Dean Semler, ASC, ACS, lights up New York town for the new action/comedy Date Night

With today’s hectic lifestyles, it can be hard for those married with children to find time for romance and the Fosters, Phil and Clara, (Steve Carell and Tina Fey), are no exception. The two worn-out suburbanites at the heart of the new Fox comedy, Date Night, can barely muster the energy after a typical day of kid-and job-related stresses to honor their mutual commitment to go on one of their weekly “dates.” But, in a moment of inspiration, Phil whooshes Clara off to the hippest restaurant in Manhattan, the Claw, where they impersonate another couple just to get a table in the booked-up eatery. Not a good idea. As Phil and Clara soon find themselves mixed up in international intrigue; fighting off armed assassins and speeding through the streets of New York in a stolen sports car!

Director Shawn Levy, hot off his wildly successful Night at the Museum franchise, collaborated for the first time with Dean Semler, ASC, ACS, because of the cinematographer’s facility with a wide array of genres. Best known for dramatic epics like Dances with Wolves and Mad Max, Semler has also carved out a niche working with top comedy talent.

“I enjoy working with great comedians,” he says. “I’ve worked with Eddy Murphy, Billy Crystal, Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. I loved working with Steve Carell previously on Get Smart. Steve also had a part in the Jim Carrey comedy, Bruce Almighty. Both he and Tina Fey are certainly among the best comedy talents working right now.”

Dean Semler, ASC, ACS

Semler’s work on the epic period film Apocalypto may be the best “proof of concept” to date for Panavision’s Genesis camera. The punishing demands the DP made on the Genesis sensor and camera body became the stuff of legends. “I was shooting one and a half foot candles in the jungle at night and in a quarry full of white-hot limestone in the noonday sun,” he recounts, “and I could hold whites and blacks where I wanted to.”

Of course before Semler sent the Genesis into Apocalypto’s equatorial jungles and rivers, he was among the first to bring the technology to comedy features; Click’s star, Adam Sandler, for example, loved the system’s ability to shoot continuously, no burning film or running out. “It was scary for me to work with a camera truck that had no film stock,” Semler says of that shoot. “But the dailies became ‘immediatelies’ and that has really turned out to be a great way to work.”

The initial iteration of the Genesis involved the use of an onboard SRW tape deck, which reportedly caused some strain to operators’ shoulders. Recently, Panavision also started offering lighter SSRs (solid state recorders) and Date Night’s extensive camera package included both. Regardless of media, the camera records in Panavision’s pseudolog format, Panalog, which increases the range of information over a linear HD format such as rec. 709.

On Date Night, Semler made use of EFilm’s Colorstream technology, which takes the RAW signal in one end and adds LUTs non-destructively to affect the image for display on a standard HD monitor. The LUTs exist only as metadata and do not alter the “digital negative.”  The Colorstream box allows Semler and his collaborators to see material with the attributes of a favorite film stock (in this case Kodak 5219) applied as well as those of the film-out and photochemical process. On set, Semler can also dial in color correction in the form of a CDL (color decision list) that travels with the image files into the final DI at EFilm, where they remain all the way through post, augmented or discarded totally without any loss of image information. Semler says he generally prefers to build his look through lighting and exposure, rather than digital augmentation. “I shoot the Genesis same way I would shoot negative,” he relates.

Editor Dean Zimmerman says the digital workflow helped him collaborate more closely than on a film show. Zimmerman and his team were on location, “and we could see material with Dean’s [grading] applied right there with him and Shawn. We could see immediately something much closer to the final look than you can get from traditional dailies,” he reports. The editor could also import versions of the 1920×1080 HD files into the Avid (albeit slightly compressed). “It was incredible for cutting because we knew there wouldn’t be surprises in the final timing,” Zimmerman adds. “It was also great for screenings, as well. I could spit an HD tape out from my Avid that could easily stand up to being projected on a 50-foot screen.”

Virtually all of Date Night takes place at night and director Shawn Levy (see Exposure this issue) wanted Manhattan to stand out from the couple’s New Jersey home, with saturated colors and sets that tended to be slightly exaggerated – the restaurant where the initial mix-up occurs is heavy on the glamour, the couple’s ally, played by Mark Wahlberg, lives in a mysterious loft that reflects the character’s air of danger, and the street exteriors reflect a throbbing metropolis.

Semler brought considerably less lighting gear to the exteriors than he would have for a film shoot because of the Genesis’s sensitivity to low light levels. “I start at 180 degree shutter with no gain,” he explains. “The next step would be going to a 270-degree shutter, which gives me half a stop. If I need to go further, then I’ll add half a stop of gain, which gives me now [EI] 1000. If I still need more, I go to a 360-degree shutter, which brings me to 1500. That adds a bit of motion blur that sometimes looks good for fast paced action scenes. One stop of gain above that would take me to about 2000. But I don’t usually add that much gain unless truly necessary.”

That level of control allows Semler to work more efficiently on location. “We shot street scenes in New York and in downtown LA,” he says. “I would sometimes put one Condor up on each end of the street but instead of using big Bebee Lights or Dinos, my gaffer, Jimmy Gilson, and his crew would rig 1K PARs – Firestarters – that can throw a very narrow beam a long distance with a lot of punch. I might use one or two of those from 40 or 50 yards away, not enough to override the streetlights, but enough to fill in shadows. We dimmed them down to about 60 percent and that gave us a warmish color that looked like the sodium vapor streetlights.”

Date Night was production designer David Gropman’s first collaboration with Semler and his first digital show, and he wasn’t sure what result HD would have on his sets.  “I was amazed at the depth and clarity it brought,” Gropman recalls. “And seeing the movie while I was on the set was also an eye-opening experience. It made the whole process so seamless.

“The only technical issue Dean talked to me about regarding the Genesis was the possibility that some horizontal patterns could moiré,” he continues. “So I gave him fewer horizontal lines to work with. But we tested some Venetian blinds and some patterns I wanted to use on a wall. You see incredible amounts of detail but you don’t see anything you’re not supposed to see. I was very happy with the Genesis, but that also has a lot to do with whose hands the camera was in.”

Gropman explains how his designs reflect the lead couple’s perspective as their New York adventure continues to escalate. “We have a lot of interiors that are designed to give the characters a sense of apprehension,” he says. “We would build in areas of darkness but then there would be practicals that could motivate kicks and highlights and areas of definition.”

In the film, Wahlberg plays a mysterious acquaintance of Fey who seems to be wealthy, possibly from nefarious activities. He assists the couple in fleeing from their murderous pursuers. Bathed in nearly black textures and decorated with slightly disturbing art, the apartment set (on Fox’s West L.A. lot) was designed to enhance the sense that our leads are more at risk. “The environments are more unusual and unfamiliar as the evening wears on,” adds Gropman. “We have a lot of reflective surfaces and practicals so there are a lot of ways to get light in there even though most of the colors are just this side of black.”

The Claw sequence was shot in a Hollywood restaurant that Gropman dressed up with red, tree-shaped pieces of artwork and a giant orange/yellow transparency of a crustacean claw behind the key table. “We had the restaurant for a weekend so the rigging crew could build overhead lights for me” – mini PARs over some tables, a couple of gem balls and 1Ks high up in the rafters that could act as key or backlights – “and we added some Kino Flo strips over the bar area and blue Kino Flos under bottles to give them some life. But a lot of the light we used came from what was actually there. We would usually either do a wet down or make use of the rain that occurred naturally. That can provide a lot of illumination from the ground and we also paid shop owners huge sums of money to leave their lights on all night.”

Of the Genesis, Semler declares, “I’ve fallen in love with the damn thing!” He admits he’d still prefer to be closer to the action than inside a tent but says it’s not a big price to pay. He enjoys the feedback on the monitor that gives him confidence to ride the iris mid-take, if necessary, to a degree he never would with film.

And he can almost always light to his monitor with confidence and resorts to his scopes primarily for lighting blue- and green-screen. His light meter, he adds, rarely leaves its case. “The only time I take it out,” he concludes, “is when I’m working with almost no light and I just can’t believe what I’m seeing in the monitor.”

By Jon Silberg / photos by Myles Aronowitz and Suzanne Tenner

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