Tas Michos, ASC confronts a really horrific scenario for the latest entry in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise: 3D on an indie schedule and budget
When The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was made in 1973 for roughly $80,000, it became the template for generations of independent films to come. Cinematographer Daniel Pearl, who had just graduated from the University of Texas, Austin (and was surviving on PSAs and local commercial spots) used 25-speed Ektachrome 16-mm stock, with a lighting package that consisted of two 5Ks, one 10K and some flags. By necessity, Pearl and director Tobe Hooper created a raw and ready handheld style that still echoes through the horror genre today.
“I was strapped for light, and that led in many ways to the look of the film,” Pearl, who has since gone on to a stellar career in music videos and commercials, recalls. “I had to drive and bash light to get exposure, so the film has that vérité style. At that time, handheld blimped 35-millimeter cameras were rare and expensive, and HMI lights didn’t even exist. Film required 16 times the amount of light it does today, and shooting nights at such a low ASA was incredibly challenging. But even though the technology and tools have made things easier, [filmmakers] still erect barriers. We make the project better by increasing the degree of difficulty. Instead of striving to find the easiest path, we have to do what we think will be the coolest.”
So, then, how best to update this storied indie franchise and still capitalize on the boom in new tech tools that horror fans expect and crave? The producers of Texas Chainsaw 3D made an early decision to shoot native 3D despite their tight indie schedule and budget. Director John Luessenhop (Takers, Lockdown) enlisted cinematographer Tas Michos, ASC (Sparkle, Jumping the Broom, Perfect Stranger, Mona Lisa Smile) in the effort.
“John wanted to take it in a different direction, and yet in some ways stay true to the diehard fans,” Michos explains. “We decided to follow classic, Hitchcockian sensibilities in terms of the lensing, and we looked at a lot of films and talked about what was good 3D versus what was bad 3D. Gritty was not in his vocabulary – we shot with a richness in mind.”
“The original had lasting shots,” Luessenhop adds. “That was in part to cover editing, but they were composed with some degree of poetry. I think one of the reasons the film works is the juxtaposition between these really tremendous pieces of photography and the outright horror or distress that’s in the story. The compositions were sometimes remarkable, and they didn’t try to create action by cutting. In a way, that made it much more real. It was a little bit tongue-in-cheek, and I used some of that as one of many small homages.”
The longer-take, wider lens aesthetic dovetailed with stereoscopic. “When you’re shooting in 3D, you want people to explore the frame, and you can’t quick-cut,” the director continues. “Real 3D also means shorter focal length – so now you’re shooting Citizen Kane instead of Michael Mann. A little bit of restraint allows the hyper moments to stand out more. So you’ve created this comfortable way to watch the picture in 3D until these extreme moments happen. For me, the purpose of the 3D was to create a world, not to put the movie in your lap, and Tas did a wonderful job to maintain that feel.”
The decision to go with 3ality Technica was made in part because of that company’s experience and reliability. The 3D rig, which uses two RED Epics, was similar to that used for last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man, whose budget was almost 30 times that of Texas Chainsaw 3D. Michos shot A and B systems in RAW files, with the goal of maximum flexibility in post.
“After seeing the whole playing field,” Luessenhop states, “we thought the 3ality rig with lightweight Red Epics made the most sense. The lenses are matched up by a computer, so that later you don’t have as many problems in the lab. We had very few conversion or cleanup issues with the images shot with that rig.”
With a budget of roughly $8 million and a 30-day schedule, locations took on paramount importance. Shreveport, Louisiana, in mid-summer, was selected, with a second unit team led by Michael Barrett, ASC, which worked while the main unit slept.
Michos says he worked to make the camera move “through” rather than “across” space, “because we felt that was going to be the most effective way of describing the third dimension,” he shares. “Film has length and height but no depth. In order to accentuate depth, rather than panning or dollying across something, it was best to go by something, going into the screen or pulling away from something.”
The DP considered zooms to avoid time-consuming lens changes, but the preponderance of night exteriors and dark situations precluded that. “Even though the Red camera was rated at 800 ASA, I found the camera to be more like a true 640,” Michos continues. “By the time I put a silvered mirror on it, I was really shooting at 320 ASA. The next thing I knew, it was going to be big lights and big money because of the extra stop loss. So I needed to stick with primes.”
Focal length almost never exceeded 40 mm, which meant careful blocking in rehearsals. “At times, we had to think about how to cover things more simply,” Michos says. “To do a turnaround on a 3D film is a huge endeavor. Each camera is tethered to the DIT, and to the stereographer via various kinds of cables. One of my cameras had 32 cables and 64 connectors! And in a dusty or swampy field, cables and connections are the first to go.”
The gear generally performed well, although the Red cameras had to be iced down to keep running during 114-degree days. The size of the rig made the run-and-gun style of shooting that Pearl and Hooper enjoyed virtually impossible. “Imagine five kids in a van with the 3D camera rig, a DP, an operator, an assistant, a director and a sound person, trundling down the road,” Michos laughs. “The possibility of finesse in terms of framing is contraindicative.”
As for lighting, a large package was required to feed 3D’s hunger for light. Michos, who is no fan of HMI lights for night exteriors due to on/off challenges and frequent technical issues, made extensive use of 6K Jem Balls from Jem Studio Lighting. Designed by James Babineaux, the Jem Ball replaces a conventional paper lantern and radiates a soft surround with fewer shadows than conventional lights. “They’re easy to move around and hang from trees, and they’re a big, softer source,” he explains. “By lighting with softer sources, I was trying to expedite the night exterior lighting, because once you start lighting with hard light, to turn around is much more difficult. It was basically a soft light show, although at times we mixed harder shafts of light in, especially when we needed a more horrific feel.”
To save time and maximize flexibility, gaffer Bob Bates planned Condor placement so that each could serve several areas – for instance, a lane that runs through the swampy woods where the chainsaw-wielding villain tracks his prey, and a nearby cemetery set where one character, pursued by Leatherface (Dan Yeager), hides in an open grave. Handheld shots inspired by Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965; shot by Gil Taylor, BSC) chased the characters through the woods. When the chase finally ended in confrontation and closer shots, Bates paid attention to detail, making sure there was a nice kick of light on the end of the chainsaw in shots where the blade swings into negative 3D space, seeming to project out into the audience.
“We used a lot of lanterns to create overall ambience for night exteriors, making sure we had a stop,” Bates recounts. “We had 48-inch, 30-inch and 22-inch Jem Balls in our package. Then we’d work on highlights and accents. We’d highlight trees and buildings in the background to show the depth of the set. All this requires more lights and more manpower. We also used LiteGear Hybrid LED ribbons and cards quite a bit. Tas was very hands-on during prep and throughout the shoot. He brought so much to the project.”
Michos credits A camera/Steadicam operatorNick Davidoffand B camera operator Robert Foster with a remarkable job moving the 70-pound 3D rig through the Louisiana heat, sometimes on Steadicam and often handheld.
At times, Davidoff had to bear more than 100 pounds of gear.
“This wasn’t my first 3D movie, so I knew that the problem with this rig is that it’s extremely front-heavy,” Davidoff offers. “The lightweight rig built for The Amazing Spider-Man just wasn’t ready, unfortunately. I made some custom brackets for the camera, and did whatever I could to move batteries and any accessories toward the back – focus motors, sync boxes, time code generators, et cetera. But it was still front-heavy. If you’re gripping the rig too hard because it’s not balanced, you lose all fluidity, which is why you shoot Steadicam in the first place.”
One memorable example depicts Leatherface chasing the heroine (Alexandra Daddario) through a carnival. Davidoff did the shot on a dead run in spite of the 100-degree heat, with carefully choreographed blocking. The wide lens aesthetic meant the camera was seeing the entire set.
“In a way, 3D dictates its own look,” he adds. “It’s physically limiting getting the camera into place. If you’re shooting in the over/under configuration, you can only get down to about 2½ feet – and if you want to get lower, you have to flip the whole rig, a 20-minute process once you recalibrate and realign. You can’t get it into a car, or inside a closet, or in the corner of a tiny room. We know these camera rigs will get smaller and more balanced as they evolve. But for now each shot must be carefully planned and there are choices that need to be made.”
Like when the heroine first comes face to face with the villain, inside the Sawyer home set built for the production. The shot uses the “zoom in, pull out” technique familiar from Hitchcock and Scorsese films, but was further complicated by a dynamic adjustment of the interocular distance.
“You’re doing a 3D pull while you are zooming in and pulling away,” Luessenhop describes. “You have all three camps at work – the camera crew and the first AC, the 3D tech unit, and your dolly grips all have to work in unison. I’m very proud of that shot. I think people who know filmmaking will wonder how we did it without distortion.”
The DI and the DCP versions of the film were done at Light Iron in Los Angeles, and the 2D film print was done at Fotokem. Looking back, Michos says the show was an education.
“I learned to be very careful of 3D if you don’t have the financial resources, without which there are casualties,” he adds. “Protecting my director’s vision and getting enough coverage on such a tight schedule were both enormous challenges. The option of throwing a ‘B’ or ‘C’ camera and covering the scene with a 100- and 150-millimeter lens went against our 3D aesthetic. Our lenses of choice were 20 millimeters for the wide angles, and 40 millimeters for the tight, and John and I felt the illusion of depth was shattered with a long lens that foreshortens.”
Although Michos says the company was averaging 24 setups per day, which he calls “outstanding for 3D,” Texas Chainsaw 3D was chronically under-scheduled. “My own preference would have been to shoot a wide-angle film in 2D and spend the money extracting in post. That way we could save only the specialty, in-your-face shots to shoot in native 3D.”
Technical issues notwithstanding, Michos said the local Shreveport crew provided incredible support and knowledge. “Without their efforts, the film would not have been successful at all,” he states flatly. “It was certainly a challenge to deliver a premium product, using technologically ambitious methods and very limited time and funds. Let’s see if we were successful.”