Low Light

The recent movie "Collateral" withTom Cruise and Jamie Foxx was shot on High Definition digital cameras. Nobody made a big deal about HD as part of the PR push. What you heard instead was "LA never looked this good" and "Michael Mann [the director] knows how to show off LA at night" and things like that.

The fact is that shooting on HD allowed the filmmakers to capture LA at night in a way that has never been done before. HD cameras work way better than film cameras in low light situations.

(See this cool trailer.)

In fact, your friendly home digital camera works way better in low light situations than a film camera. Try going out at twilight and shooting a picture (not too dark - it needs some light). What appears as twilight to you typically appears as the middle of the day in your photo.

Here is an awesome (IMHO) picture I took at night in Japan with an inexpensive ($190.00) digital camera:


Japan At Night (C) Stephen Clarke-Willson

And here's a great picture in Manhattan Beach, CA, at twilight:


Manhattan Beach at Twilight (C) Stephen Clarke-Willson

Believe it or not, I was once talking with Richard Edlund, visual effects supervisor for the first three Star Wars movies, at Boss Film, which he owned and operated in Santa Monica. Mr. Edlund had won at least four Academy Awards for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and a technical award for this amazing compositing camera he invented. I can't believe I said this: "Analog sucks." This would have been in 1994 when they were working on Species, which was done digitally. Richard had just shown me these amazing analog effects cameras he had invented for shooting all the process photography in Star Wars. The camera (which used an old 8-bit Nintendo controller!) could move 30,000th of an inch in order to adjust for the wavelength of light as they corrected for the kinds of halos and masking you might get in Matte photography and analog composite shots. And I rather rudely said, "Analog sucks."

His response, and this is the guy who was the best in the world at process photography, was, "Analog is a difficult beast and you really have to fight with it to get good results." I felt lucky he didn't kick me out of his studio.

The thing is, analog film is still better for some things. For one thing, high-speed photography - you can't crank a digital camera up to 100 fps (yet). And what's cool now is that instead of fighting over which is better or worse, all the DPs (Directors of Photography) in the world are figuring out when it is best to use one or the other.

But it's great that a movie that couldn't have been made before because film emulsion couldn't capture it has been released as a big feature film with little fanfare about the technology behind it.

I highly recommend Collateral, especially if you live or have been to LA, and also the excellent Heat, directed by Michael Mann.