CLOVERFIELD, DP Michael Bonvillain, ASC
By Kevin Martin
DP John Schwartzman, ASC
By Bob Fisher
SHUTTLE, DP Michael Fimognari
By Pauline Rogers
DEXTER, DP Romeo Tirone
By Jon Silberg
CREW VIEW, Multicamera D.I.T. Robert Zeigler
By Bonnie Goldberg
By Chris Haarhoff

By Bonnie Goldberg
TIPS & TOOLS, HD Capture
By Pauline Rogers
LAST SHOT, Francois Duhamel
SHOOTING IN 4K, Postcards from the Future, DP Eric Adkins
By Neal Romanek
By Jason Byrne and Neil Matsumoto


By Neal Romanek
Photos courtesy of Dan Katzenberger


Eric Adkins is fast becoming the “go to” guy for shooting large-scale science fiction stories in HD. He partnered with director Kerry Conran on Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow, a film captured on Sony F900s. Adkins followed up by partnering again with Conran on preproduction for the Greatest Science Fiction Movie Never Made, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess Of Mars, usually entitled John Carter Of Mars in its various incarnations around the studios.
Postcards from the Future is a 38-minute sci-fi live-action short telling the story of an astronaut’s lifelong commitment to exploration of the solar system. Adkins shot the project in 4K with the Dalsa Origin. The story of Postcards is told extensively through correspondence to the hero’s wife back on Earth in the form of video monologues—from the Moon, from Mars, even from the moons of Saturn. The story comes full circle when the daughter herself becomes a deep space explorer. The project was conceived as an indie short project by visual effects supervisor Alan Chan, who most recently oversaw effects work on Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf. Postcards has just premiered before the International Space Development Conference, in Dallas, hosted by the National Space Society.
Adkins’ work on Postcards came out of an unassuming desire to perform a thorough green screen camera test. Adkins had been studying every camera possible, in preparation for shooting John Carter Of Mars. Conran and Adkins developed John Carter for eight months before the project zoomed off to a sojourn with Jon Favreau. As of this writing, John Carter Of Mars is in the hands of Pixar. Adkins and Conran decided early on that they wanted to capture the feature digitally. In preparation, Adkins studied Panavision’s Genesis, Sony’s F950, Thomson Grass Valley’s Viper, the Arriflex D-20, and the Dalsa Origin. “But,” says Adkins, “I have a habit of wanting to do camera tests with real-life workflow intents. It’s one thing shooting charts and gray and white and silver balls, but what you don’t get is the realistic aspect of what the workflow will be all the way through post.” But where would he be able to do 4K real-world tests with essentially no budget?

Enter Chan who was working at Sony Imageworks at the time. Adkins heard through a mutual friend that Chan was readying to shoot his new project on HD, and that Chan wanted to capture on data, not tape. The two discussed their options and Adkins popped the question: “I said, ‘Since this movie is about the future, and you do work for Sony and they deal with 4K all the time ... are you up for 4K?’ Alan, who’s a futurist himself, said, ‘Yeah, I want to make that work.’” Chan had the idea of making a digitally captured film that had potential for an IMAX-type release. Postcards from the Future was originally conceived as a kind of demo for such a project, though the final version seems to fit the bill itself.

Completing the film, in between managing the visual effects demands of directors like Zemeckis, took Chan two years, but the live action elements were literally shot over a weekend, which might be a record for a film whose storyline spans two decades and a billion and a half miles. Adkins describes the enormous data-gobbling with a laugh: “This one-weekend shoot of capturing 4K images, at 16mb per frame, at 24 frames per second, ended up yielding 3.24 terabytes of information to deal with. We recorded with the camera and also had a backup recorder. The editor wanted some footage as well to immediately start playing with, and he had his own RAID set up, which we filled about half-way before we crashed it.”

The central conceit of the live action shots is that they are live captures of a kind of “webcam” of the future, which would naturally—it is supposed—be of far, far higher resolution than the communication cameras of today. But there are several flashbacks that take place in the film, a character remembering his time under the blue sky of Planet Earth, so how to differentiate the 4K webcams of the space age from “real life?” Adkins shot the flashbacks in HDV, which is a lower resolution of HD with MPEG-2 compression. The film-photography tradition of shooting a flashback in black and white, or using a different film gauge—Super 8, 16mm—seems to apply seamlessly to digital production. Adkins laughs, “HDV was the fantasy world, 4K was the reality.”

Chan is known for developing realistic treatments of projected space hardware, like the “Space Elevator” which appears in some of NASA’s show reels. The Space Elevator technology, in fact, appears in Postcards from the Future. To the budget and time constraints therefore were added Alan’s strict dedication to realism and authenticity. Postcards and Star Wars are light years apart. Adkins’s lighting style attempted to adhere to this rigid verisimilitude.

The set remains the same for much of the film, and was primarily composited afterward, with almost all of the live action being shot against a green screen. But the lighting from scene to scene varies radically in that the capsule inhabited by the main character travels literally from world to world. As a result, the sun itself, as it shines through windows or down onto spacesuited figures, is a different brightness, and a different color, and at varying levels of diffuseness.


Green screen shooting allowed for this tremendous range of locations, but required strict attention to the characteristics of each location. One scene on the surface of the moon involves handheld shots of men in space suits. The lighting on the Moon is white and highly directional and brighter than the diffused light we receive on Earth. “The moon required a cool, but daylight, rim to it,” says Adkins. “A kind of desaturated-cool look. It wasn’t about color tint. And then on Mars, you got into rust tints reflecting into the window. And then on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, we used a golden light. In that case it was not necessarily a completely accurate reflection of the surface of Titan, but emotionally it worked well.”
Adkins also used a variety of lights in motion to simulate space flight. “There’s one gag where the character is viewing a planet’s surface and the sun goes behind the planet, putting the character in darkness,” he explains. “As the ship rounds the curve again, the sun appears to come back up. The moving light gags really helped to create the reality that they were in flight.”


The capsule itself offered a variety of challenges. Adkins had to ask, without fudging, what really were the light sources? Much of the lighting then came from the instrument panels surrounding the character, which allowed a great deal of freedom to play with color, levels, and flashing, blinking or alternating series of lights.

“I used these LED panels from Color Kinetics,” says Adkins. “It was quite nice because of the wide variety of options—an array of colored lights and white lights. So when there is a red alert in one scene I was able to switch instantly over to the red LEDs. I didn’t have to gel them. I did put a little Opal diffusion on them, just because they were so close in some cases. But all the color combinations were created by using percentages of the red, green, and blue LEDs on the panels.”

An additional challenge on the film was depicting the span of years that the narrative covers. The character ages two decades, forcing make-up requirements as delicate as the need for scientific accuracies. The clarity of 4K can cause make-up artists to break into a cold sweat. Testing the Dalsa’s relationship with make-up was high on Adkins’ shopping list in doing the shoot. “Initially the make-up person was quite nervous, but then she saw the lighting treatment and saw that we weren’t going that edgy with it. And we found it worked quite well.”

Postcards from the Future was shot in 24p. Adkins, looking back wonders: “We didn’t want it to look like film. It was an image from the future. Who knows? Maybe we shouldn’t have even shot it in 24p. Maybe we should have shot it at 30p. Just to be different. You even start to wonder: Well, how far would Lars Von Trier take 4K?”

We may colonize Mars before John Carter of Mars is ever made, but in the meantime, we get to see what Eric Adkins can accomplish not just on the planet Mars, but throughout the entire solar system.