Paul Cameron, ASC, takes the shortest visual line between two lost characters for his newest feature, Dead Man Down

When Danish writer/director Niels Arden Oplev called Paul Cameron, ASC to work on his new film, Dead Man Down, which was set to shoot last summer in Philadelphia, Cameron didn’t hesitate to take the call. The cinematographer had seen Oplev’s adaptation of the worldwide bestseller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; and soon after he jumped on-board, Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace and Terrence Howard confirmed their involvement.

Cameron, who had worked with Farrell on Total Recall in 2011, describes the Dublin-born star as an absolute pleasure to work with. “He does his homework and when he shows up on set he’s ready to go,” Cameron explains. “Colin knows what I’m doing with my shots, when to play for close-ups and when to play for three to four cameras in an action sequence, all of which make the camera team’s jobs so much easier.”

The longtime Guild shooter knows a thing or two about intuitive storytelling himself, with credits that include Man on Fire and Déjà Vu with Tony Scott, Swordfish and Gone in Sixty Seconds with Dominic Sena and Michael Mann’s Collateral.

“The script [for Dead Man Down] was raw and truthful from page one,” he recalls. “It follows Victor [Farrell] and Beatrice [Rapace], two simple, real people with wounded hearts, as they form an unusual alliance to take revenge on Victor’s employer, the crime boss Alphonse [Howard] who had killed Victor’s family.” In fact, screenwriter Joel Wyman had told Cameron the origins of the story came from a feeling he had early on as a father and husband: that he couldn’t bare the idea of anything happening to his family.

Dead Man Down’s workflow was a culmination of digital techniques Cameron has been exploring for the last two years on films and commercials. Working with L.A.-based DIT Dane Brehm, the project’s dailies were timed on-set utilizing Assimilate Scratch. The visual management system gives cinematographers full control of color across the digital pipeline. 1619 provided transcoded dailies via PIX and Apple iPads.

“For the first time in digital capture I felt what I shot exactly matched what I saw during DI,” Cameron boasts. “I can’t stress how important it is for DPs to control and color what they shoot. Part of this is sticking with one color correction system and one professional monitor to make decisions on. Also, a system guaranteeing metadata makes it all the way down the digital pipeline. Assimilate Scratch really streamlines that process.”

Testing was handled at Philadelphia-based DIVE’s DI suite with senior colourist Alex Bickel. After the first test, Cameron made the decision with Oplev to add CineGrain’s scan of Fuji 35mm 64D to the final DCP digital cinema versions, as well as onto the final film release prints. “Bickel showed me CineGrain’s program and library of 4K film grain scans,” Cameron continues. “This one in particular isn’t overwhelming – it is a sharp, small grain pattern, overlayed at 80 percent normal contrast.”

Since shooting Dead Man Down, the DP has incorporated CineGrain on almost all his digital dailies, transcoding with a slight offset. Also key to the Dead Man Down pipeline were senior digital intermediate colourist Jill Bogdanowicz at Technicolor Hollywood, senior engineer John-Michael Trojan from DIVE (interfacing Brehm with Assimilate) and senior color timer Mato Der Avanessian from Fotokem handling the IP/IN and film prints.

Cameron used ARRI ALEXA, which he considers the most “film-like” sensor on the market, and captured with Codex ARRIRAW. Since all the visual effects in this intimate and personalized revenge drama were finished by Reliance in 2K, Cameron says 2.5K capture was sufficient. And since the plates of the main location – a Manhattan balcony and apartment interior – were shot on the RED EPIC at 5K, there was ample resolution to blow up or move around as needed.

“I captured uncompressed 4:4:4 which helped with sharpness,” Cameron explains. “I prefer that over shooting SDI compressed, for 2:40 spherical and 2K theatrical release especially. The ARRIRAW color correction is significantly cleaner. It also allowed for a clean color correction in P3. ARRI has always been one of the major motion picture camera companies providing complete production accessories and support.”

Cameron advocates that cinematographers weigh each and every camera and digital capture system on the market during prep. “To me they are like film stocks,” he states. “Each sensor and manufacturer has idiosyncrasies. Some have higher resolution; some have better natural skin tones. Some thrive in the shadows; some save the highlights. As DPs, we need to track the [technology] through all the changes and test them for what they are when we dive into a project.  It took film over a hundred years to become the magnificent and eloquent medium that it has become. Digital capture is doing pretty well in its early development, but like anything, it has room for improvement.”

Dead Man Down centers on Farrell and Rapace’s characters – immigrants from Eastern Europe who live across from one another on the 17th story of a Lower East Side tenement. Close enough to see but too far to overhear, they are, as Cameron describes, “like two lost birds nesting in brick towers high above the asphalt jungle.”

All balcony exteriors, and apartment and hallway interiors with Farrell and Rapace were shot on a stage in Philadelphia (doubling for NYC due to budget constraints). But a few shots were done at the real apartment building, just off Allen and Grand Streets in Lower Manhattan. Dead Man Down’s Philadelphia locations also included scenes captured aboard the SS United States, a ship from 1952 dry-docked in Philadelphia.

Cameron says making the balcony look real with a “NYC seen through Eastern European eyes’ vibe [Oplev] and [production designer] Niels Sejer were after,” was challenging. “The set is beautiful inside and out, but the massive green screen and rails were daunting,” he recounts, “and making the light match the plates became one of my greatest concerns.

“During the early stages of prep, I shot plates from the actual balconies in NYC and tested rear screen projection as an option for green screen. I wanted the actors to be able to feel like they were in New York. It would have been helpful in balancing the light, but unfortunately the resolution wasn’t sharp enough even using Red Epic 5K plates and Christie 2K projection. It became apparent green screen was necessary.

“After the first week of principle photography, I heard we were shutting down for two days to accommodate the actors’ schedules. So I took the camera crew to New York to shoot plates with the Epic,” he adds. “Our first dawn was magical. Instead of blue skies and sunshine it was pouring rain and dark, which was perfect. The afternoon skies brought great thick, haunting clouds; and that night the sodium glow of Manhattan under-lit the clouds forming this eerie glow. All those plates made the film.”

With the help of DIVE VFX supervisor Ed Mendez, Cameron used a live composite system to check shots of the balcony. “The real building with the set matched to face a 45-degree angle to Allen St in New York City,” he continues, “therefore the natural reality was askew and so were the plates. The real balconies were seventeen stories high and there were no intermediate objects or buildings nearby to ground it. I had to be able to see what the composites and plates would look like. The on-set system we had was rudimentary, but it worked great, helping Ken [gaffer Ken Shibata] and I make fast lighting adjustments.”

Cameron says he found the “simplicity” to the European director’s vision comforting. “Everything for Niels is driven by his characters’ reality,” he concludes. “In the final edit, most wide or establishing shots were removed. Also, a few sequences we designed and shot didn’t see the light of day because in the end they didn’t serve the characters.”

All photos courtesy of Paul Cameron / John Baer / FilmDistrict