LA-based rental house and digital cinema innovator creates new camera, finds creative solutions for filmmakers
When End of Watch opens in theaters on Friday, audiences are going to see for themselves what the critics have been raving about: a raw, pulse-pounding, heartfelt drama providing a glimpse into the lives of two cops on the beat in South Central LA. Moviegoers also will witness the behind-the-scenes talents of Radiant Images on display.
The LA-based rental house and digital cinema innovator is credited with helping Director/Writer David Ayer and Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov create the unique look and feel of End of Watch – already being touted as an Academy Award contender.
Technicians at Radiant Images (www.radiantimages.com) worked closely with the filmmakers in pre-production to enable the POV and other small camera shots at the movie’s cinematic core. Radiant even conceived, developed and utilized a palm-sized cinema-quality camera – the SI-2K Nano – especially for End of Watch.
"At Radiant Images, they are not afraid of putting themselves in difficult situations, accepting the challenges and then finding a way out of them,” Vasyanov said. “Small camera technology is the future of filmmaking and that’s (Radiant’s) specialty – they have some amazing technicians who did a fantastic job.”
Michael Mansouri, co-founder of Radiant Images and part of the team that worked diligently on End of Watch for weeks in pre-production, said they had a strong sense from the outset they were involved in something special.
“David and Roman are filmmaking visionaries and their sense of purpose really made an impression on us,” Mansouri said. “We just clicked with them and worked hard to deliver because we didn’t want to see them compromise in any way on their vision.”
The partnership developed in the months before End of Watch was shot over 22 days last summer in Los Angeles. Ayer, who wrote Training Day and directed Street Kings, wanted to find a new, fresh approach in the police genre with End of Watch. He wanted to get the audience up close to the lives, friendship and daily work of a pair of police officers, creating visual intimacy, Vasyanov said.
Ayer knew of Radiant’s budding reputation in the film industry due, in part, to the company’s work on acclaimed Director Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours in 2010. Mansouri and his brother Babak Mansouri, an independent filmmaker and camera operator who works closely with Radiant Images, built custom rigs that utilized the SI-2K digital camera to help DP Anthony Dod Mantle get some of the most creative shots in the Academy Award-nominated film.
Ayer and Vasyanov enlisted Radiant to help them achieve their vision by resolving issues and finding solutions before the demands of the tight shooting schedule got underway. A top priority was finding a suitable cinema-quality camera small enough to be worn by lead actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena for POV shots without restricting movement, and also to be mounted as dashboard cams inside a real squad car to capture interaction in a realistic way.
The Mansouri brothers joined Ayer and his team in combing the floor at NAB 2011 in Las Vegas examining the latest digital technology. But they couldn’t find the desired solutions.
Frustrated by the lack of options, Babak Mansouri decided he could design the perfect camera himself.
He had seen the inside of a Silicon Imaging’s SI-2K camera and thought if a Kevlar-type material could encase the boards and sensor, the size could be reduced by more than half. He also envisioned a dedicated C-mount lens and just a single soft-ribbon style cable extending from the body.
Babak Mansouri taught himself a CAD program to render his body design in 3D and then took it to a local engineer. Working around the clock, a prototype was developed just in time for it to be unveiled in Radiant’s booth at the Cine Gear Expo in June 2011.
Available exclusively at Radiant Images, the SI-2K Nano is one-third the size of the original SI-2K Mini Sensor with the versatility (IMS) to mount to just about anyone or anything. It shoots 2K uncompressed RAW 4:4:4 cinema quality using SI sensor components with 10 stops of dynamic range.
For Ayer and Vasyanov, the tiny, versatile SI-2K Nano proved to be just what the filmmakers needed.
With the shooting schedule fast approaching, Radiant technicians, led by Nick Lantz, then went to work testing equipment and building rigs and setups that enabled Vasyanov to get the shots he wanted. “Michael and his team spent so much time to develop the technology and test it and to provide us with the tools that we needed,” he said. “It was just incredible.”
Radiant Images supplied a range of digital cameras to End of Watch in addition to the SI-2K Nano, from the Canon 5D to the GoPro to the RED Epic.
For many of the POV shots, Gyllenhaal and Pena were fitted with straps that mounted the SI-2K Nano to the middle of their chests. They also wore monitors enabling them to see their movements. Vasyanov credited the two actors for quickly adapting to their dual roles of actor and cameraman.
“It was most difficult in action scenes,” he said. “They had to run and move with the cameras, careful to make sure they were capturing the action. It was almost like a ballet.”
The aim for the filmmakers was to create a sense of urgency and something fresh for viewers, he said, adding, “We were trying to get as close to real life as we could. With a small camera like that and a wide angle lens, you can put the viewer right in the middle of the action.”
Vasyanov said End of Watch reflects the “visual environment” in today’s society, spurred on by the popularity of YouTube and the proliferation of the GoPro and other handheld cameras for POV footage. “The language of the camera is changing,” he said. “With this movie, we are simply presenting it in a better quality way.”
The filmmakers also utilized the SI-2K Nano to bring more realism to shots of squad car banter between Gyllenhaal and Pena. Rather than placing the car on a trailer or creating a car cut out, they used Velcro and gaffer tape to mount cameras on and under the dash and on the interior doors and roof of an actual squad car. Radiant Images also installed LED lighting on the roof for greater flexibility in creating any shape or color of light, he said.
Radiant Images, too, developed a realistic way to capture the sensation of infrared night vision goggles through the lens of a Canon 5D for a spooky scene at a ranch. “We watched a lot of FBI footage to a get sense of the look we wanted, so it was quite satisfying that we were able to achieve that,” Vasyanov said.
With only 22 days to shoot the film, he said, strong pre-production was a key to success along with trusting your decisions, often made on the fly, once shooting begins.
“The greatest movies visually are not made in 22 days, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a great movie,” Vasyanov said. “With End of Watch, we learned a lot, we explored a lot, we were brave and we did something really new. I’m really proud of this movie.”