Public Enemies: Using the High Def format for a period piece? Weird, bold, still weird.

Posted on 30 June 2009 by HansKlopek

When I see Johnny Depp jangle his spurs and draw down on witless security guards spouting “gimme all your money” in a down home Southern drawl, I’m sure I will let out a little sigh of pure happiness. These sighs communicate one thing and one thing alone: God, I’m glad to be at the movies right now.

public_enemies_posterObviously, there is never any guarantee about whether or not a movie will fulfill your expectations. Hell, sometimes it’s better, at least more interesting, for it not to fulfill your expectations. But there are certain movies that, based on the talent involved, just look too good to doubt, and Public Enemies looks like one of those movies. Michael Mann is one of the most scrupulous and passionate filmmakers working today, and no matter what he has coming out, I know I have to be there as soon as possible to observe.

But I’m excited about this movie for a number of other reasons. One is the chance to see Johnny Depp play a true outlaw without a hint of irony; I’ve never seen him play the rougish, untethered bad apple from the mold of George C. Scott and Robert Mitchum. Another reason is the chance to see Depp square off against Christian Bale; these are the two most imaginative, original character actors working today, and getting to watch them share a scene is sure to send chills up the spine of every audience member, at least the ones who know them as more than just Captain Jack and Batman. And the third is the anticipation about how well the film will do in a time of the year where tastes are geared more toward shapeshifting robots. Public Enemies clearly has the stuff to kill at the box office (Depp against Bale in an action movie, directed by the Miami Vice guy), but I wonder if it is squandering its Oscar hopes by opening so early? Or if it is just too serious, and Transformers 2 might kick its ass with staying power? Ah, we shall see.

But another reason that I am anticipating Public Enemies is because it will mark one of the first times that a big budget, epic Hollywood period piece has been shot using the High Definition format. I say one of the first and not the first because that pesky David Fincher also shot Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button using the Thomson VIPER Filmstream camera, one of the most high end HD cameras available and the same camera that Mann also used to shoot not only Public Enemies but Collateral and Miami Vice as well.

Why am I making light of this? Because this is an important moment in Hollywood’s continuing exploration of the High Def format as a vehicle for cost effective filmmaking. The debate over film vs. digital has raged on over the years, but in the beginning there were only a small pocket of filmmakers who were willing to use the High Definition format for their projects. For every Robert Rodriguez, there were 100 studio executives exhorting the supremacy of 35 mm film and sending young filmmakers eager to work with a more cost effective tool back to Circuit City with their tail between their legs.

High Def has gained a lot of traction with filmmakers, though. I mentioned Zodiac and Button as High Def movies, but others like Superbad, Apocalypto, Deja Vu, Superman Returns, Knowing, The Spirit, and Get Smart have all been shot using the High Def format. Guys like Steven Soderbergh and David Lynch have declared their love for digital cinematography and have shot films like Bubble and Inland Empire using not cumbersome film cameras, but simple, compact equipment that looks like something you could purchase at Best Buy.

Digital cinematography has become extremely pervasive in the independent film world, opening up doors for youngcruise in collateral filmmakers that few would have thought possible two decades ago. Film has always been the standard, and the costs attached to buying, shooting, and processing it, whether it be 16 mm or 35 mm, has always been a bit more than most without a toe in the studio world could bear.  There will always be a debate about which format is better, and even the filmmakers who have used the High Def format haven’t gone all the way with it: guys like Fincher, though they shot most of their movies in High Def, will still go back to traditional film cameras for certain scenes, such as the slow motion murder sequences in Zodiac. Some films such as 28 Days Later have been shot using lightweight digital cameras but then blown up to 35 mm later on. And with some HD productions, I honestly have not been able to tell that it was not shot on film. This may be an indication of how High Def and digital cinematography are more of a cost saving technique and less something that can add a new artistic element to the story.

Mann is a different case. There is a highly noticeable difference between his HD films and an HD film like Superbad. Just looking at the trailer for Public Enemies, or the entirety of Miami Vice or Collateral, you can see that these movies look like they were shot on video. The depth of field extends further, there is a kind of jagged grain to the actors’ movements, the details in skies and trees simply look different. I’ve heard that Mann intentionally underlights his scenes so that the VIPER, which can pick up extensive detail even in low light situations, can add a more realistic visual tone to a scene. Perhaps that is why his version of High Def belongs in its own category–because he isn’t just trying to save money, but opening up a new dimension in his film.

People use the term ‘documentary realism’ a lot when they want to talk about a film’s believable, true-to-life energy. This is generally just another way of saying that the filmmaker chose to use a handheld camera a lot. Michael Mann will go handheld sometimes, but it won’t take over the visual experience of his films. Yet they feel more like documentaries than anything else on the market right now. I suppose the bold choice is no longer just to use HD, but to actually try to use it in a way that complements your story.

miami_vice1Miami Vice and Collateral were very easily complemented by Mann’s technical decision as they sought to present a brutally mundane portrait of, in the former, the rough and tumble lives of Miami cops and, in the latter, an unforgiving night of the soul in urban Los Angeles. When I heard that Mann was going back to the 30s and making a period piece about John Dilinger’s life on the run, I was excited, but one question sat uncomfortably in the back of my mind: is he going to shoot it using High Def?

Apparently, once certain filmmakers use the format once, they don’t want to go back. Seeing the period in Mann’s HD was incredibly jarring the first time. Think about the way directors have depicted the 30s, 40s, and 50s throughout cinema history. Can you think of three decades to which our visual perceptions are more rose-colored? When I think of those times, I think of movies like The Good Shepherd, where everything is very smooth and seems to have just been touched by the hand of a set decorator. The Aviator springs to mind too, where Scorsese actually emphasizes how our visual idea of the 30s is completely dictated by the films we have seen.

Public Enemies is probably the first film that I’ve seen that is going to give me that period in a way I have never seen it before, and it is going to feel far more believable than the approach that would be taken with a tradional 35 mm film camera. This will be an important movie on a visual level because it might finally indicate how the High Def format can be used to unveil different dimensions in the story or present viewers with a version of a period that they have never seen before.

So when Johnny Depp jangles his spurs and jabs his tommy gun in the face of some innocent bank teller, I will, on one hand, be writhing in cinematic ecstasy simply because of the coolness of what the actors are doing. On the other hand, I will be nodding my head in appreciation for the originality of how they look doing it.                           

20 Comments For This Post

  1. Rachel Says:

    I am uber excited about this one :)

  2. Quaid Says:

    There’s something about under-lighting scenes with the VIPER that causes a lot of motion blur and almost a 30FPS look. That, coupled with the different color space and definition, makes Mann films look slightly different than true 35. You’re right, it’s weird that other movies manage to light and color correct in such a way that makes these elements almost invisible and Mann does not. Maybe he really is embracing the different format and enjoying the different look?

    Most people in the audience, though, still won’t be able to tell the difference.

  3. HansKlopek Says:

    I think he just likes the look and decides that it isn’t necessary to make HD look like film as much as possible. Like I said, it has worked for the movies he has made thus far. Public Enemies is interesting because you wouldn’t think the HD format would complement a big epic period piece since we are so used to a sleek, polished 35 mm look for everything that is set in the 30s or 40s. I think most people will at least notice that there is something different looking about the movie, but they’ll probably be so wrapped up in the story that they won’t mind or care much.

  4. Paul Says:

    I loved the plot and the acting, but the look of the movie itself was really distracting. It looked really cheap and really digital, like History Channel reenactment cheap. It was awful! Just something about it just didn’t seem right. (Also, I don’t think the shaky style of the filming was appropriate for a 1930′s piece) I was cringing through the whole thing, something I can’t quite put my finger on about it just bothered me. As I said, it looked like a History Channel reenactment.

  5. Aviad Says:

    I found the digital filming far too distracting. My wife and I were discussing it more than we discussed the actual movie. The cast was great, so was the script, acting and the overall production – but the weird cinematography just didn’t do it for me. When I go to the movie, which is pretty much every week, I don’t want to feel like I could have shot the movie myself – it felt cheap especially the gun fights towards the end of the film when Dillinger’s gang was caught off guard at the cabin. The shaky camera movement + the high def filming was too much to bear. I could deal with the shaky camera in the Bourne movies. I could deal with HD in Superbad, Miami Vice and Collateral but the combo of the two just really killed the movie for me. Also, I found that the cinematography was inconsistent and that the first half of the movie didn’t suffer the digital look as much as the second. That also didn’t add to the experience. Bottom line is that when I go to the movies I’d like to be focused on the movie, the story, the characters and so forth and not on why Michael Mann decided to bother me and make me feel uncomfortable in my seat looking at something I could have shot with my own HD camcorder.

  6. HansKlopek Says:

    There were some definite inconsistencies with it. For instance, in that last scene between Billie and the agent who shot Dillinger down, that absolutely looks like it was shot on film. There were other scenes that look the same way. If it took away from your experience (and from what a lot of other people are saying, their experience too) it might have been better to put HD away for a film. He could have come back to it in a more appropriate venue.

  7. Dan B Says:

    Just seen Public Enemies and Manns choice of hand held shooting style plus infinite depth of field screams ‘home video’ to me, which also equates to ‘cheap’ in my mind. I think the visual cues we take from moving images are so ingrained – a bit like adding bars at the top and bottom of a film says ‘expensive’ and ‘shot on film’

    I think the answer could be a mixture of old and new technologies so that our brains can get used to this new medium and what it can offer over film..

    Kudos for Mann for trying new styles out though. This is an emerging technology.

  8. NA Says:

    The way they shot the movie got in the way of the story for me. The story and acting were great but some scenes took me right out of the moment because they looked like home video. The motion blur was all messed up and not realistic. Some scenes almost had a 60p ESPN look to them. Hopefully this doesn’t set back the digital revolution any. The lesson for this is to find out what they did in shooting this and never do it again. Whatever settings they used should never be repeated.

  9. Georgia Says:

    I just loved the movie…and admired the quite remarkable shifting between 35 mm and High Def I was also expecting something realistic from Mann so I got my money’s worth with this piece
    hope he will do more projects like this!
    and Depp with Bale are just right for the job

  10. SeanO Says:

    It looked incredibly awful. I’ve seen Collateral, Miami Vice and Zodiac. I don’t remember noticing a weird look in any of those (which is a good thing). But with Public Enemies there were moments when it looked like a cheesy reenactment from the TV show Unsolved Mysteries.

  11. Adlai Says:

    I loved the acting and the plot, but I did think the movie was held back by the choice to shoot it in a way that emphasized the camera equipment used. I knew nothing about the movie going in, my girlfriend wanted to see it, but once I saw how cheap and underlit the movie looked, especially the interior and night shots (shot by regular street or tungsten, with no color correction or white balance made) I just assumed that whoever made the movie was either a recent film school grad or the production had simply run out of money and shot it as cheaply as they could. I was surprised when I saw Michael Mann’s name come up in the credits. But I guess an artist does what an artist does.

  12. A.J. Says:

    I was able to tell the difference in a few of his interior shots under low light. It has to do more with controlling the f stop of the HD camera than anything else. At 1/48 of a sec. at 24p you are close to getting a bit of a strobe even though your Iris is open 100%. One is to use the gain which unfortunately introduces more grain, I avoid doing this at all cost. I prefer to shoot action sequences at an f stop of 100 or more obviously this requires more lighting on set.

  13. fred Says:

    I just watched the bluray, it looks cheap no matter what format its played back on, i guess the cheapness of those hd cams is that bad. Very distracting, i don’t known what mann was thinking. Makes a bad film all the worse.

  14. GY Says:

    Finally watched this on DVD, thinking that the electronic nuances of the film would be smoothed out on the small screen. Wrong! It’s still as most people say here, really video-like. The blacks are all murky and the action strobey…Great film, nice action, but why the Viper looks so video like in Mann’s hands is a mystery. Maybe the guy never worked in video and finds “video” a new look. I don’t.

    I didn’t notice anything video like in Zodiac if Fincher was using the same camera. Superman Returns on the Panavision Genesis also worked for me, but that was likely a lot of greenscreen. Crank shot on the HDCam SR was great. So why Mann consistently delivers more video like products with his movies will be an ongoing quirk.

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  17. Biscuits Says:

    Yeah– all the talk is well and good but the movie simply doesn’t work.
    Video makes this film look like any other film project from a film
    school. Making movies is about selling the essence of the subject matter.
    Why do you think the creepiest Horror movies are still the 16mm movies from
    the 70′s and 80′s. There was an inherent realism in those films that made the
    subject matter believable– which made them scarier. When you see Public Enemies
    and it looks the same as Superbad– that makes no sense. These movie should look
    drastically different because what is trying to be accomplished is so drastically different.
    Fincher btw understands this and uses technology to drive specific looks and often his story is enhanced by the look that he is creating. Michael Mann is an average director who makes almost average movies. And the fact that he shoots HD for Public Enemies does nothing to serve the story instead it is a distraction and makes the piece look fake. It doesn’t work and that’s a fact. BTW_ Soderberg uses video in appropriate ways. Video is a look not a solution across the board

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