Digital Noir

You only live twice; once when you are born and once when you look death in the face.

Although the preceding was a haiku ascribed to James Bond by his creator, novelist Ian Fleming, it might also be the motto for Denny Colt, late of the police force and currently hunting—or is it haunting?—ne’er-do-wells who plan and scheme against his beloved Central City. Colt has returned from the dead under curious circumstances (could there be any other kind?) as a masked avenger known as The Spirit, and he encounters volumes of girl trouble while pursuing the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), a powerful crime figure.

Written and directed by graphic novel maven Frank Miller [see the sidebar "The Creative Spirit"], The Spirit is adapted from comic book legend Will Eisner’s now-classic tome, which debuted as a weekly newspaper insert in 1940. For his director of photography, Miller selected Bill Pope, ASC, a veteran of effects-oriented, originated-on-film projects, including The Matrix and the two Spider-Man sequels.

Ironically, it was Pope’s early work on a project featuring another beleaguered hero—one not derived from an existing comic property—that most impressed Miller. "Sam Raimi’s Darkman was the picture that really showed me Bill Pope would go balls-out," the director declares. "There was this sense of energy to how it was shot, and a sense of imagination."

Pope had long been appreciative of Miller’s graphic novels and agreed with the in-place notion of shooting with Panavision’s Genesis HD digital camera. "Frank was using [visual effects supervisor] Stu Maschwitz’s visual effects company from Sin City, The Orphanage," says Pope. "They have a pipeline based on the Genesis, so it made sense to shoot with that camera."

Miller commenced a series of camera tests, in the hope of developing lookup tables to facilitate monitor reviews during shooting. "This was done at the Panavision stage," he says, "and let us figure out what we wanted to see in the final product in terms of contrast, black and white values, and the highlighting of the red hues. We came up with a half-dozen LUTs that would satisfy the various conditions we envisioned for the film, based on discussions with Frank and his artwork and where we hoped to take things visually in post."

Production was based in New Mexico to take advantage of an incentive program as well as new stage space. Explains Pope, "At that point, we went through the script and figured out what kind of lights would be needed. The lighting order—through Albuquerque Studios’ in-place facility, New Mexico Lighting and Grip—rose and shrank depending on a variety of factors. Remember, while we had two units going all the time, some was shot against black, so we didn’t always need to be lighting greenscreen, and the rest of the lighting was usually pretty sparse for the actors. I tried to keep it down to one source unless something unusual had to happen."