Staging a new international view and setting itself apart from the TV series: The transition towards contrast and dynamic range
This movie predominantly used 2 ARRI AMIRAs, shooting in 2K, which produced a different result that focused more on contrast produced by the dynamic range compared with the more popular 4K or 8K. In order to take advantage of this, the lighting plans differed from what was used for the “Aibo (Partners)” series. For the scenes filmed in the small rooms particular to “Aibo (Partners)”, the crew used mini jib cranes, moving camera rigs and steadicams. As there is a lot of cranework on a large-scale movie production, they used cameras that would give them variety and functionality, like the PMW-F55, ALEXA mini and the GoProHD HERO. In addition, all the film versions used Glimmer Glass from Tiffen, a company that has gained worldwide recognition in the film industry of late. Glimmer Glass filters were widely used in the days of film production, with its emphasis on contrast, but in this digital age, which uses video as its foundation, the depth of field deepens because of the small CMOS sensor, so the issue of particles from the filter appearing on screen led to its disuse. But recently with the appearance of full-frame sensor cameras, they have been coming back into use with digital and film productions that emphasize contrast. Depending on the grade, you can set up the gradual richness of the shot, so it is favored for use with rendering skin tones. Since there is no applicable filter to go with the regular 35mm still camera, if pressed I would use the Black Mist No. 1 (Kenko) filter or the like, but it will not produce the same results.
Its overall look and style emphasizes an international style, based on how the color grading is done in post-production although it is a digital production.
Interview with Director of Photography: Masahiro AIDA
※All videos are all in Japanese.
1. Plans to shoot “Aibo (Partners): The Movie IV”
2. Camera work of “Aibo (Partners): The Movie IV”
3. Carl Zeiss; High speed first lens T1.3
4. Contrast by the key light from the side and glimmer filter
2K resolution: A process that makes the best use of dynamic range
“Aibo (Partners)” is the fourth in the film franchise. The first and second films were more like an extension of the TV series, but starting with the third film, which coincided with the launch of Sony’s PMW-F55, an increase in awareness of “4K” and Asahi TV’s implementation of the 4K projector in their EX Theater, the goal was to produce the first 4K Japanese movie.
“Aibo (Partners)” has always taken a pioneering approach to filmmaking, so the crew were curious about what they were going to do with this movie. The fourth movie contains a lot of flashback scenes as well as relying a great deal on VFX, so it was taken for granted that we would be shooting in 4K, but this time the decision was to give 2K a try to bring out the dynamic range. “Aibo (Partners)” started out as a TV drama, but this time the filmmakers wanted to take an international approach to the production, so the idea was to focus on the dynamic range rather than the resolution. The main camera equipment used was the AMIRA and the ALEXA mini from ARRI. ARRI’s stance to this point has been “dynamic range over resolution”, so my thinking was to focus on creating images with a rich dynamic range using the Super Speed Series 1.3 from the Fast Series in conjunction with old Carl Zeiss film lenses from 30 years ago.
Naturally we would use the standard cinema cameras like ALEXA XT, but we had decided from the start that we would be shooting in 2K, and on top of that, we wanted mobility. There was going to be an international sports victory parade that would take place on a large street, which would occur at the climax of the movie, and considering the cameras and angles we would be shooting from, as well as the need for tripods and special peripheral equipment, I wanted to make sure we kept the equipment to a minimum. So in the end we went with two ARRI AMIRAs and one ALEXA mini for our main cameras.
From natural to conventional camera work
When you think of “Aibo (Partners),” you usually associate it with dynamic camera movement, but I’ve stopped thinking of it in those terms. That type of filming, or “follow work”, was born from the idea that you had to follow the actors as they changed positions – all the while maintaining an angle to see easily from anywhere. If I were to put it in “Hollywoodese” it would be similar to a “master shot,” and if you were to shoot a conventional master shot, you would have to use a crane to get the entire image in the frame. But it’s not possible to do this continuously on a television production with this equipment, so I started thinking, “Can I do it using a jib and a rail dolly?” and gradually the world of “Aibo (Partners)” emerged; it was a popular topic for a while. We created a “Aibo (Partners)”-like blue-lit world and experimented with leaving the camera running to shoot a scene. However, having worked in this style now for 15 years, the mind-set that things need to be shot a certain way, or that things have to be certain color, is starting to disappear. I personally think we have much more freedom now, and I am shooting scenes the way I want to. But the concept of how to shoot the master shot has always been there with “Aibo (Partners),” and we have been very conscious of how to create a master shot in our choice of equipment.
A sophisticated “Establishing Shot”
I was faced with the question, “How can I shoot an establishing shot that’s not a wide shot but still make it look good?” So, I came up with this answer: the camera should circle the actor; so that, you will still get a sense of “Ah, it’s this kind of setting” or “The other actor is standing over there.” It’s an old technique even in Hollywood to use a wide shot to introduce the audience to the situation, and they don’t really do it nowadays. Setting up the shot to show everything in a casual way – that’s a master shot. It’s an effective way to make it seem as though there is a scene change; when you have been following the actor and he suddenly turns around, it’s almost like it’s a new scene. The director of this movie, Hajime Hashimoto, is also a movie buff and is therefore well aware of film techniques like this. Because he likes a lot of those sleek cuts, his production called for cuts; thus, we considered how to make this a dynamic, filmic production while meeting those needs.
Key Lighting from a Surface Light Source + Old Lens + Glimmer Glass
The Carl Zeiss Fast Lens, which was the main lens used in this movie, is not that old when looking at the history of film; it is easier to create flare though it’s coated compared with lenses currently on the market, and because I wanted to achieve this look, I wanted to take advantage of this lens performance in an effective way. As a lens from the film era, the premise behind its creation was that you can achieve contrast with this lens, which is one reason why I decided to use it. I knew from past experience that Carl Zeiss lenses are effective in shooting contrast, and Carl Zeiss was the one who actively promoted the MTF. From the time of black-and-white film, the basic concept behind the lenses was to enhance the 3D aspect by means of the contrast ratio. In the past, when digital cameras didn’t have the pixel density they have today, you could still shoot in contrast and create a decent image.
When considering how to provide a basic illustration of dynamic range, we did a major revision of the lighting plan based off the previous “Aibo (Partners)” movies. We moved the key light next to the actor more off to the side, using a large source of surface lighting. Then we slowly moved the light in front of the actor, and by drawing out softer lighting from the surface light source in front, you will end up with diffuse light on the opposite side of the actor’s lit face. I wanted to intensify the contrast so that you create gradation on the subject using the broad light source more effectively. If there is a need for shadow, you can create this by supplementing the fill light with color light, and we planned to create gradation using very little light. So the stock shot itself is an image that uses an extremely high contrast light source.
We also used Glimmer Glass filters exclusively for the first time in this movie. Normally the black would become incredibly saturated during the color grading process, but because we used Glimmer Glass, when we went to lift the shadows in that high contrast exposure we were able to lift the shadows a little to minimize the saturation and assumed we would be able to expand the range. Depending on the grade of the Glimmer Glass, the light leak can be quite beautiful, and the changes in light leak are minimal, so it is extremely easy to use. Changing the grade (⅛, ¼, ½, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) = control over how much you can lift the black.
The interesting thing is that the surface of the Glimmer Glass looks as though it needs cleaning, so when the actors saw it during shooting, some of them were concerned and asked if the lens was okay, whether it was dirty (laughs).
TV series expands into a cine workflow system
Starting with the 2015 “season14” “Aibo (Partners)” TV series, we began using the full-frame sensor Canon EOS C300 Mark II. The lighting also changed as a result of the desire to create a greater depth. With the surface light source setting the tone for the contrast lighting, it’s not just that the depth of field will be shallow; for example, even in a 2-shot pan focus, you will be able to achieve the same mood. It requires more work but with this technique, there might be a lot of contrast and you would need to render this with gradation. Or you might have harsh lighting, but the quality of light itself will be profoundly softer. In other words, it feels more filmic, and we improved on this for the movies and implemented techniques we couldn’t use in the TV series. With television, it’s hard to use dark colors in a scene, but it gives you greater scope for expression when you have more subtlety in the greyscale, as the viewer can immerse himself in the scene (theatrically speaking). But with “Aibo (Partners)”, it’s pointless if the scene is so dark that you can’t see what’s happening, so we had to come up with how to balance the two when shooting the movie.
New experimentation with color grading
This time we left most of the color grading decisions to the colorist Mr. Satake from the beginning. He had already given us advice regarding the effects of Glimmerglass on shooting. Until now, I tried to capture light and shadow in those shots myself. This time round, I enjoyed the post production process, as I looked forward to seeing what decisions the colorist would make – for example, when it came to rendering the dark colors, I wondered how he would edit the shot to darken the spot during color grading, even when seeing the shot as is, if I were to shoot everything pretty bright. I felt it resulted in significant changes (i.e., progress) – though quite low-key – by letting someone else take the reigns for once and implement a process of trial and error to arrive at the best look for this movie.
Technique born from overseas experience
During the filming of “Queen’s Castle,” which we shot in Paris, France, we were on location in Versailles and inside buildings in Paris, and as we used candles for our light source, and the light was from the side, the question was how to achieve the key light from above, which is commonly used in Japan. This was something I dwelled on for a while. Since then, from the latter half of 2014 I was present during the filming of “Kainan 1890,” shot on location in Turkey and Japan, and the Director of Photography was Tetsuo Nagata, who is currently working in France. Naturally he is world-renowned and critically acclaimed, and thanks to this experience I learned a great deal about lighting from him. For example, I learned how to create completely soft key light from the side; there was so much I learned from him. Of course I have not copied all of those techniques in “Aibo (Partners).” This is a Japanese production and when it comes to television, you have to be aware of scheduling and scale issues, so it’s not possible to dwell on every little detail. It’s not as though we can recreate everything that Mr. Nagata would do on location, as we don’t have the equivalent scale or budget either. That said, I picked up some tips from my experience working with him, such as how to approach lighting. How can I apply that knowledge to create a new style for “Aibo (Partners)”? I thought, and through a process of trial and error, I managed to change dramatically the way I film key light from the side. People have preferences when it comes to lighting, of course, and there are many good examples of Japanese style key light from above, but because I have always liked foreign films, I think you will see this influence on “Aibo (Partners).”
Trust in your crew leads to new ideas
One of the difficult things about shooting in Japan is that you have to get everything in one take when you are shooting on a big set. One reason for this is that you are dealing with the actors’ schedules and the location scheduling, too. You can’t reshoot just because there was a technical error. Under these tight circumstances, the important question is how you are going to shoot according to plan. The fact that we were able to shoot most of the scenes in line with my vision boosted my self-confidence. But I couldn’t have done it without the support of the crew. It was a large-scale production, and there were many things I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own. I was blessed by having so many talented people around me. I had a clear vision of the finished product, so with lighting and post production I placed my trust in the crew at each location, and thanks to their help I was able to be quite relaxed during this production. There were so many things that I could not have predicted, so I was happy that I didn’t have to make all of the decisions myself (laughs).
Profile: Cinematographer for the “Aibo (Partners)” series from its inception. He has supportive of implementing the Director of Photography system within Japan. He has also taken a proactive approach towards file base filming, DI Work Pro, 3D, 4K filming, HDR (High Dynamic Range) production, and other similar research supporting cutting edge technology and implementation.
Representative Work: “Aibo (Partners): The Movie” (entire series), “Young Man H” (2012, Director: Yasuo Furuhata), Queen’s Castle (2015, Director: Hajime Hashimoto), “Kainan 1890” (2015, Director: Mitsutoshi Tanaka), “TAP” (release date 2017, Director: Yutaka Mizutani). Belonging to UPSIDE, a production company.