Stuart Dryburgh, ASC, NZCS


Stuart Dryburgh, ASC, NZCS


On Blackhat, Michael Mann’s action thriller about a convicted hacker (Chris Hemsworth) who is co-opted by the good guys, Stuart Dryburgh, ASC, NZCS and his crew traveled to a head-spinning array of locations including Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Los Angeles. Mann, known as a savvy visual director, worked hard to ground the film in reality, consulting high-end tech experts to ensure authenticity. Part of Dryburgh’s brief was to create a believable world, and to help the orient the audience as the story jets around the globe.

“The characters are the one constant thread through the movie,” says Dryburgh. “Because the story jumps around to so many different countries and continents, one of our earliest concerns was how to communicate very quickly to the audience where we are, without having to include a lot of establishing shots.”

Location scouting was extensive and done with an eye to specific distinguishing features that Mann required. And while the shoot was carefully planned, the filmmakers had to adapt their approach to the locations on the shoot day.

Scenes in the characters’ safe house were filmed in the Mong Kok area in the western part of the Kowloon Peninsula in Hong Kong.

“It’s mostly pre- or just post-war apartment buildings, crowded streets, market stalls, lurid neon signs, steam from restaurants, smoke,” says Dryburgh. “The air in Hong Kong is kind of fungible anyway, because it’s very humid there. And in fact, we enhanced that by using a very light black Pro-Mist filter on the cameras, just to take a little bit of that sharp digital edge off and to add to the atmosphere. We also had scenes that took place in the stark, modern central business district in Hong Kong and there, the colors are cyan blues and orange sodium lights. Everything is very hard-edged and brittle.”

The distinguishing texture and colors of a given location dictated in large part how those scenes would look.

“We would definitely start off with the naturally occurring light, and then maybe bend it or augment it a little bit,” says Dryburgh. “But the places we found were ultimately so fantastic-looking in their own right, they didn’t need a lot of massage. When we got to Jakarta, we found there was a whole color palette there that was really specific to that town and that culture. They’re very fond of bright, strong colors and they often seem to instinctually build a palette around themselves of matching or complementary colors – strong greens, vivid blues, reds, oranges, purples – just gorgeous stuff.”

When making decisions about format and equipment, Mann and Dryburgh remembered that they had been pleased with the results they had achieved with the ARRI ALEXA on the pilot for the HBO series Luck. For Blackhat, they were able to use as their primary camera the ALEXA XT, which carries a built-in Codex XR Digital Recorder. That would allow the filmmakers to fully exploit the mobility of the camera at ARRIRAW resolution. The smaller ALEXA M would also come in handy.

“When we looked at the spec on the XT, we realized that if we didn’t use the full 4:3 Academy gate on it, but instead used the 16:9 gate, restricting the sensor to 16:9, we could run up to 120 frames per second without stepping out of ARRIRAW. We also wanted to shoot, or at least release, in ‘Scope, so it became pretty much a no-brainer to use the Hawk 1.3 anamorphics.”

Dryburgh was familiar with the Hawk V‑Lite 1.3x anamorphic lenses, having employed them in conjunction with 3-perf 35 mm film on the 2012 feature Emperor, using the 3-perf frame to produce a widescreen 2.40:1 frame. The Hawk 1.3x anamorphics “squeeze” the image more gently, by a factor of 1.3, to an image that fits well in the 16:9 frame. Standard anamorphic lenses “squeeze” in a 2:1 ratio.

For Blackhat, the 16:9 gate on the ALEXA sensor and a 1.3x squeeze would result in a full 2.40:1 image in theaters.

“That way, we’re maximizing our capture – we’re not cropping the frame like in Super 35 to create an anamorphic release,” he says. “I personally think the 1.3s are a really good choice because there’s less of an anamorphic element – you’re not dealing with quite as much inherent distortion, and they tend to be sharp to the edges of the frame vertically and horizontally. I like the widescreen format. I think it has scope, but also can create very personal frames.”

The ability to shoot in the higher resolution ARRIRAW format for high speed scenes came in handy for action scenes, explosions and especially gunfire, which is plentiful in Blackhat.

“For capturing gunfire, we found that if we let the shutter almost fully open – 356 degrees, I think it is – we almost never missed the flash. Modern powderless cartridges have an incredibly short flash duration, but that is not a problem with digital cameras.”

Dryburgh says that Mann’s style generally tends to wide lenses very close to actors, or longer focal lengths. At times, he calls for macro lenses to get even closer to the actors.

“One of the things I like about the Hawks is that they’re very clean, very undistorted, but at the same time, they’re not so sharp that you’re seeing every pore of somebody’s face,” says Dryburgh. “They’re kind. They’re nice. They’re not too contrasty, and they flare a little bit, in a good way.”

Dryburgh agrees that in digital cinematography, lenses have become more important for lending personality to the image, because the flavors of various film stocks and development techniques have been taken out of the toolkit.

“Recently, I used the Vantage One T1 lenses on a commercial, and they are gorgeous,” he says. “You use them wide open, or nearly wide open, and things bleed in – it’s a beautiful effect. I like what Vantage has been doing – they’re good people and they have great technicians.”

Blackhat was released by Universal in January of 2015. 

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