The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Love and War

Don Burgess, ASC reunites with director Robert Zemeckis to frame the World War II thriller Allied almost exclusively on stage.

Photos by Daniel Smith, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

In reteaming with longtime collaborator Robert Zemeckis for the director’s latest effort, Allied, cinematographer Don Burgess, ASC found himself diving into a World War II-era romantic thriller. The movie tells the tale of two covert operatives — Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), an intelligence officer, and Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), a French resistance fighter — who meet in Casablanca, fall in love, start a family and live a normal life in London, until Vatan learns that it all may be a lie.

      It was a new genre for Burgess and Zemeckis, and the cinematographer reports that the director had some specific desires for the project, in particular a general eschewing of location work. Though Zemeckis did take the production to shoot exteriors in Spain’s Canary Islands, which stood in for Casablanca, the majority of the shoot — including scenes taking place outdoors — were captured on London stages. It was a decision the director says was dictated by a desire to avoid the notoriously shifty British weather.

      “Any time you [shoot] outside, you have no control, or at least 50-percent less control,” Zemeckis says. “For example, we shot one exterior in London as an establishing shot of the city. I figured it would be raining, but that would be okay because that is perfect to establish London. But the day we scheduled it, of course, it was a bald, perfect sky. We ended up having to deal with crane and camera shadows. So no matter what you do outside, in my opinion you have to compromise three to four times more than when you are in a controlled environment.”

      Zemeckis’ confidence that he could overcome any challenges posed by this stage-centric methodology was based on his faith in Burgess and his team, as well as the wizardry of the various facilities overseen by Atomic Fiction visual-effects supervisor Kevin Baillie. The director’s work was further facilitated by the fact that all of the movie’s complex sequences had been broken down and choreographed in detail beforehand, using previsualizations created with a form of virtual cinematography personally directed by Zemeckis.

      As Burgess explains, the previs technique evolved out of the virtual-camera methodology he and Zemeckis had used on The Polar Express (AC Nov. ’04). For that movie, the cinematographer notes, “We developed the technique of having a gear head connected to a computer so we could put a human touch into the camera moves. What Bob was eventually able to do from that phase forward was hold, in essence, a camera in his hands, while actually looking at a monitor — making a shot while holding this virtual camera. For this movie, he had to break down every sequence for everyone involved, so this kind of previs essentially became his version of storyboards. He would go into a room where a camera was connected to a computer, move the camera around in his hands, and create each shot he had in his head. That allowed us to create extremely accurate storyboards of the scenes.” 

      In preproduction, Burgess printed out “a one-line continuity” of every scene in the entire script. “As I always do, I went through the entire script and attached color with markers to each scene — attaching themes to each continuity — and I put that up on a wall in my office. That’s how I break the script down visually in my head and figure out where to start from what Bob is saying.”

      This approach is how Burgess and Zemeckis came to conclude that Allied’s narrative should be broken down into six specific visual looks. The first section entails approximately the opening 35 scenes, which take place in Morocco and involve a warm look in a desert environment. “I started out with normal color saturation, pushing it slightly to the warm side,” Burgess explains.

      After the characters fall in love and return to London, section two involves about 20 scenes in the middle of World War II. Here, the cinematographer initiated a desaturation process “to push the film to the cooler side as we get to colder London,” he notes.

      The thriller elements then heat up in section three, as the two characters get entangled in spy intrigue and become more isolated. “I did that with lenses,” Burgess says, “shallowing the depth of field, making things softer in the background.”

      The fourth look takes place as the story drives toward its climax and secrets are revealed. For this section, “I pushed the desaturation even more,” Burgess says. “The film gets cooler and I crunch the blacks more, with less fill light, and the lenses get longer.”

      The movie then climaxes with what Burgess calls “the darkest part of the film as far as the characters are concerned,” in a big reveal sequence that takes place in the rain. “It becomes darker and colder all around,” he explains — a look he underscored with the aid of longer lenses.

      Finally — for the postscript, which takes place 18 years after the climax — saturation and color return, “and lenses get more normal,” Burgess says.

      To accomplish all of this, the filmmakers required a suite of specific tools that included special look-up tables built in partnership with Light Iron, who also generated dailies and later performed the digital-intermediate work.

      Burgess opted to shoot the movie with Red’s Weapon camera outfitted with a Dragon 6K sensor — in addition to Red’s Weapon with the company’s new VistaVision-sized Dragon 8K sensor (40.96mm x 21.6mm) for visual-effects plates — recording to 512GB Red Mini-Mags in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. “We liked the 8K Weapon for the added detail in the composite shots,” he notes. “Those were the only two cameras we used on the film. The [Weapon] is a smaller and lighter camera, but with a bigger chip, and it’s great for the way Bob and I like to shoot — a lot of work on cranes and a lot of moving cameras. That image gave us great detail, and I like the way it handled highlights and shadows. In testing, it seemed to me I could get the different looks needed to tell this story.”

      For all non-visual-effects work, the cinematographer employed Leica Summicron-C and Summilux-C lenses (ranging in focal length from 18mm to 135mm), along with 14mm Cooke S4 Primes for a few shots, and Panavision Primo 70 Series lenses for the 8K camera’s work. “I had my lens formulas down for the particular looks,” says Burgess. “I would look up in my overview and it would tell me what lenses to use in what grouping, and then Bob would block the scene out and we would work together on what the shots would be, and what lens or lenses to use on that particular scene. If I had something with limited depth of field for a particular effect or shot, or if I had a big space with a certain amount of available light to use, and we wanted to match into that where we needed an extra stop of detail, it was nice to have those extra fast lenses.”


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