Spotlight : July 1997

By Todd Vaziri

Southern California's Digital Domain has worked on some amazing visual effects-filled movies in the past few years, three of which were films shot in the Super35 format. Super35 is a process that allows a film to enjoy a widescreen release for theatrical prints, while giving the filmmaker choices in the video transfer for home video and television versions. Although the format certainly has its drawbacks, it is a highly attractive route for visual effects films.

1997's imaginative and visually stunning THE FIFTH ELEMENT, directed by Luc Besson, is one of the year's biggest visual effects films. At the suggestion of Digital Domain, the effects house responsible for the film's visual effects, THE FIFTH ELEMENT was shot in Super35. Supervising the film's 225 effects was Mark Stetson, and he spoke with me about the production's use of the Super35 format.

The choice between shooting a widescreen film in the anamorphic format and the Super35 format is extremely important when it comes to visual effects. The differences between the formats are quite startling both in procedure and expense.

Luc Besson, director of THE FIFTH ELEMENT, created all of his previous features in widescreen using the anamorphic process. A director with a clear, distinctive vision, Besson likes to have complete control over his compositions. When Digital Domain and Stetson introduced the idea of Super35 to Besson, he was skeptical, yet open to the idea.

"In terms of Digital Domain's ability to work with production footage as elements, there are certain added costs involved with using anamorphic," Stetson said. Each frame of production footage used in a visual effect must be scanned into Digital Domain's computers. For anamorphic features, the footage must go through an extra step of "un-squeezing"; the squeezed anamorphic image must be decompressed to allow artists to create their visual effects elements. "Substantially more computer storage space is involved with this process."

Stetson adds that anamorphic lenses are prone to "chromatic aberration... each of the primary colors comprising emulsion layers of film focus slightly differently. For normal production photography, it's hardly noticeable, but for digital post-production, it can create some matte problems."

Super35 gave Digital Domain more freedom in using production cameras to shoot elements, such as greenscreen photography and background plates. "With Super35, you can work with normal spherical lenses and production cameras, which is a big advantage when it comes to visual effects work." In THE FIFTH ELEMENT's case, Digital Domain was actually able to use Arri cameras to shoot greenscreen elements and background plates. "We were able to use a new Arri 435 prototype that was simply marvelous--it was rock solid at any frame rate we set, between 1fps to 150fps."

Director Besson, however, did not take full advantage of the Super35 format, in that he did not elect to use the full negative. "It was decided early on that we would essentially 'hard matte' the film at a 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio; we were only going to use the center widescreen image for the final film and subsequent video releases. Although we at Digital Domain hoped for him to hard matte at 1.66:1, Besson was very firm in wanting the 2.35 to 1 ratio, to protect his creative control over his original composition."

This decision, although eliminating other visual effects concerns, means that when THE FIFTH ELEMENT is viewed in full-screen video (pan & scan), 40% of Digital Domain's work will be cut off from the left and right sides of the screen.

"The production certainly got more bang for their buck, by using Super35 on this film instead of anamorphic. It was essentially a trade-off between the subtle quality gains of full-negative anamorphic, and the extra time we could spend pushing the limits of art direction and visual effects. For this project, Luc made the right choice to get the most value on the screen."

Links: THE FIFTH ELEMENT, Digital Domain.

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