Take the ultimate LAPD ride-along with the Union team behind End of Watch. By David Geffner. Photos by Scott Garfield.
More than 20 years ago, the non-scripted reality series COPS introduced the video camcorder to primetime television. The show, which derived drama simply from following around police on patrol, used unpredictable camerawork, practical lighting, non-linear editing, and a disdain (mostly to keep its budgets low) for Hollywood tradition that underscored the messiness of real life.
Many scripted police procedurals that followed – Homicide, The Wire, CSI, The Shield, Cold Case, and NCIS – have, to some degree, embraced COPS’ cinéma vérité approach to better echo the gritty lives of their characters. But they’ve all stopped short of replicating its slapdash, amateur quality, electing to keep some veneer of professional production values.
End of Watch, directed by David Ayer and photographed by Roman Vasyanov, has no fear of crossing that line. This story of two heroic LAPD patrol cops (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña), fast friends protecting the meanest of urban streets, updates COPS for the YouTube generation. Ayer, who wrote the Oscar-winning Training Day, grew up in South Central L.A. and has long-standing connections to LAPD’s Newton Division, where the story is based. He says his quest “to make the most realistic cop movie ever” began with video supplied by his law-enforcement pals that was taken with a 640×480 HD cam clipped to a patrolman’s lapel.
“There was one shot [with an officer] arriving at a gun range near LAX on a suicide call,” Ayer describes from the Hollywood offices where he is prepping Breacher, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It’s a five minute POV − he enters, meets another cop, goes through a few doors and then finally sees the body. It was so compelling that I wanted to build a POV look for an entire film using two cops with wearable cameras to cut back and forth, a camera mounted on the dash as a master, and another handheld videocam that one of the cops is using to make his own movie. The goal was to go way beyond ‘found footage’− the characters create their own media without us putting up any rules.”
Rules are best broken only after they’ve been mastered, which is why Ayer says the 22-day shot, captured on five different digital formats in real drug-ravaged South L.A. locations, could only have been pulled off by a Local 600 crew.
“Sheer mayhem and broken bodies,” the director grins, “if this had not been a Union show. The lighting, operating, DIT, and focus demands were maniacal. The joke on the set was that I told Roman to light everything within seven stops and we’re good to go.”
In fact, the 31-year-old Vasyanov, who studied classical cinematography in his native Russia with Andrey Tarkovskiy’s director of photography, Vadim Yusov, says he wasn’t sure he could render Ayer’s vision, given the gear and limitations at hand.
“The weight of the cameras was so critical to enable this POV style that David wanted,” Vasyanov recounts. “The SI-2K was the best system we could find, but it was still too big and heavy [with a PL mount] to attach to the actors’ bodies.”
Working with Michael Mansouri at L.A.-based Radiant Images, Ayer and Vasyanov designed a special housing for the SI-2K Mini that basically just encapsulated the tiny seven-watt sensor while adding a C-mount lens system.
“The cabling came off the side of the camera,” Ayer continues, “and I had a military friend create an injection molded, vacuum-formed adjustable vest with metal plates that allowed us to mount the cameras on Jake and Michael’s chests.”
“We also made a version for the SI-2K Nano,” Vasyanov adds. “Since we could not pull focus with the C-mount lenses, we were careful to keep the action within two to four feet. For anything more complex, we used the SI-2K Minis with [PL mount] Super16 High Speed Zeiss lenses, which [operator] Mick Froehlich had on an Easy-Rig. We even put the SI-2Ks on fishing pole-style rods for the intense action scenes, like when Michael takes off his gun belt and boxes with a suspected felon in the guy’s living room.”
The fun didn’t stop there. Digital Imaging Technician Arthur To (who earned the nickname “the stunt DIT” for his ability to chase the actors, scramble over fences, and run up and down stairs in the sketchiest of South Central locations) says the SI-2K rigs were wired to Cinedeck units (worn on the actors’ backs) that recorded to SSD mags.
“We shot in Cineform Raw,” To explains, “which enabled Roman to do on-set coloring with me, and I used FirstLight to grade the references sent to E-Film.” He adds that the intense conditions and number of [SI-2Ks] was unlike anything he’s encountered as a DIT. “A lot of the film is shot from inside Jake and Michael’s patrol car,” To continues. “Our first AC, Drew Dumas, rigged together three SI-2Ks into the backseat, so I could check exposure levels as we drove in and out of varying levels of sunlight. I also had to monitor the stability of the SI-2K units under the extreme heat and vigorous driving conditions. Since I’m a smaller guy, I was able to hide from the dash-cams pointing toward the backseat. Every now and then it would be David [Ayer], who is over six feet tall, me and Roman, crammed together in the back on these wild and bumpy rides!”
Mr. To’s Wild Ride doesn’t begin to describe the workflow Dody Dorn and her editorial team encountered for End of Watch. Besides the multiple SI-2K systems, which captured at 2048×1152 resolution (23.98 fps) in a 16:9 aspect ratio, four other camera formats were used. These included helicopter-mounted 5K RED Epics (captured at 5120×2700 in 16:9 and down-resed to 2K at EFILM) for panoramic night exteriors of South Central L.A., a handful of car-mounted GoPros (captured in 16:9 at 29.97 fps), several Canon 5D Mark IIs (1920×1080 in 16:9) for a Quinceañera party scene Gyllenhaal attends with his girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) and Pena’s wife (Natalie Martinez), as well as for footage of the overlord of the Mexican drug cartel who puts out a contract hit on the two cops, and what Ayer calls “our hero cam,” a tiny Canon XA10 (capturing at 1920×1080 in 16:9) that Gyllenhaal’s character, Officer Taylor, brings to every crime scene for a film class he’s taking.
Dorn says End of Watch was challenging on many levels: “Working with five different formats and 150 hours of footage, to begin with,” she smiles. “And David’s style of directing – he rode in the car with the actors and fed them story points they’d worked on in rehearsal as a basis for improvisation. Because there were three digital cameras rolling, we’d end up with four or more takes for every scene without cutting.”
Given the sheer volume of material, 1st assistant editor Halima Gilliam (and apprentice editor Bob Benedict) worked closely with EFILM to deliver Dorn-transcoded, frame-rate/aspect-ratio-standardized footage prior to the final conform and DI. And with so many different files flowing in from the set, To’s role became that much more crucial.
“The naming conventions [To employed] by camera groups immensely helped me keep track of all the different cameras used throughout production, post, the DI, and even when handing over to the trailer process,” Gilliam reflects. “I continued to use [To’s] naming conventions to assign new “group” letters after production wrapped, and when 5D and Red Epic elements were still coming in.” The DIT also had to maintain pristine RAW files, alongside Vasyanov’s on-set color-corrected versions, so Ayer had a full chamber in the final color grade. To initiated redundancy (backups) at the point of capture, which were preserved by editorial throughout the pipeline.
Dorn, who edited Memento, is no stranger to risky narratives. She describes End of Watch as “exhilarating,” and says that while Ayer’s shooting script detailed the source of each camera format – Gyllenhaal’s XA10 footage, gangsters with videocams, wedding videography, etc. – “we abandoned trying to explain who was shooting what early [in the editing process], because the narrative was visceral and compelling.”
End of Watch announces its iconoclasm in the opening frame. “It’s an extended chase scene entirely shot from the dash cam of Jake and Michael’s patrol car,” Dorn outlines. “There are lots of cuts, which we justify with time code jumps – each shot has a date and time stamp burn-in accurate to a real police patrol-car camera. There were three set-ups, shot five or six times, all from the dash cam. I had to work with what I was given, as we weren’t going to play the scene out in real time.”
Was Dorn intimidated by the massive amounts of footage the new digital capture technologies produce? “If this type of workflow lets the director and actors achieve the performance levels they need, then I say fine,” she offers. “The key is for everyone to be aware and allow for it. On End of Watch, I told the producers I would need two weeks after production wrapped just to get David an assembly. I love projects where the editing is more visible, and the lack of rules on this show was liberating, and incredibly fun.”
At its heart, End of Watch is an operator’s movie like none before. There was the unusual approach of asking two Hollywood movie stars to wear chest-mounted POV micro-cams and capture a running home-movie account of their characters’ world. And then there was the template Vasyanov used – the 1964 Russian propaganda film, Soy Cuba, shot by Sergei Urusevsky – for the handheld coverage that blankets the movie.
“Soy Cuba used a lot of wide-angle lenses, very close to the actor’s face,” the DP explains, “which worked well because we could move quite fast with the action, and the shaking wasn’t as noticeable. Our operators, Mick Froehlich and Jake Avignone, were always on cameras at the same time, so the best solution for this type of approach was to light 360 degrees.”
“The energy of the actors and locations inform how you cover the scene,” Froehlich adds. “Like when Jake and Michael enter a house to find a mother and her boyfriend high on crack, and two children duct-taped in the closet. That move gave me chills, even though I knew what was coming from rehearsal.”
Froehlich says the SI-2K/Easy-rig combo facilitated the vérité style Ayer wanted. “It’s not as cumbersome as a Steadicam, so I could be right there for the major action sequences,” he continues. “Specifically the climax, when Jake and Michael are trapped by AK-47 gunfire in the apartment complex. That scene looks so real because it captures the real adrenaline of me, Roman, and the two actors pinned down in that room with gunfire exploding all around us. David [Ayer] always pushed us toward that higher level of realism, and the camera work reflects that.”
Working with gaffer Chris Culliton (Avatar, Real Steel), Vasyanov says he tested the black end of the digital sensor in an attempt to create a feeling that “you don’t know where the lighting” is coming from. “Chris had built LED panels for Mauro Fiore (on Real Steel) with dimmable LiteRibbon fixtures on plastic that could be easily hidden in practical locations,” Vasyanov explains. “We also had this amazing interactive LED rig for the driving scenes that was wired to the back of the police car, which we had on a tow trailer. Using Wi-Fi-controlled dimming, we could emulate the pulsing ambient lights from shops and the sodium vapor streetlights throughout the scene.”
While Ayer says he loves “the shoulders on the SI-2K, even when it clipped,” the system’s limited range (150 ISO) created headaches for Vasyanov.
“L.A. is a very dark city, if you’re not shooting in downtown,” the DP continues. “And I knew I couldn’t use Condors or big elements on cranes because of the kind of movie it was. The solution was to just embrace this video look, not worry about carefully matching daylight exteriors and interiors. For example, when Jake and Michael go from sunlight into this dark house, where they find all the tortured bodies of the smuggling victims: we dialed in our apertures on the fly as we walked through the scene. The biggest surprise was timing the SI-2K footage in the DI – it looked a lot like old high-speed Ektachrome, with these milky blacks and the raw kind of digital grain that we all loved.”
Raw visual set pieces, pushing the boundaries of what a Hollywood-style production can be, dominate End of Watch. One such scene features Officers Taylor and Zavala charging twice into a burning house to save trapped children. Rather than using flame bars, the blaze’s intensity was implied entirely with smoke and light.
“With real fire and police footage, you never actually see any fire,” Vasyanov contends. “You see something really bright and lots of smoke, not this beautiful texturing of flames we’re used to seeing from Hollywood cop movies. David showed me a digital photograph in prep of [a real fire], and there’s no resolution at all. Since the SI-2K completely blows out with a strong source light, we wanted to recreate that almost impressionistic quality when Jake and Michael are crawling through the house.”
Another tour de force involves an extended foot-chase, with Taylor and Zavala having narrowly escaped the cartel’s assassination attempts and running for their lives through darkened alleyways. “We rented a golf cart and gyro-stabilized the SI-2K, and used Canon Super 16 zooms,” Vasyanov explains. “Chris and I used two overhead balloons, and then hid practicals – LED Cobra heads and bowl lights from Home Depot – as side fill. Working digitally, I always like to mix color temperatures – greens, oranges, red, et cetera – because if you fall down too much with your darkness, the color can add depth to the blacks without adding contrast, which we really wanted to avoid.”
The horrific reality of being a cop on-foot in South Central without backup (or enough firepower) was brought bracingly to life by shooting the scene as an extended take; as Gyllenhaal and Peña run breathlessly through the night in real time, their chest-mounted cams capture the sweat, grime and fear.
“The brilliance of this approach,” Vasyanov shares, “is that if we, as filmmakers, had tried to imitate the characters’ POV, it would not have felt real. Seeing what Jake and Michael see, while they are in character, keeps the scene alive with surprise and tension.”
“Everyone’s chasing resolution,” Ayer concludes. “4K, tack-sharp lenses, Alexas with Master-Primes. I wanted to go the opposite direction and chase real, which are the iPhones, GoPros, Handy-Cams on YouTube, the way a regular person sees the world. My appetite for what would be considered an ‘unacceptable shot’ on a histogram is huge; someone almost needs to pass out for me to call cut.”
Having said that, Ayer is quick to admit that End of Watch required a bold leap of faith for any professional movie crew. “One of the reasons I chose Roman is because he’s so steeped in classical tradition, he would know exactly how to break the rules,” Ayer smiles. “That’s not to say he didn’t still need some reinforcement. I remember coming in one Monday and yelling, ‘Roman, do not watch dailies. The coverage is getting too stable and lyrical because you’re freaked out by what you saw!’”