And so for the first time I return to a previously discussed director for my One Shot this week. Again I will look at the work of director Michael Mann, whom I previously wrote about in my very first post on this blog. The same director, but not the same cinematographer. For The Insider (1999) Michael Mann worked with Dante Spinotti. This time we talk about his collaboration with Dion Beebe, the primary (but not only*) director of cinematography on Collateral (2004).
Collateral is a tense thriller starring Jaimi Foxx as Max, a modest cab driver who works at night in LA, and Tom Cruise as Vincent, a professional hitman who hitches a ride with Max and forces Max to drive him around town one night to facilitate him killing off numerous criminal witnesses. The whole movie takes place in one night and for almost half its running-time stays with Max and Vincent as they drive around LA in Max’s taxi. So the movie has a very interesting setting, cinematographically speaking, with a lot of challenges concerning the focus on the taxi as a primary set and the low-light challenges of the nighttime. As it turned out, these challenges prompted Michael Mann and his cinematographer to adapt a whole new technique of filming, ditching traditional film for the more light-sensitive digital HD format, a format which at the time was still very, very new.
HD – Ugly and Sensitive
It’s interesting to compare Collateral to Mann’s previous movie The Insider. They both exhibit the same tendency for naturalness and on-location photography that Michael Mann is known for, but in Collateral he amplifies this sense of reality by shooting in HD. Usually I tend to avoid technical discussions and descriptions in my blog as I want to focus on content more than the technical side of filming. But in this case it is worth writing a few lines about this change in technique for it has such a huge impact on the content. The look of Collateral is completely different from any night-based movie I have seen before it. For me it does two things:
One, it makes the image look more ugly. Which basically means, the image looks more real. HD, especially the cameras back then, had a much harsher look to them. Compared to film, light was less diffused, colors less dreamy and digital noise has a much less attractive look to it then film grain. So why would you want to make your image look more ugly?! To me, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and when I say ugly I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way. When you talk about art, making something look ugly might be the best way of expressing your emotions and telling your story.
Lost in Translation (2003) is also a movie based in a city, with quite a few night-shots, and that movie was shot on film. Comparing it to Collateral, the movie feels warmer, dreamier, prettier and more attractive, which fits its romantic theme much better than it would the violence and tension of Collateral. In the latter movie, a more rough, real and ugly look would be more appropriate.
Secondly, an HD camera is potentially much more light sensitive than film cameras. Sure, you also get some rough noise with that sensitivity, but there are things you can show that would not be possible to show if you’d film with film. So let’s compare Collateral to Michael Mann’s earlier film The Insider.
The Insider, is thematically perhaps closer to Collateral and also features some gloomy and tense night shots. But in that film, the focus is squarely on the subjects while the environments they move in are more of a backdrop than an extra character. In that film, which was filmed on film, night scenes are dark and very few things are visible besides the actors and some essential set pieces and props. Through its use of 35mm film the film is filled with deep black shadows with great contrast and detail. It’s almost film-noir at times with characters moving through shadows and shades.
Collateral is a different beast. In that film the city, Los Angeles, is a character. It is always present and visible and plays a big part in setting the tone and pushing the characters in a certain emotional space. In almost every exterior shot in Collateral you can see the city. You see the silhouettes of palm trees against the orange backdrop of the city-lit night sky. You see the pale illumination of streetlights bounce off of the sterile skyscrapers. Nighttime in LA is anything but dark and silent. It is visible, blinding almost and chaotically busy.
Getting a shot where trees casts silhouettes against a night sky can only be obtained by very, very sensitive cameras, and the HD cameras Michael Mann and Dion Beebe used made this possible, probably to a degree that could not have been possible with 35mm film.
As the movie progresses and the psychological game between Max and Vincent increases in tension, a moment of poetic silence momentarily pauses the movie. As the couple are riding towards a nightclub where a climatic shootout is bound to happen, Max suddenly halts his car. Vincent at first doesn’t understand why he’s doing that, but then a small group of coyotes crosses the street. One of the animals momentarily stares straight at the taxi as he proudly walks across.
Vincent seems entranced by the animal and across his face you can see patches of doubt appearing. It’s never clearly expressed exactly what he’s doubting about, but one can imagine the metaphorical relationship between the lone, wandering & preying Coyote and Vincent, who himself is also a lone, wandering hunter.
The shot itself is hardly a technical achievement, besides the fact that its quite amazing that they managed to film that animal in such lowlight conditions. It literally feels like the animals spontaneously appeared during their shoot and they just happened to catch them on camera in a quick take.
To me, the shot works in two ways. First of all, I like the rough reality of it. I like that it looks as if its filmed by a documentary crew. It enhances that sense of reality that is so prevalent throughout the movie. It gives texture and depth to the environment and doesn’t feel staged through the spontaneous style of cinematography. Beebe doesn’t frame a particularly beautiful shot. He could have shown a beautiful silhouette covered in the glow of the headlights of Max’ taxi, or frame it in any 1000 ways to milk it aesthetically. But instead, he filmed the shot as if he could barely grab his camera in time and capture the moment. In this movie, in this suggested reality, that style works amazing.
Secondly, and most importantly, I love these shots that suggest more than they tell. As film is a medium dominated by images, you can get away with imagery that doesn’t literally speak or explain itself so much as it suggests its meaning through context. You could even argue that in this case the coyote-shot suggests much more than is actually, honestly, told through it. It feels as if it says something profound, but its probably wise to not overanalyze the metaphor.
To me that is not cheating or pretentious filmmaking. Not in this case. Probably because Michael Mann never really explains the image or use it as a significant plot point. He simply suggests to the viewer, ‘Hey, check this out. Isn’t this an interesting moment for them, as they quietly wait for the predator to cross the street?’. The viewer may ask, ‘Sure, but what do you mean by it?’, to which Mann would probably answer, ‘I don’t know exactly… it just looks interesting to me. Make of it what you will’.
In a later blogpost I will probably explore these suggestive shots more in-depth, but for now this is a great example of one of those suggestive shots.
*Dion Beebe was the second cinematographer to work on Collateral. Paul Cameron was the first. It was Cameron who started the exploration of Digital HD cameras as an alternative to 35mm film. But Cameron was replaced a few weeks into the shoot by Beebe because of creative disagreements with Michael Mann. As I wanted to focus on technique more than style this time I didn’t focus on the personal styles and differences between the two cinematographers. But its good to mention anyway.