Westworld - Keeping 35mm Television Alive

Paul Cameron is widely remembered for shooting the first major digital feature film. He helped usher in the digital revolution with his cinematography in the 2004 Michael Maan film Collateral. Ever since then we have seen the change away from shooting on film which has rapidly gained momentum. As we all know, film isn't dead, thankfully. 

Paul Cameron is helping keep film alive, despite his involvement with the start of its decline. Westworld is the new hit from HBO which Paul Cameron is the cinematographer on. It is based on the Michael Crichton film of the same name. Cameron, despite all of the advances in digital cinema, still chose to shoot Westworld on 35mm film.

In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Cameron talked about why he chose the look of film versus digital.

Filmmaker: So much of the look of many films shot digitally isn’t actually baked into the original image. For example if you’re shooting Alexa in LogC, you need a LUT so that you’re not monitoring with a flattened image on set. When you’re shooting 35mm, what is the image like that you’re seeing on the monitor?

Cameron: Specifically for Westworld I had Arricam Lites retrofitted for HD taps. Quite frankly, if directors and everybody else saw the video taps that we used to use on film cameras they’d flip out. Jonathan [Nolan] is actually very experienced with shooting film and looking at classic video taps, but still I thought it was important to establish a set protocol to get a better image for both Jonathan and various department heads so that they could see what we were doing. We dug up a bunch of video taps from around the country and put them on the Arricam Lites. The problem was we were shooting in Santa Clarita, California in the middle of the summer at high noon, when it’s about 195 degrees. So we tended to have a few problems with the HD taps. Just picture these Arricams with ice packs wrapped around the video taps all the time to keep the temperature down. (laughs)
— Filmmaker Magazine

Cameron also discussed with Movie Plot about his choices in regards to the medium.

MP: In the past you’ve talked about how much you love shooting on film, so what was it about Westworld that made you feel that it was so important to film the show using that medium?

PC: The point of view of filmmakers like Jonathan Nolan and myself is that you really need to figure out what the right medium is for every project. With the shift to video and digital capture, the assumption is that film would suddenly go away, but I don’t think that was ever the design of the new paradigm. I don’t want to shoot film or digital for everything, just because I like one or the other — it really comes down to the medium and the craft.
— Movie Plot


The interview with Filmmaker Magazine goes on to talk about why he chose the stocks that he utilized and what issues that accompanied them in regards to the large amount of light needed.

Filmmaker: What stocks did you ultimately use for Westworld?

Cameron: We used Kodak 5219 500 ASA for the night interiors and exteriors. I used 5245 for day exteriors and day interiors and that’s a beautiful 50 ASA stock. Using the 50 ASA stock presented challenges in locations like the saloon, which had these big windows. We’d be shooting at high noon in the summer in California, where the exposure is extreme outside and then you’ve got this rich, beautifully luscious interior. There wasn’t the possibility of ND-ing windows or netting things down for the exteriors, so we had to come up with a system for the saloon and other day interiors that would raise the light level to an extreme volume to compete with the exterior light. When there’s a lot of volume of light, you tend to trade off quantity of light for quality of light. Not making that tradeoff was a big thing for me.

In a location like that a lot of people may have just gone in and loaded up a softbox with downlight to bring the light level up, but then the light would have no direction to it whatsoever and for me direction of light is incredibly important. So we had this square rig with maybe 24 [Arri] M40s on it with Chimeras. We tended to use the Chimeras on the big wide shots and then on the close-ups we’d rig diffusion underneath the rig.
— Filmmaker Magazine

Take a look at both interviews below as well as the trailer for the season. They are some interesting reads and it is quite the series.

Paul Cameron's Filmmaker Magazine Interview

Movie Plot Interview with Paul Cameron