The American Society of Cinematographers

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Bourne Legacy
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Presidents Desk
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Robert Elswit, ASC and director Tony Gilroy expand the action franchise’s visual style with The Bourne Legacy.

Unit photography by Mary Cybulski, courtesy of Universal Pictures.
One day in late June, as he wraps up a digital-intermediate session at Deluxe’s Company 3 in Santa Monica and prepares to head to a sound-mixing session at nearby Todd-AO, director Tony Gilroy pauses to confer with cinematographer Robert Elswit, ASC and colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld, an ASC associate. Gilroy wants to know if an assassin’s skin tone appears too saturated during a brief close-up from an early sequence in The Bourne Legacy. It’s a short conversation — Gilroy almost immediately defers to Elswit, who shot the filmmaker’s first two features, Michael Clayton and Duplicity.

“I’ve spent more time with [Elswit] in the last seven years than any other person on the planet, other than intimate family,” Gilroy says, laughing. “We became great friends on Michael Clayton, and we don’t have any limits on our conversation or taste. I run an open conversation where everybody can say what he wants. I want every single person on set to be a filmmaker. That said, it’s also true that the camera department is first among equals for me. On this film especially, because I had never done anything [this technically complicated] before, I was always interested in what [Elswit] had to say.”

Going into The Bourne Legacy, the main challenge the filmmakers faced was making their movie fit seamlessly within the larger Bourne world. The new film’s conceit is that the three previous adventures, involving Jason Bourne, were merely the blueprints of a much larger conspiracy. Legacy introduces Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), a character who serves as living proof that the nefarious Treadstone and Blackbriar projects — which appeared to climax in The Bourne Ultimatum (AC Sep. ’07) — had grown tentacles reaching far beyond Bourne. As secretive government agencies attempted to cover up their actions in Ultimatum, they simultaneously tried to snuff out other people and secrets, including Cross and a scientist named Marta (Rachel Weisz).

Gilroy has scripted each film in the franchise, but Legacy marks his first turn in the director’s chair, following Doug Liman on The Bourne Identity and Paul Greengrass on The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum. Elswit assumed cinematography duties from Oliver Wood, who shot all three of the previous pictures.

The first three Bourne movies established a frenetic action language that has since become widely emulated, and the team behind Legacy had to determine just how much of that language to carry over. Gilroy admits, “That was something we were very conscious of, almost to the point of anxiety as our start date got closer.” He adds that he gathered his team to watch the previous Bourne films and “gut-check ourselves” just 10 days before principal photography began in late 2011. Their conclusion was that “we were broadening the perspective of this story, so we had not only a right but maybe a responsibility to expand the visual style,” Gilroy says. “The other movies showed you a corner of this world, and now we are tearing back the curtain, so we went for a wider, more encyclopedic visual vocabulary while keeping our basic palette and still having balls all the way through, particularly with the visceral action that Bourne has become known for.”

Elswit feels that the franchise’s previous filmmakers created visuals that “have become the signature style of contemporary action features.” He reserves special praise for Wood, editors Saar Klein and Chris Rouse, and directors Liman and Greengrass, whose work he strategically “quotes” in The Bourne Legacy. “Their use of documentary-style handheld cameras — as well as abundant but non-traditional coverage, accelerated editing tempos and a realistic approach to set design — has come to define that style of filmmaking,” he says.  “What I’ve always been most impressed with in the Bourne films is Oliver’s approach to lighting, ” Elswit continues. “The light always seems source-driven, but it still manages to impart a strong dramatic underpinning without ever calling attention to itself. This non-theatrical, almost completely naturalistic style is as important to the look as handheld cameras, and it’s a lot harder to do. It’s a key element that gives the Bourne movies their authenticity and makes them come alive. Creating the dramatic tension that Oliver’s naturalistic approach to lighting achieved was the most important visual element I tried to carry over into Legacy.”

The latest installment begins within the timeframe of Ultimatum’s final 20 minutes. A handful of takes shot by Wood for Ultimatum appear in two places within Legacy, and new footage was shot to reveal different angles on those sequences. To help hide the seams, Elswit opted to shoot Legacy in 4-perf Super 35mm, framing for 2.40:1 exhibition.

Two cameras rolled simultaneously throughout the production. Elswit notes, “We looked for non-traditional coverage, but probably shot a little less of it than on the previous Bourne films. Sometimes it’s almost impossible not to shoot over-the-shoulders. Also, although we were handheld throughout, we vibrated the camera somewhat less than was apparent [on Ultimatum]. The different nature of our story, and Tony’s taste, made us shy away from some of the extreme camera shake and a ‘Cuisinart approach’ to coverage.”

Elswit worked with Panaflex Millennium XL and PanArri 235 camera bodies, using Kodak Vision3 200T 5213 stock for day exteriors and bright interiors, and 500T 5219 for nights and dark interior work. He relied primarily on Primo prime lenses (14mm all the way through 150mm), along with Panavision zooms (24-275mm and 19-90mm) and Angenieux zooms (27-68mm and 15-40mm).

Baz Idoine, who served as A-camera first AC on the main unit and second-unit camera operator and cinematographer for additional photography in New York, adds that the production used “the regular gamut of Technocranes, Libra heads, cranes on insert cars, Steadicams and handheld cameras — including what we call our ‘football’ package for when we needed a smaller, lighter camera for fights and action.

“The ‘football’ is basically an Arri 235 with the eyepiece removed,” Idoine continues. “We add a small monitor and lightweight lenses. It also has handles that drop down from the top so the operator can run with it and do fast, violent pans. It’s quite handy for action.”

The nature of the action sequences also allowed the production to take extensive advantage of specialized camera-vehicle technologies, including the Go Mobile shooting-platform system and Grip Trix motorized camera dollies. “The Go Mobile system was used a lot by [second-unit director] Dan Bradley’s team when we were in the Philippines,” explains A-camera operator Andrew Rowlands. “We put a Technocrane and arm operator on it, and we also had two handheld camera operators seated inside it. In New York, we used the Grip Trix because we could sit on it handheld or with a Steadicam for chase sequences.”

One of the film’s big action setpieces occurs at Shearing’s home. Agents have been dispatched to eliminate the scientist, but they find themselves confronted by Cross. In the story, the house is supposed to be in the Virginia suburbs, but the filmmakers wanted to shoot at a historic home in upstate New York. “We found an extraordinary 19th-century Hudson Valley house where we wanted to film these 12 or 14 minutes of mayhem,” Gilroy explains. However, he adds, “the architect hired by a local historical society to preserve the house said they couldn’t allow it. That was close to our start date, and it left a hole in our world.

“That’s why you want to have all these filmmakers around you,” the director continues. “We talked it out, ran numbers and realized there was just enough space onstage at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Long Island to build most of the house interior. So [production designer] Kevin Thompson reproduced the house with a few changes to make things easier for us, and we had enough control [onstage] to make it worthwhile. It worked beautifully.”


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