“I don’t think I’m allowed to say much about the movie storywise,” cinematographer Michael Bonvillain, ASC admits, discussing his work on the cloaked-in-secrecy J. J. Abrams feature production for Paramount. The film, directed by Matt Reeves, generated early interest via its buzz-inducing summer trailer, which sported only the cryptic moniker 1-18-08 (the scheduled date for U.S. theatrical release).
Bonvillain is probably used to dealing with secretive productions. His history with Abrams—who between the latest Mission: Impossible and the upcoming Star Trek, seems poised to rule both of Paramount’s feature film franchises—and Reeves dates back to a stint as director of photography on TV’s Felicity. Subsequently he worked for Abrams on both Alias and Lost, both of which confounded viewer expectations with unexpected plot turns. Bonvillain garnered ASC and Emmy nominations for these series, and an Emmy win for the Alias pilot episode. “The basic idea for the film originated with J. J. wanting to do a monster on the loose in New York,” Bonvillain continues. “What intrigued me about it was his notion of capturing the action the way people did during 9/11. It was an entirely subjective first-person perspective.”
Before Bonvillain came onto the picture, cinematographer Ernie Holzman had already shot the trailer, primarily using the Thomson Grass Valley Viper. “Ernie is a great shooter who really helped establish a look for the whole show,” states Bonvillain. “In the trailer, he and Matt went with a sodium-vapor look, very warm to greenish in tone, and used a lot of practicals. The trailer starts during a party, which is like any of a million other parties, with people drinking and flirting. Then something happens and it’s like, ‘Oh! Oh f____!’ and we’re off, seeing the action through the video camera of a character named Hud [actor T. J. Miller] as he follows his friend Rob [Michael Stahl-David] from downtown into midtown on Rob’s search for his girlfriend Beth [Odet Jasmin].”
The film’s visual treatment proved to be exciting to Bonvillain, something quite different from his years of coverage-driven episodic television. “There’s no traditional coverage,” he says. “We aren’t shooting reverses and cutting back to a master. It is a whole different film grammar, and while it is not totally unique, I think it is very out there. While we filmed stuff that told the story—you know, here is the monster, over there is the hero—it was never in obvious, staged-movie ways. [Emmanuel Lubezki ASC’s work on] Children of Men was a great reference. What the camera captured is what we went with, and hopefully it all feels very raw and real.”
That rawness was an early issue with the studio. “Paramount had to become comfortable with the look,” states Bonvillain. “They didn’t want it to look cheap like a bad wedding video or even like [The] Blair Witch [Project], even though conceptually it should look something like that. Basically they didn’t want it to be difficult for audiences to watch. And I understood that—it would be insane to film a whole movie with ‘+12’ gain.” A proof-of-concept was called for. “After we did a day of test shooting in a parking lot, Paramount liked the results and backed us up completely. And we never got notes asking for us to make it more steady.”
Bonvillain used the Viper in FilmStream mode [4:4:4 RGB Data], since some of the trailer footage would be incorporated into the film, recording to tape, but also relied on a variety of other cameras throughout production. “We shot with $400 cameras and $80,000 cameras—we used whatever worked for a given scene. Basically, if we could use the [Panasonic] HVX, and there were no visual FX, we did. It is really small and felt the most like a small consumer camera.” After testing the Viper, the Panavised F900 and the then-brand-new Sony CineAlta F23 at night in downtown Los Angeles, Bonvillain decided to use the F23 for the New York phase of shooting. “I found the F23 to be more sensitive in available light situations. Unlike the Viper, which comes back with a green bias that has to be dialed out, the F23 looked a lot more natural to my eye.”
That natural aspect was significant, since this film was supposed to look as if it hadn’t been lit at all. “Almost all of our lighting was done in cooperation with production designer Martin Whist. I would ask the art department for certain fixtures, such as sodium vapor lights, to be placed when we were doing New York streets on the backlots of Warners or Paramount. I would then augment these with off-camera sodium vapors if I needed more stop. One advantage of this approach was speed. Plus you could point the camera anywhere since there were no ‘movie lights’ that would ruin the shot. The real reason I did it this way was I didn’t want it to look lit. I wanted it to look like someone really walking through New York City with a Handicam, at night. I stayed away from the ‘20K in the Condor’-raking- backlight on the streets and buildings. I love that look, but it wasn’t appropriate in this case. So for night locations, we would take a 5500-watt output generator and roll a couple of 1200-watt HMI Pars two or three blocks away. This was a quick and cheap way to illuminate distant buildings. I think we gelled them with 1/2 CTO and 1/2 Plus Green to match the sodium vapor look.”
Bonvillain used a mixture of color temperatures for the supplemental practicals, ranging from tungsten to cool white fluorescents and daylight.
Bonvillain tested various image stabilization rigs, but none seemed to move in a sufficiently naturalistic fashion. “There was talk of using Steadicam, then adding shake in post, but Matt and I refused to even test it. It was hard enough to get a Viper to feel like a small Handicam—Steadicam would’ve looked ludicrous. So we did the entire film handheld.”
Much of the cinematographer’s prep involved studying homemade videos. “I looked at a lot of stuff on YouTube,” he acknowledges. “There was 9/11 footage taken by a woman who kept saying out loud, ‘Why am I shooting this?’ as the towers collapse. I think part of the issue is that most Handicams are like a little Coke can—they’re so light you can almost forget that you’re filming.” That fact actually helped the cinematographer with a tricky character moment. After Rob’s brother is killed, Hud, a friend to both men, keeps on shooting. “It was hard to justify him holding the camera on Rob, because it might seem insensitive or invasive. We toyed with the idea of Hud dropping the camera down to his side. You’d see people running by upside down as they talked, but that might have been too distracting. We explored a bit more and found that sloppy framing, dutching the camera to the right, a bit to the side of Rob, worked to justify the notion Hud was just holding the camera, not aiming it at Rob.”
Bonvillain drew inspiration from other sources as well, watching a lot of war video shot by U.S.
troops in Iraq. “What I took from this stuff was that you never see things properly. It isn’t just that they aren’t framed like a movie—you aren’t even seeing the subject! You hear explosions and shooting while the camera guy is going, ‘Omigod, oh my God!’ but all you see is the corner of a table. The tension is enormous. With that in mind, we didn’t always try to show everything. When we had scenes with tanks, the guy isn’t sticking his head up to look at what the tanks are fighting. Instead you see the tires of a car he is down behind. We stayed behind the action. Tradition would have us see the tank fire, then pan to show what they hit. Instead, we did it by just hearing the tanks, then whip-panning over to them as they fire. After taking that in, the camera, still behind the action, jerks back in the direction of the shot fired. It just looked and felt so real, and this took a lot of coordination.”
As a matter of necessity, actor T.J. Miller was called upon to capture many shots himself, but that approach was not always viable. “We couldn’t have him operating for many effects shots, and there were other difficult maneuvers, especially on lengthy takes,” Bonvillain reports. “Whenever it was possible, when we were using the smaller HVX200, we had actor TJ Miller operate. It allowed him and the other actors to interact more naturally, and also gave us a good eyeline. Since this was a kind of performance piece, choosing an operator was even more important to me than usual.”
Bonvillain selected Bobby Altman Jr., who had operated for him on Lost. “Bobby spent hours watching YouTube and studying Ernie’s trailer footage, including all the dailies. Because of this commitment on his part, I really wanted him to operate all the way through. By the time we started shooting, he had it so nailed, it was like, ‘I am the character,’ or maybe more significantly, ‘I am the camera.’ But a week into the shoot, we had a bunch of extras running through and one of them stepped on the camera cable. Having to be wired to a deck really is a drawback. You can use the Venom FlashPack, which wouldn’t have worked for us as it was too heavy. Anyway, when the cable drew taut, Bobby went down. He told me he was fine, but the next day he admitted his shoulder was really hurting—he had a torn rotator cuff—so we lost him.” Ultimately, four additional operators were called upon to work after Altman’s departure. Our DIT, Nick Theodorakis, worked very well with first AC Wally Sweeterman and gaffer Rick West. Nick and key grip Tony Marra [of Black Sheep Grips] saved my ass time and again on this show.”
The relationship between cinematographer and director was a solid one, with mutually beneficial results. “There was a scene with two characters on the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island,” says Bonvillain. “It is footage the character of Rob shot using this same camera while with his girlfriend, but at a time before the main story takes place. You see glimpses of this scene at various times in the film, whenever the camera gets dropped or rewound, since Hud is taping over the Coney Island stuff as the night goes on. Anyway, it was kind of overcast at Coney Island as the sun set, and even though it was getting too dark, Matt wanted me to shoot. We really wanted a beautiful sunset, but it was pretty gloomy. The actor Michael held the camera [HVX200] and there were no
lighting units. Matt, the DIT and I crouched behind the actors. As we rolled, all the lights came on in Coney Island, and you could see that hit the actors’ faces and it just looked so beautiful. Later, when we saw the filmout, everyone was very pleased that the look held up in the transfer. I left knowing we really had an approach that works.”
In addition to shooting on location in New York, the production also availed itself of Paramount and Warner backlots, the Downey Stages, plus the Arcadia Westfield Santa Anita shopping center, parts of which represented the interior of a New York department store. “Within that center, we used a still-functioning Macy’s and a closed-down store that Martin Whist modified to look trashed when the military takes it over,” explains Bonvillain. “I told Matt if we were trying to be real here, it would look a certain way. Matt wanted the reality of things to remain pure, but he is all about the dramatic aspect too. He and I talked it out, and then he had me aim all these 4K Xenons back at the camera. It was a really startling look, and people were telling me afterward, ‘That looked really good,’ but it wasn’t me, it was all Matt.”
Bonvillain praises the efforts of the director in dealing with the actors as well as the crew. “With some of this stuff, Matt and I had it worked out very specifically, but most of the show was the antithesis of Hitchcock with respect to preplanning. We came in with ideas, but if there were something better, we would stray. Some nights we didn’t make our first shot till after lunch, because it was all about