Vision Q&A: Digital Night Moves for VW

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The first thing one notices about director Noam Murro's "Night Driving" spot, for DDB/London and the Volkswagen Golf, is its uncanny resemblance to the surreal nighttime vibe portrayed in Michael Mann's 2004 film Collateral. Well, there's a reason for that—it was DP'd by Paul Cameron, who also shot the Oscar-nominated film. We spoke with Cameron about shooting the spot on HD digital and just how he achieved that distinctive look.

"Night Driving" has a very Collateral feel to it. Did the movie play a role in inspiring the look?
Yes. Very much like Collateral, Noam wanted to photograph L.A. at night with as much speed and sensitivity on film or HD as we could possibly do, so I recommended HD, which I used primarily on Collateral. I had a newer camera here, Panavision's Genesis, which I also incorporated in a film called Déjà Vu in New Orleans. It allows you to shoot at an extremely high ASA, whereas film is 500 ASA; realistically, you can only push it one stop, which is 1,000. The difference between 1,000 and 2,500 ASA at night is enormous. It's the only way to get that electric glow of the city, seeing into the shadows like your eye sees it. So I told Noam we should really do it on HD at night, and with the new technology we could get a better image than we got on Collateral.
Has the film vs. digital debate become a pointless argument?
The debate between film and digital isn't really an argument anymore. The way I look at it, it's taken over a hundred years to get to this technical level of film stock, with high sensitivity and less grain and all these amazing lenses and other kinds of camera equipment. I view digital photography and the new camera systems as new film stocks; I really don't see it as an either/or debate. Technically, digital is only now, in most respects, just as good as film. And that's quite an accolade considering the short history of digital filmmaking. If you asked me that while I was filming Collateral, I would've said HD is a sacrifice. But the trade off was, I started getting this visual vibe on HD when we were testing that I couldn't say no to. I told Michael Mann that I'd do everything I could to prove I could get the same effect on film. A month later, I said we should shoot on HD. So, just as in this new VW spot, it was about figuring out how to get this look of L.A. at night that we're accustomed to—that atmosphere in cities late at night that you see by eye but almost never see in a movie. The good news about the new Genesis camera is that in the extreme shadow area, where the signal-to-noise ratio starts to fall apart, it's much cleaner than any other HD camera out there. And that's where this VW spot lives—in the last stop of acceptable exposure. If I shot it on film, we would've gotten an image, but it would've looked like a "TV night." Now we can shoot at night with no lighting and it seems ultra-real. We used hardly any traditional night lighting, and that's why it seems so real.
What's the difference for you between shooting spots and features?
Well, there's certainly greater structure in your daily work in features, and also there's the sometimes unfortunate reality of having to deal with big actors and setups. On spots, it's easier to control and stay in the schedule without a lot of surprises. In this case, working with Noam was like working with a European features director. He had a clear idea of what he wanted, he was very inspired and he was able to share that inspiration.
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