An open letter to Michael Mann

Published

Leon Weber

Dear Mr. Mann,

Firstly, I would like to say that I have admired your work for many years. You have created unforgettable cinematic milestones when Manhunter taught us to be afraid of Hannibal Lecter long before The Silence of the Lambs. Or when you united Al Pacino and Robert de Niro for the first time on screen in Heat to deliver one of the greatest crime films ever made.

Whereas I wasn’t too happy about your switch from shooting on film to using high definition cameras, I still thought Collateral was a very engaging and entertaining film. By the end of it, I even had to admit that shooting on digital added very nicely to the nighttime atmosphere of Los Angeles and the film’s general mood. Then came Miami Vice, an utterly boring film with ugly digital cinematography. Surely a one-off mistake. It’s Michael Mann after all!

I had already blocked out Miami Vice when Public Enemies was announced. Without doubt this was going to be Mann’s return to form; a kind of Heat set in the 1930s with Johnny Depp, who will have finally taken off his pirate costume, and Christian Bale, who could not wait to go on another set outburst. Even the trailer, officially confirming the use of HD cameras, could not affect my excitement. I was confident that shooting on digital was not going to affect the film negatively as it did with Miami Vice. I had seen a few stunning looking films, such as David Fincher’s Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, both of which were shot in HD, and regained my faith in it.

Did Public Enemies meet any of my expectations? No. While there were many things wrong with it, such as wooden performances, superficial characters and atrocious sound editing, it was the look of the film that spoiled it for me. The use of HD cameras in combination with the shaky camera, bad lighting and constant extreme close-ups created an unbearably ugly style that was more reminiscent of behind the scenes footage than the real deal.

Cinema evolves over time when new technologies become available and usually the viewer welcomes these changes as they improve the experience of watching a film. However, using cameras which we associate with television soap operas or student films, for high budget productions such as Public Enemies, is taking a step backwards.

One of the greatest things about Hollywood is that there is enough money to shoot on 35mm film, so please make use of it. Sure, if you are aiming for realism, there are some niche genres where the use of HD cameras might add to that effect. But when watching a 1930s period crime drama I’d rather sacrifice what might be regarded as more realistic for the use of old fashioned film stock and the unique look of cinema that it creates.