One cannot simply stress the significance of color and what it means for the emotional experience of a film. This is especially the case for Disney and its vast vault of memorable films that transcend both time and space. That’s why I realized early on in pre-production for the newly released movie Safety (available now on Disney+) that I had to really think outside the box of what’s possible to deliver both the magic of Clemson University and the sobering reality of life in the projects of Atlanta. These are worlds that are diametrically opposed to one another with contrasting aesthetic tastes. To forge these opposing worlds, we required perfect, clean, full-spectrum Neutral Density (ND) that would be able to go from 1-13 stops. And Tiffen was the ideal manufacturer to make it happen. Keep reading to find out how we made our vision a reality.
But before we get started, I urge you to check out some of our other free lessons that center around the film Safety. In How to Shoot Sports Action Cinematography Part 1, we breakdown how we shot all of our gameday footage (59 setups) during halftime in just 7 minutes and 20 seconds. And, then, with Insta360: Virtual Scouting for the COVID-19 Era, we discuss the value of conducting your location scouts with an Insta360 camera for social distancing compliance while also saving big.
The Color Palette of Safety
A film’s color palette interjects a psychological sense of emotion that adds dimension to your film. That’s why there’s such a visual difference between movies like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and László Nemes’s Sunset. These films are set in similar time periods but have wildly different tones and moods that benefit largely from their specific choices of color.
This was certainly the case for Safety. In fact, Safety goes far beyond your usual Disney film. When you think of what constitutes a Disney film what comes to mind are fantastical storylines that interject magic and larger-than-life circumstances. However, Safety is a more sobering realistic story, based on a true story, where a young student-athlete (Ray-Ray McElrathbey), with an impoverished background, struggles to maintain his scholarship while juggling schoolwork and assuming custody of his younger brother (Fahmarr).
Take a look at the side-by-side example below:
Lakewood Heights, Atlanta
When we began to design the look and feel of Safety, it was essential that we establish a difference between these 2 distinct worlds. The projects of Atlanta (Lakewood Heights) had to feel very different from Clemson University and its campus.
We wanted the world of Clemson to be very colorful, which meant saturated oranges and purples essentially splashing off the screen. This not only included the classrooms, hallways, and the stadium but also wardrobe. In addition to the saturated colors, the texture had to feel clean, crisp, and much different from the much harsher Atlanta projects.
Lakewood Heights, Atlanta
Our vision for the color aesthetic of the Lakewood Heights projects in Atlanta, on the other hand, was one that was desaturated with lots of green and earth tones, muted greens, dark browns, dark burgundies, and blacks. The plan was to shoot 3200 ISO for all of Atlanta, so there would be grit even with the day exteriors. We wanted this to feel raw with urban decay.
Even the way the camera moved had to feel more rugged, so we decided to go handheld. Combined with the beautiful grain of the RED Gemini at 3200 ISO in lowlight mode, we bottled the tone of the characters and story and manifested it into the look.
Creating New Neutral Density
The reason for shooting Atlanta in 3200 ISO is because 3200 ISO is 2 stops more sensitive than 800 ISO, like your normal camera. So, what ND did I use, you ask? Well, most manufacturers only engineer up to 7 stops worth of ND, but I realized that I would need 13. So, that works out to 2.1 for 7 stops, 2.4 for 8 stops, 2.7 for 9 stops, 3.1 for 10 stops, 3.4 for 11 stops, 3.7 for 12 stops, and 4.0 for 13 stops.
Now, as you probably already know, the Alexa has its own internal NDS whereas the RED doesn’t. Luckily I have an amazing working relationship with Tiffen, so I turned to them in regards to collaborating on some new IR NDs that involved true color NDS for the full spectrum.
The manufacturer True ND had set the bar high by its consistency in holding the perfect color from 1-stop, 2-stop, 3-stop, all the way up to 7 stops. However, since our goal was to go all the way up to 13, the challenge was to maintain that consistency as more IR pollutants flood the sensor. But that’s also a difficult balance of holding color and solid skin tones without going into a weird magenta or cyan tint.
The Color Science of Neutral Density
To be able to shoot day exteriors in the middle of Atlanta with the blazing sun shining down overhead at 3200 ISO, it required a lot of work. One of the reasons why I love the RED Gemini is because of how filmic it feels to me. The RED Gemini replicates that film grain look due to its huge photo buckets. The photo buckets on the sensor beautifully lap up the light and I get the feeling as if I’m exposing film again.
Now, let’s have a look at the before and after of our Lakewood Heights exterior.
Together with Tiffen, we spent a lot of time testing the NDs, working in the color correcting bay with the colorist, and then re-testing over and over again. It was an arduous process where we even had to start back at the drawing board a few times. I really have to tip my hat to Tiffen’s crack team of engineers. They really delivered. Overall, it took us 2 years to produce the first 7 stops and another 6 months to perfect the remaining 8-13 stops.
The final product was pretty interesting considering its appearance. The ACs commented, rather perceptively, how it looked like welding glass because of its thickness. But that’s exactly what we needed to create that gritty look we needed for Lakewood Heights.
In-Camera Digital Diffusion
So, staying with our Lakewood Heights, Atlanta locations, let’s do a quick recap. Remember, we decided on 3200 ISO lowlight, the use of natural NDs up to 13 stops, and the 135 Bolex shutter. For consistency, I wanted to be able to use the wide-angle lenses but I diffused them also using digital diffusion in the camera rather than waiting for post-production. Another reason I chose to use digital diffusion was because we only had up to 5 at that point. So, out of 5, I used it for the 18mm. When I went to a 14 or 15mm, I wanted to go to a 6, but we didn’t have it available in the thickness of digital diffusion.
We used a unique digital diffusion that came in the form of shapes like half-moons, circles, lines, and crescents, among others, that soften skin and highlights rather than blooming them. That’s key — it softens, not blooms.
I also like to key with nice creamy types of tones. So, this digital diffusion responded very well to defocusing skin tones. It doesn’t affect the eyes and, in fact, eyes remain super sharp while it softens the skin and highlights. This, in turn, gives the Gemini that beautiful film texture that blows out and gives more of a grainy impression.
Creating Extreme Wide Angle Lenses
Since Safety’s a football film, I planned on deploying extreme wide-angle lenses. So, the next innovation from Tiffen had to accommodate these types of lenses. We needed to create NDs that could handle 8mm and 12mm lenses on top of the digital diffusion. I also used a 135 degree Bolex shutter, which is nostalgic for me since I came up shooting music videos. I shot a lot of these music videos on the Bolex and its 135-degree shutter because it crispens the image ever so slightly while also minimizing motion blur.
Since we were using 8mm lenses, 10mm lenses, and 12mm lenses, we needed Tiffen to engineer 9-inch NDs that also needed to handle the super-wide lenses. The scientists and engineers at Tiffen ended up doing an incredible job innovating a heavy line of diffusion. So, when I went to 12mm, I could use a 7; when I went to 10mm, there was an 8; and when I went to 8mm, I had a 9. This made the consistency of the overall look feel absolutely beautiful. I was able to soften my highlights, keep my great skin tones, and soften any of the skin that was needed within the whole production.
Now, you might be wondering why I’m softening something that softens skins in a wide lens. Well, with a wide lens you’re not necessarily looking at the skin so much because it’s not so zoomed in on a tighter lens, but you’re looking at the way it softens highlights. And it takes that video clip that the RED cameras possess, and it softens it beautifully giving it that film look we know and love.
Crafting NDs for Additional Lenses
I also wanted to be able to use extreme long lenses like the Canon 50-1,000 – which I absolutely love. It’s the perfect lens for shooting football because you’re able to be outside on the sidelines and in the endzone and really lens in there with the 1,000mm. So, what I needed to do was engineer a thin side to the digital diffusion.
Tiffen only had a quarter, so I had to engineer a 1/8, 1/16, a 1/32, and a 1/64 — the 1/64 was for the 1,000mm lens. If the 50-1,000mm was hanging more in the 500 realm, then we would go with the 1/32. And, if it was more in the 250 to 300, then we went with the 1/16. If it was more in the 150-200mm, then we went with 1/8.
When I’m using zoom lenses compared to primes, I always go one less heavy on the zooms. That’s because with the zooms, you have all the different optics and many more pieces of glass that end up softening the image to a specific point. So, if you diffuse them like you would diffuse a prime, it’s just too heavy-handed.
That’s why I had to create all of these different new levels of thinness, just how I had to do the thickness for the wide-angle lenses. We used extreme long lenses and I had to create the thinness of the diffusion so I could keep a consistent, even palette for the film, so every shot looked and felt like it was part of the movie.
The Bottom Line
In the end, I was beyond pleased with the hard work Tiffen did and the final look of Safety. We were able to generate a consistency between our characters Ray and Fahmarr’s home (and past) and Clemson University (their future) in such a way, that both looked and felt like polar opposites while still maintaining familiar lenses like the wide angles and extreme long lenses. So, without our newly engineered NDs that were designed specifically for our cause, we couldn’t have achieved the same level of grittiness and film-grain quality.
Working in-camera with digital diffusion is also a necessity. Capturing the right mood while getting the right tones and avoiding motion blur is an extremely difficult balancing act. But with enough patience, troubleshooting, and tenacity, it’s worth the struggle. Art is never an easy feat, and sometimes it takes more than a few tries — and revisiting the drawing board — before you have the right recipe. Thankfully there are manufacturers like Tiffen who believe in the artistry of film and work every day to make the visions of filmmakers a reality.