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Panavision is Kramer Morgenthau’s Go-To Resource for HBO’s Fahrenheit 451

HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 is a modernization of the classic Ray Bradbury book about a dystopian future of thought control and book burning by the big brother Ministry that stars Michael B. Jordan as a firefighter, who is doing more burning than extinguishing but begins to question authority and eventually rebels. The HBO film also stars Michael Shannon and Sofia Boutella. The film makes its television debut on HBO on May 19.

Here, Kramer Morgenthau, ASC talks about his approach to the shoot:

You did not have much prep time going into Fahrenheit 451, so why did you choose the 4K Panasonic VariCam 35 camera through Panavision?

Morgenthau: Based on the scouts and seeing what the director wanted to do at night –– with being free to move quickly in any direction along with the fact that this movie takes place almost entirely at night – I had heard some things about the low-light capability of the Panasonic VariCam 35. Panavision is my go-to place, and they were totally supportive of the idea of using that camera, which was a big departure for me. I still had time to shoot side-by-side tests against an Alexa, and I was pretty blown away with the Panasonic in a night situation with very fast lenses. I could almost shoot in no light.

With so little prep time and using a new camera, did you have any concerns going into the project?

Fire is a huge part of this movie. I was dancing a fine line between picking up enough light at night, but also holding detail for fire. I did a lot of riding of the iris. My camera operator Mike Heathcoat was instrumental in being able to shoot long, continuous takes in the free-spirited, 360-degree style (director) Ramin (Bahrani) wanted to shoot.

Which lenses did you mate to the camera and how did they contribute to the aesthetic?

I went with the Zeiss Super Speeds that are Panavised legacy glass, as they call it. They are older glass that I like to use, which takes some of the hardness off the digital aesthetic. I usually like to shoot anamorphic with Panavision E Series, and this glass felt like the closest I could get to that but in a spherical lens. I could shoot them wide open at T1.4. I also had a 50mm Ultra Speed that would open up to a T1.

What aspect ratio did you shoot?

I shot in 16:9, which was the delivery format. HBO projects aren’t shot in an anamorphic aspect ratio. HBO doesn’t flex on that. Because it was a Panasonic VariCam 35, it was ultra high definition, basically a 4K acquisition format. That wasn’t the reason I used the camera, but it was a nice perk. I wanted to do something different, to take a risk and push the limits, and that camera seemed to be an interesting way to go.

Which Panavision location did you work with?

We worked out of Panavision Toronto, and we shot in and around Toronto. Russell Bowie, my focus puller in Toronto, was really instrumental in helping me get everything at the last minute over a July holiday/Canada Day weekend. In Los Angeles at Panavision Woodland Hills, my rep David Dodson helped me on his end to get the cameras to Toronto on such short notice for our 40-day shoot.

What was the most challenging and satisfying scene for you on this project?

That would be the final confrontation in the third act, where the Ministry comes down on the protagonist. We had lightning effects and a 300-year-old barn on fire, which was mostly accomplished through visual effects, but we did have a lot of interactive fire-effect lighting with some on-camera practical fire. Three drones were in the air. Two of those drones provided lightning-effect lighting, and one drone captured an additional camera angle. We had lots of cast members and an intense final showdown between the two lead characters at night inside and outside of this barn in the country. It was an epic scene.

How did the Panavision lenses contribute to that sequence?

The lenses had a lot of unique characteristics and aberrations, more of an imperfect image in a good way. We were able to shoot at pretty shallow stops for a very interesting look. The combination of the old lenses and the digital camera was pleasing to the eye and handled the flames nicely. As I mentioned, I constantly was riding the iris to balance holding flame detail and detail on the actors’ faces, especially whenever we used flamethrowers, and we used a lot of them in the final scene.

Did you have any issues crop up during the shoot?

It all worked smoothly. If we did have an issue, it was so minor and taken care of by Panavision that I don’t remember, especially after shooting so many nights! We shot a lot in remote locations and in Hamilton, 45 minutes away from Toronto, and Panavision was always there for us.

What does it mean to you to have Panavision on a project like this?

I came onto this project at the last minute and switched out all the lenses and the camera system and only had about a week to 10 days to test. Both Panavision Toronto and Panavision Woodland Hills were really helpful in pulling that off. Panavision is a great, filmmaker-friendly and cinematographer-friendly company. That is what makes them so good.