The American Society of Cinematographers

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Breaking Boundaries

Peter Levy and Stephen Hopkins recreate a dimly lit 1936 Olympics with a hero ending.

Unit photography by Thibault Grabherr, courtesy of Focus Features.

In 1936, a scant three years before the outbreak of World War II, Germany hosted the XI Olympiad in the country’s capital city of Berlin. Although Reich Chancellor Hitler and the Nazi Party had taken control over the nation, news of their heinous actions had yet to reach the ears of the rest of the world.

    At the center of the American team was young James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens, a black athlete from Alabama who rose to prominence on the field while a student at Ohio State University; participating in the 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Mich., Owens broke three world track-and-field records — and tied another — in less than an hour. That event, which Sports Illustrated has heralded as the “greatest 45 minutes ever in sports,” was merely a prelude to his Olympic performance in Berlin.

    Directed by Stephen Hopkins, the feature Race depicts the two years leading up to, and the results of, the Berlin Olympics from Owens’ point of view. At Hopkins’ side was longtime collaborator Peter Levy, ASC, ACS, whose career behind the camera has so far garnered two Emmy Awards — one for the Hopkins-directed telefilm The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (AC Dec. ’04) and another for the series Californication. Levy has been nominated for four ASC Award nominations — one for the pilot episode of 24, one for Peter Sellers, and two for the series House of Lies.

    “Stephen and I have worked together for about 32 years, and we have a certain innate understanding of each other,” Levy observes. “We know how to cover a scene simply and effectively. Our method of communicating is kind of a process of exclusion: We discuss what we don’t want, and once we define that, what we’re left with is the direction we take.”

    For Race, the cinematographer adds, “we knew we didn’t want Chariots of Fire — a lot of slo-mo beauty shots of running. We knew we didn’t want to ‘Disney-fy’ it, or make it too colorful, or romanticize the past, which is a common tendency in period films: to play the nostalgic notes. You also have to be careful not to let yourself ‘worship’ the art department. Having said that, production designer David Brisbin and his wonderful art department gave us imaginative and richly nuanced sets and locations to photograph, and made a too-small budget look very expensive.”

    The filmmakers sought to emphasize the oppression of the Great Depression and establish a foreboding feeling. “I gave myself two dictates before I started the film,” Levy offers. “One was ‘no backlight’ and the other was ‘no highlights.’ I didn’t want anything to get above about 80 percent on a waveform monitor. I remember someone making a comment about [late ASC member] Sven Nykvist’s work on The Postman Always Rings Twice, that [he lit the film] like there was less light during the Depression. That was the direction I took. I didn’t want to make it feel like there was an abundance of light. I wanted to make it feel down and depressed; I wanted to make it feel like money is so tight and light is valuable, so nothing would be over-lit, and certainly no practicals [would be] on during the daytime. That set the mandate to keep it dark, and to use light with discretion when and where we wanted it, and to keep it off anything that wasn’t central to the story.”

    For further control, Levy also made regular use of graduated ND filters at both the top and bottom of the frame. “When you light from above you often get too much light at the bottom of the frame,” he explains. “It’s not uncommon for me to grad the bottom and the top of the frame — interiors, exteriors, anytime I feel there’s too much light. I like to use selective brightness on the screen to direct the viewer’s eye where to look; there’s a nexus between the eye and the brain [such that] the brain will make the eye look at the brighter aspect of the scene. That can be [finessed] in the color suite with vignetting, but I do a lot of it in-camera with simple ND grads. Once I was in the DI suite, I also used focus vignetting on crowd shots to direct the viewer’s eye to who was important in frame.”

    In addition to NDs, Levy adds, “I wore [Schneider] Hollywood Black Magic diffusion filters throughout the whole film. That helped me to keep the shadows rich and subdue the highlights even more. I used a 1 as my standard tool, but would drop down to a 1⁄2 or a 1⁄4 as the lenses got longer or if there was a ‘hot’ background.”

    Regarding his proscription against backlight, Levy submits, “The reason you use backlight is to give separation — to create the illusion of the third dimension. I feel it’s artificial. There’s an old joke: A director asks, ‘Where is that backlight coming from?’ and the cinematographer responds, ‘The same place the music is coming from!’ My choice is to use tone and color for separation as opposed to backlight. So to separate the actor from the wall behind him, I prefer to use a wash of a slightly different color and intensity than what is used on the actor — so that you get a tonal separation instead of artificial light coming from nowhere.

    “I received some great advice from an English gaffer named Chuck Finch, with whom I worked on Lost in Space [AC April ’98],” the cinematographer continues. “He said, ‘Halves on places, quarters on faces.’ So if I decide to use warm light on an actor, I would use 1⁄2 CTO on the background and 1⁄4 CTO on the actor’s face. This gives a little tonal color separation between the character and the set. I like to mix up color temperatures to make the palette richer and more complex, whether that be between scenes or within a scene.”

    Levy shot Race with an Arri Alexa XT, recording ArriRaw onto Codex drives while working in Open Gate mode with the camera’s 4:3 sensor, which he paired with Vantage’s Hawk V-Lite anamorphic lenses. “These lenses gave me the look I wanted and were also light enough to fly on the Steadicam,” the cinematographer explains.

    “The film needed to be shot digitally to help make a lot of the CGI more seamless,” Levy attests. “I’m very familiar with the Alexa — it is the best digital camera to shoot the anamorphic format on. However, I still haven’t found a digital camera that gives me satisfying flesh tones in daylight, but I love the low-light response of the Alexa, and I was interested in working at the bottom end of the digital curve. The Alexa just hangs on beautifully in that low light, down towards the blacks.

    “In the past I’ve been very reluctant to deviate from the camera’s native 800 ISO,” he continues, “but I found when I knocked it down to 400 and 200 it actually changed the contrast of the image, [such] that the 200 ISO is a lot less contrasty than the 800. I think the Alexa at 200 ISO is more like a pull process; it’s a softer image. That’s a revelation I discovered on Race and a technique I’ll use again. I used it on all my daylight scenes and whenever I had stop to spare — much to my focus-pullers’ chagrin. But I had a wonderful first AC from Toronto, Kerry Smart, and she managed to run a very tight ship under very unforgiving circumstances — and I don’t think we had a soft shot in the whole movie.”


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