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Thursday, 12 February 2009 09:21

Curve of Earth: How to Produce Widescreen 35mm Movies on a Budget

Written by  Bob Fisher
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Ben Kufrin is among the first contemporary U.S. cinematographers to use the Techniscope format that was invented about half a century ago. The format uses two versus four perforation-deep 35mm frames to produce movies in a widescreen 2.4:1 aspect ratio...

Ben Kufrin is among the first contemporary U.S. cinematographers to use the Techniscope format that was invented about half a century ago. The format uses two versus four perforation-deep 35mm frames to produce movies in a widescreen 2.4:1 aspect ratio. Early widescreen productions include Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” westerns, and Kufrin’s latest film will also use this format.

Curve of Earth is the story about how people living in parallel worlds flow into each other’s lives. The main character, Stewart (played by William Forsythe), is a still photographer with a background in the rock ’n’ roll industry, and his specialty is erotic portraits of attractive women. The rest of the cast includes Ursula Brooks as Stewart’s wife Donna, Shaun Sipos as his young assistant Wade, Dee Wallace as his hard-drinking neighbor Gloria, and Zoë Hall as a model named Queenie.

Kufrin recalls the film’s preproduction: “During our first meeting, [writer/director] Lee Madsen told me that he wanted to produce Curve of Earth at practical locations in Los Angeles on 35mm film in 2.4:1 aspect ratio. There aren’t the sweeping vistas that are typical backgrounds in widescreen movies. It’s an intimate drama that mainly takes place in private homes. Lee envisioned things happening in backgrounds and foregrounds with characters on the edges of the frame. I embraced that aesthetic after reading the script.”

Kufrin initially suggested producing the film in anamorphic format, but the demands by producers of significantly bigger budget films caused a shortage of the lenses Kufrin needed for close-in, wide-angle shots. As an alternative, he heard that Panavision in Los Angeles had modified several 35mm Panaflex GII cameras with two-perf movements. Deluxe Labs in Los Angeles was set up to process the negative and transfer the images to HDCAM SR 4:4:4 digital files.

“That was a perfect solution,” Kufrin explains. “It would allow us to produce the film in Super 35 format with spherical lenses recording two images on each four perforation frames. You use nearly all the space on the top and bottom, and out to the edges of the frame when you are framing in 2.4:1 aspect ratio on two-perforation-deep 35mm film. That allowed us to cut film and front-end lab costs in half.”

After Kufrin shot a test, Madsen, producer Kirsten Wagner and production manager Christian Clark all embraced the concept.

“The cast and crew were happy to be working in Los Angeles,” Kufrin observes. “They could sleep in their own beds at night, and we were close to the lab and all of the support services we needed. The government and public were incredibly cooperative.”

The film’s lead character lives in an elegant, old Spanish-style home with high ceilings, a portrait studio, a pool and land in the backyard. Location Manager Madeline Randolph found settings, mainly private residences, in the San Fernando Valley with others in nearby Woodland Hills, Hollywood and Malibu. Other locations included a film school in Hollywood and a coffee shop in Venice.

“A lot of the story takes place in Stewart’s house,” Kufrin says. “He is the master of his lair. In contrast, Wade lives in a crummy, one-room apartment.” A scene filmed at the school shows when Wade is rejected and told that he will have one more opportunity to apply. Desperately in need of money for the application fee, Wade posts a notice on a bulletin board in the Venice coffee shop. When Donna sees the ad, she hires him as Stewart’s assistant, and part of Wade’s new job is taking pictures for a book titled “The World’s Greatest Erotic Photographer.”

“This is a story about real people,” Kufrin says. “We covered scenes with one camera in naturalistic lighting. Staging was integrated with fluid camera movement rather than using a lot of cutaways with footage from multiple cameras at different angles.”

The film had an ambitious 24-day production schedule. The two-perf frame paid an additional dividend in that it doubled the time they could shoot without stopping to change magazines. They could use a 1,000-foot-magazine camera seamlessly with the actors for 22 minutes without stopping.

Kufrin recorded interior and night-exterior scenes on KODAK VISION2 500T 5218 film, and daylight exteriors on KODAK VISION2 250D 5205. “Shooting with 35mm film and the latitude and resolution it offers was a big advantage,” he says. “We used the Primo lenses as much as possible. That combination gave us tremendous flexibility in creating natural looks that augmented moods.”

Deluxe Labs processed the negative and used a Spirit 2K telecine to transfer it to an HDCAM SR 4:4:4 file. Madsen and Kufrin made painterly decisions to shoot flashback and point-of-view sequences in Super 8 format with the cameras, film and processing services provided by Pro8mm and Spectra Film & Video in Los Angeles. The processed Super 8 film was transferred to digital HDCAM SR 4:4:4 files at Modern VideoFilm in Burbank.

The timed digital master of the edited film can be used to produce film and/or digital prints for festivals and for television and home-video distribution in HD/DVD/Blu-ray formats. Households that have home cinemas equipped with projectors will be able to experience Curve of Earth in its native 2.4:1 aspect ratio rather than 16:9.

“If there is a cinema release, Lee can either cut and time the original negative or record the digital master out to intermediate film,” Kufrin observes. “A lot of love, time and effort went into producing Curve of Earth. If the film has any staying power, it will be there for our children, grandchildren and future generations to see because film is a proven archival medium.”

Deluxe Labs


Modern VideoFilm



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