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October / 2003

Dealing with the “Coffin”
Ron Stannett csc Shoots Thriller Footsteps in 24p HD

“I shot with the idea in my mind that I was shooting film”
By Solange De Santis

One thing Ron Stannett csc noticed on his first high-definition TV shoot was that he now had to deal with “the coffin.” Although the MOW he was filming, Footsteps, starring Candice Bergen and Bryan Brown, is a suspense thriller, the coffin had nothing to do with the plot.

“It’s a large box on wheels, about 4 feet by 2 feet, that houses the monitor, paint box, waveform monitor, and a couple of other racks depending on how many cameras you are using — a completely different animal than monitors for film shooting, but a necessary item for the DOP in HD shooting,” Toronto-based Stannett explained.

Candice Bergen

Footsteps, shot in Nova Scotia, was produced by Fox Television Studios for broadcast on the CBS television network. It wasn’t Stannett’s first video shoot — he’s shot in Beta before — but it was his first experience with an HD format that currently has limited broadcast outlets. Although there are digital cable channels, Stannett noted that HD “is still a finding-out process.” He added that “a lot of people are still nervous about it.”

Footsteps director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, Stakeout, WarGames and other hit films) is always trying to interest producers in the format, but many say “‘maybe next time,’” Stannett said. “You hear that a lot of producers are wary of it. It is a new learning curve, and we all have to go through it. I am sure the jury is still out on the cost efficiency between film and HD production.”

Stannett, who has often worked with Badham, including the 2002 MOWs Obsessed and My Brother’s Keeper, thought Footstepswas an excellent candidate for HDTV. “When I got the script, I told him that if anything was tailor-made for HDTV, this one is.” Much of the story, which concerns a writer isolated in a house by the ocean, takes place indoors. “We were in the house for 16 days of the 18-day shoot,” he said.

A single interior was advantageous because “you’re not moving around a lot. The HD comes with tentacles of cables, the coffin and the paint boxes,” he continued. Paint boxes are computer equipment that allow the DOP to make colour adjustments on set, but Stannett said he still prefers to “get the look” in pre-production. “Some looks are programmed into the camera and off you go,” he said.

“I shot with the idea in my mind that I was shooting film. I think it’s quicker and better to do further adjustments in post-production than to do it on the set, where the hours tick away,” he said. Adjusting colour on set also can create problems with editing. “You don’t know what shot is to be cut with what shot, and to match everything (on set) is very time consuming. It’s better to adjust the colours in post-production, if you need to adjust at all.”
Bryan Brown

Footsteps, based on an unproduced stage play by author and playwright Ira Levin, was shot last February-March in Halifax and the nearby seaside town of Chester. “We had a beautiful old mansion that was being sold and converted to condos, so they allowed us to put grids up in the ceiling, almost converting it to a mini-studio,” he said. “There was more freedom for the actors and cameras to move, since we kept lighting to a bare minimum on the floor. Of course, it was a huge place to tent, but most of the night scenes were done day-for-night.”

The exteriors included “a fairly big crane shot to a close-up of Candice on a balcony, which we shot with available light, although we had a slight silk over the sun,” said Stannett. There were also some travelling shots while Bergen was driving. One scene took place in a boathouse — and underwater. “Brown tries to kill Bergen in the boathouse and she had to dive into the water and swim around under a boat,” he said. The filmmakers benefited from a bit of serendipity in the underwater scenes. “John Badham is a certified diver and he was using a Sony DVCam. Well, when we saw it, it was a little on the overexposed side. But when I saw it all cut together, it looked so surreal, I said, ‘Don’t touch it,’ and we used it the way it was.”

The camera crew used two Sony HDW-F900 24p camcorders and one Panasonic HDC27 variable-frame-rate camcorder, all supplied by Sim Video. Lenses included an Angenieux 12 x 9.7 T16 Optimo HD cine lens and a Canon 5.5 x 9 zoom lens. For a scene requiring a projection behind Bergen’s character as she makes a speech, the DOP used a Sharp XG NV6XU liquid crystal display projector.

‘At the end of the day you know you have it in the can’

“We shot two cameras most of the time,” Stannett said. “The Angenieux we’d tuck away and go for detail stuff of hands and even the close-ups. It’s a good workhorse. We used the B camera most of the time. Having two cameras was very helpful.”

The Panasonic HD Cinema camera, or Varicam, was used for slow-motion and off-speed shooting. “On most of Badham’s films that I have been associated with,” Stannett explained, “John likes to go off-speed. The norm, when shooting HD, has been to rent a variable-speed film camera, lens, matte boxes, etc. and 35mm film, with the usual question being, ‘How much film do you want, and what stock?’ followed by ‘What days will you need it?’

“Really, who knows precisely when off-speed is going to be called for? I can suggest scenes in the script where off-speed would be good, which gives a general idea as to the need of the equipment. But then you get into the shoot, and you hear, ‘Ronnie, lets do off-speed here!’ I hate saying, ‘Sorry, we don’t have the equipment until tomorrow!’”

When the question of off-speed came up during the pre-production of Footsteps, Stannett was prepared. “I had been to a Panasonic show in Vancouver and was impressed with the Varicam. I was able to carry this camera for the entire shoot — on the truck, ready to go. We were able to shoot 60 frames progressive, equivalent to 60 fps in film, for our slow-motion effects and 6 fps and 12 fps — with the end result looking like it was shot at those speeds on film.

“The 6 and 12 fps footage was transferred, at the same frame rate, through the Quantel IQ edit system,” he said, “resulting in the blurring effect you get when shooting and transferring at 6 and 12 fps on film.” Stannett cautioned shooters to “warn your post house ahead of time that you intend to use a Panasonic camera to shoot off-speed so they can make the necessary arrangements to transfer at off-speeds. It’s a little like the early days of film transfer, where most of the telecines were set up for Kodak only. Most of the post houses are set up for Sony. There is a difference.”

In a comparison of film and video, the DOP said that since video, unlike film, doesn’t have to be developed and can be viewed instantly, “at the end of the day you know you have it in the can. There is that unknown with film. It does go out to other hands and come back to you, and as a DOP there is always that question (before developing), ‘How does it look?’”

Finding a post-production facility is easier on a video shoot, where tape merely has to be duplicated, not developed like film, for the rushes. “We did the rushes at Salter Street Films (in Halifax). It saved shipping to Toronto (as would be the case with film).”

Brown and Bergen were real professionals and excellent to work with, said Stannett, who added that he and Brown, both expatriate Australians, had “a couple of nostalgia nights.” Nonetheless, the shooting schedule was extremely tight. “It was a tough shoot. We could have used two extra days,” he recalled.
RON STANNETT csc sets up a location shot in Nova Scotia for the TV feature <I>Footsteps</I>.
RON STANNETT csc sets up a location shot in Nova Scotia for the TV feature Footsteps.

While Stannett may have used a “coffin” during the HDTV experience, he doesn’t believe film is a dead medium. (Even the coffin is probably on the way out, he said, since Sony is developing new, lightweight plasma screens.) “HD gives you a very clean image; there’s no grain in it at all,” he said. “But in the race between HD and film stocks, (film manufacturers) are coming out with emulsions that are just beautiful. It’s at the point where if you want to get gritty, you’ve got to do it in post-production.”

It all depends upon the project, he believes. “I love film. It’s here to stay. HD is another look. You have to ask, ‘Does the project you are doing match up to shooting in HD or film?’ You have to ask, ‘What is best for my project, for the look, for the money?’ For me, it’s always the look. I enjoyed HD; I feel quite happy about what we did with it, and I look forward to the next project.”

Ron Stannett is the winner of two Gemini Awards — in 1996 for Lonesome Dove The Series: “Last Stand” and in 1991 for Flying on Her Own: Rita MacNeil.

(Solange De Santis is a freelance writer specializing in arts and entertainment.)

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