Infusing Natural Moods Into Unnatural Circumstances

Cannes Film Festival

AutoMatik Entertainment

Paul Cameron isn’t particularly attracted to action films, yet his resume suggests otherwise.  With titles including "Gone in 60 Seconds,"  "Collateral," and last year’s remake of "Total Recall," the director of photography has an ability to capture high-adrenaline sequences while maintaining realistic lighting, mood and balance that has become a calling card.  While some may classify these films as “action” Cameron sees it differently; a vision he credits to past collaborations with director Tony Scott.

"His films involved the psychology behind kidnappings and the science of time travel.  At their core, they were good stories, not just about the action," said Cameron.  "The bar was set really high working with Tony."

Cameron’s latest feature, "Dead Man Down," is a revenge film that, despite its action sequences, is a love story at its core.  The subject matter under the direction of Niels Arden Oplev, the director of the original "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" provided Cameron an opportunity he was excited to embrace.  He was eager to create a balance between the dark tone of the subject matter, a natural shooting approach desired by the director, and a system of lighting that would consistently define the main characters.

"Nels wanted a natural look, which is what I strive for.  For me, any scene is important to light well and to feel natural," said Cameron.  "In lighting the faces, my goal was to pull the eyes off the screen."

With a 40 day shooting schedule spread over eight weeks and time split  between location shooting in New York and soundstage/green screen work on an extremely tight budget, Cameron found maintaining a natural look very challenging.  He relied heavily upon a collaboration with production designer  Niels Sejer to keep his lighting plan simple and efficient.  Working in a tight space where sets completed moments before shooting, the two consistently communicated about the feel and tone of each shot.  Sejer incorporated practicals and colors that would aid in balancing the light and enhance the natural feel.  The apartment complex was designed to have an Eastern European ambiance filled with warm lighting, while the hallways had a sterile, surgical appearance and starker lighting.  The main character,  who’s wife and child were killed, had little decoration or furniture in his living space, a choice that not only emphasized the character’s emotional state but allowed Cameron to punch the light in and out of darkness, highlighting lead actor Colin Farrell’s face and expressions.

Cameron shot raw footage on the Arri Alexa for "Dead Man Down" because he felt it gave the best possible resolution, captured the most natural skin tones, and color corrects very well.   He approaches finding the right digital cameras to use the same way he approached picking film stocks ten years ago; carefully judging proprietary sensors and each camera’s ability to hold highlights differently.  Although he prefers to shoot on film, he sences the death of the medium is rapidly approaching.

"It’s almost impossible not to gravitate to all digital," said Cameron.  "There’s only a few places, such as Photo Kem in LA, with there are the best film timers and print timers.  Most companies now don’t have the qualified staff to manage all steps.  They develop the film, then ship it to another lab.  I would love to shoot more on film, but with the consolidation of labs such as Technicolor and Deluxe, the knowledgeable  have been displaced or forced into early retirement."

Disliking the ultra-clean images higher resolution digital cameras produce, Cameron added a a manipulation to the footage of "Dead Man Down."  He introduced a 4K scan of Fuji daylight stock to re-introduce grain to the finished feature.   

"I try to emulate film.  It’s almost more pure," said Cameron.  "I push the night stock grainer with daylight but up a jump.  With the 4K scan of the grain it adds a consistency to the complete film."