Opening number one at the box office and still playing strong in theaters, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the breakout comedy hit of 2006, was shot in classic documentary style with Panasonic’s AJ-HDC27 VariCam HD Cinema cameras.
In the run-up to the Hollywood awards season, Borat has been named a Golden Globes’ nominee for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy) and the film’s star and creator Sacha Baron Cohen (HBO’s Ali G) is a Globes’ nominee for Best Actor. Baron Cohen was recently named Best Actor by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Distributed by the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, Borat was directed by Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiam) and shot by co-Directors of Photography Anthony Hardwick and Luke Geissbühler. The plot may be loosely summarized as “Kazakhstani TV personality Borat is dispatched to the United States to report on the ‘greatest country in the world’ for the alleged good of his Central Asian nation. With a documentary crew in tow, the wacky Kazakh journalist Borat becomes more interested in locating and marrying Pamela Anderson than in his assignment.” Intrinsic to the success of the film is the credulity of Borat’s interview subjects, who are unaware that Baron Cohen/Borat is a fictional visitor to their real world.
“In early conversations about which format to shoot the project on, everyone was very concerned about using larger cameras, as they might be too obtrusive and off-putting to the non-actors we’d be shooting,” said DP Hardwick. “There was speculation that the quality of a smaller camera like the DVX100 might hold up well enough for our 35mm blow-up, but after the production team saw the tests that I shot, it was apparent that we needed at least 720 lines of resolution, leaving the only real contenders the VariCam and Sony F900.”
“We opted for the VariCam based on the natural look of our test tape-to-film transfer, which looked like really clean Super16mm blown-up—it didn’t scream ‘video,’” Hardwick continued. “The VariCam also afforded us the potential for high-speed sequences, and it was the superior choice in terms of size, weight and power management, all critical considerations as we shot the project predominantly hand-held.”
Borat entailed roughly five months of shooting, in the U.S. and Romania (standing in for Kazakhstan), from 2004 -2006. “We worked with a minimum of people, traveling as light as possible,” Hardwick noted. “Because of the low-light performance of the VariCam, we were able to use only a handful of professional lights combined with beefing up the practical light sources. Because we did a very high-quality transfer test at Modern VideoFilm (Burbank, CA), I learned that I should underexpose, and I shot at approximately 60% luminance, which ultimately gave our colorist Kathy Thomson the latitude she needed to match contrasting shots.”
DP Geissbühler was hired on for Borat on the strength of his having been director of photography for Mail Order Wife, a feature shot in documentary format with the VariCam. “Mail Order Wife illustrated what the VariCam can accomplish in terms of verite and documentary coverage. While it’s a ‘mockumentary,’ it feels very genuine, as Borat does.”
“On Borat, shooting straight-ahead was key. The camerawork couldn’t upstage Sacha or his subjects,” Geissbühler explained. “We would try to predict how a scene would unfold, shoot it documentary-style, and with the two cameras we’d get the coverage we needed. Anthony and I shared one camera assistant, Mark Schwartzbard, and we had a little plant of batteries and tape. We had wireless transmission to the director, wireless audio, and we shot with the longest loads we could get. We’d take turns re-loading quietly, all this ensuring that the cameras were as unobtrusive as possible.”
“Our shooting style gave Sacha absolute freedom during lengthy encounters with his subjects,” the DP said. “He never broke out of character, and the subjects would begin to ignore the cameras.”
“The VariCam creates a natural but aesthetic image,” Geissbühler continued, “I love the way the camera renders a natural, un-lit area and manages the eccentricities of location lighting. The image blooms in a beautiful, smooth and subtle fashion—and the camera gets all the production value out of a shot. The color space is superb, with a great gradation of color.”
“The VariCams performed wonderfully throughout,” Geissbühler said. “The cameras are rugged, and we worked them to the bone. The ‘paint’ settings track really well and don’t inadvertently alter other aspects of the images as other cameras seem to. So when I find myself engineering the camera in the field, it works out beautifully.”
The production rented the two VariCams from Abel Cine Tech, and made occasional use of a Panasonic AG-DVX100 and a few “ice cube” cameras. Altogether, the two DPs shot more than 400 hours of footage. The on-line edit (Quantel IQ), color correction (DaVinci 2K Plus) and film-out (Arri Scan Laser) were all done at Modern VideoFilm.
Anthony Hardwick’s credits include the documentary Frathouse (Sundance Grand Jury Festival Prize); Todd Phillips’ debut feature Road Trip (2nd Unit DP); his recently released School For Scoundrels (2nd Unit DP – NYC); an upcoming feature, The Grand, about the world of high stakes poker starring Woody Harrelson; and he is currently using Panasonic’s AJ-HDX900 DVCPRO HD camera to shoot a documentary about world religions with Bill Maher and director Larry Charles.
Luke Geissbühler’s feature films include the award-winning Acts of Worship and Mail Order Wife, and his long-form documentary work includes Barry Levinson’s Hard Ball, Barbara Kopple’s Bearing Witness, Jane’s Addiction’s Three Days, and the upcoming graphic design doc, Helvetica, shot with Panasonic’s AG-HVX200 DVCPRO HD P2 camcorder.
Panasonic’s AJ-HDC27 VariCam replicates many of the key features of film-based image acquisition, including 24-frame progressive scan images, time lapse recording, and a wide range of variable frame rates (4-fps to 60-fps in single-frame increments) for “overcranked” and “undercranked” off-speed in-camera effects. The
AJ-HDC27 VariCam also features CineGamma software that permits Panasonic’s HD Cinema camera systems to more closely match the latitude of film stocks.