The American Society of Cinematographers

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    Levy opted for Hawk anamorphic lenses after first considering classic Panavision C Series optics. “I tried to get a set of Cs, but everyone is using them these days and we just couldn’t get them,” he says. “The Hawks are a great alternative. They have the right imperfect softness to them, like the C Series does. They suited my purposes perfectly. Very sharp lenses have no character, especially anamorphic lenses, and it’s the character — the ‘flaws’ — that you really want. It’s the optical imperfections that give the lenses their flavor.”

    About halfway through the production, Levy learned of the Hawk V-Series 300–900mm (T4) zoom. “Once I got my hands on that, I used it a lot,” he professes. “I found it was really about a T5.6, but on the daylight track-and-field scenes with a native 800 ISO, stop wasn’t a problem. The lens is a bit of a monster, and the B-camera focus puller, Stéphane Caron, was horrified by it, but it became a powerhouse tool for those sequences.”

    All of the pre-Olympic athletic practice and competition was shot at the same location, a large open area outside the city of Montreal, Quebec, that is set aside for the city to dump excess snow in the winter. For Race’s summer shoot, it was carefully dressed — and later set-extended with visual effects — to represent several different locations, including the Berlin Olympic Stadium.

    “We couldn’t shoot any running scenes at the [actual] Berlin Stadium because the original cinder running track has long since been replaced with a blue synthetic running surface,” Levy explains. “We did use the Berlin Stadium for some spectacular wide shots and the area in and around Hitler’s box, as well as many forecourts, tunnels and exterior shots. The visual-effects team, led by Martin Lipmann, did an astonishingly good job of integrating period backgrounds onto live-action foregrounds. We were working on a very limited budget and, if the film looks expansive and rich, then a great deal of the credit should go to Martin and his team.”

    To depict Owens’ speed for the track events that the film re-creates, Hopkins and Levy decided to let the races run in real time. “We never wanted to cut to slow-motion in a race,” Levy stresses. “If the race was run in 10.3 seconds, then the scene takes place in 10.3 seconds.” Although Stephan James, who portrays Owens, is himself a gifted athlete, he was no match for Owens’ records. To aid the actor and still allow the races to happen in real time, the athletic field was scaled down by 15 percent, turning the 100m dash into an 85m sprint that James could actually run in 10.3 seconds.

    Levy notes that the race sequences were, perhaps, the most challenging aspects of the film to photograph. “When a human being comes off the starting line at a race, he accelerates very quickly,” he observes. “It was really too quick for any kind of conventional dolly or tracking device. Most motorized vehicles would spin their wheels or break up the track. We finally found an electric car, a Nissan Leaf, that accelerated very quickly without tearing up the ground. We took off some body panels and mounted cheese plate on the car so that we could bolt equipment to it — including a Libra head and a Steadicam arm. That became our tracking vehicle for all of the race footage.”

    As much as possible, Levy tried to let the natural daylight work for him. “My general style is big, bold and simple,” he asserts. “Outdoors I mostly let bounce cards mounted to the tracking vehicle do the work. Whenever possible, I would use big 12-foot by 20-foot bounces.”  The cinematographer explains that the unusual rectangular frame size is a common tool in Canada. “We use 20-foot by 20-foot frames in the U.S., but when you think of the picture size, it’s a horizontal frame, and the top of that 20-foot square isn’t really doing much. So the Canadian crews have a long, rectangular frame that is really more like the aspect ratio of our image, and they work very well!”

    In addition, Levy employed a 40'x40' “flyswatter” overhead diffuser that was constructed with an inflatable rubber frame. “It was the same kind of thing you’d see in an inflatable boat — like a Zodiac frame,” he explains. “It got its rigidity from the air pressure in the inflatable tubes, and it would hold its shape beautifully.”

    Cinematographers often note that darker skin tones, which absorb more light, can pose a lighting challenge, but after four years of lighting actor Don Cheadle for the Showtime series House of Lies, Levy states, “As a photographer, I can do so much more with a black face than I can with a white face. The way black skin takes subtle color, and the degree of modeling and texture I can incorporate into the lighting, is fantastic. I think the danger with black skin is that if you go too warm with the color of the light, the skin will go too honey-colored on you.

    “Years ago,” Levy adds, “I worked with Dean Semler, ASC, ACS, and he told me, ‘You can do anything with your lighting as long as you give them the eyes.’ If you’ve got eye light, you can go as dark as you want with the face and the audience will still connect. You need that life in the eyes.

    “To get a decent eye light, the source needs to be quite large,” the cinematographer continues. “If you put a point source into the eye, it becomes a pinprick. So what you want is usually a decent-sized white card so that it’s a larger reflection in the eye. I’d typically ND that card down to the point where it wasn’t supplying any illumination on the face — only a reflection in the eye. But with Stephan James, I didn’t mind a little extra fill on his skin, and we actually used a 4-foot-by-4-foot piece of plywood as his eye light and bounced fill light. This gave me a little bounce-back of beautiful, soft, warm light that was perfect in his eye and on his skin, with no need to color the light — we just used the warm color of the wood as natural bounce.

    “I have to make special mention of my Montreal gaffer, John Lewin,” Levy adds, “who was my tireless and skillful collaborator and who, when the production moved to Berlin, also took on the role of key grip — because in Germany they work the ‘English’ system, whereby the grips are exclusively camera grips. Likewise, my operators — Daniel Sauvé on A camera and Steadicam, and Robert Guertin on B camera — contributed greatly with their skill and imagination.”

    Levy likes to keep a tight control over his image, and he carries a FilmLight Truelight On-Set system with him to grade each sequence before the footage goes into the postproduction workflow. “My technique is to time each shot as it happens,” he explains. “I have a Truelight trackball panel on set with me, and I’m creating a LUT on a shot-to-shot basis, so when the dailies leave the set, it looks like what I want it to look like — of course with the proviso that I’m not a colorist. But I’m sending the colorist a refined example of my intentions. Our fabulous DIT, Daniel Lacasse, kept me honest.  

 

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