We sat down with cinematographer Vanja Černjul, ASC in Brooklyn, NY to discuss his experience shooting with VariCam. Topics include VariCam’s 14+ stops of dynamic range for HDR grading and shooting with Dual Native ISOs. Černjul recently shot the hit HBO-series The Deuce with the VariCam 35 and the upcoming Warner Bros. feature film Crazy Rich Asians with the VariCam Pure.
QUESTION: What was your first experience shooting with the Panasonic VariCam?
VANJA ČERNJUL: So around 2 years ago, I was prepping the new HBO show The Deuce, which is about the rise of the sex trade in the heart of New York City in the 1970s. The story follows characters in the 42nd St. area like prostitutes, pimps, criminals, and policemen, so I knew that the story was going to be about characters that live at night in the streets. We knew we were going to have a lot of night exteriors primarily on location in New York City. We were going to shoot the series in the summer months when nights are short so we knew we were going to have to move fast. Sometimes we would have two or three company moves in a single night. Around that time, I had first heard about the VariCam and its dual native sensitivity. I thought it might be an interesting tool for this project. I was really surprised with the first test at the flexibility this camera has and I thought it was the perfect tool for the project and that's how the romance began.
QUESTION: For The Deuce, what was the look you were trying to achieve and how did the VariCam 35 help you?
ČERNJUL: It was very important for the series to look as real as possible. I didn't want to have a look that looked as if it was lit by professional instruments. Respecting the practical source and the quality of the light was important to me. The color of the light and the quality of light was driven by the practical source, which means that any augmented lighting that I was going to use always had to be around the level of the practical source, or under it. The flexible ISO settings of the VariCam really help me adjust to the practical source quickly.
QUESTION: How did you utilize the VariCam’s Dual Native ISO feature?
ČERNJUL: On every VariCam project that I have done, during pre-production, once I determine what kind of look I am going for, the lenses I'm going to use, the LUT that I create with the colorist or the DIT, I’ll do a test where I figure out what ISO range is right for that particular project. On The Deuce, I was always between 800 and 3,200 ISO, which means I would go between 800 and 1,250 on 800 base and I would go down, from 1600 to 3200, on 5,000 base. So, this was the range that worked for this project. Then I could go between anywhere within this range, even within a single scene, so I didn't have to commit to one ISO setting. I could go shot by shot within the same scene, or sometimes you want a little more depth of field for a particular shot, so you can go up on the ISO to get the extra depth of field. For example, the director asked for a slow motion shot that we didn't plan for, so we just upped the ISO and it's no longer a problem. Before, you had to plan for any slow motion shot in advance because you had to up your light levels if you want to overcrank your camera. Once you get familiar with the ISO settings, you can start using it more creatively. I was able to use camera filters at night, or inside, that I couldn't afford to use at low light levels. For example, a polarizer during a night shot outside or in an interior, or thick lighting gels that I couldn't use before because I needed big instruments - they were absorbing too much light. Now, it was no longer a problem.
QUESTION: Can you talk a little about the VariCam’s 14+ stops of latitude when finishing for HDR?
ČERNJUL: Ever since I first tested the VariCam, I was impressed with the latitude and the camera's ability to preserve the highlights. This was very important in HDR grading on The Deuce particularly because we used a lot of neon light. On the HDR pass, we were able to take advantage of the latitude of the HDR to bring back the highlights from those neon lights and we could maintain the detail in the neon signs and the exposure of the faces inside the frame. I wish I could monitor in HDR on the set because if I had that opportunity, I would probably take advantage of the practical sources even more because I would know how much I could use the practical source as a key light and how much of the highlights from those sources I could bring back. Today we are in a position where we have to think of both color spaces SDR and HDR but I'm looking forward to the future where we can really take full advantage of HDR.
QUESTION: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming feature, Crazy Rich Asians?
ČERNJUL: Crazy Rich Asians is a story of a Chinese American woman who goes to Asia for the first time in her life. She goes to Singapore where her boyfriend is from and learns about his surprising background. We had to capture the beauty of that part of the world on a really tough schedule. We had 38 locations in 43 days and weather conditions in Southeast Asia change every 15 minutes so it was important to have the flexibility for location work and again the VariCam helped me because I was able to capture the city of Singapore at night and show off the amazing cityscape. Also, with the latitude of the VariCam, I could capture enough data so that I could really take advantage in the grade to even out the exteriors.
QUESTION: What was your experience like shooting with the VariCam Pure on the film?
ČERNJUL: I like the ergonomics of the Pure. The camera is more compact and of course the ability to capture 4K Raw was very important for this project. The Pure helped me with capturing the city because we were moving very fast and we were shooting at all the major locations in the city without always having the ability to light. That's where the high ISO of the VariCam helped out. it was a very stylish romantic comedy so we wanted to have a polished look. The world of Crazy Rich Asians is the world of old Singaporean mansions, amazing costumes. It was very important to have a consistent look and we wanted to show every major location in the city. Whenever we had a night scene, we wanted to see as much of the city in the background as possible. The sense of place was very important for this film.
QUESTION: What sort of an effect has VariCam had on your craft as a cinematographer?
ČERNJUL: For cinematographers, sensitivity was always a big factor when you approach lighting a scene. You always had to commit to one ISO setting and then build your whole lighting around it. A lot of times you can get stuck like during the fifth shot of a scene because you built your light levels up to a certain point, and now you need an extra stop for whatever reason. With VariCam, once you get used to the flexibility and the freedom that it offers in terms of no longer having to worry about light levels all the time. It's something you get used to very quickly and it's really hard to go back. That freedom also allows you to sometimes improvise on the spot and come up with ideas that were technically impossible to do before.