ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS (1985)
Either you've got no work, lots of friends, no money and a hundred parties to go to and an endless supply of drugs or you're inundated with work and so busy that your friends never see you any more and anyway when you do have a weekend off there's the two small children and the commune in the country to attend to. At least that's how it feels to me. This must be success. A friend from my previous life visited the giant Notting Hill set of Absolut Beginners the other day, looked around at the scale of it all and said: "Well I suppose you could say you're a success?" I looked at him across the chasm of the years and said: "I suppose so."
ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS certainly marks a moment in my graduation from
the National Film School four years ago. My studenthood at the age of 27
after 6 years struggle as a stills photographer marked an all time
low financially but a real period of learning to light and photograph films.
But the best bit was the 18 months I spent making SHADOWPLAY, writing directing
and editing what turned out to be a flawed but quite curious 70 minute
drama about ex South Africans struggling with BOSS and paranoia in London
low life. All that time in front of the Steenbeck with my own material
laced across the mattress and coffee machine taught me more about shooting
than I could ever learn on the floor staring at a tin of Heinz or a packet
of Omo. I'm not saying that you can only learn about film making
at film school - Julien (Temple) didn't - but it was perfect timing for
me. The problem with loading magazines or focus pulling is that it
only enables one to observe and it's only in the doing that you really
find out the answers - because they have to be the answers for you and
not a copy of what you saw someone else doing. Consequently I'm a
lousy focus puller but have been fortunate to have David Morgan on the
team who is simply the best focus puller in the world. He's a nice
guy too which is handy.
I'm not saying that it's hopeless to go through the grades and learn that way: most of today's finest cameramen and their technicians learnt precisely that way so it's a method that works. It doesn't necessarily suit everyone that's all - and especialy those like me who come into the business from an oblique angle - it my case still photography and a 7 year absense from my home country: a sixties kid.
I have to thank Julien Temple for my career to date. It's not that I haven't shot for many other directors, but without his confidence in the first place I may not have ever got those crucial first few jobs that enable a cameraman to get something on his reel and get rolling. Many a producer in that first year, confronted with this almost teenage director with web feet as the rags like to say (referring to a particularly bizarre pair of shoes he's won't to wear), whispered in his ear- "Zazitsky is avaliable, so's Zazootsky and they're both good friends of mine, they're both top men and the clients love them..." But Julien would just reply "Oliver's shooting it", and somehow the producer would know that the conversation was over. Later I'd hear some PA saying "Who is this guy anyway..?" -then you know you're in with a chance.
Richard Bedford (the editor) Julien and I have been working together, off and on, for four years prior to doing this film.And John Beard (Production designer) who has built the most wonderful sets on very limited recourses has worked with us on many previous promos. People sometimes comment on rushes "That's great, that looks great Oliver" and sometimes all you can say is: "It's the set." The Soho set looked so real that an American producer asked Steve Wooley how we managed to stop the traffic -in fact the problem was to get it started! Like most things that arrive on the screen the product is as good as the team that's making it and this film has been a real delight.
Way back last year when this film was planned Julien and I decided on a very 50's technicolour look for ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS.I rapidly discovered that recreating the look of such masterpieces as THE RED SHOES or BLACK NARCISSUS (Jack Cardiff) was not going to be easy. The 3 strip dye transfer process has been long gone and is only available (for printing only) in Peking. We made enquiries but it rapidly became apparent after discussions with Les Ostenelli - then with Rank laboratories - that the real quality was in the 3 strip camera process and even printing dye tansfers in Peking with modern negative was not going to yield the result I was looking for. Labmen frequently would shrug their shoulders when my incessent demands for more contrast be met by bemused looks. The whole drift of film emulsion technology over the past twenty years has been to reduce contrast which is traditionally a 'problem' in todays world where the soft commercial look is so much in fashion. There are scores of filters available - low contrast,supafrosts,diffusions etc etc all of which reduce contrast. Lens manufactures have struggled brilliantly to make a lens do at T2 what a lens used to do at T5.6. It was only when I discovered that 600 footcandles of key light was used for 3 strip technicolour that I began to realise what I was up against. John Beard was building whole streets full of neon and shops and cars in the biggest stage at Shepperton and I'd be lucky to get 60 footcandles: this was not some high budget epic with lights and sparks round every corner.
The producers were good enough to employ me for six weeks prior to principal photography which was to include a three week prelight for the soho set. Mike Proudfoot, the operator, was not available at the time so I set about some very extensive testing with Steve Alcorn, a mate from film school, and Chris Vile the camera trainee. We started with lenses and established that my own set of Canon superspeeds and Cooke 5:1 zoom was as good as anything that Samuelson's had and supplemented them with others from the Canon range. I went for these lenses because they seemed to render the kind of colour and contrast that I was looking for. Also in a series of flare tests I found that the type of halo these lenses gave from naked light sources was the kind of thing I like - the Zeiss's looked more starry and less even. On the other hand the Zeiss's won on random striation: if you're not carefull with out-of-shot light sources the Canons can streak really badly. Another point in favour of the Canon's was their minimum image shift when racking through focus.But what the fuss was really all about was SUPASCOPE or whatever we are going to call it. (It later was called Super 35) . The current version of blown-up anamorphic prints for projection (the press likes to call it CINEMASCOPE) was started by Les Ostenelli, Hugh Hudson and John Alcott for Greystoke where they shot 'flat' and then made anamorphic prints afterwards. The difference from TECHNICOPE - the 2 fame pull down system used in the sixties - is that the gate was enlarged to include the soundtrack area of the film thus using the full width available. When the lab made the anamorphic print this re-introduced the area to make the soundtrack. This system has one major advantage over the old 2 frame system. Because you use more width you use more height and thus a greater area of the negative renders a less grainy blow-up. (Advances in emulsion graininess also contribute towards this improvement.) Greystoke was not able to use a zoom however because the filing out of the gate on one side only meant the lenses were no longer central to the image and this created coverage problems. This has now been solved by Karl Kelly and his team by re-centering the mounts on the BL3 and my Arri III so that the lenses are one again in the centre of the image. However REVOLUTION (Hugh Hudson) was in production during our pre-production and because some rushes had a fault a state of extreme angst and paranioa surrounded this system to the extent that Goldcrest would not agree to our using the system and repeatedly insisted that we shot anamorphic if we were so insistent on the 2.33:1 ratio. 4 days before day 1 we still did not have permission to shoot this system so eventually I told them that I had no further time to change over to 1.85 as all the cameras (2 BL3's and my ARRI III) were now prepared for SUPASCOPE and unless they wanted to delay the start date we had to shoot... I digress. Because the image size is wider at the gate,lenses must be very carefully checked for cut off as motion picture lenses are designed for 1:1.85 and not Super 35. Fortunately the Canon primes originate in design from stills photography and hence we found that the edge definition was a significant improvement over the Zeiss's and Cooke's although frankly there is not a lot in it. I was planning to work at about T4.5 with 5294 until our stock tests on the by now neon-lit Soho set came in. I sat in the rushes together with the small testing team and saw 5294 at it's worst. Grainy, lousy shadows, poor colour and no 'bite'. Panic. I'm a great fan of fast stock: I shot a whole feature on it in scotland last year (RESTLESS NATIVES) and had no complaints. Perfect matching with 5247: even the dupe release print I saw recently was holding up fine.
Not willing to give up so easily I requested two more batches (different `vintage') and tested them Wednesday. Just for comparison we shot 5247 at T2 and T2.8. Rushes next day were a revelation: both the new batches of fast looked terrible although one was a marginal improvement over the first, but the 5247 result was absolutely wonderful. Suddenly I was seeing on the screen what I wanted to see for this film: deep blacks and superb rich colour and no grain. So I made the decision immediately and sent all the fast stock back and re-ordered for slow for the whole film. "Even for the night exteriors?!" Yes, everything. Stuart the loader, a fine critic, asked me the other day: shouldn't you have gone for T4.5, maybe used the fast occasionally? He was concerned about the depth and depth has been a problem all along. Only about 10% of this film takes place in the day - as in all Julien's work - and consequently there are always neon's or practicals or TV's featuring in shot and I find that with 5247 at 120ASA (my rating) an aperture of less that T3 starts to make these features loose their brilliance. This is why I was so keen on T4 or T5.6 with the fast until realising that it wasn't going to give us the colour we wanted. But one other unexpected bonus came to my rescue. Many cinematographers stay away from the 18mm lens reckoning it to be distorted and too wide for normal use. But we found ourselves using it more and more: the introduction to Soho, a brilliant steadicam sequence executed by Malcom Mackintosh was entirely shot on it and we began to realise that the 18mm in scope somehow doesn't appear distorted - probably because we are used to a certain amount of distortion in the wide format anyway from the anamorphic camera lenses that usually shoot these pictures. So T2.8 wasn't such a problem anymore because the 18mm has such depth anyway. And the real boon is that a similar stop on the equivalent wide angle in Panavision or Techniscope lenses is a real horror to my mind with bad edge fall off and terrible barrell distortion. Curiosly enough the least satisfactory definition was obtained in long shots on the 24mm - we tried several others but never did find a 24mm that really seemed good at infinity.
The point I was most insistent about in pre-production about this format were the following:
1. The giant soho set would be seen much more fully because we would need to tilt down that much more in a `taller' format to exclude lights, the studio ceiling etc. For this reason we decided on a common headroom for TV and anamorphic.
2. Per given quantity of light, much greater depth of field than anamorphic.
3. Smaller lighter lenses with much greater defintion and colour clarity, less prone to flare.
4. Perfect matching of anamorphics - because there's only one in use in a controlled laboratory situation.
5. Greatly improved 70mm blow -up; no de-squeezing necessary.
6. Significantly reduced lens rental costs; better look through on camera hence less lightlihood of mistakes (flags etc).
A point I was not making and one which I think needs de-emphasing is that this system is not a `multi-format' system enabling any kind of print format to be stuck from it. Although physically this is possible - we shoot the whole negative area - the framing requirements for TV and scope are quite different and whilst we obviously will be able to make a satisfactory print for TV by a mixture of scanning and using the lower part of the frame, it is simply not possible to optimise for two quite different ratios and although the producers argument is that more people see the film on TV or tape my argument is that they are probably eating dinner anyway. In other words the composition should be at it's optimum where the film is seen at it's optimum: in the cinema on a large screen with great sound and an audience that looks at the screen. The TV audience will simply see less of the film but then that's true anyway because Grandma will probably pop up in the middle anyway. To be serious, there is always going to be a compromise between the requirements of the scope screen and TV and as I see it the compromise has to be on TV where are all the other losses of picture quality, sound size etc are apparent anyway. I think it is of great importance to make cinema films for the cinema; to attract audiences back to the cinema we have to woo them with all the attractions the cinema can provide - by using the argument that more people will see it in telly anyway we accept defeat. On "My Beatiful Laundrette" (Steven Frears), we decided that the film was for TV so we shot for TV on 16mm and put the money we saved into the production. Ironically the film is to open in two London cinemas in November: C'est La Guerre.
Looking back at Absolute Beginners, I realise all sorts of things that we could do better next time round, especially in relation to pre-production and sets. Not having shot an epic like this before (an epic for me that is!), I didn't know some of the things I now know about studio sets, particularly in relation to lighting. John Beard would give me a drawing of a set and I wasn't too good at being constructive about my requirements at that stage: I was more used to looking at something and then making suggestions, but on a studio that is often too late - particularly in the tight situations we always seemed to be in. For instance we quite often had areas where a band would be playing and I would not spot that there wasn't anywhere to hide back or side lights: now I know better! We constantly would ask for floors we could track on but then the Art Department has other problems with labout or the uneven floor and we would arrive and promply have to lay boards all over the floor and then have to cope with not getting them in shot. It's not that these problems don't happen everywhere but it would be useful next time around to try and minimise them. A real masterpiece of co-operation was the planning for the set of Dido's party. I had a notion in pre-production that to have a hot-head on a python arm running along outside the set above one wall with the camera `dipped' into the action could save a lot of time and give us the kind of freedom to move the camera that I know Julien is addicted to. We wouldn't have to worry about the floor and all the technicians could be off the set completely. The system worked very effectively and we got some shots that would have been impossible any other way. It did however prove extremely difficult to operate and Colin Manning (the Grip) was occasionally heard saying things like "Gosh I don't seem to be able to stop this jolly old thing.." or something like that. (I hadn't met Colin before this shoot: he's the best).
I came across this in a diary of the time - 1985. Thought it
might enlighten a few readers about the beginning of Super 35.
What difference does making a film "Super" make (ie. the difference
16mm and Super 16 or 35mm and Super 35)?
"Super" is this context means something different to the way it is used in Absolutely Fabulous. It means that the soundtrack area of the negative is used for picture, which means the picture is wider, resulting in an increase in quality when the film is "blown up". Super 16mm is now shot much more often than regular 16mm as it suits the new 16:9 TV ratio, as well as providing a superior blow-up to 35mm should it be required. Super 35 is used as an alternative to anamorphic when a 1:2.35 ratio is required.
I read your article on film formats and it seems to me that,
the squeezing process of anamorphic, some horizontal picture quality must be
lost - why don't the film makers just produce film with wider cells?
Distribution and projection is the answer. The thousands of movie
throughout the world are equipped with projectors that project 35mm film, so
producing film in a wider format would not be popular or economic. However,
the IMAX system is an example of what you are talking about - great image
quality but limited to a small number of theatres, and also very cumbersome
equipment for the shooting process.
I'm trying to figure out different alternatives for my second short
film, which will shot on film. Can you tell me what kind of difference in
the budget does it represent to shoot in a 2.35 aspect ratio as opposed
to 1.85 or 1.66. And what are the ups and downs (budget-wise) of
shooting in super 35 as opposed to anamorphic?
Thank you very much.
Any kind of 2.35 is going to be more expensive than 1:1.185. I
assume your film will have some kind of cinema release, otherwise there
is very little point in using the 2.35 format. However, using Super
35 for tape transfer only is not an extra cost over 1.185.
The differences in principle are these (for cinema release).
Super 35 uses “standard” lenses and the rental for these lenses is the same as for 1.185
The dailies (rushes) will be in Super 35 so cannot be screened on a conventional projector.*
To make the 2.35 print for showing in a normal cinema, the Super 35mm neg is “squeezed” on an optical printer which is an expensive one-off process.
For Anamorphic, the lenses cost more to rent but no “squeezed” optical print needs to be made so the money is spent during shooting rather than in post-production.**
*this is important to consider if you are making a cutting copy
of your film which you are going to show to potential sponsors for final
printing. You would have to find a projection facility capable of
showing Super 35mm.
** This cutting copy can be shown in any cinema capable of Anamorphic projection.
You shot Ned Kelly in Australia, in the widescreen 2.35:1 format. Did you shoot this film in Super 35, and if so, was the ability to get enough anamorphic lenses within Australia a consideration for shooting in this format? ??--Simon
Yes. I wanted to shoot this film in anamorphic but a number of factors got in the way of doing so?. The budget was relatively small so anamorphic was perceived by the producers as being more expensive though I personally don't feel this is the case if you stay away from Panavision. A lot of the film takes place outside which meant that that last half hour of light at T2 would be usable in Super 35mm but not in anamorphic. The lenses are often T2.8 and don't look very sharp under T4. Night exteriors require more light level in anamorphic which means bigger lights? this again is a producer perception but there is some truth in it, though I would dispute it takes any longer. Occasionally we needed multiple cameras: this means hiring more lenses and equipment. With Super 35mm you can trust the lenses to be good "out of the box": with Anamorphic a lot more time and money goes into testing them to make sure it is OK. I was quite happy with the result (when you see a bleach by-pass print!).
A cinematographer has a few formats to choose from or recommend for a project such as super 35, anamorphic, etc. I recall John Mathieson B.S.C. choosing super 35 for Kingdom or Heaven because the lens choices, their f stop range and the variety of sizes of the Arri cameras.
Another example I recall Janusz Kaminski A.S.C. shooting A.I. in 1:85:1 mainly for more vertical space in the frame for the sets.
Despite technical reasons clearly than can be a creative preference; I believe Donald McAlpine A.S.C. prefers anamorphic for its sharpness and color reproduction over super 35.
Can you elaborate on why a cinematographer chooses a format and what benefits and/or drawbacks certain formats have. If you have a preference I would love to hear why you prefer a certain format.
Lasse Hallstrom, when we introduced him to the idea of 1:2.35 on The Shipping News, said the reason for shooting it was to "looks cool". This is just a facetious way of saying that there really is not a logical argument for a particular format. However, I can give you a few of the ones I have heard and you can draw your own conclusions. As a preface, it used to be that "widescreen" made the screen wider, but actually nowadays it has a tendency to make the screen narrower in the vertical dimension. This is because both home theatre and some multiplexes use a common width of the two formats (1:1.85 and 1:1.235), and just cut of the top and bottom which has the effect of making the overall picture smaller - the reverse of what was intended when widescreen was invented! Looking at the two formats here are some ad hoc comments on each one.
Is closer to the "golden ratio" as loved by painters.
Transfers more easily to the old TV format as well as the new one.
More vertical space (as you pointed out).
Close-ups tend to "fill the frame" better without having a lot of dead space around them.
Not "real cinema".
More cinematic than 1.185 (why??)
Favorite for epics and invented for them.
Can work well for comedy with longer master shots and less cutting (Tootsie,.etc)
Cuts off feet a lot. Tricky for films with tall parents and small children.
The complex arguments for Spherical versus Anamorphic as well as the now increasingly used "Super 1:1.85" format, are too long to go into detail here. Anamorphic certainly is perceived my many as being the "most cinematic" because of its shallow focus but hey Citizen Kane is not exactly "Uncinematic" so I never quite know what people are talking about when they come out with these ideas. Recently I guess you could look at Lord of the Rings (Super 35) and compare it to Narnia (Anamorphic): both relying heavily on computer input and both look fine for different reasons. Personally I preferred the look of Rings, not because of the fact that it was shot on Super 35 but because I preferred the darker lighting style. Would Rings have looked "better" shot on Anamorphic? Who knows? It wasn't.. so that's that.
There are many logical reasons for choosing one format over another but in the end I find none of them really make sense. I prefer to make the call based on intuition: what feels right for the particular film probably is right. On Restoration we tested and chose Super 35mm until one day before we started shooting when the tests were projected by mistake in 1:1.85 and we all thought - this is SO MUCH BETTER! So we switched one day before we started based on a mistake by a projectionist: what was important is that I was able to see this at the time and start the discussion that made the change. If we had shot the film in Super 35, would it still have won an Oscar for production design and costume...who knows?