The American Society of Cinematographers

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Casino Royale
Tomorrow Technology
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A Nightmare on Elm S
Books in Review
ASC Close-Up
Backdraft (1991)
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Universal Home Video, $19.98

Backdraft is an unabashedly old-fashioned throwback to the great ensemble melodramas of the classic Hollywood studio system. With its all-star cast, delicately balanced multiple points of view, and broad, intense emotional content, it plays like a kind of modern-day San Francisco or Grand Hotel. Yet the film is anything but traditional in its groundbreaking cinematography and special effects, and it was deservedly nominated for a visual-effects Oscar.

In fact, the effects and cinematography are so interdependent that the film’s director of photography, Mikael Salomon, ASC, was included in the visual-effects nomination. He and his collaborators were faced with myriad technical challenges on the picture, which celebrates the heroism of firefighters and continually places the characters in spectacular action sequences.

One of Salomon’s greatest accomplishments in the film is his personification of the fire as a villain; he photographs it as a living, breathing creature that serves the same function in Backdraft as the shark in Jaws. Salomon achieved this by shooting the fire with daylight stock to give it more texture and density; his approach gives the flames a deep orange quality that is aided by a great deal of frontlight that keeps them from flaring out.

Yet watching Backdraft today, one realizes the fire is only one component of a richly detailed visual style. Salomon and director Ron Howard use the widescreen frame as effectively in the dialogue scenes as they do in the action sequences, composing the images to allow spatial relationships to reinforce or comment upon the emotional ones. The film exhibits an attention to landscape and architecture reminiscent of John Ford’s Westerns; this time, the cowboys and cavalrymen are Chicago firefighters. The gorgeous cityscapes make Backdraft a love letter not only to firefighters, but also to the Windy City, which has rarely looked more dynamic onscreen.

From sweeping establishing shots to intimate close-ups, Salomon’s images look terrific in this DVD transfer. The clarity in the subtly lit night exteriors is particularly impressive, as is the disc’s ability to handle the sharp contrasts in kinetic set pieces. The Dolby 5.1 sound mix is equally strong, especially in action sequences, where Skywalker Sound’s hisses and roars make the flames sound like they’re coming from a dragon.

The DVD contains 43 minutes of deleted scenes that are inexplicably presented in a full-frame format. Despite this unfortunate choice, the deleted scenes are far more interesting than those on most DVD releases, in that they elaborate upon the ideas and characterizations in the film and indicate that it could have been even more thrilling at a longer running time. The first disc in this two-disc set also includes a brief introduction by Howard, in which he expresses his affection for Backdraft and his collaborators.

Disc two is devoted to five featurettes totaling 70 minutes, and overall the documentaries are enjoyable, though somewhat incomplete. A great deal of the footage is archival, and while the on-set interviews with the actors and crew are fine, one wishes they were complemented by more contemporary reflections. Also, a featurette on real-life firemen fails to provide the promised “insider’s perspective” on the job — it’s mostly just a group of guys agreeing that Backdraft is a good movie.

Two featurettes are quite fascinating and contain both exciting on-set footage and new interviews with Salomon and his collaborators. The first, “The Explosive Stunts,” shows the lengths to which the stunt team, actors and crew had to go to create the elaborate setpieces. Actors Kurt Russell, William Baldwin and Scott Glenn are seen in extremely harrowing situations — all were credited with stunt work on the film — and Salomon is shown entering the flames in protective gear.

The next featurette, “Creating the Villain: The Fire,” is the best on the DVD. In it, Salomon discusses his approach in terms of technique and emotions, and accompanying interviews with members of the stunt and visual-effects teams are equally enlightening. A commentary track to provide more scene-specific information would have been nice, but the documentaries certainly allow the viewer to appreciate the complicated union of cinematography, special effects and stunts on this picture. Even though there have been 15 years of advances in visual effects since Backdraft’s release, the film remains a stunning technical achievement and a rousing piece of Hollywood entertainment.

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