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Producer/director John Milne contacted me in early 2008 to discuss shooting what would prove to be a challenging, adventurous and innovative documentary produced by Science North (SN) for Caterpillar, the world's largest maker of construction and mining equipment. SN is a science centre located in Sudbury, Ontario that produces international multi-media exhibits and IMAX films. John Milne, an associate producer at SN, was exploring the making of a large-format film, Ground Rules, for Caterpillar Global Mining while incorporating the possibilities of digital capture.
The idea of Ground Rules was to follow the development of a new mine as it worked to become a model of sustainable practice. The proposed locations ranged from nickel mines two kilometres underground in Northern Ontario, to copper and gold mines four kilometres high in the mountains of Papua, the Indonesian province on the island of New Guinea. As a cinematographer I was mainly concerned with how to tackle the photography in a way that would hold up on the big screen. I didn't feel the HD formats that were being discussed would serve the purpose.
The remote locations would not allow for the more elaborate systems, and I wasn't confident that other HD formats would hold up on the big screen. In late 2007, Toronto's Sim Video let me test for a couple of weeks a prototype RED ONE digital system camera that it had on loan. I was eagerly waiting delivery of my own RED ONE, but was hesitant to suggest using brand-new technology on what was sure to be a rigorous shoot. The RED ONE's ability to shoot four times the resolution of HD with a native PL mount meant that we would have access to the highest resolution possible in a digital camera with the ability to use the best film lenses available. John was extremely enthusiastic about the prospect of shooting with RED ONE.
"We needed a light-weight digital solution," Milne said, "given that we were filming in some extremely isolated place around the world. I was interested in the format, with an eye on the future of merging technologies. We were referencing the style of an IMAX film. Basically, the key components of a story structure that contains an educational component, combined with beautiful photography, with hard drives supplanting enormous rolls of film"
I continued to test the camera whenever the opportunity arose. I did some preliminary dynamic range tests and found the camera to be very much like HD and was able to capture between 10 and 11 stops. This informed my decision to load up on grad filters, including elliptical grads to be able to control skies and bright areas within a scene. Understanding how to "meter" the camera is an unexpected learning curve. The RED ONE recommended rating is 320 asa. Metering is measured in a variety of ways. I ended up using the RGB histogram or "RGB stop lights" to keep an eye on highlights. There is also an exposure mode called "false colour," which is like a coloured overlay of the zone system. This is very useful in determining what is actually clipping in a given scene. The trick with RED ONE and exposure is that your histogram is metering whatever your monitor space is set to.
Because the camera records RED ONE's version of a RAW image, you have to apply a look to have a useful image to monitor. At the time of shooting Ground Rules, the best monitoring option was REC709. When you are evaluating exposure in REC709 and something is clipping, it's important to know that you are likely not clipping at the sensor. To check this, there is a "RAW VIEW" setting that doesn't look that pleasing but allows you to check to see if clipping is occurring at the sensor.
Sim Video took delivery of a couple of cameras in February 2008, and our shoot was scheduled for late April. We decided to go with the RED ONE. My next concern was workflow. (This was an elaborate process; see "Digital Advantage around the World" following this article.) A small crew was assembled. The team included my camera assistant Brent J.Craig, key grip Derek Teakle, sound recordist Matthew Dennis and line producer/AD Sam Pecoraro.
In speaking with John Milne, we decided that the most important priorities would be image clarity and camera movement. We knew there would be a lot of aerial work and we needed to think of how to approach this challenge. We would be traveling to Chile, Australia, Indonesia, Africa, U.S. and Canada, so we needed something compact. I was referred to Aerial Exposures' gyro stabilized mount. We rigged it in the back of Derek Teakle's truck and went looking for speed bumps. It performed beautifully and was extremely compact, so we decided to take it with us. The challenge for me was operating this rig. It was almost like being a steadicam operator. The gyroscopic stabilizers absorbed bumps and vibration but there was still some float and as an operator, I was constantly watching the horizon.
Next was dolly movement. We went with the simplest approach possible, and brought Teakle's skate dolly wheels. His task at each location was to find PVC pipe and a piece of plywood to manufacture a dolly and track at each location. We also chose a compact jib arm that would give us yet another option for camera movement. Teakle also brought a case full of rigging gear to do a variety of car mounts. John wanted cinematic camera movement. He also wanted variety. We knew that each location would offer unforeseen challenges and that having a variety of different options would be key.
Back at Sim Video, John De Boer and Rob Sim were very excited to tell me that they had just received a brand new set of Arri master primes. These lenses are works of art. I had heard that they are the only lenses that have the ability to resolve 4K. We supplemented that lens package with the 15.5-45-mm Arri master zoom lens. On the wide end, we added a Cooke 14 mm and a Zeiss 12 mm. For telephoto work, we brought along the RED ONE 300 mm.
Sim Video's support on this project was unbelievable. Electronic viewfinders for the RED ONE camera were on backorder. A few days before we left, Sim Video received two of these rare items from RED ONE. After a bit of testing, John De Boer told me with a big smile, "Don't worry, you guys are getting one." Three weeks before we were to depart, my own RED ONE camera arrived. It was decided that we would take two bodies with us, just in case. We would be toting equipment as extra baggage throughout our hectic schedule. Some creative packing and repacking had to be accomplished to get it all in 30 cases.
John Milne sent me a few visual references like Koyanisqatsi (1982) and North Country (2005). We also discussed Canadian large-scale photographer Ed Burtynsky and his "Manufactured Landscapes" series. We wanted to find beauty where people usually think of ugliness. At the core of Ground Rules is the reality that everything around us is derived from a mine. The other reality is that mining practices have changed. There is a new consciousness within the mining community, of making sure they are doing things in a sustainable and responsible way. Each mine site we visited had a different story to tell.
Chile: Spence Mine
We began in Chile. The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places in the world, and we were concerned about the heat, dust and extremely dry climate. We photographed this modern copper mine with a focus on the people who work there as well as the high-tech repair facility they use to service the massive Caterpillar haul trucks. From pulling ore out of the ground to putting copper cathodes on to trains for delivery worldwide, we got to see the whole process first hand. Only once did the RED ONE overheat. This was because we accidentally wrapped the ventilation fans on the bottom of the camera while preparing for a car mount shot. After five minutes of cooling down, we were up and running again. We didn't make that mistake again.
Indonesia: Grasberg Mine
Two days of travel later, we found ourselves in one of the most humid places in the world. The Grasberg mine in Indonesia is one of the world's biggest copper and gold mines. After checking in at the Sheraton hotel in Timika, we unpacked and scouted our game plan. There were numerous aerials to achieve and transportation up to the small town of Tembagapura to co-ordinate. It is 2.7 kilometres above sea level and where we would spend two nights in accommodation not quite as luxurious as the Sheraton. The treacherous road leading to Tembagapura was one of the most frightening parts of our journey. Winding switchback roads with drop offs of hundreds of metres on either side. The most breathtaking part of this location was the mine itself. Located at 4.5 kilometres above sea level, we did aerials from about 4.6 kilometres. It was on this demanding day that our first AC woke up ill. He mustered enough strength to get the camera built and the cards formatted before waving us off - then headed for the nearest toilet. The weather was incredible. For a place that rarely sees sunshine, we had a day full of big puffy clouds. Because of the size of the mine, we were able to capture incredible vistas that included dramatic cloud shadows and mottled sunlight.
Australia: Xstrata Mine
Deep in the Australian outback, the Xstrata mine is a feat of engineering. It's the largest river diversion ever accomplished by a mine. We were following the environmental team who were in charge of managing the ecological aspects of the diversion. Once again, an aerial view told the story. We mostly used the master zoom 15.5-45 mm for our aerial work. This offered the most flexibility with regards to varied focal lengths. I used a polarizer and ND on these aerials. We recorded to compact flash for aerials because we had heard about the frequent dropped frames that can occur when attempting to record to a spinning drive in situations with a lot of vibration.
Canada: Creighton Mine
Going two kilometres underground to shoot this 100-year-old Sudbury nickel mine was one of the unexpected scary moments of the trip. The claustrophobic potential of descending two kilometres in an elevator tightly packed with miners became very real, very fast. Not to mention the atmospheric pressure change. Our lead person at the mine asked, "Does anyone have sinus issues?" to which there was no response. Then he said, "Well, we will find out soon enough." Scary! So down we went. We had the luxury of gaffer Loris Santarossa in Sudbury as well as a production assistant, Albert Huh, to make lunch and help us haul gear. My stripped-down lighting package consisted of two 800-watt joker HMIs plus a couple of Kino Flos. The master primes speed of t1.3 saved me during this portion of the shoot.
Ghana: Ahafo Mine
The story in Africa revolved more on the interaction of the mine with the community. We did very little shooting in the gold mine itself. Instead, we focused on community relations and farming communities that work in unison with the mine. Our filters went missing in transit to Ghana in west Africa, so by necessity all of the footage was shot with a "narrow" shutter speed in order to allow us to shoot at around 4 or 5.6 to maintain control over the depth of field. We shot in a bustling village utilizing RED ONE's 300-mm lens to shoot candid portraits of daily life. Production had to move quickly before the villagers realized that a film crew was around and would start to be conscious of our presence.
U.S.: Black Thunder Mine
The Black Thunder mine in Wyoming offered incredible skies and vistas to support the reclamation story that we were there to tell. The act of coal mining in Wyoming is probably the cleanest operation we had seen. Basically, the earth is removed, the coal dug out, and then the mine filled back in. The fields and lakes that we photographed were stunningly beautiful. It was hard to believe that these places had once been mined. The skies in Wyoming were unbelievable. It seemed like you could jump up and touch the big puffy clouds. I think the skies there take on that special quality because the area is a high desert. It's really flat but at a high elevation. So you are literally thousands of feet closer to the clouds. But it doesn't seem like that because the surroundings are so flat.
"The idea of Ground Rules was to follow the development of a new mine as it worked to become a model of sustainable practice."
We colour corrected the final footage at Technicolor in Toronto. Brian Reid, the manager of digital imaging, arranged for our original R3D files to be converted to DPX files at 2K. I spent two days with the talented colourist James Fleming, nailing down the looks for each location. The story bounces around a little, so John Milne and I felt that it was important to give each location its own distinct look, from the clean, dry, slightly warm desert mine of Chile to the more "contrasty" and cool tones of the underground nickel mine in Sudbury. Seeing the final 2K projection was breathtaking. The RED ONE delivered stunningly crisp images that don't scream digital. The dynamic range of these cameras is limited. They still can't touch film, but the convenience of shooting to compact flash cards, watching dailies on the road and colour timing as we went were invaluable things to have at our disposal.
Thirty flights in 45 days; across the world and back again, twice in six weeks. Ground Rules was everything that John Milne had promised. It was a pleasure being part of Science North's first foray into the digital realm. The RED ONE delivered more than we expected. With the incredible support of Sim Video and Technicolor, as well as an exceptionally hard working production crew, we managed to pull off a spectacular vision of the modern world of mining.
Digital workflow is still in its infancy. At the time we were prepping for Ground Rules, we were scrambling to understand how to manage terabytes of data in remote locations. My longtime assistant, Brent J. Craig, is a self-professed computer geek. He has closely followed the development of the RED ONE camera and had been involved in all the testing I had done prior to this shoot. He was getting to know the camera inside and out. "The camera is basically a very powerful computer with a lens attached," he says. "As someone who has been tinkering with computers since 1980, the move to digital cinema is a welcome amalgamation of my two passions. I think assistants with less nerdy tendencies are finding it a challenge dealing with these new 'camputers,' but for me it's second nature."
Craig continues,"I describe the need to download footage to permanent storage as similar to a film lab processing the negative, and treat it with the same paranoia and respect that a good lab does. The great thing about digital cinema, however, is that you are not limited to having only one copy of the original negative. The ability to create backups of your footage makes digital cinema safer and easier to travel with than film or tape.
"As soon as a digimag (CF card or hard drive) came off of the camera, I would make two additional copies, while retaining the original card or drive. Knowing the delicateness of hard drives, our rule was that we would always have three copies of the footage - two that were safely under our control and hand carried on our flights by different people, and another that could be considered not safe and in the hands a courier or received but not yet verified by post. We tried to never re-use cards or drives until we had the 'all clear' from the post team. During the six weeks of shooting and 84,000 kilometres of travel, we never lost a single frame of footage."
In terms of managing data, we decided to shoot mostly with CF cards. Although we had a 320GB RED ONE drive, we thought it would be better to have our footage spread over a bunch of media. We didn't want all our eggs in one basket. Chris Parker at Bling Digital was instrumental in helping us come up with a method for managing data and maintaining my look during the offline process. We would courier our footage to post supervisor Michael Knox who would, in turn, deliver it to Bling. Chris would then transcode footage to ProRes files and add the audio as well as my "looks" in preparation for John Milne to edit in Final Cut Pro.
One of the exciting things for me was the ability to do preliminary colour correction of the footage on the road. I used RED ONE's proprietary software, Redalert, to create looks for each shot. I would save these "look files" and email them to Chris Parker. He would apply the "looks" as he transcoded. Essentially I was timing my own dailies. This was both a blessing and a curse. After a 12-hour shooting day, Brent would back up data for a couple of hours, then I would take a drive and begin to colour correct. This made for some long days.
In the end it was well worth it and streamlined the final colour correction. When I arrived at Technicolor to do the grading, colourist James Fleming and I watched John Milne's fine cut on the 2K Christie projector. This was the cutting copy with my rough "looks" applied. By showing James these rough grades, I was able to efficiently communicate my desired look for each location.