Why was “Collateral’s” use of digital technology so significant?


Digital filmmaking has come a long way since Collateral’s (2004) release over ten years ago. Although Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) were some of first well known films to be shot in 24 frame-per-second high-definition digital video, which director George Lucas partially developed by using a Sony HDW-F900 camera, Collateral certainly had a major impact on the medium.

Director Michael Mann had previously experimented with high-definition video for a few scenes in Ali (2001) and while he served as the executive producer of Robbery Homicide Division (2002-2003), which was shot entirely with Sony’s Panavision 24p CineAlta HDW-F900, and therefor become interested in the format’s potential for his then upcoming project.

Cinematographer Paul Cameron (Man on Fire, Gone in 60 Seconds), who prepped Collateral and shot the first three weeks of principle photography, stated that Mann had already settled on the format when he came aboard. “He wanted to use the format to create a kind of glowing urban environment; the goal was to make the L.A. night as much of a character in the story as Max (Jamie Foxx) and Vincent (Tom Cruise) were,” stated Cameron.

Due to some creative differences, Mann replaced Cameron with Dion Beebe (In the Cut, Chicago) three weeks into Collateral‘s scheduled 12-week shoot.

There are many scenes in the film where the use of digital cameras is evident, such as when the Los Angeles skyline and landscape is visible in the background, as well as the spontaneous coyote-crossing scene, where no light setups were necessary for the shot. Mann’s use of the Viper FilmStream high-definition camera was also the first such use in a major motion picture.

Despite the advantages and the conveniences of the technology, the interior scenes, such as the Korean nightclub shootout, which along with the coyote crossing is one of the film’s highlights, was still shot on 35mm film stock.

Michael Mann would stick with this format in the years after Collateral’s release with films like Miami Vice (2006), an adaptation of the classic 80’s television series which the director also served as executive producer on, and Public Enemies (2009), a bio flick on the real-life Depression-era gangster John Dillinger, which did not work well in theaters but looked amazing on Blue-ray or DVD.

Unfortunately, Collateral didn’t even pick up an Academy Ward nomination for Best Cinematography, and lost to Jean-Piere Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement (2004) for the American Society of Cinematographers Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases.

However, the legacy of Michael Mann’s action odyssey continues to grow as more and more filmmakers, such as Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), David Fincher (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and Steven Soderbergh (Che, The Informant!) continue to push the art form to it’s limits.