Popular children’s writer R.L. Stine’s long-running Mostly Ghostly series consists of eight books. The first of these efforts has been translated to the screen in an upcoming Universal Pictures release
Stine’s hero Max (Sterling Beaumon) is an intelligent but introverted preteen, beset by many of the usual kinds of growing pains. His situation goes from bad and normal to scary and paranormal when he encounters the ghostly presences of a deceased brother and sister, Nicky (Luke Benward) and Tara (Madison Pettis), who are trying to find their lost parents. Max attempts to help out while staying ahead of a demon called Phears who, while stalking the siblings, takes on the forms of a variety of seemingly benign animals.
The film’s pre-release press has focused on casting, specifically the use of younger sisters to Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus [Director Rich Correll is also the co-creator of Cyrus’ Hannah Montana]. But just as significant is the movie’s place in the ever-developing saga of digital filmmaking innovation. Mostly Ghostly is shot using the Red One camera, a 4K capture device developed by Jim Jannard that has generated an ever-growing degree of industry interest since its introduction a few years ago.
Even prior to attaining production-ready status, Red was field-tested extensively on Wanted [covered in the June 2008 issue], shooting alongside film cameras running Kodak 5218 (VISION2 500T) stock, to see how effective it could emulate the film look and afford as direct a comparison of image quality as could be made at the time. Filmmakers already using Red include Peter Jackson (whose short film Crossing The Line was done with the two Red One prototypes) and Steven Soderbergh (who has three all-on-Red projects scheduled for release in the next year). Mostly Ghostly bears the distinction of being the first feature film shot entirely on the system to be released, though at press time, it had not been determined whether Universal would make the release theatrical or as direct-to-video for Halloween 2008.
Barry M. Wilson, ACS, was Mostly Ghostly’s director of photography. The Australian cinematographer, who has a long history in TV and more recent feature credits such as Women On Top and Suits on the Loose, is currently back in his native country shooting a new project, so Adam Samuel Ward, the film’s A-camera/Steadicam Operator and a past collaborator, explained how shooting Red proved to be nowhere near as scary a demon as the ones appearing in the film. “Seeing 4K RAW is a little unsettling at first,” Ward allows. “It looks very washed out until the color correction timing goes in. All the shadows are brought up and you start to wonder what happened, until you remember you’re getting all the info the camera sees and not to worry. When you see a corrected image projected, it looks fantastic.”
In 4K-mode, the full sensor area of the Red chip is utilized, with the image presented in a RAW file. Color is captured on one channel, but not processed, allowing adjustments to the picture [outside of shutter and iris] to take place later. “We used 8GB flashcard memory, which in 4K RAW lasts 4.5 minutes, so we thought of it as and treated it like a film load.” Emulating a look of 320 ASA, the camera was often used on a split between T2 and T2.8, which at times required careful follow-focus by Andrea Bassani, the A-camera 1st AC. Once workflow issues had been determined, and the metadata on the card could be transferred to Mac for on the spot color correction, the pieces fell into place, with down conversion of the RAW taking place prior to editing.
Ward points out that it was nice to originate on a digital medium because they had to deliver product two months after shooting. “Barry could do his color timing on set, create and store scene files, then match to that,” he adds “Like many Australian cinematographers, he is very much a ‘lighting cameraman,’ and often tells the gaffer exactly what he wants and how it should be implemented, which is something apart from American DPs, who tend to give gaffers more freedom. But gaffer Carlos Torres was fine with it and was able to make an important contribution.”
THE NOT SO BIG RED ONE
Shooting ranged from a local L.A. high school to the Raleigh Studios stages in Hollywood and Universal’s Elm Street backlot. With so much of the action involving kids in motion, shooting eighty percent of the show with a Steadicam was a logical choice. “There was a lot of following in low-to-ground mode,” Ward recalls. “I spent a couple of 8-hour days running with kids as they react to ghosts. And since the whole show is kids, that meant we had the eight-hour limit for getting them in and out every day, a constraint that left no room for delay or error.”
The Red’s compact size did give some cause for concern. “It was a little squirrelly getting used to it, because the weight of Red is not that of a film camera,” Ward continues. “You get used to a certain size of the camera when you move with Steadicam, and you come to rely a bit on the inertia of the camera while traveling ahead through space with it. Eventually we weighed it down so the Red was comparable to an Arriflex 435. But when loaded with a matte box, it is still smaller in mass than a film camera, so on the Steadicam Y-axis, straight up and down, the camera tends to pan left and right a little easier. That meant the gimbal input from my operating hand required a lighter touch, because it didn’t take as much to move. It’s a different level of effort, but knowing stuff wasn’t going to go down made my job easier, as evidenced by our working a six-day week for eight weeks without a single notable camera-related delay.”
Although he did not experience it on Mostly Ghostly, Ward points out that shooting digitally presents unique challenges for the operator. “It [digital] allows directors to run for a very long time without cutting,” he observes. “Ultimately, that means it all winds up riding on the backs of the camera operators. On other shows I’ve done takes that ran 45-minutes straight, which can get ridiculous, even dangerous, when you’re carrying sixty or sixty-five pounds. On this show I had to stay low and run fast to keep up with those kids. When they did slow to a stop, if we wanted different coverage for the 4-foot-tall 9-year-old, I’d ask for an apple box, sit down and punch in on her with a 50mm [Red offers 18-50mm and 50-150mm F2.8 zooms and has recently added a 300mm, with a set of primes soon to follow].”
MOSTLY TRANSPARENT TRICKERY
Ward estimates sixty percent of the visual effects were accomplished at least partly on-set, with the rest achieved via greenscreen. “There was plenty of old-school plate removal stuff,” he specifies. “Like shooting empty passes on set after the actors do their thing so we can have ghosts appearing within the middle of a table or walking through a wall. At one point, ghosts break into our dimension and fly around the ceiling. For that we shot a lot of little puppets in close with a wide lens. These cloth forms were used as body mattes, allowing the post facility to paint ghosts in over on-set objects.”
The Red shoot was often a process of discovery for Wilson’s crew. “Something we found out about on the day was how precisely the Red camera records color temperature,” says Ward. “Lights from different providers don’t always balance up, but that may not be evident right away. You’re wondering where that blue tinge is coming from until the gaffer climbs up with a color meter and finds a unit measuring 3380 instead of 3200. Under other circumstances you might choose to live with the variation, but the Red lets you dial in the exact color temperature, down to four thousandth of a degree. This is also important when you start losing the light at the end of the day, so you don’t have to rely on auto white balance.”
Ward reports Red does have “a couple of quirks” in terms of power. For example, if only one battery system is being used, and power is off, it takes eighty seconds to reboot. However, he adds that there is a dual linked battery system, which if included onboard allows the camera to remain powered at all times. “The Red One is certainly no ‘film killer,’” Ward concludes adamantly. “It’s just one more tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal. I think that if budget or time in post is a factor, then the Red is a viable option. For me, it has been a good screwdriver, which means it works properly. If you treat the Red with respect, like you would a film camera, you’ll have success.”