Written By: Iain Blair, HD Video Pro Magazine

With the help of Light Iron and the RED Epic, Don Burgess, ASC, safely lands director Robert Zemeckis’ Flight

It’s been quite a while since Oscar®-winning director Robert Zemeckis, who has focused his energy on animated projects over the past decade, has made a live-action film. So this month’s release of Flight, a drama starring Denzel Washington as an airline pilot who avoids a crash, marks a welcome return to live action by the Forrest Gump and Cast Away auteur. It also marks a fresh collaboration with famed DP Don Burgess, ASC, who shot both of those hit films and whose credits also include such films as Spider-Man and The Muppets.

“Bob finally found a live-action script he really liked and wanted to make,” reveals Burgess, “which was great for me as it’s been 10 years since we worked together. I’ve always really admired Bob as a director and loved working with him, so I was very excited about doing this project with him.”

Director Robert Zemeckis (seated) and cinematographer Don Burgess, ASC, check the frame. Flight marks Zemeckis’ first live-action film since 2000’s Cast Away and was shot on RED EPIC cameras. It also was Zemeckis’ first digitally shot film.

But 10 years is a lifetime in Hollywood, and the digital revolution has completely changed the cinematic landscape, as Burgess notes. “Once we began discussing it, the first big decision was do we shoot it on film or digital?” The DP quickly came down on the side of digital and suggested going with RED EPICs, having used RED cameras on his last three features to great effect.

The Book of Eli was the first digital one I shot, with the RED ONE, and then I used it on about 20% of Source Code—the rest was on film,” he reports. “Then I shot The Muppets with the RED ONE and also used a little bit of the EPIC, which wasn’t even on the market yet.”

Because of the film’s subject matter and because a lot of the shoot took place inside an airplane, the size of the cameras was also a crucial part of the decision. “The great thing about the EPIC is that you can really strip it down and get in very small in situations when you need to,” notes Burgess. “So that really helped in the shot design and what we wanted to do—it just seemed like the perfect camera for the job.”

It also helped that the DP was so familiar with the director’s style of shooting. “I know what he likes to do and what would be necessary for this film, and Bob was game to try out whatever I suggested would be right for the project,” explains Burgess. “In the end, he was very happy with the camera—the way it worked, its small size, its dependability and the great shots we were able to get inside the cockpit of the plane. In fact, it was the only way we could have done it, and there’s no other camera on the market today that offers you that kind of high quality in such a small package.”

And while the RED EPIC was new to Zemeckis, the DP says, “He’s always pushed the envelope in terms of technology to tell his stories, so he was very excited to come back to live action now that the digital camera has finally come of age. That’s only happened in the last five years, so technology has slowly caught up with Bob and his ideas.”

With the RED EPIC, Burgess felt that Zemeckis didn’t notice any changes to their working methods, although Zemeckis loved looking at the HD monitor and felt very comfortable about the images they were capturing.

Once the pair had decided to go with EPIC, any camera tests were unnecessary, explains Burgess, “as I had already shot so many films for him, and Bob trusts my judgment about the way we should tackle this film. Bob wasn’t really interested in any tests, and instead I just showed him how the process would work and how he would screen dailies and how the new way of doing things would function.”

To this end, the DP tried to keep the process “as fluid as possible, and in the same kind of rhythm that he’s always worked. Bob didn’t really notice any big changes in the way we worked, except he loved sitting and looking at an HD monitor, and felt more comfortable with the images he was seeing,” explains Burgess. “Also, he wasn’t restricted in the shots he wanted to get, which is critical for any director, and as a DP, you’re trying to create the mobility and flexibility for the director to get those shots and realize his vision for the film.”

The tight 43-day shoot took place in Atlanta, Georgia, where the story is set, and Burgess estimates that 30% was shot on stages and in warehouses, and 70% on location. The DP and his crew used two EPICs for most of the shoot, occasionally adding a third or fourth body, as needed.

“The cameras all worked flawlessly,” he reports. “We only had maybe one or two shots in the entire movie where we had to deal with some corrupted data—and that was discovered right away while we were shooting, so we never had to deal with a data problem later.

“In fact, the biggest challenge was selling the idea that we were actually flying in this plane,” continues Burgess. “Basically, we took real aircraft that we had bought and then put together pieces on stage to create the whole plane for this film. And you can’t really cut out the wall of the cockpit; you pretty much have to work within the limitations of the plane itself. But thanks to the small camera size, we were actually able to operate two of them in the cockpit at the same time.”

In one key sequence, the plane flies upside down and the team created a gimbal so that the cockpit and parts of the fuselage could be shot upside down. “The cameras had to fit inside,” explains Burgess, “and we rigged them to small three-axis heads we designed and that would fit in the cockpit so we could counter what the plane was doing and enable the audience to understand that we’re upside down, and be able to roll the cameras 360 degrees. This also allowed us to create shake and movement, and to help simulate flight.”

In terms of the workflow, the DP has long been a champion of integrating post elements prior to production and likes to set the look of the film before starting principal photography. For Flight, Burgess worked very closely with L.A.-based Light Iron, who he first began collaborating with on The Muppetsand again on his recently wrapped movie 42.

According to Burgess, although the EPIC was new to Zemeckis, technology finally has caught up with the visionary director’s ideas.

“I would take images shot on the RED EPIC and go to their DI facility and put them up on the big screen, and then tweak the colors to create the look of the movie from a starting point,” he reports. “Then once I was on location, I have a setup right there on the set where all the data is checked as soon as it has been shot, and a look is also applied to those shots.”

From there, the data went to another workstation where it was cloned for the editor and all other necessary copies, and then was shipped back to Light Iron for storage and postproduction. “And I like to set up a projection screen in a trailer where you can show dailies the next day at lunch,” he adds. “So the colorizing of all that is done entirely on set and on location, so that I can keep control of the pipeline and what that footage is going to look like to the studio, the editor and all the post people.”

Light Iron has carts set up that they can send on location “to do all that work and cloning, and to add the color look, so that made the whole workflow pretty much trouble-free,” says Burgess. “After three films together, we have a very efficient pipeline—dealing with all the data, cloning and storage issues.”

For Light Iron CEO Michael Cioni, “Flight is an example of a film leveraging the skills of some of the industry’s top filmmakers in every department. While I realize this sounds like an easy-to-make statement, I can say that the talent assembled on this film made the process seem invisible. It was technologically extremely advanced, but Don, Bob and Steve [Starkey] were able to make the technology work for them—not the other way around.”

Cioni goes on to note that the RED EPIC often gets a bad reputation for being a camera that’s too complex and not production- or post-friendly. “The truth is that the EPIC is a sophisticated camera, not a complex one,” says Cioni. “The features EPIC offers production and postproduction aren’t anchored in legacy protocols and for people like Don, [editor] Jeremiah O’Driscoll and [Light Iron colorist] Corinne Bogdanowicz, EPIC’s sophistication is what makes it so powerful. Audiences don’t see the effort we go through to put solid images like the ones in Flight on the big screen—but this film puts up those pictures with relative ease because EPIC is such a sophisticated capture and post tool.”

Detailing the post workflow, Cioni stresses that Light Iron’s involvement starts on set. “Post is production” is the motto they use at Light Iron, and all of the dailies, color, QC, sync, backup and distribution were done by the crew on set. “Carissa Ridgeway Tudor handled all of the close-proximity work on the set with Don, and Drew Kilcoin handled all the processing in the cutting room,” explains Cioni. “Like a string quartet, Carissa’s looks were approved by Don and sent to Drew for processing to Avid for Jeremiah and Paramount. Then, the VFX lists were sent to Light Iron where the pulls were handled by a single VFX editor and sent to the VFX team. By doing this, production stayed away from slow, expensive and often distant services that a post house typically handles.”

Given its subject matter, it’s no surprise that the film made extensive use of visual effects and greenscreen setups. The DP reports that Kevin Baillie, the visual effects supervisor, was on set a lot. “We worked closely together on solving any problems in how to make the shots work,” says Burgess. These included various aerial sequences shot from a helicopter with the EPIC. “That gave him a starting point for creating all of the aerial plates needed for the film, and that worked out great. And then we did the greenscreen work, and Kevin was really happy with the EPIC and the image quality we got. And from what I’ve seen so far of the material [at press time], I’m very happy, too.”

The filmmakers did a traditional DI on the film at Light Iron with colorist Corinne Bogdanowicz. “It only took us three or four days, as it goes so much faster when you take the time in the beginning to set your look and then stay on top of it while you shoot,” explains the DP. “The whole movie came together very fast, and I’d say it was definitely one of the better experiences I’ve had in postproduction in terms of attaining the goals we’d set up at the start.”

Adds Cioni, “If there was one term that summed up the post workflow on Flight, it’s ‘self-sufficient.’ It’s hard to look at a film as solid as Flight and think there’s any need to cut corners. But the fact is the team on Flight and Don Burgess as the epicenter are an indication of things to come in cinema. The future has no room for post houses and no room for film. This is a mantra we don’t just believe, we practice it, and Flight suffered no compromises in being an example of this.”

Burgess’ final task is to check all the film prints. “I’ve seen all the digital material and I’m very pleased with that, and I’m sure I’ll be equally pleased with the film prints,” he says. “On The Book of Eli, I was very excited to see that they had come so far in improving the relationship between the digital master and the film print. Before that, it was a huge amount of work to really get them to understand each other, but now it seems like they’ve solved most of those problems, and it goes a lot smoother.”

Summing up, Burgess says, “The whole experience of reuniting with Bob and shooting this movie with the RED EPIC was great,” and while he stresses that he’s “still very passionate about film and shooting film,” he admits that the trend today is “definitely towards digital. And as long as I can get the look I want, there are a lot of good reasons now to shoot digitally.”

Visit the Flight website at www.paramount.com/flight.