The American Society of Cinematographers

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Super 8
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A military train wreck unleashes a mysterious creature in Super 8, shot by Larry Fong and directed by J.J. Abrams.

Unit photography by François Duhamel, SMPSP.
Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Set in 1979, Super 8 is a story about the relationship between a boy and his father, only this tale also includes a devastating train wreck carrying top-secret military cargo from Area 51. The deadly cargo escapes and wreaks havoc on the sleepy town of Lillian, Ohio, where the boy, Joe (Joel Courtney), and his friends are about to finish shooting their latest Super 8 movie. 

The boys’ filmmaking venture, a zombie flick called The Case, had special resonance for director J.J. Abrams and cinematographer Larry Fong, who first collaborated when they were kids. Fong recalls, “I had a friend who lived across the street from J.J., and we’d make Super 8 movies while J.J. was across the street working on his own Super 8 stuff. Eventually, J.J. and I started making movies together. I wasn’t the cameraman, though. I remember helping him out with special-effects makeup!”

“The DNA of Super 8 is this weird, geeky obsession we had with the magic of making movies when we were kids,” says Abrams. “Larry had to shoot this movie because our references were exactly the same. We lived them together.”

Footage from The Case appears throughout Super 8, and Abrams and Fong originally intended to return to their roots and shoot that material on Super 8. However, CGI had to be integrated into some of the footage, and the visual-effects team at Industrial Light & Magic found it too difficult to manipulate the grainy Super 8 image. ILM encouraged the filmmakers to shoot 35mm and create the Super 8 look in post, “but I couldn’t bear the thought of doing that,” says Fong. “I asked if we could compromise and shoot that material on Super 16 instead. It bummed J.J. and me out, but we couldn’t ignore ILM’s predicament.”

For footage in The Case that didn’t require CGI, Fong did shoot some Super 8, using a Classic Professional (a restored and updated Beaulieu 4008) obtained from Pro8mm. For the Super 16mm material, he used an Arri 16SR-3. He shot Kodak Vision3 200T 7213 and 500T 7219, matching the 35mm negative he used for the rest of the picture, and operated the camera in a loose, clumsy fashion to create an amateur look. Abrams even got into the spirit of things, jumping in to operate a few shots with the children.

Fong lit The Case with hardware-store clamp lights with normal light bulbs, along with vintage hard quartz lights, pointing them at the actors with deliberate clumsiness and creating multiple, obvious shadows on the walls. “It was fun and much less stressful to shoot that stuff,” he recalls. “It was like reverting to childhood. Everyone was laughing and smiling.”

The main visual reference for the rest of Super 8 was a sci-fi classic from the 1970s: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC (AC Jan. ’78). “The look of that movie informed all my choices, from lighting schemes to color and lenses, as well as the format we shot in, 35mm anamorphic,” reports Fong, who used Panavision’s older anamorphic lenses, the C-Series and E-Series, for most of the picture. (He adds, however, that Super 8 takes a distinctly modern approach to camera movement, making liberal use of Steadicam and Technocrane moves throughout the picture.)

Fong’s approach to lighting Super 8 was different than anything he’d ever attempted, though sometimes more out of necessity than style. “Most of the story takes place at night, and our key cast of minors had a fixed amount of work hours and could not shoot past midnight,” he says. “That meant that as many scenes as possible had to be covered by three cameras, frequently at opposing angles. Lengthy relighting for close-ups was not an option. Most scenes were lit for the master shot, and the B and C cameras might not always obtain the most flattering light from their respective angles. Day-exterior scenes were often filmed with the sunlight shining undiffused into the actors’ faces.

“Many cinematographers would prefer backlight, but we just had to embrace the fact that a lot of our shots were going to end up frontlit, and not lit as softly as we would like,” he continues. “Early on this was a point of discussion with my colleagues, but when I looked through the camera, oddly, it wasn’t so bad. I just had a feeling that it would work, and when I saw the dailies, I realized we’d hit on something. I can’t explain it, but the vibe, the tone, was exactly right.”

Fong also discovered that a lot of practical sources were making their way into his frame, particularly in wide night exteriors. “Instead of large soft sources close to the camera, we were using large hard sources a quarter of a mile away,” explains gaffer Jim Grce.

The lighting package was the same for all night exteriors: a 15-6K Bebee Night Light, nine 18K LRX Raptors distributed among three 120' Condors, and a mobile LRX Piranha armed with six 12K HMI Pars (which could be interchanged with tungsten bulbs).

“You have to position lights like that way ahead of time and hope you’ve made a good guess as to where the camera’s going to be, because they take hours to move,” Fong remarks. “Sometimes you can’t move them because they’re behind a building or up against a mountain. You’ve only got so many choices as to where you’re going to place lights that big, and our cameras were pointing in so many directions that we’d inevitably end up looking right at one of them.”

Viewers familiar with Abrams’ work will recognize his trademark lens flares streaking across the screen. The director even occasionally asked for lights in the frame to specifically create the effect. “We did it in the suburbs, and we even did it in the middle of nowhere,” Fong recalls. “At first some of us were scratching our heads — we’d do a dolly shot, and a light would come into the frame behind the actors’ heads and flare out the lens. [The light] is clearly not the moon, and there are no streetlights or any other sources in the scene. It’s obviously a ‘movie’ light.”

“I know it sounds crazy, but a lens flare reminds me that anamorphic lenses are amazing, gorgeously designed pieces of glass that interact with light in a beautiful way,” explains Abrams. “Flares can be purposeful and additive, and at the right time they remind me, in a good way, that I’m watching a movie. It doesn’t take me out of it. I think it draws me in deeper.”

Joe immerses himself in helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish The Case as a way of coping with the recent loss of his mother, but after the kids capture a spectacular train crash that unleashes a very large passenger into the Ohio countryside, they quickly find themselves playing parts in a real military cover-up.

The train crash was filmed at Firestone Ranch in Agua Dulce, Calif. In the sequence, the kids are filming one of the pivotal scenes for The Case when they see a train approaching in the distance and decide to incorporate it into the film. They roll the camera, and as the train approaches, Joe notices a pickup truck parked on the tracks. The train collides with the truck and derails, smashing through the depot.

Fong says the establishing shot of the depot is the biggest night exterior he has ever photographed. The depot platform was only about 40' long, but Abrams wanted the tracks to extend miles into the horizon, and the location was actually boxed in by mountains and hills a few hundred yards away. To suggest the view Abrams wanted, Fong had his crew place red lights of decreasing size on poles of decreasing height along the tracks’ suggested trajectory, and dot the nearby mountains and hills with lightbulbs to suggest homes and other buildings in the distance.


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