The American Society of Cinematographers

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President’s Desk
Fences
Page 2
Paterson
ASC Close-Up
A Family's Passion

Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen pairs anamorphic lenses with 35mm film for director Denzel Washington's intimate adaptation of Fences.



Unit photography by David Lee, courtesy of Paramount Pictures


Nearly 30 years after its Broadway premiere, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences is the first August Wilson play to make it to the big screen. The theatrical piece was the most commercially successful of the late dramatist’s 10-play cycle chronicling each decade of 20th-century African-American life, but it still required the combined star power of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis — both Tony winners for a 2010 Broadway revival of the play — to get a film version off the ground. According to cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, Fences is a passion project for Washington, who also signed on to direct the movie.

Christensen was in New York shooting The Girl on the Train when she received the Fences script, along with an offer to meet with the actor-director. “It was a four-hour, very intense meeting with Denzel, going through the whole emotional journey of Fences,” she recalls. “He’s such a passionate filmmaker that he cannot talk just a little bit about a project, especially this one. That was exciting to me; his passion is what really engaged me in the project.”

Most of the long discussion had nothing to do with visual matters. “It was very much about African-American culture and where Denzel comes from,” Christensen says. “I think he needed to feel whether I had an understanding of it. I come from a Scandinavian background, but I remember being honest — why would it be so different when it comes to family, relationships, parents and children, expectations, and regrets in life?” All of this is very much at the heart of Fences, which is set in 1950s Pittsburgh and focuses on Troy Maxson (Washington), a middle-aged sanitation worker whose bitterness over his unfulfilled dreams of becoming a major-league baseball player take a toll on his family life with wife Rose (Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo). “I think it’s a very universal story,” says the cinematographer, a native of Denmark who likens Wilson’s themes to those found in Ingmar Bergman’s cinema and theater.

While their talk was largely not about cinematography, at one point Christensen interjected an opinion about how the movie would be shot. “I think it was as simple as me saying to Denzel, ‘This is for sure a 35mm project?’” she recalls. “And he said, ‘For sure it is.’”

Christensen, whose credits include The Hunt [AC Aug. ’13] and Far From the Madding Crowd [AC June ’15] — features directed by her compatriot Thomas Vinterberg — is an advocate for 35mm. And so, she discovered, is Washington. “He wanted this to be film as much as I did,” she says, explaining that they both felt 35mm would better capture the period setting and the intimacy of the story. “The close-ups were very, very important. It’s also in a very enclosed environment. It’s very claustrophobic; the house is a narrow row house. There was something about the texture and the colors and the depth of the story that made it obviously a 35mm project.”

But Washington wanted something else that gave her pause — to shoot the movie with anamorphic lenses. “That was more of a Denzel decision,” the director of photography says. “I questioned it, because with those lenses you’ve got to have a certain space to deal with it. You can’t focus too close — to be in a small room and focus on a person is trickier than if you have an open field. And you have to have more light because of the stop.” Since Fences was shot entirely on location in Pittsburgh, primarily in the backyard and interior of a real row house “about 10 feet wide,” Christensen notes, and with ever-changing spring weather, all of this was a concern. “Denzel said [that] anamorphic is an actor’s lens,” she explains. “If you’re focused on the foreground, the background will be slightly distorted, and when you shift focus it pulls you to the face. I obviously knew this from a technical perspective, [and] when we tested it, I saw what he meant from a performing point of view.”

Having settled happily on Panavision’s Millennium XL2 camera and Panavision’s C Series Anamorphic Prime lenses, the cinematographer still needed to figure out how to make it all work on location. Just getting adequate and consistent exposure was a challenge. The vacant row house chosen by Washington and production designer David Gropman was not only narrow, but it was hemmed in by other structures. “It was 4 feet to the next house, so you really couldn’t get any light in from the side windows,” says Christensen. “The ground-level floor was three rooms in a row, all boxes. There were three or four scenes in the bedroom upstairs, and the stairs were narrow.” The cinematographer notes that it was a tight space for a crew that included Christensen, focus puller Glenn Kaplan, 2nd AC Anthony DeFrancesco, boom operator Douglas Shamburger and dolly grip Peter Clemence — as well as Washington and Davis — in a small house with no floating walls.

Fences the play takes place entirely in Troy’s backyard, which is a key location for the film as well. “We had to shoot a couple of scenes that in the movie would be 10 minutes, and we shot [them] over two or three days,” says the cinematographer. “And Pittsburgh weather changes every 10 minutes. We’d have rain, then we’d have hot sun, and we were trying to match. Over a few minutes, it could change 4 or 5 stops, so we had to ride the exposure.” Rigging on the adjacent houses was not possible because of their deteriorating condition, “so we ended up with two construction cranes from the two streets on either side, and we floated a big silk over the rooftops to keep consistent shadow on the house,” Christensen says. “We tried to create the sunlight from two or three 18Ks in a condor from the same angle, and control it as much as we could, keeping shadow and light and sun in the same place.”

Christensen alternated between Kodak Vision3 50D 5203 and 250D 5207 film stocks to shoot the exteriors. “Whenever I had sunshine, whenever I had enough stop, we shot on 50D, which has the best latitude and is still the most beautiful stock,” she says. “But obviously we had a lot of changing weather, so we had to have the 250D on standby.” For interiors, both 200T 5213 and 500T 5219 were used. “I would have loved to use more 200T, because the slower tungsten stock is beautiful. But shooting [35mm film with] anamorphic lenses in a location where we really couldn’t get any big lamps, we didn’t use it as much as I’d hoped.”

Footage was processed at Fotokem in Burbank, Calif. The negative was scanned at 4K and oversampled down to 2K on a DFT Scanity film scanner, and filmed out on an Arrilaser recorder, at Technicolor Hollywood. Technicolor Hollywood also provided dailies, which were graded by Jeremy Voissem.

Christensen notes that to light the interiors, “there was a lot of top lighting rigged from the ceiling. We couldn’t have any light coming through the windows because there was another house right outside. So we lit from above the windows [with Arri’s SkyPanel LED fixtures], trying to get some angle on it so it didn’t look like top lighting. Every lamp had to be placed so precisely. It wasn’t like sometimes where you have a big window and lots of space outside, and you bounce three 18Ks into a big 20-by-20; this was a light 3 inches to the left and some black wrap.” As carefully as the lamps were placed, however, they sometimes had to be moved to accommodate the actors. “With Denzel, the acting came first, and we had to make that work,” Christensen says. “It’s not like I’ll go in and say, ‘You can only be in that corner.’ I have to make the space a stage. Viola and Denzel needed that freedom of space, so it was a fine balance, a constant give-and-take, of getting the freedom but having to work in a location that gave us a lot of restrictions.

 

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