British secret agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) returns to the big screen in Skyfall, which reteams director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, and is the first film in the franchise to be shot digitally. Although the action-packed picture is a departure from Mendes and Deakins’ previous collaborations, Jarhead (AC Nov. ’05) and Revolutionary Road (AC Jan. ’09), the director says their prep was similar in many respects. “I told Roger that although Skyfall was much bigger and had an action element that we hadn’t really tackled before, in every other regard, it would be like working on any movie with me,” says Mendes. “I would want from him exactly what I always have, which is an immense involvement in prep, and to be my chief collaborator on set.”
Deakins recalls that during his long prep with Mendes, “we went through the script together, talking not just about the visuals but also about character development. It was great to be involved in that interchange of ideas, because those discussions affected how the script developed.”
Having not made a film in England since The Secret Garden (1993), Deakins enjoyed the opportunity to work with some colleagues from his past, including gaffer John “Biggles” Higgins, with whom he shot more than a dozen films in the 1980s and 1990s. “It was a real treat to get back together with Roger again, and it felt like we were just carrying on from where we left off,” says Higgins. “Some of the technology and the methods had changed, of course, but the cooperation was the same.”
Deakins brought three key crewmembers with him from the States: 1st AC Andy Harris, dolly grip Bruce Hamme and digital-imaging technician Joshua Gollish. “Because I operate, my camera team is really important, and Andy and Bruce are crucial to the way I work,” he says. “They set up the camera while I’m lighting so I can just walk on and do a shot.” He had previously collaborated with Gollish on In Time (AC Nov. ’11), his first digital feature.
Mendes had not yet worked with digital capture, however, and he acknowledges that he “was initially very suspicious because I’m a big fan of film.” Deakins believed shooting Skyfall digitally would be beneficial at a number of the locations being discussed, and he showed Mendes some tests from In Time, which he had shot with the Arri Alexa Plus. “I was very impressed, so we shot our own tests, and I continued to be impressed,” Mendes recalls.
Since shooting In Time, Deakins had maintained a dialogue with Arri, expressing his desire for a version of the Alexa that had an optical viewfinder. His request was fulfilled with the Alexa Studio, which Arri rushed into production to be ready for Skyfall, and which has the same rotating-mirror shutter and optical viewfinder as the Arri 535B that Deakins has used for many years. “That was a big thing for me,” says the cinematographer. “Of course, the mirror shutter made the Studio heavier, so for handheld work I tended to use the Plus, but I probably shot 70 percent of Skyfall with the Studio.”
The uncompressed ArriRaw format was also a new development for the Alexa since In Time. Deakins notes, “We were told Skyfall would get an Imax release, so how our images would look on that giant screen was a big consideration. I shot tests comparing uncompressed HD, which I used on In Time, and ArriRaw, and we blew those images up and watched them on an Imax screen at Swiss Cottage. It was quite startling; both images looked pretty damned good, but the ArriRaw had a definite advantage.”
One of the sets for which digital acquisition made a significant difference was the 67th floor of a Shanghai skyscraper, built on the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios. The scene that takes place on this set depicts Bond stalking an assassin through the empty offices at night, with vast electronic billboards on nearby towers casting hypnotic patterns and reflections on the glass panels that separate the rooms and spaces across the entire floor. “We needed some source for this scene, and I thought using billboard hoardings outside the window to light the whole set would be the most interesting way to go, because Sam had said he wanted to capture the feel of Shanghai,” says Deakins. “Once we decided to build it as a set, Biggles and I started researching what kind of LED screens we could get to light it. We had to make sure there wasn’t too much of a moiré pattern between the pixels of the camera and the pixels of the LED screen, which would be 70 feet away.”
“We got the art department to make up a 6-by-6-foot glass panel so we could experiment by putting images from various LED sources across it to check for any problems,” explains Higgins. “Eventually, we decided to use a system called Pixled F-11 for the bigger, dominant screen. F-11 refers to the 11mm pitch of the LEDs, the gap between them. The lower the pitch number, the higher the resolution, so these were quite high resolution. For the other, smaller screen, we used a commercially available system, Pixelines, which is fairly old technology in the LED world. It’s much lower resolution, but Roger liked its quality.”
A model of the set was built to help determine angles and visual-effects requirements, with a TV monitor standing in for the large LED screen. “We needed images for the monitor, and the art department found this footage of jellyfish floating through the frame,” says Deakins. “When it came time to discuss what we really wanted to put on those screens, Sam and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, why don’t we just leave it as jellyfish?’ It looked interesting, and it was a really deep blue, and we wanted this whole Shanghai section to feel quite cold. So that’s how the jellyfish got in the film — they were just stand-ins, really!”
Almost all of the light for the scene came from the screens, with Deakins rating the Alexa at its suggested base sensitivity of EI 800 and stopping his Arri/Zeiss Master Prime lenses down to T4-T5.6 when shooting directly at the screens, or less when shooting side-on. (Most other interiors were exposed at T2-T2.8.) Higgins notes, “If we were only seeing a quarter of the screen in shot and we wanted to maintain the exposure level, we could map that quarter electronically and take it down a stop or two without any color shift, leaving the rest of the screen running brighter to keep the ambient up. It was a very flexible system.” Deakins adds, “I did use some small LED panels off-screen to augment for closer work, but we basically shot without any other light source. That was just as well because we had a lot of shots to do in very little time.” (The LED panels used for augmentation were simply individual panels from the modular systems used for the big screens outside the windows.)
Although a good light level was achieved on the set, Deakins speculates that he would have struggled to shoot this scene on film. “Not only were there extreme ranges of contrast and color, but there was also very little light at the far side of the set from the LED panels, as there were something like 10 sheets of very thick glass in the way,” he says. “That was a situation where seeing the exact image I was shooting and knowing exactly where my exposure was in terms of the contrast of the image on the LED screen was a real advantage. For me, the difference with digital is the comfort factor of seeing it and the freedom to push it further than I might on film. That Shanghai set made me realize we’d made the right choice of format. It was one of the first things we shot and was quite complicated, so it was a relief when we managed to get through 12 setups and it all looked pretty good.”