Academy Award-winning Australian DOP Dion Beebe ACS ASC (Memoirs of a Geisha) speaks exclusively about working on the new action thriller 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi and on working with legendary Hollywood Director Michael Bay.
Interview by Lindsay Coleman.
On the evening of 11 September 2012, the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a group of Islamist militants launch an assault on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. CIA security contractors – military veterans who served with the Navy Seals, Marine Corps and Army Special Forces – take the initiative to make a desperate stand to defend the American Ambassador and his staff.
In February 2014 it was announced that Paramount Pictures was in talks to acquire the rights to a book on the subject, 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi. Written by Mitchell Zuckoff, a professor of journalism at Boston University, the book was co-written with the security team who were involved in the 2012 Benghazi attack. It tells the story of the thirteen-hour events from the perspective of the forces that were involved in the fighting, without discussing later political controversies.
AC – Did Michael Bay make reference to Pain & Gain (2013) as an aesthetic breakthrough for his oeuvre during production?
DB – One of his producers likened it to when a commercial director makes many financially successful films and then takes on a project that is personal to them. Many directors approach their career in this way. Most of the directors I’ve worked with speak of working to hit a big box office take, then working to do more personal types of films. Pain & Gain was Bay’s first go at that. We’ll see, but Michael seems to want to produce other kinds of films that he wants to make. Having said that he is also gearing up for Transformers 5.
AC – He is making it?
DB – He is making it.
AC – I thought he said he wasn’t going to do any more?
DB – Well, when he finished Transformers: Age Of Extinction (2014) he said, “that’s it, I’m done, I’m not going to direct any more”. But it’s a multi-billion dollar franchise; I suppose the question is… why give it up?
AC – Bay has a preference for a lot of black in his explosions, a sort of dirty explosion. But the fire in 13 Hours is almost greenish.
DB – The palette for the movie is dirty anyway. The fire for me cannot be pretty. The important criteria to me were to have the audience feel that they were in a world they did not know, just as the characters are. There is a greenish tinge to the night. The characters are in a world of artificial light. Ten of the thirteen hours are at night. I just didn’t want the feeling of cool night where the flames would seem warm.
AC – To evoke cool nights is almost beyond cliché?
DB – Yes, it’s almost like a language of its own. Particularly when you are dealing with military type scenarios it seems even more the case. This is an urban warfare story that takes place in neighbourhoods and homes. As a result of this practical lighting sources seemed very plausible, very motivated by the scene.
AC – Were you going with mercury vapours or did you in turn feel that was clichéd?
DB – We used a wide cross section of lighting for the night scenes. Yes, mercury vapour, but also metal halides, sodium vapour, straight tungsten. Most of our movie lights were gelled in various colours. A lot of green colours as well as dirty yellows or amber. I wasn’t after a de-saturated, gritty feel. I wanted it to have a bold look. Hopefully the look will feel motivated by the environment. You don’t want anyone to become aware that you’ve imposed a look on this world.
AC – You adapt your style to that of the filmmaker you are working with. How specific is Michael Bay in terms of what he asked for? Let’s say, shallow depth of focus, or asking for a shot to be very saturated?
DB – Michael is very visual, often too visual. He’ll let the visual elements take priority. But, to have a director with a lot of concern about the visual style is a good thing. You basically share in your objective. Because it was the first time Michael and I had worked together, and he wanted to see where the collaboration would take him, with material that was a departure, he gave me a lot of leeway. I was able to bring a lot to the table. There was a lot of trust. He felt I was bringing something new to his approach.
As an example we filmed a lot of the intense sequences where the characters are under fire we used these new Hawke T1 closed focus lenses. They create a very particular look. I knew when I read the script that it would work very well with these particular lenses where you really wanted to get inside the personal space of the characters. It was a way to get away from the battlefield and inside their heads. Maybe 40%, most of the big close-ups were on the Hawkes for that reason.
AC – 30-50mm there is less compression and the movement of characters seems more real, there is the illusion of proximity.
DB – I certainly agree with that. 30-50mm is how we, as humans, relate to things visually. It’s an accurate measure if we put lenses in our skulls. For me I feel like it really depends on the material. There are times that you can exaggerate. You can use these tools to emphasize a story point, or a character quirk. As long as you don’t overuse these tools you can further the experience.
I tend to stay away from 14mm, 12mm, because you are so outside human perspective that you immediately create this artifice that the audience finds hard to get around. Because of the visual sophistication of audiences you can mix it up. As long as you are pushing forward with the right emotion they will go with a wide range of devices.
AC – With the wider lenses on Pain & Gain, did you ever have to talk Michael Bay out of such lenses?
DB – Yes. (laughs) In a very good-humoured way Michael, my operator and myself would discuss how wide of a lens we needed, and the possibility of a Dutch tilt. So we’d have a conversation and hopefully find what worked best for the film. It’s not about whose got the better opinion.
AC – What about when you are asked to make a stylistic decision beyond what you might be comfortable with?
DB – You start off which the 30-50mm which is the range of conventional human perception. And from there you push outward. You see how much you can get away with, how far you can take your audience. Michael, as a filmmaker, has pushed further in that realm than anyone. It’s a very bold visual approach, and one that he receives a lot of criticism for.
There is so much momentum it is impossible to look away.
There is nothing naturalistic about his style. It is really closer to a kind of visual expressionism. We don’t see like that. We don’t see at a Dutch tilt on a 12mm, with things exploding behind our characters. When it works it’s a very engaging style, and it’s hard to look away from. That’s something that Michael’s films achieve. There is so much momentum it is impossible to look away.
AC – On an emotional level it is well judged. The cathartic end of Armageddon (1998) is matched by a high contrast, saturated finale when the shuttles are landing. It was liberating on an emotional level.
DB – It’s true. There are a number of moments in the film where Michael’s intuition of where the audience is at, is really bang on. If a dialogue scene is about to be shot has important information might bore an audience, he’ll make a decision and trim off the fat. What does the audience need to know? Where are they emotionally? Rhythmically what is required? Michael likes to keep things moving.
AC – What was your camera package for 13 Hours? What were your lenses?
DB – We used Red Epics. We shot three cameras, four red epics with us with one specifically for the Hawk lenses. It’s a spherical mount. The rest of the film was anamorphic. We would use anamorphic primes and zooms in equal measure. We were on the wide end with our lens choice. Michael likes a certain amount of compression. He likes to carry the 3 to 1 zooms, which take you up to 560. On an anamorphic lens that is quite a distance. On zooms we were generally on the 11 to 1, anamorphic zooms. 30mm is about as wide as we went on the anamorphic primes. That’s about as wide as you ever want to go, and even that is pushing it. Mostly we were in the range of 75-100 in the primes, also 40s and 50s. We were running three cameras most of the time so we had a lot of things working.
AC – What were the features of the Hawk lenses that were new or unusual?
DB – There are close focus primes that are available. These allow you to do macro work. What is unusual about these is that they are a T1. The combination of the open iris, us doing a lot of stuff at the wide end – I tried not to go under T2 – I try to be merciful to my focus pullers (but not too merciful)… the combination of that wide open aperture with the close focus creates unbelievable shallow depth. You can be on a 21mm, really a relatively wide lens, but be so close-up with your character that it creates a sensation of leaning in to a barely audible conversation.
The juxtaposition of the powerful action sequences, with this ability to lean in, helps you to understand the human factor in this conflict.
The intimacy that creates is considerable. The juxtaposition of the powerful action sequences, with this ability to lean in, helps you to understand the human factor in this conflict. When you look into a soldier’s eyes there is a lot going on: pain, confusion, and doubt. I hope it can really humanise the characters.
AC – Isn’t there a difficulty where there characters have limited backstory, the dialogue is expositional, and much of what the film is about getting from point A to B in the story?
DB – I think that’s a challenge we face on every movie. How do you get to the emotional core of the film? How do you get to the point of it all?
AC – Like Cinderella in Into the Woods (2014)?
DB – Exactly. Whether a musical or a war movie, you’re trying to tap into some human emotion. All that storytelling is stuff you want to get out of the way, but if the foundation is not laid carefully you won’t be able to talk you audience to the place you were hoping to take them. You’ve lost them along the way.
AC – The film feature many beards, people are covered in dirt, at night. I imagine eye light would have been particularly important?
DB – Yes, they were. That was why you wanted to get close to faces. At night, in medium wide shot, there’s so much going on all around, everything just plays as actions. You don’t get to emotionally connect. Seeing their eyes, having the Hawks to allow you to get close, enabled you to glimpse the fear, to connect emotionally with the characters. Soldiers can easily be dehumanised because of the function they serve. It was important to emotionally connect somehow with all of them.
AC – Your actors were very tall, athletic, camouflaged and filmed at night. How did you hope to differentiate your actors?
DB – It’s a good point. Wardrobe choices were important. You don’t have time in an action sequence to identify who is who. You need indicators to distinguish these guys. You also need to understand geography. Who is taking fire from where? What is the threat? Otherwise bullets are flying everywhere, the scene stops making sense and the audience stops caring. Having visual clues becomes important.
AC – They presumably arrive at the compound in daylight?
DB – They arrive at the embassy as night is falling. The attack on the compound is carried out at night and into dawn. The timeline is sundown to sunrise. Many of the key scenes are pre-dawn, into dawn. We tried to create a chronology that would help the audience know each of the 13 hours. The clock starts upon the attack on the embassy. Of course there is a preamble previous to that.
AC – How then did you establish screen geography?
DB – There are key scenes at the embassy and compound that help establish that. How the embassy is attacked, how the guys attempt to mount a rescue, all help the audience to establish a sense of screen geography. Characters go through the back gate, or the front, how the move to the compound and set up to defend the compound all aids in establishing screen geography. We also worked to establish the geography from daytime shots. Hopefully that pays off in the transition to night scenes.
The actual CIA compound in Benghazi was made up of four buildings: A, B, C and D. We were able to identify which building soldiers would have been on, and what the vantage point of each pair of soldiers on each building would have been. That way you always knew who was under attack, what they were trying to defend and where the threat was coming from.
AC – The final battle in Miami Vice (2006) is perfect screen geography.
DB – Michael Mann and Michael Bay are extremely different in their approaches. Mann is analytical and systematic in terms of how he breaks down action. Bay is much more visceral and emotional. With Mann on Collateral (2004) we had the sequence in the Korean night club well if you want to talk about defined lines, in a nightclub like that there are no defined lines. All you’ve got is a room with 400 people in it! At the same time every major character in the film converges on the nightclub, each with their own particular goals and targets they are trying to locate.
My job, on that particular sequence, was to try and understand geography, action, and how visual reference points could be created for the audience so you could cut quickly from one character to another, and know from their surrounds who it is, where they are, where they are in the room, where their threat is coming from. When there are five different threats in the room it can become very complicated, very confusing, very quickly.
AC – How do you track your lens choices in terms of the edit and visual features, background to foreground, in a sequence such as that?
DB – I would say there’s a set of lenses. It really becomes about what is the environment, and how do you convey the basic geography then highlight the specifics of where your characters are. Also how are you going to be clear about the direction of where people are heading and who is going towards whom. It’s really a scenario where it’s a mixed bag, from seeing across a room, to seeing a particular character and action, to being close and inside of the crowd with your character. With Tom Cruise we are inside of the crowd. There were very seldom people between him and the lens.
AC – You also went with wider lenses with him?
DB – Yes, you were wider and closer. You were also reaching across the room to see your FBI agent entering the room and where they are coming from. You then have a visual language their own. With the Jamie Foxx character you are both observing him and with him. It switches up. One moment he’s the target, the next you are with him.
AC – Those are the on-the-shoulder Michael Mann shots?
DB – With Michael Mann its always on the shoulder. He never puts in on a bloody tripod! Or a dolly!
AC – On Blackhat (2015) he put the camera right on the shoulder of the antagonists as well.
DB – Yes. I take that from my time with him. He was the first filmmaker I worked with who did that. You really see it in The Insider (1999) as well. He takes his lens right up there, right inside. That’s where all the rules get thrown out. He just breaks through that wall all the time. That creates a certain tension. When you get inside that personal space and you stay there, the audience feels anxiety. But I really credit that as something that Michael Mann has brought to the language of cinema. I really feel he didn’t use it for the first time but he mastered it.
AC – Going back to 13 Hours, you used drones for shooting the embassy compound?
DB – Yes, we did. That was a device that helped us understand geography.
AC – How far have drones come in recent years?
DB – They have come a hell of a long way! I used one on Gangster Squad (2013). It was very limited in terms of what you could achieve, what you could load onto the copter. Now we can fly Red Cameras. We used smaller cameras too, but now you can clip on a 4k recorder with most of these cameras, so you’re able to protect the resolution. I feel it has really become a tool, not just a gimmick. It becomes a way to explore geography, locations, in a different way.
AC – With the 4k on the drone you wouldn’t have to worry too much about focus?
DB – You can set it to distances of 40 feet and know that you are going to be safe for the night work. You’re still not working with rigs where you can run a remote focus. The type of application for drones doesn’t really require that, unless you’re trying to fly up into someone’s face. Then it’s no longer the right device anyway.
AC – On Gangster Squad you had a very bright light source lighting the heroes on a night road from a half a mile away. Did you take a similar approach on 13 Hours?
DB – Yes, our approach was exactly that. We had a big light source well into the distance. You’ve always got a choice of certain light sources when you are lighting for night when lighting for a digital camera because of the sensitivity. You really have the opportunity to create ambiance in the night sky. For Collateral we were lighting in a city and depended on the green layer to have particulates in the air that could really catch the light.
My approach with 13 Hours was to create ambient light in the sky by placing bigger units about a half-mile away for the embassy battle. We had a huge area to cover for that. It was probably a couple of square miles that we had to light. The geography of the place had to be clear, from where the bad guy’s house was; to the burning compound that was a mile away. We needed to understand where these places were and we needed light references to find them. We didn’t have the option to use Bebee lights, as on Gangster Squad so I built a light source from a huge construction crane. We used remote yokes where you can operate the lights from the ground. That would get us 200 feet in the air.
One idea we pursued was to create these deep, large light sources that combined with smoke to create a light quality in the area that really gave us depth.
AC – You lit up the smoke?
DB – We lit up the smoke, but way in the distance. It gave a sense, that beyond the wall the night went on forever. It gave a sense that you light an area where you can’t see beyond that light and the area then start to feel smaller, more contained. We had to create a feeling that the threat these guys were under could come from anywhere, could come from any distance. We devised this lighting scheme where we had big units place around our perimeter, combined with smoke, to expand our world as much as possible.
AC – There is one shot where the heroes are backlit, with light hitting the smoke behind them in the trailer.
DB – That was a more dramatic shot where we were shooting into the light units we had set up. We were also closer to the unit. It has a much more creative effect when you are a half mile from the big units. That shot had more melodrama than the effect was designed to be. The effect was designed to be more ambient.
AC – Was the work of Greig Frasier ACS ASC on Zero Dark Thirty (2012) a reference point?
DB – Greig did a great job on that film. He took a really interesting approach to what is a siege on a compound at night. Our situation was different because this was like any night in Benghazi. There was a soccer match on that night. The city was functioning; things were still going on. That is the surreal journey the characters go through. All of this stuff is still going on but these guys are in the fight of their lives. People aren’t stopping for this fight. Also, the guys don’t know who is who, who is a bad guy who isn’t. It wasn’t an isolated compound as was the case in Zero Dark Thirty. I wasn’t trying to create an ambient night like he created. It’s a somewhat more aggressive style, and that’s in keeping with the type of filmmaker Michael Bay is.
AC – In terms of the light in the sky for the low angle shots for night exteriors, how did you achieve consistency?
DB – Not easily! It’s tricky. We were on an island. Sometimes it would calm, other times you’d have a howling gale! We ran perimeter smoke machines and we’d get a perfect soft haze. Other nights we’d have a ripping gale and you’d have to try and localize it. Every night was a different sort of challenge. That is the challenge with extended night photography: consistency is hard. Some nights we had a lot of marine layer, some nights there’d be none. Really you just have to be smart about it.
AC – In Miami Vice there is a shot where you have either a dawn or a sunset behind Jamie Foxx as he confers with Colin Farrell. It looks like you froze the sky behind in that shot it is so consistent!
DB – Every time you undertake a sequence which is in very specific natural light, but it dusk, or pre-dawn, any of those. They are often the most dramatic lighting environments you can be in, but your window is incredibly narrow. By committing to that you know you’ve opened yourself up to a world of pain.
If you don’t get it all in one go you know you’re going to be back there, trying to capture it again. In that same half hour window you had prior. Those moments are about the Cinematographer and the Director asking, “can we do this?” It’s also about not compromising what the actors can do. You can go to some actors and say, “you’ve got fifteen minutes to get this, then it’s over”. Some will step right up. Others, you know it’s just going to throw them, the pressure. It very much becomes a joint decision. You know it is going to look great, and then you have to ask if the pressure is worth it. Often the answer is yes.
On 13 Hours we have an extended pre-dawn sequence. We shot it every night for about a month, or two months. Whenever we got to blue night, we had a horrifying forty minutes where we had to do so much, everyone did. It was the worst part of every shooting day when blue night was coming because we had to be so concise in that window, to get what we needed to get.
AC – Did you judge those moments off the monitor?
DB – Yes, and that is one of the great advantages of digital, that you have this tool that can guide you. You can really assess how far you can take it. Often Michael would try to get blue night going as early as possible. He wanted to extend it as long as he could. We created a number of lookup tables on the movie that we could implement. These were quick was to assess how far we could take it each night. In the end it becomes important enough to do, to put us under that pressure, in the service of the storytelling. You reach that moment, with the dawn coming, where you believe the movie is over, that the story has come to an end. The siege is seemingly done. Everyone survives. But that doesn’t happen. It was a chance to create misdirect with the audience.
AC – With the light?
DB – With the light. When you’re under siege all night long and dawn breaks, traditionally that is the end of the siege. You literally feel help is arriving at the gate. But the fight was not over. Given choices the hard road is often the best choice.
AC – Do you feel you give any clues to the audience as to the unresolved nature of the siege?
DB – Other than that it is based on true events, I feel that the idea was not to give anything away.
AC – Do you grade your dailies?
DB – Yes.
AC – How long do you usually spend doing that for a given day?
DB – I spend a lot of time in pre-production developing LUTs for any project that I do. I apply those tables when I shoot. At the end of each day I’ll go in with my DIT and engage in a quick review. I have to tweak the look a little bit where necessary, making changes on the fly. I rely on the grade created in pre-production. That’s the grade I’m lighting the scene to. That’s how I perceive everything through all of the monitors. It is all via the original grade. I need a look going through all my reference monitors so I know what sort contrast I’m working to.
AC – Sometimes directors looking at ungraded dailies get upset by what they are looking at.
DB – I tell young DPs how important it is to establish a look in pre-production. Everyone complains about the fact that we are working with raw data, to which anything can be done. Well you do something to it before you start this process. Get everyone on board. Make sure everyone is in agreement. If you deliver raw data to an editor then it’s going to go to places it was never meant to go. It’s really the Cinematographer’s responsibility to define that from the get go. Otherwise you’ll be disappointed with your results and you’re not really doing your job either.
AC – How much did your work on Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) purchase you good will?
DB – In this town you get nominated, then win an Oscar, you’re voice becomes louder. People do pay attention to that sort of acknowledgement. It’s the young Cinematographer starting out that I’m concerned for. They’re getting shut out of the process.
One of the things which irks the hell out of me is that the grade is not a part of Cinematographer’s deal anymore.
One of the things which irks the hell out of me is that the grade is not a part of Cinematographer’s deal anymore. You’re invited to the grade, but you are not paid to be there.
AC – You’re a guest.
DB – Right, for me that is a non-starter. I will not be part of a film unless I am contracted to participate in the grade. So many grades are done without Cinematographers. I wish the ACS, or ASC could make a stand on that. It doesn’t affect me because I won’t do a film without that ability. A young DP is not even offered that opportunity. They are squeezed out of the process. It should be a non-starter for every Cinematographer: I’m not doing the grade? I’m not doing the movie.
AC – Do you think the future is made up of grader/Cinematographers?
DB – It is very important for Cinematographers to understand the grading room very well. They must understand visual effects very well. You’ve got to understand these parts; otherwise you will be squeezed out of them. You won’t even realise you’re being squeezed out of them. If you understand the tools and the technology you then become a bigger asset to the movie. The more you prove yourself an asset the more you’ll be on board.
AC – You’ve always understood that though, even going back to your day-for-night on Vacant Possession (1995).
DB – When you’re young and starting out you need to be very protective of the look and style that you create. There’s plenty of competition, if you don’t protect your vision and look you’re ultimately the one who is going to suffer. It’s one thing to have regrets, but really you have to fight tooth and nail to make sure you get to present what you intended.
AC – The light in the third act of Into the Woods is broken up much more than in the first two acts. It represents a different aesthetic but it works because the first two acts feature such a consistent aesthetic.
DB – That was discussed with the director, Rob Marshall, in a lot of detail. He was on board with the idea of coming into a fairy tale world that you would then disassemble. By the end it is not the world you thought it was. By the end there is almost no sky to be seen. There is nothing but forest, and you’re lost. The only place left to go is inwards. We very much wanted to create a visual metaphor to play out through that movie.
AC – It was quite shocking at the end. The conclusion.
DB – It is. That’s what drew Rob to it in the first place. It really is deceptive, a world that we know so well. But really, in the end, it’s a device to get us hooked. It proceeds to disassemble and reconstruct our expectation of a fairy tale.
AC – How did you manage to break the light up as you did?
DB – All of the hard light was lit with moving, theatrical light. That gave me a lot of control in terms of how to move the light, how to break the light, how to move it quickly within the parameters we had. I could also control the colour of it. In the end what was most important was the understanding of the progression through the three acts and what we wanted from each segment. Once you identify what you are looking for, you just work on way of then getting there. Hopefully you’ve set up the right tools, the right devices for when the time comes. When the time does come you’ve never got enough time. With that movie smoke was also a big tool in terms of the storytelling, in how light was seen and played in the forest. Smoke is a difficult thing to work with.
AC – Do you judge smoke by eye?
DB – You judge it by eye, but also it is worth remembering smoke is really there in every scene in the movie. So you have to sustain these sorts of levels. You’re totally reliant on your SFX team to be working with you with smokers throughout the studio to create that sort of very particular level. Too much smoke and the image will change completely, the same with too little. You’ve got to find that balance. You find it and then in minutes its gone, so you’re back to again trying to reach it, again and again. When you’re adding those types of elements you can see how collaborative filmmaking really is.
It really is deceptive, a world that we know so well. But really, in the end, it’s a device to get us hooked.
AC – There must be something in you that loves these challenges. There is a lot of substance in relation to atmosphere in 13 Hours.
DB – We had a lot of atmosphere on 13 Hours. A lot of smoke, a lot of dust, a lot of particulants. That was a big part of that world. Particulants in the air allow you to do things with light that you otherwise couldn’t. I’ve always enjoyed having that element to play with, when its appropriate.
AC – I feel there are more medium shots – torsos and heads – than normal for a Michael Bay film in 13 Hours?
DB – Michael hates anything in between. It’s big and wide, or you’re right up in there. He doesn’t have time for the stuff in the middle. I think here he told the story in a different and new way. Hopefully though the material will help dictate the style.
AC – Last question Dion. Michael Bay seems to have asked you to put your camera down low much more than you otherwise would normally do?
DB – You sort of negotiate as you go. I know that I convinced him to have it up higher than normally he would have for certain shots. The low tracking shot is something he loves. He can be very effective with it. I was never expecting to change Michael Bay’s visual style. Hopefully we influenced each other.
Lindsay Coleman is a writer, film academic and ongoing contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.