The Lone Ranger debuted on the radio in 1933. Soon afterwards, Republic Pictures brought the character to the big screen in serial form. Some 63 after his television debut, the Masked Man still lives in reruns.
Now, Bojan Bazelli, ASC and Gore Verbinski have brought The Lone Ranger back to theaters. The feature film promises to echo the mix of top-flight, large scale action and fun, irreverent dialog that Verbinski perfected in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. In the new film, The Lone Ranger, played by Armie Hammer, often plays the straight man, while Johnny Depp’s Tonto delivers the memorable quips.
Bazelli is a native of Montenegro whose credits also include Mr. And Mrs. Smith, Rock of Ages, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Burlesque. More than a decade ago, Bazelli and Verbinski collaborated on The Ring, a remake of a Japanese psychological horror/thriller. This time, the script took them to blazingly hot locales in the western United States including Moab, Utah; Canyon de Chelly, Arizona; Hurley, New Mexico; Durango, Colorado; and Monument Valley, the place made famous from John Ford’s iconic Westerns.
These locations were one important factor in the filmmakers’ decision to shoot on 35mm film in a widescreen, 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
“First of all, there is the simplicity of film cameras,” Bazelli explains. “It’s as easy as can be – a magazine, a lens, and you shoot. Secondly, there was the number of cameras we would be using outside for action sequences. Sometimes seven or eight cameras were rolling, with three to five on average. And third, and most importantly, there is the look. The look of a daytime exterior is still something that you never find in digital. You can work your way toward it. You can mimic the film curve in DI. But what is happens photochemically, during exposure and developing, you are never able to duplicate. We didn’t want that clean digital look to be dominant in the daylight. We wanted to have a clean look, but with the quality of a film image – the close-ups and the texture that film can provide. Basically, with film, you get that right out of the camera.”
Bazelli is not opposed to digital in the right situation. In fact, he shot many of The Lone Ranger’s night scenes and dark interiors with a digital camera. But he notes that fast pans with a digital camera can produce artifacts – a potential problem given the many stunts and chases in the film. The number of neutral density filters required to bring the light level down was also a concern on exteriors.
“You can’t shoot at a high stop if you want to be in the sweet spot in terms of dynamic range,” he says. “I don’t like the idea of keeping track of five or six cameras, balancing the light and changing filters every few minutes. In film, if you miss a stop or two in all the fast-paced craziness, you can retrieve the images later. For all these reasons, nothing beats film.”
Another important element of Bazelli’s visual strategy was to shoot in ‘Scope format, using mainly C-series Panavision anamorphic lenses. “You can’t capture that western landscape with anything but anamorphic lenses, just because everything is perceived as so much bigger and closer to you, yet you have the full view of wide angle lenses because of the 2X conversion,” he says.
Dan Sasaki, lens guru at Panavision helped nail the look. “We wanted that imperfect lens, and we wanted to explore a limited palette of focal lengths,” says Bazelli. “The newer G-series lenses were too good for what we wanted. We limited ourselves to a great extent to four focal lengths for the dramatic, storytelling part of the movie – the 40, 50, 65 and 75mm lenses. We carried zooms for the action sequences, and other lenses for equipping the many cameras in big action shots. But the 40mm and the 50mm were usually on for master shots, and usually the 50mm for medium shots, because it has such a beautiful perspective. It doesn’t distort anything, and yet it creates this wonderful scope. We used the 65mm and the 75mm for tight close-ups.”
The film stock was KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 5203. After extensive tests, Bazelli overexposed, rating the film at 25 ISO, and compensated by underdeveloping slightly to help achieve the distinctive look. “That gave the film an entirely beautiful, even texture, with virtually no grain, and nice highlights in the sky,” he says.
The overexposure/underdevelopment was used in conjunction with digital intermediate techniques to mimic a bleach bypass look that Bazelli had identified in testing. “With these beautiful locations and wonderful landscapes, we wanted to avoid making them into merely pretty pictures,” says Bazelli. “We did not want too much color. Our way of killing that prettiness vibe was the bleach bypass. It’s impossible on a big film like this one to actually use bleach bypass on the negative. We tried to create that look in DI, and it was close, but never exactly the same. So we created the stronger contrast and desaturated colors of a bleach bypass look with our own recipe – pushing the film, and one-stop pull processing combined with the DI. The more those tonalities and shades of gray are in the negative, the easier they are to find in post. Pulling one stop actually reaches deeper into the shadows, and creates softer transitions between tones. Those nuances are essential.”
Bazelli’s 25 ISO rating for the film is unusual. “If you set your meter to 25 ISO and point it at the sunny daylight, the exposure is 5.6/8,” he says. “Great exposure – it’s perfect. No filters, no need to ND anything, and no Polarizers. Just a clean, beautiful lens. The negative is 14 or 15 stops, and with this method, I think you get to a 16th or 17th stop – unbelievable. And it’s easy to get the contrast and colors where you want them in post.”
The Lone Ranger is rolling out in theaters now. “It’s a good film,” Bazelli says. “Altogether, it was one of the greatest experiences for me in terms of my creative work. ”