The American Society of Cinematographers

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Get on Up
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Presidents Desk
ASC Close-Up

Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC, puts legendary singer James Brown in the spotlight with Get on Up.

Unit photography by D. Stevens, additional photos by James Shelton. Photos courtesy of Universal Studios, Stephen Goldblatt and Mr. X Inc.

He was an electrifying performer whose high-octane vocals and explosive dance moves made him one of the iconic figures of 20th-century popular music. He was an innovator who blended gospel, rhythm-and-blues, soul and jazz into the new musical genre of funk. But before that, James Brown had to overcome an almost Dickensian childhood. Born into extreme poverty, abandoned as a child by both his parents, growing up in the Jim Crow South and serving prison time while still a teenager, the future “Godfather of Soul” propelled himself to the top through raw talent, hard work, sheer grit and determination.

Chronicling Brown’s triumphs and defeats, the biopic Get on Up stars Chadwick Boseman and marks the second collaboration between cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC, and director Tate Taylor. Like their first film, The Help (AC Sept. ’11), Get on Up was shot entirely in Mississippi, with Natchez and Jackson standing in for Boston, Harlem and Paris, among other locales. “We had 90 locations in 48 days,” Goldblatt tells AC from New York, where he is prepping another picture. “The film is more a kaleidoscope of the life of James Brown than an A-to-B biopic. The storyline jumps back-and-forth in time, covering some 60 years, and the photography reflects the changing periods.” Citing the feature’s sub-$30 million budget, he adds, “Achieving our cinematic ambitions with absolutely no financial leeway made this one of the most challenging — and ultimately satisfying — projects of my career.”

After shooting a few commercials digitally, Goldblatt became a fan of the Arri Alexa. Singling out how well the camera handles skin tones, he says he decided to stick with the camera for Get on Up, his first digital feature. Working as he long has with ASC associate and Panavision Vice-President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Radin (who has since retired), Goldblatt selected the standard Alexa with a 16x9 sensor and a high-speed license as his A, B and C cameras.

The movie’s most dazzling sequences showcase Brown performing during various concerts, including his legendary 1962 performance at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and a 1971 show at Olympia Hall in Paris. Goldblatt knew he would need more than three cameras to capture the concerts, but budgetary constraints limited his options. During preproduction, he tested Canon’s 4K EOS-1D C DSLR and Cinema EOS C500, and then opted to employ the latter to expand his camera arsenal. “It looked great,” he enthuses. “Here was a camera that by no means has the same specs as the Alexa, but by doing little tricks you could make it look as if it was an Alexa.” Those “little tricks” included applying a customized LUT that Technicolor’s color-science team created to match the looks of the disparate cameras. (Both the Alexas’ ArriRaw files and the C500s’ Canon Raw files were recorded to Convergent Design Gemini 4:4:4 recorders.)

Brown’s 1971 Paris concert was re-created inside a 2,400-seat municipal auditorium in Jackson (with the show’s visual-effects team adding a Paris skyline for one shot). Andrew Giffin, who specializes in lighting concert tours, music festivals and theatrical productions, was brought in to help design the stage lighting. Goldblatt planned to use modern equipment, but he insisted that all lighting effects be stylistically consistent with the 1971 time period. “We could have done all sorts of rock-and-roll effects,” acknowledges Goldblatt, “but we didn’t because they didn’t exist back then.

“Andrew and I spent three days watching Chad rehearse the numbers to get our lighting cues,” the cinematographer adds. Giffin proposed a scheme of automated lights that could be controlled from various locations in the venue via the network of his GrandMa2 consoles. Felix Lighting in Los Angeles supplied the fixtures and sent company vice-president Mike McKinnon to serve as master electrician. A total of 24 Martin Mac 700 Washes provided backlight, 24 Mac 700 Profiles lit the actors and musicians, and 24 Mac 301s were used to up-light scenic pieces, “filling the role of what would have been old strip lights,” observes Giffin. Additionally, he adds, 24 Mac 2000 Washes were used as front and side lights that might appear on-camera because “their big lenses look like Pars or Fresnels onscreen.” Instead of gels, Giffin utilized the color-mixing features of modern sources, which granted flexibility but had to be carefully constrained.

Giffin explains that he set up faders that he manually pushed up and down, “just like an operator would have had to do at the time. It introduced some imperfections, which added the analog, human element.” This manually conducted light show was recorded through the GrandMa2 system, and for playback during takes, “everything was triggered via SMPTE time code because we needed the lighting to be repeatable for continuity.”

During the performances, the crew alternated shooting with the Steadicam, operated by Goldblatt’s longtime A-camera/Steadicam operator Will Arnot, and a 50' Technocrane, while the B and C cameras picked off whatever they could. The lens package included an Angenieux Optimo 28-76mm T2.6 zoom; a Panavision Primo 4:1 (17.5-75mm) T2.3, Primo 11:1 (24-275mm) T2.8 and 14.5-50mm T2.2 Primo Macro Zoom; and Primo primes. To take the edge off the sharpness of the digital images, all lenses were filtered with 1⁄8 or 1⁄4 Tiffen Black Pro-Mist throughout the shoot.

The two C500s, fitted with Canon Cinema primes or an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM zoom, were hidden onstage as “set-and-forget” cameras. “I had more fun with those little cameras,” Goldblatt says. “We got additional angles and some very dramatic footage.” 

A sixth camera was added just for this concert: an Ikegami EC-35 video camera with a B-mount Canon 5:1 lens. The actual 1971 concert had been videotaped with a Sony AVC-3400 PortaPac; when the production couldn’t find one in working condition, DIT Nathaniel Miller suggested a vintage Ikegami, another popular model in the early 1970s. The EC-35 footage, captured by Henry Cline, was edited into the movie.

“The signal from the Ikegami was sent to an analog DigiBeta deck on set,” notes Miller. “The tape was then sent to Technicolor Hollywood, where they created DPX files that were ingested and treated as a ‘digital negative.’” The Ikegami tripod and the vintage musical instruments came from prop house History for Hire and from a private collector.

At several points throughout the film, including a shot at the start of the Paris concert scene, Brown speaks directly into the camera. Taylor explains, “I was playing with this idea that James Brown is narrating his own life story, as if from the grave. In [the Paris sequence], he is watching himself onstage and commenting.” Goldblatt notes that the Steadicam follows Brown as he enters the theater and walks onto the stage from the side, with the concert already in full swing; the musicians are playing, Brown (played by a double) is singing into the microphone and the crowd is going crazy.

Arnot picks up the description from there: “Chad walks straight across the stage from left to right, but his head is turned sideways so he can talk directly into the camera, which is [moving parallel to] him as he walks. The band is arranged with the drummer in the back, other musicians and backup singers in front of the drummer, the [James Brown] double at the microphone at the front of the stage with his back to the camera, and the audience beyond. Chad passes just in front of the musicians. I was on the Steadicam keeping pace with him, but walking between the drummer and the other musicians, so the musicians and chorus girls are soft in the foreground while Chad is in sharp focus.” The double in the background was also out of focus.


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