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in Filmmaking
on Jul 30, 2006

I just got back from Miami Vice, and as a huge fan of Michael Mann’s work (including the show on which the movie was based), I was pretty disappointed. The first thirty minutes is fairly strong as Mann throws you smack into the middle of an undercover operation and shoots the various night-time clashes and assignations with a purposefully grainy and quite bold visual style — rooftop meetings against purple night skies, outrageous wheel mounts hovering inches above the Miami causeways, and the grain signifying a dirty reality miles removed from the TV show’s pastel-hued romantic nihilism.

And indeed, while reviews of the film are mixed to negative, many of them praise the film’s look. There’s Ray Pride, below, and how about this A.O. Scott quote:

Some of the most captivating sequences have an abstract quality, as if Mr. Mann were paying homage to the avant-garde, anti-narrative cinema of Stan Brakhage in the midst of a big studio production. Dispensing with the convention that the pictures exist to serve the story, Mr. Mann frequently uses plot as an excuse to construct ravishing pictures.

The camera, with leisurely, voluptuous sensuality, ranges from crowded cities to the open sea, from billowy thunderheads to the rippling muscles on Mr. Foxx’s back. Like “Collateral,” “Miami Vice” was shot in high-definition digital video, which Mr. Mann, in collaboration with the brilliant cinematographer Dion Beebe, treats not as a convenient substitute for film but as a medium with its own aesthetic properties and visual possibilities. The depth of focus, the intensity of colors, and the grainy, smudged finish of some of the images combine to create a look that is both vividly naturalistic and almost dreamlike.

Well, there are many things I liked about Miami Vice‘s visuals (and I should note that the film was shot by Dion Beebe, one of my favorite d.p.’s), but by the end of the film’s two-hour-plus running time, I thought its hi-def cinematography ultimately a failed experiment. When the story simmers down from its overheated opening and starts reeling in the visual tropes of not just the TV show but of its cop-falling-in-love-while-undercover storyline — the sexy shower scenes, romantic boat rides, and lingering closeups of its protagonists’ conflicted faces — the digital cinematography begins to feel wan and washed out, failing to convey the visual poetry needed to make these hoary scenes work. What starts off seeming like a bold way of shooting a film version of a TV cop drama hailed for its stylishness winds up seeming like a pale, emotionally inexpressive and self-defeating technical choice. Indeed, I wonder if I saw the same movie as some of the critics (or if the projection at my theater was especially terrible — “intense” is the last word I’d use to describe the colors in Miami Vice). But after reading a bunch of the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, it occurs to me that praising a film’s “visual stylishness” has become its own critical cliche, a kind of vague comment that allows a critic to toss some props towards a movie one is otherwise panning.

Actually, the only critic I’ve discovered who really seems to take the film’s visuals to task is somebody named Chuck O’Leary, from a website called Fulvue Drive-In. He writes:

Here’s a big-studio film that reportedly cost $125 million by some accounts and $150 million by others, yet somehow looks worse than somebody’s bad home videos. Shot on high-definition digital video, the cinematography in Miami Vice is so grainy, dull and blurry; it has the appearance of a 15-year-old VHS tape that’s been played at least 100 times. While you might be able to get away with such shoddy technical work on a shoestring budget, such technical incompetence is inexcusable with a budget this huge.

Miami Vice is the ugliest-looking major film in memory…

I have nothing against “grainy, dull and blurry” — in the right hands and with the right story, those qualities can be great. And Mann’s previous film, Collateral, which Beebe shared credit with Paul Cameron, was a lovely digital cinema advance that used high-definition cameras and night-time shooting to softly radiate a real photographic affection for downtown L.A. And, as this article by Susan King in The L.A. Times makes clear, there was a lot of effort and intelligence applied to the film’s cinematographic prep:

They’d already had experience with the technology on “Collateral,” but even so, Mann and Beebe spent 4 1/2 months testing the cameras in Miami in conditions similar to what they expected during production of “Miami Vice.”

“We shot tests at night, out at sea with helicopters and big boats and freighters,” Beebe said. “They were bigger shoot days than I ever had on a feature in Australia — and it was just a test shoot. But the reason was to put ourselves in these situations and ensure we were going to get the results we wanted — securing cameras, [determining] how we were going to power them and cable them and [experimenting with] the settings we were going to choose for them.”

After the test footage was shot, Mann and Beebe took it to digital colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld to help devise a formula “for how we were going to use the high definition — how we are going to light it and shoot it,” Mann said.

“Miami Vice” was lighted differently than “Collateral.” The latter had a “non-directional light” for a softer look, Beebe said. With “Vice,” they wanted more of a chiaroscuro-type lighting. “With the shootout at the end, we used these big, hard lights and set out to create a single hard sidelight for the sequence,” the cinematographer said. “The problem is maintaining [the lighting] through the sequence because people are moving around and you are changing directions.”

But as I sat watching Miami Vice, I thought less about chiaroscuro and more about miniDV shot films like 28 Days Later, The Celebration or even The Blair Witch Project, films in which the desaturated colors, handheld camerawork, and the video-to-film grain really did signify something that aligned itself with the storytelling. I’ll be there next film, opening weekend, for both Mann and Beebe, and I really admire them for pushing the visual envelope (or, as the film would say, “taking it to the limit one more time”) on a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. But for me, Miami Vice is a casualty of the digital cinematography wars.

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