When cinematographer David Mullen, ASC, was hired to shoot Fox’s Jennifer’s Body, director Karyn Kusama had already planned several key sequences of the film. The dramatic ending featured a fight between the two lead actresses with some crucial moments to be shot at extreme high speed. While the rest of the production was photographed on Kodak 35mm stocks using Panavision cameras, Mullen chose the Phantom HD camera to capture 1000fps. Actresses Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried performed the action sequence repeatedly to capture the unique sequence. David Mullen has graciously provided us with this excerpt from his personal production diary. Jennifer’s Body is currently in theaters nationwide.
We had a hydraulic rig to lift the two characters four feet off of the bed and then flip them end to end. That had to come up through a hole in the floor on the opposite side of the bed. Then we had to saw a hole in the wall of the headboard end for another rig that rotated them lengthwise in mid-air like. Then the characters had to drop separately, one after the other, back onto the bed. And that portion had to be shot at 1000 fps on the Phantom.
We had the Phantom on a Technocrane over the top of the set looking down at the first character dropping away from the lens in a close-up to a near full-figure shot of them hitting the bed below. The actress held onto a pipe rig we built near the lens and then let go and fell directly away. So basically our 1st AC, Stephen Maier, had to follow focus as someone moved from a close-up to a medium, an event that took a little more than a second in real time but was stretched out to a minute or so of screen time. Kevin Zanit, our Phantom tech, would call out “action” as soon as he triggered the camera, the actress would let go of the pipe, and Stephen basically cranked the Preston knob as fast as he could from near to far focus. Then we’d play back the shot (the main reason I wanted to use the Phantom instead of a Photosonics) and analyze when the focus would be out of sync with the fall and try again, until we basically got lucky. Because in a one second interval, there was no way Stephen could adjust the speed of the rack, think “oh, two-thirds into the rack I need to slow down, etc.” It was basically hearing “action!” and then turning the focus knob as fast as possible! We had some takes where Stephen nailed it for 80% to 90% of the take, which was a miracle. We were intercutting the shot with the reverse angle looking up as the next actress fell towards lens (even harder to pull in some ways) so we had some leeway – we didn’t need it to be 100% perfect. (By the end of the night, Stephen’s remote focus more or less had a nervous breakdown, the gears stripped or loosened from all the fast focus racks. At this point the camera was still under the floors of the set looking up through a hole sawed in the floor and mattress, with no way to manually turn the focus knob, so Stephen spent some time trying to fix the Preston and then had to borrow 2nd Unit’s remote focus and attach it to the Phantom. Since the Phantom uses Arri accessories and we are using Panavision cameras, it took a little more time to reset it all.)
I should mention that I lit the bedroom to f/16-22 split more or less just to give Stephen an f/2.8 at 1000 fps to work with, otherwise I would have given him more stop. I had two 20K’s pointed at the actress for the high and low portion of the fall, blended with some Opal frames, and 5K’s through 250 diffusion for fill. And this was just to get a dark moonlit look. It was roasting in there. I wished I had a way of getting an eyelight in there next to the lens, but I couldn’t use any unit smaller than a 5K due to flickering at 1000 fps.
And the high angles required the big wooden beam roof of the set be removed and then the low angles required that it go back, plus we had to cut a hole in the bed mattress and floor so that the other actress could fall from the ceiling (released by a trip harness) and fall right at lens and hit the bed under the lens.
All of this, plus normal speed stuff, on one long shooting day. How can you rush stuff like that? I’m pulling ceilings, putting them back in, cutting holes in beds and floors and walls, then repairing them, shooting high angles from a Technocrane and Libra head on both a film camera and then putting the Phantom on it, and dealing with the focus problems of falling away and towards camera at 1000 fps. Plus dealing with hydraulic rigs being moved from one part of the set to another. And dealing with seeing floor to ceiling and side to side, in a small bedroom where supposedly the lights are all out – but having to see all the emotions going on in their faces because this is a dramatic moment, not just a fight scene. Plus dealing with a lot of white furniture…
When I first saw the storyboards back in prep, drawn before I was hired, and noticed the super slow-motion shots listed, my first thought was to use the Phantom, so we could play the shots back on set and look for performance issues plus focus. With fast action only taking a second to play in reality, all sorts of weird things happen at extreme slow-motion, especially with two actresses with long hair falling away or towards the camera. A few strands of hair can slowly twist and twirl in bizarre ways right across their eyes, for example. An odd expression can seem locked on their faces forever. On the other hand, the action is so fast that the emotion captured is “real” – there’s no time to go through emotional changes in one second as you fall onto a bed. What emotion you had on your face when you let go and fell more or less is what you see throughout the shot.
So I contacted Mitch Gross at Abel Cine Tech and we arranged to rent one of their Phantoms, with Kevin Zanit flying in from Los Angeles to be our tech. They had just installed a new OPLF just before it sent to us. Kevin and Karl (2nd Unit DP) did some test shots of a gold locket bouncing off of a floor, plus some charts, the Friday before we used the camera on Monday, and Eric spent the weekend trying different debayering software to see which worked best (apparently the Adobe RAW software works quite well.) We got the thumbs up on Monday and proceeded to shoot with it.
One thing I can say is Thank God that they developed the Cinemags for the Phantom. When I did my test, every time I wanted to save a shot, it took ten minutes or so to save it. Which is fine for a test or a commercial doing a few shots, but we did take after take of these falling shots, for focus reasons and whatnot, and we could put it all onto the Cinemag and save it at the end of the day. Luckily, Kevin was smart enough to save a few early takes as a test and discovered that the Cinemag had to be reformatted, because the saved files had a glitch in them, but after the reformatting, the Cinemags worked great.