The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents April 2010 Return to Table of Contents
Alice in Wonderland
Presidents Desk
Sundance 2010
Production Slate
Brooklyns Finest
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Police Under Pressure

Late one evening, a week before production commenced on his first American feature, Mexican cinematographer Patrick Murguia, AMC, and his gaffer, Jay Fortune, showed up at the Van Dyke housing project in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. The site was to be a key location in Brooklyn’s Finest, and Murguia wanted to “feel out” the place at night and measure how much available light was created by the practical streetlamps. As he stepped out of the van, an unmarked patrol car drove up, and two police officers got out. They approached slowly, their hands hovering above their holsters, their eyes darting uneasily between Murguia’s face and the bulging leather case — which contained his spot meter — at his side. “It was very tense,” recalls Murguia. “I couldn’t really [whip] out my light meter to show them that it wasn’t a gun.” Fortunately, unlike the cops in Brooklyn’s Finest, who shoot first and ask questions later, these officers were cautious but not impetuous. Murguia and Fortune checked out the location and left.

“It’s amazing how [Kodak Vision3 500T] 5219 can see into the darkness,” marvels Murguia, who notes that more than half of Brooklyn’s Finest takes place at night or in dark interiors. He estimates that just over half of the picture was shot with the lens wide open.

Brooklyn’s Finest follows three police officers, each facing a personal crisis, whose paths cross late in the story. Sal (Ethan Hawke) is a narcotics officer so desperate to buy a house for his wife and kids that he robs the drug dealers he kills. Tango (Don Cheadle) is an undercover cop who is starting to have divided loyalties. Eddie (Richard Gere) is just marking time until he retires. As the line between right and wrong blurs, each struggles with his conscience.

One of the first things director Antoine Fuqua and Murguia agreed on was that they didn’t want Brooklyn’s Finest to be a handheld movie; they preferred a classical approach, with the camera serving as an observer. Furthermore, they wanted the city to be a suffocating presence. “When you live in a city like New York, you don’t see the sky,” notes Murguia, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Mexico City. “There are walls everywhere. Buildings block the sky. You almost feel that you can’t breathe.”

Fuqua was initially interested in shooting anamorphic, but he and Murguia eventually decided that spherical lenses would suit the film’s themes better. “With spherical lenses, the context surrounding the characters is a little more present,” says Murguia. “Anamorphic tends to isolate the characters from the background, and that definitely didn’t suit this storyline because we wanted to integrate the city as a character. We chose Super 35 because we felt the very horizontal format would accentuate the feeling of urban claustrophobia.” In the end, however, the filmmakers did decide to use anamorphic for three specific images: the final shots of each of the main characters, shots that had to stand apart visually from the rest of the picture.

The main cameras, provided by Arri CSC, were Arricam Lites and an Arri 435, and Murguia chose Arri Master Primes and two Angenieux Optimo zoom lenses, a 24-290mm and a 17-80mm. For the three anamorphic shots, he used a Panaflex Platinum and Panavision Primo anamorphic prime lenses, supplied by Panavision New York.

A graduate of Mexico’s prestigious Centro de Capacitacin Cinematogrfica, Murguia frequently draws inspiration from still photography. His main reference for Brooklyn’s Finest was the early work of Nan Goldin, but he also studied police crime photos and selected some of the grittiest work of Magnum photojournalists. “The intimacy Nan Goldin achieves is amazing,” he says. “A lot of her photos were made without a flash, so you see the real atmosphere of the places. On this film, I always tried to lead with practical and available light.”

A good example of this approach is the film’s opening scene. It’s just past dusk, and the camera (on a Technocrane) looks at the Manhattan skyline in the distance. The camera slowly booms right, across a cemetery, and stops on a wide shot of a car parked on a desolate road next to the graveyard. The back of the car faces the camera. Dialogue is audible, but we can’t see who’s in the car. The only light comes from a streetlamp located several hundred yards in front of the car.

In keeping with his available-light philosophy, Murguia wanted to create the illusion that all of the light in the scene was coming from this one source. In this case, his crew removed the bulb in the practical and hung a 2K open-faced Blonde behind it. “You tip it back just enough so that the spill glows the glass and makes it look as if the streetlamp is on,” explains Fortune. “We put Lee 232 on the 2K to match the sodium-vapor look of the original bulb. If you put 232 on a tungsten source, it will match sodium-vapor to a T — without the green.”

Strings of bare household bulbs, all wired to a dimmer, were placed behind the car to create reflections on the vehicle and keep it from disappearing in the dark. A 10K was hidden behind a Dumpster located halfway between the car and the streetlight, and Murguia’s crew moved a 12'x12' frame of Ultra Bounce around the vehicle to bounce light inside — Murguia didn’t want lights in the car when the camera moved in for coverage. Behind the car, farther down the road, was a 10K that raked light across the fence separating the road from the cemetery. With the exception of the household bulbs, every fixture was gelled with Lee 232.

The camera moves in to reveal Sal in the front seat with a small-time crook. Sal shoots his companion, steals his money and jumps out of the car. As he runs down the road, he casts an enormous shadow on the fence and cemetery. To achieve this expressionistic effect, Fortune positioned a 10K some 50' behind the car and took the lens out so it would cast a hard shadow. It was a very humid night, perfect for an atmospheric, backlit scene.

When the three policemen’s paths finally converge, in the last 45 minutes of the film, they do so at the housing project in a complex web of sequences. It begins with Sal pulling up in his car late at night. With a wide Steadicam shot, A-camera/Steadicam operator Mike O’Shea follows Sal as he climbs out of the car and walks under the elevated train tracks. (Astute viewers will notice Eddie’s car down the street, following a van.) The Steadicam, maintaining the wide shot, moves to Sal’s side as he walks past Tango, who is exiting his own car. (The two men don’t know each other.) As Sal heads towards one building, the camera leaves him and starts tracking backward in front of Tango, who is heading toward a different building. Murguia picks up the story: “The camera starts to pan with Tango, and as it does, we see a young man sitting in front of the building. We stay with the kid as Tango walks into the building. We cut to the kid’s POV as he watches Sal enter the other building.”

To light this long Steadicam move, Murguia relied on the existing light cast by the streetlamps and hid a 2K open-faced Blonde behind one pole. The spill from the Blonde covered a wide area and served as the key light. According to Fortune, this ambient light was boosted by several other fixtures: a 5K on a 40' Condor beside the el tracks provided sidelight and backlight; a couple of 10Ks were positioned on the ground six blocks away, underneath the el; and a Dino and a 20K were positioned on a 125' Condor hidden behind a nearby high-rise. All of these fixtures were gelled with Lee 232 for a sodium-vapor feel.

After Tango enters the building, we cut back to Sal and follow him into an apartment, where he murders two criminals. Upon entering the kitchen, he hears something, turns around and shoots a third man. Then the camera stops and observes as Sal tears the place apart, looking for money. “He goes in and out of frame, but the camera remains stationary,” says Murguia. “It’s a completely different feeling than following him.”

When Sal finds the money and starts stuffing it into his pockets, he is shot in the back. The camera jumps to a frontal view, and Sal looks down at his chest, where blood is spreading on his shirt. As he falls, we see the shooter in the doorway. At this point, Murguia switched to anamorphic. “We wanted a shallow depth-of-field as we look down at Sal on the floor, because we wanted to focus only on his face,” says the cinematographer. “As he dies, we slowly boom down, and a practical lamp on the other side of him creates this beautiful flare in the anamorphic lens. It’s as though he has this moment of clarity as his life slips away. The anamorphic lens helps put you inside his head.”

After Sal dies, the action cuts back to Tango in the other building. He kills one man and follows a wounded man, Red, out and into the street. (This is the same area where Tango and Sal crossed paths earlier.) Once both men are in the middle of the street, the film switches to two-camera coverage, with both cameras on dollies; the A camera, with a 27mm lens, gets the shot of Tango standing over Red, while the B camera, with a 75mm lens, is just behind Tango, looking through his legs at Red. The headlights of a car approach the scene from behind Red.

Tango keeps pumping bullets into Red, finally killing him. But then Tango is shot from behind and falls to the ground. The camera racks focus, and we see the shooter in the background. Again, Murguia switched to anamorphic for Tango’s dying moments. As he dies, the camera begins to slowly rotate. Key grip George Patsos explains: “For the 360-degree camera roll, we used a Panatate, which rotates the camera around the lens axis.”

Tango turns his head as the oncoming headlights grow closer. This bathes Tango in light and produces a lens flare, signifying Tango’s “moment of clarity.” Murguia notes, “I was very happy with that shot. It was important to do something dramatic to reflect what Tango is going through.”

The third anamorphic shot is also the final shot in the film. Eddie has rescued some kidnapped girls and is walking away from the swarm of emergency vehicles that have arrived at the site. This time the camera and Libra head were on a 50' Technocrane. The crane dollies back as Eddie walks towards it, but slowly enough so that Eddie catches up to it. As he reaches the camera, he looks into the lens, and the shot freezes. “He survives, but in a subtle way, he has a moment of clarity, too,” notes Murguia.

Murguia emphasizes how lucky he was to have such outstanding collaborators on his first U.S. production. “My first assistant, Robert Mancuso, is not only a great focus puller, but also an extraordinarily nice person. No matter what happened, he was always in a good mood. Given all the Steadicam work, Mike O’Shea had a really tough job, especially in the summer heat. And Jay Fortune and George Patsos came up with some great ideas; each of them had a trailer full of things, and no matter what we needed, they had it. Our production designer, Thérèse DePrez, always made sure there was something interesting in front of the camera. And, finally, colorists Stefan Sonnenfeld and Stephen Nakamura did a great job with the color correction [at Company 3].”

3-perf Super 35mm and Anamorphic 35mm
Arricam Lite, Arri 435; Panaflex Platinum
Arri Master Prime, Angenieux Optimo, Panavision Primo lenses
Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, Vision2 250D 5205
Digital Intermediate
Printed on Fuji Eterna-CP 3521XD


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