For actors playing James Bond, their third outing as Agent 007 usually proves to be the make-or-break effort. After Dr. No and the still remarkably engaging From Russia with Love, Goldfinger became a worldwide breakout hit that well and truly heralded the arrival of Bondmania while proving, as ads proclaimed, "Sean Connery is James Bond." Thirteen years later, Roger Moore’s third film The Spy Who Loved Me popularized the series anew for audiences welcoming his lighter-than-air take on the spy. While Timothy Dalton never made a third film (owing as much to legal rows between filmmakers and MGM as to audiences unprepared to take Bond so seriously), Pierce Brosnan’s The World is Not Enough gave some indication that the third time was not the charm and provided impetus for the series reboot that followed two films later in 2006.
2012’s Skyfall marks Daniel Craig’s third turn in the role after the surprisingly successful Casino Royale and the follow-up Quantum of Solace, a film less well received, but still esteemed by some Bondophiles. After director Sam Mendes accepted the gig, he recruited his Jarhead and Revolutionary Road director of photography, nine-time Academy Award® nominee Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC. The cinematographer admits to having seen only a few of the early 007 adventures when he was very young, so visual homage was never in his game plan.
"While we looked at some recent films to see how action sequences were handled," Deakins explains, "there wasn’t anything we felt had to be carried over visually. My process begins with the script, and ideas evolve through discussion with the director and while scouting locations, which on this film happened in India and China.
Beginning with 1965’s Thunderball, Bond films expanded their scope by shooting in anamorphic, a process that continued up until the last two films, lensed in Super 35. At Deakins’ urging, Skyfall became the first originated-on-digital film in the series, shot with ARRI ALEXAs. The cinematographer had gotten his feet wet digitally with Andrew Niccol’s In Time, and after showing Mendes some low-light tests, he won the director over to the ALEXA.
"The tipping point has been reached, and now it’s beneficial to shoot digital," he declares. "I don’t light any differently, but can rely more on sources, augmenting those a bit when necessary. We did quite a bit of shooting with candlelight, and the advantages at those low levels were very striking. Aesthetically, the ALEXA has a nice roll-off from highlights to shadow, how it renders color contrast. We pick up more tonal range in skin, so makeup has to be subtly done and sets finished to a higher quality as well. These issues would be much more significant if you were shooting with a 6K camera. Personally, though, I don’t like the artificiality of those systems; a higher pixel count doesn’t help make things look any more right to my eye."
Shooting almost exclusively on ARRI/Zeiss Master Primes, Deakins used an array of ALEXAs to capture Bond’s world, including two prototype Studios dependent on beta firmware, the Plus and ALEXA M, which sports separate head and body components, allowing it to fit into tight spaces. While the original ALEXA had an electronic viewfinder, Deakins "twisted a few arms, then screamed and shouted a bit," with the Studio’s revolving mirror shutter and optical viewfinder (courtesy ARRI Media) the result. Though the final product would be cropped to 2.35, Deakins shot in 16:9 mode, recording in ARRIRAW 2.8K via Codex onboard recorders, which employ a virtual file system permitting viewing in a variety of file formats and resolutions. Whenever Deakins elected to shoot handheld on the Plus, the Codex onboard recorder was mounted on the camera itself.
Deakins’ longstanding relationship with EFILM continued, with their proprietary Colorstream timing system installed on set. "Josh Gollish worked closely with them and Codex Digital throughout," says Deakins of the DIT, who performed similarly on In Time. "I could look at a color-calibrated image on set, but if I couldn’t adjust the camera to get the desired image, then I could make adjustments on the Colorstream. The changes would go with the metadata and files through dailies to the DI process as an on-set correction."