Michael Mann wants to derive an aesthetic from what digital photography can do

Posted by · 4:10 pm · January 16th, 2015

BEVERLY HILLS – When sitting down for a “Blackhat” chat with director Michael Mann a few weeks ago, I had to ask him about the transition to digital filmmaking as an industry standard. Having already queried a number of our top cinematographers on the matter and written a piece about “Collateral's” legacy in that regard, and given the techno-drive of a movie like “Blackhat,” it felt like territory worth digging into.

And Mann digs in with intellectual ferocity, like anything else. “When I first shot some stuff digitally it was in 'Ali,'” he says. “We went on the roof of a building in Chicago, we had a couple of cameras and I took a flashlight, bounced it off a card and that was all the lighting. It was very little lighting. And it felt that what I saw was there was a truthfulness to the graphic that just blew me away. It felt like, 'Holy shit. The film crew's not here but this has really happened.' And I tried to define for myself what I was seeing. What I was seeing was the absence of film lighting. We're used to a certain convention of film lighting. It's an artifact, but we're used to it. We applaud when [Vittorio] Storaro does it. It's great. I love it. But when you subtract it, stuff feels real in a certain way. It's all mid-tones. There's no key light and fill.”

That manipulation is what he's always eager to get around when he works. The ratio of light to shadow on a subject, “we manipulate that to how I want to feel about you,” he says. “If I want to see deeper into your eyes, I bring that light down or I raise the fill or I put a card here. When you eliminate the artifact of theatrical lighting, suddenly truth seems to show up. I believe more that it's really happening. Ali is really on that roof. He's really working out. He's distracted by something in the distance and he realizes buildings are burning all over the city, because it's the night Martin Luther King got killed. I just felt that immediacy of it.”

That initial eureka moment is what attracted him to the form's conventions, and of course he took them headlong into “Collateral” three years later. Digital photography was even more important for that project, however, because of the film's time-of-day setting: Los Angeles at night.

“With film, you don't have any depth of field,” he says. “I wanted to see way into the distance, two miles down the street. I wanted to see like the burnt umber that's like a ceiling in this city, that reddish glow on the marine layer 900-1200 feet up, and see deep into the city and the sodium vapor and everything that makes that color. That had to be digital. But there weren't even look-up tables, the equivalent of a color table. We invented all of that, myself and [Second Unit Director] Bryan Carroll, actually.”

Within all of that, though, Mann says he has finally settled on what it is about digital that excites him as an artist looking for meaning in an aesthetic. And the analogy he has settled on is architecture.

“When steel came in to architecture in New York, they tended to use it to make buildings go up, but they didn't know what to make them look like,” he says. “So they took the basic maison – or a house, the ground floor – then they made the premier étage – the first floor – fancy. And then where there would be one or two stories and then a roof of the pediment, they stretched that to 30 stories. So if you think about all those buildings right around the turn of the century that are starting to use steel, they're all the same. They've got a couple of fancy floors, they've then got brick for 30 floors and then they've got a roof. It's like you want to slice 18 of the 20 floors out, drop it down and you've got a house, right?

“Whereas in Chicago and the Chicago school of architecture, they said, 'No,' that the structural technology should dictate – i.e. its function, to make a building tall – should dictate its form. And so the first building that really looks like a skyscraper, that is the first tall building in form, is the Monadnock Building in Chicago. And it's no accident that the institute of design – when all the Bauhaus architects, with the advent in '33 of the Nazi party being elected and they all fled – they all went to Chicago. Mies van der Rohe and the whole crew, they all went to Chicago in the '30s and developed the actual true form of the skyscraper. I apply that analogy to digital because I want to find my aesthetic in digital. I don't want to use digital to make it look like I'm shooting photochemical. I want to find and derive an aesthetic from what the technology can really do.”

What digital can do, he says, is offer much more range and variability than film. You can achieve many looks and that's attractive to him. What it does impose on a filmmaker, however, is the need to pre-visualize. “Photochemical is limited,” he says. “You've got the ASA of the stock. You can put more or less light through because of your f-stop, shutter speed, and then you've got the variable of the lighting. But the stock is static. In digital it's not static and we have much more variety. So rules of thumb don't work. For me, I want to research and develop what the look is that I want and then pre-vis the look and then go get that look. I want to get it in the camera. I don't like the idea of shooting some neutral look and then doing it in post.”

It's perfectly in keeping with an artist who so obsessively delights in the details of the worlds he crafts on the screen. It makes sense that he would do so in the technology that drives them into being as well. But interestingly enough, it's not like he has no plans of looking back. “If I had something that would really benefit from being shot with film, I would do it,” he says. “And in certain situations, it's logistically a lot simpler. You throw a mag on and boom. I'm not precious about it. I'm not an advocate for one technology or another. But I do get irritated with, and I've always been irritated with, the labs. They're lazy. 'Public Enemies' was gorgeous. But the prints people saw were sloppy. They were photochemical release prints made to what the labs considered their standards, which are really low. People who saw the film digitally saw the film we made. Today, if I had made the film, everyone would have seen it digitally. So all the criticism of that one, it wasn't that it was shot digitally. It's that it was on photo chemical prints.”

And speaking of “Ali,” which was shot by this year's toast of the medium, Emmanuel Lubezki, I selfishly make it clear that I would love to see the two of them work together again. It's certainly possible. “Chivo is great,” he says. “I'd love to work with him again. The stuff that he and my pal Alejandro [González Iñárritu] did on 'Birdman' is so fucking good. I went nuts. We were talking about it before he shot it. He had some anxieties about it, just out socially. I was just so happy for him. It was a really great accomplishment. He's a real artist. But a DP is like casting an actor. 'Is this guy right for that movie?' It depends on if the right movie comes around.”

“Blackhat” is now playing in theaters.

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