The recent Channel 4 series World War II: The Last Heroes represented a powerful and novel way of bringing history to life. Latest generation slow-motion cameras and lenses were employed to capture in evocative detail the detonation and impact of real explosions of the same size and power of those actually experienced in World War II. Illustrating a series of moving interviews with aged Allied veterans, the explosions supplemented rare historic footage to tell the real-life stories of the survivors. Co-producers, Impossible Pictures in the UK and Entertainment One of Canada, approached DoP Jeremy Benning CSC to lead the camera team and here he explains how they went about capturing these highly charged sequences.
I wasn’t involved in filming the interviews – these were done in the UK by Impossible Pictures, while eOne dealt with the Canadian and US veterans. I came on board for the visualizations, which were all set up and shot in Canada. For this part of the production a suitable site where huge explosions could be safely set up and executed was sought. A large Canadian military base in New Brunswick where major explosives testing is carried out was located. Here, we could build sets without fear of hurting or disturbing anyone.
Before the main shoot started, the producers cut a three-minutes teaser to convey the style of the programme and showed this to the base commander and a Canadian government representative for veteran affairs. They were both very moved by this and appreciative of the way in which we would be using cutting-edge technology to tell the stories in a new way, especially to younger audiences, in order to enhance understanding of what these people had been through.
The project was very collaborative and well planned. We had to think about everything from camera/personnel housings and lens protection to cabling. So, from February to June 2011 there was much discussion between myself, Crispin Reece, the director, and the British and Canadian production teams, with pictures, information and feedback from prototype tests being bounced backwards and forwards.
Quite apart from the obvious safety considerations, many of the set-ups literally could not be repeated – most of what we were shooting was going to be blown to smithereens, and in some cases we would be using genuine World War II vehicles that could not be replaced. We were very aware that we couldn’t just show up and hope that this worked!
Out of harm's way
Crew safety was paramount. There were bomb shelters for the crew and a team of specialist explosives experts to advise on how to keep both ourselves and the equipment safe at all times. For each set-up the precise amount of explosives and resultant risk were calculated and the appropriate precautions put in place.
Much thought was given to the best ways in which to protect the cameras while leaving them relatively easy to operate. After researching the housings available on the market we decided we were going to have to make our own. Max MacDonald, our special effects expert, was able to advise on exactly the strength of blast these were going to need to be able to withstand. The housing we developed comprised a metal tube that opened in half so that the cameras could be adjusted. The end product wasn’t a thing of great beauty but it provided a very effective combination of protection for the gear and usability. None of the main camera gear was damaged, which is quite remarkable considering the size of the blasts, some of which involved as much as 400 lbs. of explosives.
It wasn’t just the camera and lenses that needed safeguarding – great attention was paid to protecting the long runs of cables involved and, again, no cable was damaged in the entire shoot. Sim Video (a Canada-based equipment rental house) helped custom-build a bifre optic cable system that allowed us to connect to the cameras from a much longer distance than normal (for some set-ups as far as 600 or 700m). For heavy shrapnel blasts at close range to the cameras, we protected the cables with sheets of ¾ inch plywood laid on top, and then rubber carpets at further distances. This often meant laying down a couple of hundred metres’ worth of protection.
One of the main problems of enclosing the camera in a metal tube for long periods in the Canadian summer would be overheating. The metal housings were painted white on top to deflect the sun, plus the camera’s internal thermal sensor could be monitored remotely and a fan was included in each housing.
Very high Speed
We shot for 17 days, recording several events each day with four Phantom cameras; two Gold and two of the newer Flex model that can record up to 2500 frames per second. Recording was to HDCam decks. On an earlier pre-shoot in the winter, we had used a Weisscam HS-2 from P+S Technik, also a good camera, but for the main shoot we found that it was not possible to control the Weisscam from far enough away and so, after testing various models, we opted for the Phantoms. We also used GoPro minicams to get in closer to the action and, for some sequences, played with unusual viewpoints, for instance, mounting a Canon 5D on the end of a machine gun to achieve spectacular POV shots running through the undergrowth, looking down the barrel of the gun towards the muzzle flash.
A major challenge of the shoot was the triggering of the camera’s capture mode. With the extreme frame rates involved, the maximum capture time was just 4 to 8 seconds, so the cameras had to be triggered immediately before the blast. If incorrect, we’d miss the start of a blast. We controlled the cameras from laptops in the safety of the military’s personnel bunkers and we took full advantage of the Phantom’s customizable pre-trigger times.
For the lenses, we went straight for Cooke 5/i and Panchro/i prime lenses. I have always used Cookes and purchased my own set of Panchro/i lenses last year to shoot Afghan Luke, a feature film about the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan. I really wanted to capture these moving stories with the best lenses available and I have always loved the ‘painterly’ look of Cookes.
What I mean by painterly here is the way Cooke lenses handle focus fall-off, blurred backgrounds (‘bokeh’) and contrast. This way of defocusing out-of-focus areas of the frame is part of the signature ‘Cooke Look.’ Cooke has a way of making sharp yet gentle images with their optics. The resulting images are velvety and smooth with a shallow depth of field that leads your eye to the subject, bringing a naturalness to each scene. For this series I wanted the viewer to experience the scene as a sympathetic witness rather than as if watching a scientific explosives test. This look would also help the linking from archive footage to the interviews and reconstructions.
On set I dialed in a contrasty, desaturated look to our monitors to allow us to preview the final graded look, while the Phantoms captured the full range of colour and contrast. This allowed the colourist to have all the information needed to push and pull the image in the final grade. The precious lenses were protected with a form of Perspex polycarbonate called Lexan; we would have preferred glass but had to accept that plastic was the most protective. Tests with different thicknesses were conducted and at all stages we had to defer to the explosives experts – when you’re dealing with metla shrapne flying at 22,000 ft. per second, you go with that will protect most effectively! Lexan can be bulletproof so we were able to put the lenses into serious harm’s way without worrying (well, not too much). Shooting through a piece of plastic obviously meant some optical degradation, but with these high performance lenses we didn’t lose too much detail.
At times, set-ups were almost like shooting still life; we would frame a composition with a beautiful shot of a church, then this would begin to shatter in extreme slo-mo, creating a contrast of serene horror. The human presence is implied; the viewer knows there are people in the church or in the landing craft from details like a knapsack on a wall or boots drying in the sun, a helmet flying through the air – little details that bring home that there were people involved in these horrifying situations. It’s all in your mind. You don’t need to see the people – in some ways it is scarier not to. Fireballs and flashes
We shot largely wide open to capture the blasts and fireballs, using only available light. Some of the incendiary bombs were shot at dusk to take advantage of the last vestiges of daylight before the set was lit up by the bright explosions of magnesium and phosphorus sparks, the fireballs creating their own light sources. Exposure was set manually on the Phantoms and I relied on Sony OLED PVM-740 monitors, viewed from the safety of the shelters, for confidence in this. Generally, I erred on the side of being slightly under to avoid burnt-out skies or over-blown fireballs and also used ND graduated filters to control bright skies. Setting exposure was mainly down to experience and knowing the latitude of the Phantoms to gauge how they would handle the bright bursts of light.
We also had to deal with extreme contrasts; direct transitions from flashes of bright light and fireballs to heavy black smoke. Again the Cookes coped with this brilliantly without any double imaging or ghosting.
Most of the explosions were shot at 1000-2500fps; viewing this amount of power at these frame rates was incredible – you see the shock wave, the dust rising. . . things you would never see with the naked eye.
This was a physically demanding shoot. There were seven of us on the team who did everything from dealing with the cables for each shot to moving the heavy housings – it really was an ‘all hands on deck’ project. In order to provide the stability and protection required in the face of the massive explosions, the assembled tripod/housing units weighed in at 300 lbs., which provided a significant challenge when it came to moving them around. In fact, with all the obvious hazards present, the only injuries resulted from handling the camera housings. We all know this was a one-off opportunity and everyone pitched in, knowing the results would be worth it. The evocative series that has resulted is testimony to this.
Reprinted with permission: ZERB, Spring 2012 www.gtc.org.uk