated Los Angeles, where she and a small group of survivors have to overcome their differences with each other before they can band together to fight the zombie infestation.
The film’s director of photography is Glen MacPherson, ASC, whose prior work on The Final Destination established him as an expert in the arena of 3-D storytelling. In Resident Evil: Extinction, MacPherson uses the properties of 3-D not only to create dynamic action sequences (as one might expect from the cinematographer of Walking Tall and Rambo), but also to emphasize the isolation and alienation of the characters, who often seem worlds apart even when sharing the same frame. The result is a film that combines horror, action and moments of silent poignancy, all of which are amplified and expanded by the cinematographer’s innovative use of 3-D tools. MacPherson sat down with American Cinematographer’s Jim Hemphill to talk about the project.
American Cinematographer: How did you become involved with Resident Evil: Afterlife? Was it already decided it was going to be a 3-D film before you came on board?
Glen MacPherson, ASC: Director Paul W.S. Anderson had always planned to shoot Resident Evil: Afterlife in 3-D and wrote the script with that in mind, taking advantage of the format. This Resident Evil has some big action and set pieces. I shot my previous film in 3-D and have shot several action movies (Rambo, 16 Blocks, etc.), so Paul asked me to meet with him about the project, and we hit it off. I really liked Paul's ideas for the use of 3-D in the picture.
What were your initial discussions with the producers and director like regarding the 3-D? Was there ever any talk of shooting it 2-D and converting it afterward, as has been done on several recent films?
There was never any talk of converting to 3-D in post. Neither Paul nor I are big fans of that process. I like to use 3-D on set as a creative tool. The volume of the 3-D should expand and contract in tune with the story. I like to have full control on set and see exactly what we are getting as we shoot. I don't like the idea of shooting it flat and handing it off to a 3-D post house, leaving those decisions to someone else. Plus, I don't think the technology is where it needs to be yet.
What kind of prep time did you have? There must have been pretty extensive tests; what did those consist of?
I had a pretty standard prep period although the camera crew prepped for longer than it would have on a normal 2-D shoot. No one had previous experience with 3-D rigs, so there was a hefty learning curve just dealing with the technology and with the creative aspect of 3-D. We had a couple of days of 3-D school for the camera operators and convergence guys: what to do and not to do and what looks great in 3-D and what to avoid, etc. The camera crew picked it up very quickly.
We tested the actors in wardrobe and makeup to make sure we would not have problems with polarization on some of the shiny costumes and also to find lenses and interoculars that were flattering to our actresses yet delivered great 3-D when we needed it. Then we did a one-day "pre-shoot", a scene that appears late in the movie. It was kind of a full-on test run for everyone before we got fully into production.
How closely did you work with production designer Arvinder Grewal and visual-effects supervisor Dennis Berardi during preproduction? Did the sets have to be designed with careful consideration of the way they would be shot in 3-D?
I always work closely with the visual-effects supervisor and production designer regardless of the format in which we are shooting, but we definitely built the sets with 3-D in mind. And, of course, 3-D adds complexity to the VFX, so we worked with extensive storyboards and previz in regards to all our VFX sequences — of which there were many!
What kind of camera system and format did you decide to use? What lenses did you use on the production?
Today’s 3-D films are generally shot digitally so we can monitor 3-D live on set. We worked with the Pace Fusion 3-D rigs with Sony F35 cameras and Master Primes. I worked with the Pace rigs on The Final Destination, and I like the fact the technology is basically dealt with all the way through post, so I can concentrate on just using it creatively. I have a few great guys on my team now who know the PACE system, can train crews new to it and understand 3-D: Vern Nobles, John Harper and Bruno Brunelle. Vern is my second-unit director of photography, and John is my 3-D systems tech who keeps the rigs tuned up and advises the convergence/IO guys on the settings for each shot so I just have to approve each before we roll. Bruno is our systems engineer and is responsible for the integrity of the stereo recording. We call him The Savant because he can trace and fix any problem that pops up.
We lose a full stop of light through the mirror on the 3-D rig, so I worked with the Master Primes because of the speed and sharpness I get from them. The guys were very fast at lens changes. I liked the sensitivity of the F35 cameras and the full size sensor. A lot of people will tell you you need depth of field when shooting 3-D, but I like the look of shallow depth when I want to use it in the story. I think we were the first to use long lenses like the 100mm and 150mm Master Prime on a 3-D mirror rig. A lot of rigs have mirrors that have trouble resolving anything over 50mm, but Pace has an "organic" mirror that allowed us to use the longer lenses. There are several great shots in Resident Evil made with the 150mm. I don't think it is any faster to use zooms on a 3-D shoot, and they come with their own set of alignment issues with which I would rather not deal.
How does shooting in 3-D change the actual shooting experience? I am guessing there is a lot more equipment to deal with, yet you are probably limited as well. I cannot imagine, for example, strapping a 3-D camera system onto a Steadicam with any great ease. What kinds of solutions did you come up with when the conventional ways of rigging the camera would not work?
The footprint of the equipment package is certainly much larger than on a 2-D shoot. It is a challenge for the locations department to make sure we have the space. The camera rigs are a little larger, and each comes with a convergence/IO cart and a recording tower. We usually have three full rigs on set, and a lot of the time, they are remotely operated. We used a Super Technocrane everyday because it allowed us to get the camera anywhere we wanted without having to power down and re-rig it. In addition to all that, there are the director's 3 x 46-inch 3-D monitors, video assist and my monitors for lighting, exposure and keeping an eye out for offsets in focus, image size etc.
You cannot just grab a camera and run up the hill to shoot the sunset, of course, but we never felt limited with what we could do with the rigs. On Resident Evil, we put the cameras on descender rigs and hauled them 200 feet into the air pointing straight down. We shot hand held; we shot underwater; we shot a shower scene with water flying everywhere at 200fps. We also put the rigs in cable-cam systems and in a helicopter in Alaska, with no problem. It takes some planning and team work, but it can all be done.
We did not use Steadicam on the show, but good 3-D Steadicam rigs do exist. (We are using the Pace Steadicam rig on the movie I am shooting now with 2 Arri Alexa cameras on it.)
How about lighting? What do you have to do differently when you are lighting for 3-D? What kind of lighting package did you have?
We had some very large stages that were supposed to be exteriors; plus, we had to be able to shoot at 200fps, so I needed some punch in the lighting to do this. Remember, we also lose a stop of light through the mirror. My gaffer, Michael Galbraith, rigged the stages with some very large, soft boxes, six of them, about 40 feet x 60 feet each and with 24 x 12 light Dinos in each. Plus, we had remotely controlled LRX Scorpio lights on rails for hard edges. The Scorpio lights can be panned and tilted remotely and also can travel the length of the stage on rails, so we could move them anywhere in the set and gang them up without needing anyone up in the grid to do it. It all happened very quickly, and we never waited for lighting.
Outside of those special requirements on stage, we had a pretty standard truck package. I do not light much differently for 3-D.
One interesting thing about Resident Evil: Afterlife is you really use 3-D as a compositional tool — the extreme depth of field is used to tell the story, convey relationships and provide the viewer with multiple layers of information. How did you find 3-D affecting the blocking and compositions? Were certain types of compositions and movements more suited to 3-D than others?
You learn very quickly what works and what does not in 3-D. There are all sorts of things to look for while operating the camera. Objects on the edge of the frame can be very annoying in 3-D. In extreme case, an object can be in one eye but not the other. The camera operator is seeing a 2-D image from one eye and may not know he has something on the edge of the other eye. These are all things we look out for collectively. Anderson loves symmetry in his compositions, and that works very well in 3-D. Crazy shaky camera movements do not work well at all. Very fast cutting can be annoying unless you reduce your I/O to almost zero, close to 2-D. Our approach to the action sequences was to slow down the editing pace and play a lot of it in slow motion so your eye has a chance to scan the frame and take in the huge sets, falling slo-mo rain and the character doing a back flip in 3-D space.
On more conventional scenes, the 3-D can affect the relationship among characters onscreen. We can make them feel distant, separated from each other or very close and intimate, using the volume of 3-D and convergence point. That is another reason I like to have control over it on set.
You mentioned the slow-motion shots, which are quite striking. How were those achieved?
The slo-mo shots were achieved with Phantom Gold cameras on Pace rigs.
As if there were not enough challenges on this film, there is an underwater sequence at one point. What went into shooting that?
Pace started as an underwater company and developed into underwater 3-D, so underwater rigs are available. It is a little tricky to shoot with them in close quarters because they are side-by-side rigs with a minimum I/O of 2.75 inches. They were made for deep ocean shooting. We had to frame looser and do some work in post to massage the 3-D. It is still heavy for my taste, but the sequence is spooky!
Let’s talk about post. What is your role in the postproduction on a film like this, and does the fact it is in 3-D make it any different from another film?
For me, the only thing different is I do a stereo pass on the final cut. Once the film is edited, we may change our convergence points from cut to cut and correct any offsets in the stereo that we could not address on set, for whatever reason.
Color grading is pretty standard now that there are post houses with 3-D experience. The colorist will do a preliminary pass, matching the left and right eyes for color and black levels before I come in. Of course, there are more deliverables: 3-D DCP, 2-D DCP, 2-D film out, 3-D DVD, 2-D DVD and television, etc. The light output of 3-D digital projectors is much lower than a 2-D system, and the 3-D glasses change the color slightly, so the 3-D deliverable is more magenta and brighter than the 2-D deliverable. A second color pass needs to be done for the 2-D versions and LUTs made for film outs and DVDs.
How did this experience differ from the Final Destination film you shot? Did you apply things you had learned on that project here?
I learned a lot on Final Destination and brought that experience to Resident Evil. I was much more relaxed about the technology and more focused on using the 3-D creatively this time.
I am in production on The Three Musketeers 3-D right now in Germany with Anderson directing again. Paul and I are pushing the technology to extremes and finding new ways to be creative with the format. We are not afraid of it. There are a lot of 3-D calculators and charts and lists of rules out there that scare people away from shooting 3-D or make one a slave to the technology instead of just using it to tell the story. It is okay to have shots with minimal 3-D in them if they work to tell the story. No one in the audience will notice or care. It is good to vary the 3-D throughout the film and expand and contract according to the scene.
Using 3-D calculators will give you an even, calculated effect — the same amount of 3-D for every shot. To me that would be like shooting an entire film in a medium shot or using a calculator to tell you how much fill light you need to add to your key. It is a sure way to achieve a nice, even, flat and boring film.