Sony, Sydney, 22 August 2014: The recent New Zealand-based independent feature film The Dark Horse was shot by Denson Baker ACS on the Sony F65 4K CineAlta™ camera. Baker, one of Australia and New Zealand’s most innovative DOPs, experienced many challenges during the movie shoot which he described as, “a particularly intense one.”
Baker previously worked with The Dark Horse producer Tom Hern on Sam Kelly’s award-winning short Lambs.
Baker explained, “I come from a film background, I have shot features on 35mm, Super16, RED and ALEXA. When I was first talking about shooting The Dark Horse, Four Knights film producer Tom Hern mentioned that ImageZone were happy for me to test all their cameras and different lens combinations and they were keen for me to have a look at their F65s as they had bought two of them when The Evil Dead was shot in New Zealand. To be honest I was a little skeptical at first – I shot my tests under the same conditions that we would shoot the drama and in fact I pushed the boundaries of the camera even more then I usually would. We flew down to Park Road Post to grade our tests and see them on the big screen. All of us, director James Napier-Robertson, producer Tom Hern and colourist Clare Burlinson were all very, very impressed with the F65. In fact I would go as far as to say we were blown away!”
For The Dark Horse, Baker had a specific set of requirements for his camera package that included having a very wide dynamic range, the ability to perform well in low light, being comfortable for handheld operating and most importantly the images had to look cinematic, epic and atmospheric.
Baker continued, “The production was almost entirely handheld. We shot with two F65 cameras for about 15 days of the 33 day shoot. We shot primarily with a set of Zeiss Ultra Primes, then for selected scenes, we also used a set of vintage Hawk anamorphic lenses, to visually communicate the state of mind of lead character Genesis, played by Cliff Curtis. We shot continuous scenes that started in full sun exterior, follow Cliff into an moody interior, then travel around to see him against blown-out windows, with the variety of different Maori skin tones against white walls, dark corridors, over exposed windows and sun kicking off water, we needed a camera that would handle all of the extremes of exposure. The F65 held up incredibly well giving us control over such extremes rather than us becoming a slave to them. Although the camera is a little bulky, it is actually very nicely balanced for handheld shooting. If you have ever had a Panavision Millennium XL on your shoulder then you will feel at home with the F65. James the director and I talked at great length about creating a feeling of being on a journey with Genesis, we wanted to travel with him. We wanted the audience to be by his side through all the agony, the joy and even the mundane. To do this we followed him in a way that was intended to feel continuous and spontaneous as he walked through the streets, into homes and stores and getting in and out of the car. We shot on a low loader for some car interiors but for many of them we would shoot with our cast driving, setting up minimal lighting and with myself either in the front seat or in the rear looking forward. For one shot our key grip Gareth Robinson rigged a crane seat on the side of Genesis’ car, allowing me to sit outside the driver’s side window, while Cliff drove the car down the street, then I could step off and walk across the road with him when he stopped.”
Given he came into The Dark Horse shoot with a few doubts Baker was clearly pleased with the performance of the F65 and some of the key functionality that sets it apart from other cameras in its class. He added, “Besides the cinematic quality to the images, I was really impressed by the mechanical shutter on the F65, this makes a big difference to the motion blur when you are shooting handheld. The rear ND filter wheel was also a big time-saver. There would be times when we would have a shot lined up, about to shoot another take and the sun would pop or I would just feel that we wanted a more shallow or deeper depth of field, and with the tap of the buttons and a flick of the jog wheel I could do a filter change within a matter of seconds. This is important when we were shooting fast and the actors were ready to go and you don’t want to break the momentum. The other feature that I used to our advantage was controlling the camera from the iPad app. For a couple of set-ups we did a mechanical shutter change during the shot from a 90 degree shutter to 172.8 degrees when going from exterior in the rain into a moody interior. The dynamic range of the F65 meant that we didn’t have to do much of an exposure change from interior to exterior when usually it would require a dramatic iris pull.”
As the shoot progressed Baker found himself not only liking the F65 but becoming a real fan. For a cinematographer with such high standards this was praise indeed for Sony’s flagship digital cinematography camera.
He commented, “I must admit I am now a big fan of the F65. In fact I liked it so much I recommend we test it for the next feature that I shot with director Jim Loach. Jim is a film purist. We shot Oranges & Sunshine together on Super 35 film and for his most recent project I shot tests on three different digital formats and four different combinations of lenses and he loved the look of the F65 the most. With the combo of some filters and right choice of lenses, it was the closest to the feel of 35mm that we had seen. The dynamic range is incredible, the mechanical shutter is a big plus. However it is the soft, clean, high resolution image that it gives you to play with which allowed me to work the image so much. With the use of filters, vintage anamorphic lenses, mixed colour temperature lighting and a wide mix of skin tones, the images from the F65 are a pleasure to work with in the grading suite.”
Baker and his crew tested shooting Sony RAW SQ and RAW Lite discovering that visually the difference was “unperceivable”, even when zoomed 800% on the big screen at Park Road Post Production. So with a huge saving in data and storage he opted to shoot RAW Lite.
Baker explained, “Michael Urban was our on-set DIT and he did a fantastic job. He handled the data, added a LUT to our rushes and would subtly tailor it daily with each new location or look. I would get a hard drive of rushes at the end of every day and a selection of frame grabs from each set-up. Editorial would get their own rushes with the same LUT on them. Park Road Post Production wrote their own debayering software for the final online and grade, which was done in 4K in their Mistika grading suite by the very talented and lovely colourist Clare Burlinson.”
The Dark Horse is a very specific type of film with a very specific type of look and feel. Something Baker and Director James Napier-Robertson acknowledged from the very beginning.
Baker said, “James and I wanted the film to have an atmospheric quality to it. It needed to feel cinematic yet based in realism. It is based on a true story so we wanted it to feel real and true to the world of Genesis Potini. The film goes to some pretty dark places, emotionally and psychologically, however at its heart it is an uplifting and inspirational tale. We rated the camera at its native 800ISO for most of the shoot, I did bump it up to 1600ISO for a couple of night exteriors when we needed that little bit more exposure and there was little or no additional noise added in doing so. In fact during tests I shot 800, 1600, 1250 and 3200 and it wasn’t really until 3200ISO that there was a perceivable increase in noise. Even then the noise had quite a lovely filmic texture to it. We set-up a basic on-set LUT in pre-production and loaded it up on both of our cameras, however I mainly left it set to REC709 (800%). This gave me the best representation of what we were capturing in RAW yet still adding a bit of contrast to the on-set viewing. In the past I have often played around setting up looks and on-set LUTs however, sometimes I find it is best to stick to the one standard LUT and light accordingly to that. It’s kind of like choosing a single film stock and lighting it accordingly.”
By his own admission The Dark Horse was an intense shoot. With many varied and challenging environments and a great deal of rain to contend with, but Denson Baker was ultimately very glad he had the F65 to rely on.
Baker concluded, “The F65 performed flawlessly. I did have initial concerns about its bulk when shooting car interiors, however, we did strip it back and make it quite compact. I was also concerned about the amount of rain and humidity that we would be shooting in but again the camera had no issues. We did need to turn off the mechanical shutter for sound reasons when we were shooting in confined spaces such as bathrooms and quiet bedrooms, however it was never an issue as the movement in those kinds of scenes isn’t enough to notice the difference of the electronic shutter. We had wonderful technical support from ImageZone in Auckland. Dean Thomas and Hugh Calveley were on hand and knew the F65s inside and out. They got us set-up in pre and then would pop out on set occasionally to be sure that we would be operating without a hitch. As I stated earlier, after my experience with the F65 on The Dark Horse I now have to admit, I’m a big fan of this camera.”
The Dark Horse is currently screening in New Zealand and will be released in Australia later this year. The film will also be premiering during the opening weekend of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
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