Guns Akimbo: Shooting cameras and guns
Posted on Mar 20, 2020 by Julian Mitchell
A dystopian punk tale with 3000 cuts, over 1000 VFX shots and a condensed shooting schedule all shot in 8K and delivered in 4K. DOP Stefan Ciupek explains how he coped
Words Julian Mitchell / Pictures Saban Pictures
Director of Guns Akimbo, Jason Lei Howden, started his creative life as a VFX artist working on some major CG movies like War for the Planet of the Apes and Avengers Assemble. But he was bound for higher things, and in 2015 he wrote and directed Deathgasm, a zombie flick with plenty of cool VFX in between the death metal-driven teen-killing plot. It’s a similar career to another VFX artist turned writer/director, Neill Blomkamp, who, after a lower-profile VFX career to Lei Howden’s, wrote and directed movies like 2009’s District 9 and 2015’s Chappie. He’s now making digital movies using the Unity game engine and generally pushing the digital filmmaking envelope.
Lei Howden has now made Guns Akimbo, a high-intensity independent movie with plenty of SFX and VFX, starring Daniel Radcliffe. The premise of the movie involves a psychotic gang, Skizm, which uses members of the public for a Hunger Games-type fight to the death. Think Mad Max meets Hunted meets 6 Underground.
DOP and architect of the ensuing mayhem of Guns Akimbo is Stefan Ciupek; a creative artist and technologist who has been at the forefront of digital cinematography since working on Alexander Sokurov’s epic one-shot opus Russian Ark back in the early 2000s. He was also the digital camera supervisor and one of the camera operators for Slumdog Millionaire, and was vitally important in making all the smaller cameras work in 127 Hours. His fruitful relationship with Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle started with Dear Wendy in 2005 up to Dredd in 2012. Ciupek now earns his living as a cinematographer, recently shooting the luscious period drama The Spanish Princess and the documentary Babenco, Tell me when I Die which won Venice last year
Ciupek remembers reading the script for Guns Akimbo for a number of reasons. “It was the most insane script I’d ever read – and I’ve read many scripts,” he says. “It’s a rollercoaster ride without stopping with one action scene after another; it could easily have the budget of a Mission Impossible or a Bond movie. I’d always wanted to do an action movie; my usual film is more of a straight drama or contemporary piece. This was more of a graphic-novel movie like Sin City, for example, and I thought our film was going to be like that.”
He continues: “Jason saw the movie as a possible new version of 1987’s The Running Man and with inspiration from the Terminator movies. But on his mood board there were lots of stills from Dredd – the 3D film I did with Anthony. That became an interesting starting point for me to get the job. But how do you reference all those
eighties movies and still be modern? I felt like this movie had to be groundbreakingly new. Luckily, Jason was very open to other references as well – I saw the look was more graphic novel.”
The world of previs is stretching itself out and polarising. At the highest end, there are complex game engine animations with real physics behind them to ground you in reality. At the bottom end, you have storyboards and references. Lei Howden had his renders for Guns Akimbo, which was the way he worked when he was in VFX for movies like The Hobbit films.
Ciupek explains how both the systems evolved for the movie. “Jason already had animatics of scenes instead of storyboards – they were pre-rendered scenes so he had very good idea of what he wanted. For me, it was a bit too pre-formulated; he’d pretty much shot-listed the whole scene as an animatic. You could see it on playback, and I just thought there could be more to it.
The best way to proceed is to have a plan, but to leave yourself some room to see new angles
I think you are limiting your imagination this way. I really like to see the location and, from there, I build the look with the lighting and also block the scene and then come up with a shot list.”
When preparing the sets with the production designer, Nick Bassett, Ciupek’s method involved finding the locations, then creating 3D models of them as to-scale sets. This then allowed him to experiment with angles, change the lighting and demonstrate to Lei Howden what the set could look like. “The best way to proceed is to have a plan, but to leave yourself some room to see new angles when you start shooting,” he explains. “We had mood boards and 3D renders with the precise scale of our locations. I could actually sit with the artist, move the camera through 3D space and find interesting angles. I also worked on part of the lighting and colours in this CG world, so we created a mood render of an actual set before we went there and started filming.”
For the less experienced, it can be sometimes hard to imagine how an empty warehouse can look once it’s dressed up with lighting and props, but for Ciupek, it was “great to play with the angles and lighting tones”. He adds: “Once I had it and Nick and I were happy with it, we would show it to Jason and get approval.”
Every film that Ciupek has worked on featured cameras systems that were brought in to do a specific job for that movie. The choice was not just based on the look the camera could produce. For Guns Akimbo, the Red Monstro 8K camera ticked a number of boxes.
With large format, you can shoot very wide and the distortion is much more interesting - Stefan Ciupek
“I’m always looking for the new things out there,” he explains. “First, I look at ergonomics, especially for a fast action movie where the camera is never going to stand still. I knew the camera was going to be rigged and mounted to ridiculous places, so I needed a small camera, but I also wanted to shoot large format.”
For Guns Akimbo, Ciupek had a very particular look in mind for Daniel Radcliffe’s character, Miles. “I wanted a very wide look for him, a kind of immersive experience for his journey through the story. But I didn’t want it to feel like it’s a wide-angle lens. That’s the great thing about large format, you can shoot very wide and the distortion you get is more interesting than on Super 35. You still get the focus fall-off, so you see more of your set and are physically close to the actor,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of Alexa 65 movies and seen the look and feel of it.
“We did lots of tests with the actors as well. With wide lenses, I had to make sure that the distortion was kind to the characters – we literally had lenses touching Daniel’s nose and it was really interesting the look we were getting. So every time he was under extreme stress, we used it.”
Nailing the look
When someone does a camera test, Ciupek reveals it’s very important to do them in a place that looks like where you will eventually shoot and with the actual lighting. “I see so many tests being made in the garage of a rental house, for instance, which has no relevance for the shoot. This way, you are already establishing a language and a flavour for the film in the testing process. So I made sure we had a location that was a little bit like this underworld, this Skizm world that was littered with intense primary-coloured lighting.”
To Ciupek, it quickly became apparent that, if you shoot monochromatically in one colour, you need a high-resolution camera for the image to remain sharp. “3K or 4K on a Bayer-patterned sensor quickly gets soft, because of the lack of resolution in it,” he explains. “You could see the difference in this primary-coloured lighting very clearly in the resolution. Mostly, I was after the look of large format in a small form factor. 8K was initially a bonus, but allowed us to deliver 4K, so we worked on the VFX shots and everything else in 4K. It’s stunning to see that coming out of an 8K source.”
We literally had lenses touching Daniel’s nose and the look we got was really interesting
As for lenses, “it was probably the widest-shot film I have ever done”. Ciupek adds: “We were shooting wider than we ever would in spherical – I hardly went over a 70mm lens, as that on large format is like a 45mm. For an action movie with so much camera dynamic, it’s very unusual, but I wanted to show the great sets and locations we had on the wide shots and even the close-ups. Large format allows you to do this without the audience immediately knowing it’s a wide shot.”
Ciupek admits he spent quite a long time deciding on which prime lenses to use. “At the time we shot, the amount of available large format lenses was small. I was still looking for a very cinematic look and I was lucky to try the Leica Thalia, which had just come out. I was fascinated about the look, especially from the wide lenses. The 24mm in particular has incredible close focus – we were just about touching Daniel’s nose and still getting it sharp. At the same time, it distorted in a very pleasing way and it also had a nice fall-off and softness, making it more filmic.
“The Thalias were very usable out of the box even though we started with some diffusion, but most of the film is shot without any filtration. With most lenses, I usually work with diffusion, but in this case, I felt the lens gave me the look I wanted out of the box. The Thalia also only had a T2.6 or T2.8 in the wide lens and, on the 24mm, T3.6, but that wasn’t limiting at all. In large format, you don’t have to have shallow depth-of-field – it looked really nice.
“The Thalia comes from large format Leica stills photography; I think it’s called the Leica SL for stills cameras. It’s been rehoused and given a new flavour – bringing it into the world of cinema lenses. There’s something very special about those lenses, it’s like every single lens is made to photograph people and faces.”
With the camera and lenses decided upon, how did Ciupek want to control the camera movement? “I had a meeting with the Steadicam operator, key grips and my assistants early on and said that I wanted three or four different purpose-built rigs for the camera. I really wanted to have a dynamic that mixes formats. I was going to mix Steadicam with handheld, for instance.
“Normally, what I did was operate the B camera, while my Steadicam operator, Benjamin Treplin, operated the A camera. The Steadicam was the specialised MK-V Omega rig, which I’ve been using on my last six feature films – what I really love about it is that it really keeps the horizon clean and you can actually do jib arm moves. You can move around in a very dynamic way – go up from the feet and go into the faces, for instance.”
For scenes when he needed to convey a sense of unease, Ciupek made use of a new rig feature that Steadicam operator Benjamin Treplin suggested, which synchronised the movement of a smartphone to the movement of the rig using the phone’s accelerometer.
“I had the phone attached to tripod head, so as Benjamin went through a Steadicam move, I spun the camera. There’s this scene where Miles wakes up and realises he has the guns bolted to his hands – I wanted to make the audience feel as nauseous as he feels, so for three minutes the camera moves and spins around at the same time. Also, for some of the action sequences where he’s been shot and falls and runs and tumbles, we rigged an iPhone to his neck. So when he falls, the camera is totally synchronised and does the same spin as he does – it’s very intense.
I was shooting shots I wouldn’t dare to do if I was the only camera shooting the scene
“The grip crew came up with dozens of body rigs and different set-ups so we could rig a camera to Daniel’s body. Obviously, we had gimbals, but wouldn’t go gimbal all the time and I wouldn’t go Steadicam all the time – sometimes, I thought something else was better. Also, I did an interesting thing that I adopted from the early days of working with Anthony Dod Mantle, where I had the idea to mix unusual camera set-ups.
“Basically, A camera did the boarded shots on Steadicam, I roamed around and did a handheld set-up of the same scene in a more of a kind of documentary way, more immersed in the emotions of Daniel. Then the editors cut from a super-clean front shot into a shaky profile shot, it was very unusual way of feeling the tension more – it worked very well this combination. As I felt that the Steadicam always did the safe set-up, I was shooting shots that I wouldn’t dare to do if I was the only camera shooting the scene.”
Guns Akimbo was shot half in Auckland, although the film is set in America, so it is strange seeing the traffic on the wrong side of the road. The other half was shot in Munich, Bavaria, where an abandoned paper factory served as the HQ of Skizm. “It had around 80% of the texture and look before we even started,” says Ciupek. “We only had 40 shooting days and no real second unit (just a few pick-up units), so we were under loads of pressure to work fast. I spent some time with my gaffer, Chris Böck, to convert this huge factory building in to a stage where you could have computer-controlled lights, which were Astera LED tube lights. We had to do a full blackout of this place and rig it like it was a real stage. We had one main shooting area, which was basically the Skizm video control room with a 300m long corridor – great for entrance shots and showing the scale of the place.”
As soon as Ciupek saw the set for the first time, he knew how he wanted to light it. “It was like an eighties or nineties set-up video studio design, so it was going to be lit in a combination of deep red and cyan blue primary-coloured lighting, which came from the Asteras. We had all the practical Astera tube lights on an iPad control, so we could dial in the final colours. Another reference for me were the warm inky blacks and yellowish lighting of Fallen Angels, which was shot by Chris Doyle in the nineties.”
He continues: “We also had around ten HMI lights on rostrums, which had filtration and were iris adjustable. I could basically create shafts of lights with those, and I also had two massive Mole Beams more for ambient lighting. We had different lighting set-ups ready, so we could move over to different scenes on the stage quite quickly; it only took about five minutes to swap over the look of a scene dramatically – from maybe the cool Blade Runner blue of the corridor, to the destruction of the entire place.”
All of this helped Ciupek to create the stylised “neo-noir meets graphic novel” look he had in mind, especially for the Skizm world. He explains: “It’s quite brave in regard to the saturation of the colours – I usually pushed the colour intensity to the limit, where the camera would nearly get in to clipping, as I really felt that this is how I would imagine a graphic world to be: super saturated and really dark.”
Originally, there was the idea to introduce the character Nix in a one-shot, three-minute sequence, where she takes down a coke den full of baddies. However, this was cut down by about 30 seconds in the edit. The scene starts with a fluid Steadicam shot viewing the quiet scene of the den, then the camera reaches the exit and someone flies through. The view then moves in reverse back to the starting point.
“We spent quite a while designing this shot and the stunt rehearsals for it, as it has a lot of hidden cuts. We had the stunt supervisor who worked on Kingsman, who rehearsed his team endlessly,” says Ciupek. “Jason had a board of how the sequence would go, but then once you get the input from the stunt people, the whole thing develops from there. Over several weeks, the stunt team refined their choreography on their own stage, with a new version coming to us every day. All the editing wipes were planned in; on the shooting day, we were so well prepared, we shot the whole scene in six hours. The scene had 15 wipe points, with the camera going really crazy, flying through space. There’s one scene where we have all the camera set-ups: handheld, Steadicam with the Omega and spinning the camera and gimbals.”
We managed to strip down the Monstro to just a bit bigger than a DSLR for fight scenes
For some set-ups, the stunt team needed their own camera operator, as Ciupek wanted some shots to be very close to Nix. However, the camera also had to be moved quickly out of the way, “otherwise it would’ve got punched”. He explains: “It could only be done by someone who is part of the fight choreography team: we got really close to the faces as the action was happening. For them, we managed to strip down the Red Monstro to just a bit bigger than a DSLR – it was a bit hard for the super-fast gimbal shots. That was great for me, as it meant the camera was the same for the stunt work as for the rest of the movie. It was one of the reasons I wanted this camera, so I could do all this other type of work. Although I did use the Panasonic GH5S camera for some body rigs where the Monstro would have been too big or heavy.”
Chase sequence breakdown
Unfortunately, on the first day of shooting a three-day chase sequence, Auckland’s local government reduced production access to one day in the city’s downtown area. Ciupek recalls: “We blocked the whole downtown area of Auckland for this chase scene. Nix is chasing Daniel’s character Miles through the streets. She’s on a motorbike, chasing and shooting, while he’s trying to handle a car, but he has the guns bolted to his hands! At the end of it, she just drives up the car, pushing the wheel of her bike into his face through the smashed windscreen.
“When you read a scene like this, you’re thinking how you’re going to shoot it. Originally, we thought we would need three days of main unit and two days of second unit to shoot the sequence and those 80 boarded shots. Unfortunately, we were only allowed to shoot there for one day, so one day for all the exteriors and one for the green screen shots inside on the stage.”
Overcoming this was “the most impossible task I’d ever been asked to do”. “I came up with the idea that the only way to do this was if major parts of this chase sequence were choreographed as one. So, you don’t go for specific set-ups (and shoot only these set-ups), you have to go through and throw an armada of cameras into the sequence, which we ended up doing.
“We had three Red Monstros, a russian arm, another tracking vehicle, drones, cameras rigged to the car and motorcycle all at the same time, six or seven cameras working at the same time. My camera operators had their specific part of the boards and the shots they were supposed to get and once they were through, they just freestyled through the sequence with additional footage of the chase.”
He points out: “Because all the cameras were in each other’s shots, they had to be painted out, but the priority was to get the scene done. That was also day one of the movie with a brand-new crew and they all looked at the shot list and the schedule and couldn’t believe that this had to happen. But we got through it and made those 100 set-ups, as it turned out. We had more shots than we had actually boarded and they had a lot of fun putting that sequence together. It was a brilliant start. After that day, we felt that we could do anything.”
Ciupek is justifiably proud of his achievement with Guns Akimbo. He concludes: “Every action scene in the movie has its own style and design. We never went generic, as we always wanted every sequence to have its own flavour.”
Guns Akimbo premieres in New Zealand this month.