The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Green Hornet
John Seale, ASC, ACS
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop
Page 2
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up


Photos by Bai Xiaoyan, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Cinematographer Zhao Xiao Ding, HKSC, first worked with director Zhang Yimou on Hero (AC, Sept. 2003), serving as camera operator and 2nd-unit cameraman under Christopher Doyle, ASC, HKSC. On Zhang’s next film, House of Flying Daggers (AC, Jan. 2005), Zhao was director of photography. Subsequent collaborations include Curse of the Golden Flower (AC, Jan. 2007), 2005’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles and The Beijing 2008 Olympics Game Opening Ceremony. Their latest collaboration is A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, which Zhao describes as a tribute to the Coen Brothers 1985 debut film Blood Simple. “A tribute, not a remake,” he asserts. The plots are similar: a jealous husband — a noodle-shop owner in the Chinese version –– suspects his wife of infidelity and hires a police inspector to kill her and her lover. However, the film’s broad physical humor and exaggerated characterizations are styled on Er ren zhua, a genre of stage play popular in the rural areas of northeastern China. It is so specific to the region some of the dialogue is in local dialect. Steadicam operator Raymond Lam, who translated the conversation for AC, began his own association with the two filmmakers on House of Flying Daggers and has worked on every one of their films since then.

AC: This is the first film you have shot on digital. Why did you opt for digital and why did you choose the Sony F-35?

Zhao Xiao Ding: I have been shooting commercials digitally for a while now although never with the Sony F-35. I enjoy the medium and wanted to try it on a feature. The best digital cameras on the market are the Arri D-21 and the Sony F-35. and we decided to try the F-35. Digital cameras in general are easy to use, and you can actually see what you’ve got right away, instead of waiting for dailies. Digital also saves money because you don’t have to purchase film. Another important consideration on this film was that, while three of the main characters — the wife, her husband and the police inspector — are experienced film actors, the other three come from the world of Er ren zhuan and have no film experience whatsoever. Their acting is very spontaneous. They do something different every take, which tends to wreak havoc with continuity. We knew we’d be shooting a lot of footage. Furthermore, we shot almost the entire movie with two cameras, capturing the action from different angles (to facilitate editing).

We did extensive tests with the F-35 during pre-production and found it is no different from a film camera in terms of color, latitude and texture although you can see a bit more in the shadow areas. By tweaking things in the DI (at Technicolor Beijing), we got these really deep blacks. The camera was only about six months old when we shot the film. I saw it when it was launched at NAB and talked to the Sony people there.

How did you arrive at an aspect ratio and format?

The CCD chip of the F-35 is the same size as a Super 35mm film format, so we were shooting Super 35mm format. (The camera also comes with a 450ASA rating.) Aspect ratio? Sony China, where I have a long-standing relationship, supplied the camera. The lenses came from Cinerent Ldt. in Beijing. We had a full set of Master primes (10mm – 135mm) and two Optimo zooms, a 24-290mm T2.8 and a 17-80mm T2.2. The picture is getting both a digital and a film release.

Describe the film’s visual style.

The film isn’t set during any specific historical period. In fact, Zhang didn’t want any time references. Rather, he wanted the film to have a mysterious feeling and a kind of weird, even unnatural look. Every film Zhang does is colorful, and this was no exception. We shot in the Western part of China, where the landscapes are constantly changing colors, depending upon the light and weather conditions. All the landscapes were actual locations — and a good three-hour drive from the studio. It only rained once or twice during the shoot, but there were days we waited and waited for the sun to appear.  

We built the sets on location but shot interiors at the new Beijing Film Studio of the China Film Group. Zhang wanted harsh shadows during the day, high contrast for night scenes — all night scenes were shot day-for-night — and a lot of depth of field. With the exception of a CGI full moon, all the effects were achieved in-camera. The time-lapse images of clouds racing across the sky? The shadows on the ground weren’t stock shots; we got up at 4a.m.! Early on we established the full moon as the light source for all (night) interiors; ostensibly the light is filtering into the buildings through slats in the roofs. The sun motivates all day interiors (with light also filtering through the roof). In order to get the exact shadows we wanted on day exteriors, we waited for the sun to reach certain angles. If it was too bright outside, we added NDs. For dusk scenes, especially the shots of the police unit on horseback galloping along the winding roads, we used a blue grad and then heightened the blue in post. On day-for-night exteriors, we used grad filters to darken the sky but often threw up a couple of 12Ks and 18Ks to highlight the edges of the actors. All lighting and grip equipment was supplied by Cinerent Beijing. The F-35 actually has internal filters, but we found the glass filters work better. Regardless of whether we were shooting a day or a night scene, if it was too bright, we added NDs.

We often repeated shots but always with something different. For example, in one scene late in the film, we see the wife running up the stairs, trying to escape the inspector. We used a hand-held camera to suggest her anxiety. When the detective walks up those same stairs after her, he is almost inhumanly calm, so we used the Steadicam. The same shot but different treatments reflect the different emotional states of the characters.

A good deal of the story’s action takes place in the husband’s office, which was lit only by the moonlight and sunlight filtering through the roof.

The F-35 can shoot in very low-light levels. The office was built in the studio although we treated it like a real set. It was a small space, no more than 400 square feet, although we only removed the walls once to shoot something. We built a lighting grid high over the set and hung Tungsten fixtures with a bit of Frost; then we placed baskets, nets and pieces of plywood (unseen by the viewer) beneath the lights in order to create irregular light patterns and sharp shadows on the floor.

A number of images were slightly elongated.

Yes, primarily the shots in the courtyard, where we used the 10mm lens to create distorted images. Remember, this is an intentionally unrealistic film, and it’s okay if things (don’t look like) the real world. We used an 8mm lens for some of the landscapes in order to achieve even more distortion.

Did you use any special equipment on the film?

Yes, a Phantom high-speed digital camera for the sequence at the end of the film when the inspector is outside shooting arrows into the building. The Phantom goes up to 1000 frames per second although we only used 500fps.

What about postproduction?

You capture as much information as you can, and whatever you want to change or adjust you do in post. Sony recommends using the S-log for feature films, so we did. It’s a data curve that is already in the camera.

What are the disadvantages of the F-35?

Because it’s an electronic camera, you have to wait for the power to come on in order to see through the viewfinder. And there were a lot of long cables to hook up from the camera to the Sony SRW-1 recorder. (The recorder can be attached to the camera, like a magazine, or put inside the DIT tent. We had it in the tent 90 percent of the time.) When Zhang talked on the walkie-talkie, we got interference. Once we used shorter cables and moved the DIT away from the director, the problem was solved. The problem could also have been solved with a fiber-optic cable, but, at that time, Sony didn’t have one. Now they do. Digital cameras are always harder on the focus puller because he or she is looking through an electronic viewfinder, rather than an optical one. When we were on the soundstage doing close-ups, DIT technician Stephen Poon had to tell us if we were in focus. Stephen was recommended to us by Cinerent. He was great. Zhang wanted a lot of depth of field on this film, and we were shooting with a very small aperture, so focusing wasn’t much of a problem. Finally, the camera uses a lot of power. Most of the time we ran it on AC, rather than batteries, because it was more stable. Plus, you’d need to replace the batteries every hour. I’d say it took a week or two for everybody to get used to the system. After that, everything was fine.  

Would you use the camera again?

I already have. After The Noodle Shop, I shot my next three films with it.

 

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