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Saturday, February 07, 2009

David Mullen, A.S.C..

I posted a question on REDuser.net to cinematographer David Mullen, A.S.C. today.

For some time now there was an issue that's been bothering me. Why do the recent movies that went through a D.I. look so good on Blu-ray or HDTV? Sometimes they look even better at home than in theaters (with 2K standard projection).

Well, I decided to ask David Mullen why.

Here's my question:

Hey David,

I get frustrated when I grade my projects because it seems that no matter what I do, I can never get the incredible look that the newer DI movies have.

To see what I mean, notice how good these DI movies look on your HDTV. It looks better than our usual 2K projection theaters!

For instance, since we're on a RED forum, The Knowing has that clean rich darks and rich warm colors look. A great example outside RED is The Zodiac, shot with the Viper. The yellows were amazing in that movie.

I've noticed that most of these movies have been DI'd at Deluxe.
Do they have a secret to achieve that look or was it achieved on set?

Thanks!
__________________
Jose Maria Norton
Here's a shot from "Knowing"

... and another shot from "Zodiac".


And here's David Mullen's answer:

It's a combination of elements, from the choice of camera, to how it was set-up, to how the scene was lit, to how it was corrected in post, processed, etc.

I'm afraid you're just running up against the challenge that every DP faces -- "how do I make my movie look really, really great, not just adequate?" You spend a long time -- sometimes a lifetime -- trying to figure that out.

Sometimes, not always, it's just the accumulation of a hundred little decisions, and other times, it's a few broader choices you made. I know that's vague...

For example, there was a great article in an old American Cinematographer on getting "clear pictures" by Ken Richter (Oct. 1978 issue). This was a guy who went around the country showing 16mm nature and winter sports footage to audiences. He often got asked why his footage looked so good, particularly since most of it was shot in 16mm. He wrote this article to explain how, but the gist of it was that there was no single "trick" involved -- that sharp, clear, rich photography came down to the choice of camera, lenses, f-stop chosen, filters, exposure, film stock, processing, printing, color-correction, projection and projector lens, theater conditions, etc.

In other words, any single step had a minor effect on quality, but it was accumulative as you went through all the steps out to the end result.

A lot of it came down to contrast as well, since contrast affects our perception of sharpness, so he used contrasty lenses in stronger lighting contrast on higher contrast stock, etc. to compensate for the softness of 16mm.

Truth is that you may do any number of things right, but one step in the process done badly can reduce the quality of the final product. So to some extent, you have to be a quality-control freak.

On the other hand, to get back to the "big picture", a strong graphic image will survive any number of quality-reducing factors. Spielberg once wrote something similar, which I agree with -- if you create a particularly graphic image, like a dramatic silhouette, or someone in a dark room in a single shaft of light, then it tends to survive being mishandled in post or presentation -- it may even look cool if shot in Super-8.

Whereas an extremely subtle image, like a blooming pear blossom tree on an overcast day, all pastels and soft lighting... well, that may look great shot and projected in 70mm, but it may look too mushy if shot in Super-8 -- the "point" of the shot may be lost on the viewer.

That doesn't mean that we should only create strong graphic images, but it may mean that if we have a lot of very subtle touches to the image, if it is a very "delicate" image, you may want to spend more time making sure it is presented properly. I mean, I've seen both "Citizen Kane" and "Days of Heaven" in 16mm prints, I can tell you that the first survives that form of reduction better than the second.

Also keep in mind that Fincher used an expensive noise reduction process at John Lowry's film restoration company for his two Viper movies, to make the noise / grain more consistent throughout the movie.
__________________
David Mullen, ASC
Los Angeles
http://www.davidmullenasc.com
Very inspiring!

There is no one secret to getting the perfect look, but a combination of quality driven choices DPs, directors and colorists make to achieve the best image possible.

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