Bud Thackery: LowLight Work on "Once Upon A Savage Night"

If you keep your ear to the ground regarding today's technological advances in digital camera sensors and lenses, you will surely be familiar with the constant and never-ending rhetoric of shooters demanding faster lenses and faster camera sensitivities. The seemingly unquenchable desire for greater sensitivity despite it's well satisfactory performance still puzzles me. You'll see Indie-cinematographers constantly renting super-speeds in fear of night exterior exposure, and everybody clamors to boast which camera has the best low-light performance. Where does this fear come from? It seems silly, how cinematographers have shot for over 100 years, yet nobody is yet satisfied with 100 years of tremendous technological advancement. Way back in 2008, (remember those ancient days?!) common cameras in the market place included the Panasonic HVX200, the original RedOne, the Panavision Genesis, among many others. They all had ISO's rated in the 320-400 neighborhood. Fast forward less than four years later, and we have Red Epic, Arri Alexa, Phantom Flex, Sony F3, Panasonic AF100, and many other cameras which all boast a typical user ISO settings of 800-1280! Yet still, we have a vocal population of shooters who insist T/2 or T/2.8 lenses are too slow for night work... despite doing so just years previous on slower cameras.

If I may summarize... there exists a population of shooters who possess camera technology that allows for two additional stops of exposure over the cameras just previously available, yet these people have somehow already forgotten the days of yesteryear and find the ability to shoot night exteriors doubting.

I fear we shall never hear the end of it, but for the sake of memory lane, let's see what Bud Thackery (future ASC member at time of article) had to say in an American Cinematographer article in April, 1964 after directing legend Robert Altman gave him an assignment to use a brand new color film stock to shoot a picture, mainly at night and with available light.

I had just finished shooting a show for "The Virginian" series and was asked by the studio if I could be ready to leave the city the following afternoon. My destination: the Midwest. The objective: to photograph an on location production in color for producer-director Bob Altman- "Once Upon A Savage Night"-- which required 90% of the scenes to be shot at night... "Our Problem,"Robert Altman said, in briefing me on the photography, "is that we'll be shooting most of the picture at night in color, often only with available light."
"With Eastman's 35mm Ektachrome ER high-speed color film," I told him, "we should encounter no problems, providing, of course, that we can get the film." As far as I knew, no studio had yet used this film in production. Happily, however Revue had no trouble in obtaining what it needed for this show. Almost before I had realized it, I was on a plane heading for Chicago. It probably should have been a covered wagon because our mission was that of pioneers-- experimenting with a relatively new color film for a dramatic television show. Because of the short notice given me, I had no opportunity to shoot tests of the film at the studio before I left. All I knew about it, really, was that it was rated ASA 125 and ideal for color photography under different difficult lighting conditions, where acceptable exposures could not be obtained with slower color films.

As William Wade, Head of the Camera Department at Revue Studios, explained: "The producer's idea of using background lights for dramatic effect created a new type of dimension that could be captured in no other way." There were two reasons for this: First, shooting at night usually requires that the cinematographer use a wide lens aperture. This cuts down the depth of field. However, with the Eastman ER film, depth of field was not as great of a problem. Background illumination could be picked up because we could shoot with an aperture of f/4.5. And since this fast color film is balanced for tungsten illumination, it lends itself easily to forced development. By increasing the developing time, we were able to cut down on the color density. The result, of course, was better color density. All exterior nigh scenes were forced developed on the basis of an ASA rating of 500. All interior scenes in which we used natural light, ranging around one hundred foot-candles, were forced developed on the basis of ASA 250.

From the cameraman's viewpoint, the results achieved with this new film was almost unbelievable. Since I had no previous experience with it, I actually gauged my first scenes as when shooting with Double-X film. Even then, when viewing the work print, we couldn't believe it. In fact, it actually startled us because there was more to see on the screen than we actually saw with our eyes during production!

... One of the most interesting sequences I was directly involved in was a chase scene through the streets of Chicago. Since we were on location, there was no way we could set up this scene in advance. So, we borrowed a wheel-chair to use as a dolly. I was pushed down the street in it, holding the camera, to film the chase. The only illumination we had here was from a single portable quartz light held by a man running behind the wheelchair. The scene was shot at f/5.6 and the film was forced processed on the basis of ASA 500.

... From a personal viewpoint, the most challenging scene to film took place in a moving car and involved dialogue between two actors. The only illumination used was from a single, bare 200-watt bulb. The camera was hand-held and the scene was shot at f/4.5. In addition, intriguing dramatic effects were captured by pouring water on the windshield. Since it was 14 degrees below zero, the water froze almost instantly and created unusual patterns of light when oncoming car headlights reflected off the windshield.

There you have it. All the newbies out there can take a lesson from Robert Altman and Bud Thackery, ASC. They shot a television movie in 1964 on 160 asa/iso color film pushed to 500 and at a f/4.5 or f/5.6 in night exteriors with available light supplemented at times with one quartz light or a 200-watt bulb.

So next time you are complaining that your modern cinema zoom or primes only open to a T/2 or T/2.8 (over two stops more light) and your camera is only iso 800, 1,000 or 1,600, just stop. Stop what you are doing and have a moment of silence... and perhaps, just perhaps, on a quiet evening, you will be able to hear Bud Thackery's voice echo forward from days long ago, calling you a spoiled little sissy.

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