Ballhaus’ Arriflex camera package consisted of 535As, 535Bs and 435s, and he photographed most of the show with Zeiss Variable Primes. "I love the VariPrimes because their quality is excellent, and if you want to go a little wider or a little closer it’s just a move of the finger," he says. "I like to move forward or back a little and use little zooms." He also used a set of Zeiss Ultra Primes, an Angenieux 5:1 zoom and a Cooke 10:1 zoom. "We didn’t want an extreme or modern look because that wouldn’t have suited the period, so I mainly used lenses ranging from 18mm and 135mm," he notes.

As many as eight cameras were used on battle scenes, and second-unit director Vic Armstrong and second-unit cinematographer Florian Ballhaus (Michael’s son) were responsible for many of those sequences. "There’s a lot more coverage in this film than Marty and I normally do," the senior Ballhaus acknowledges. "But on a movie of this size you have to cover yourself and think ahead. This was actually the best experience I’ve ever had with a second unit – they shot a lot of material, and it matched our material perfectly."

Cranes were used to accomplish a number of dramatic camera moves, and one particularly remarkable move was accomplished with a length of cable, two construction cranes and a Range Rover. The shot caps the bloody showdown in which Bill the Butcher murders the senior Vallon, and it begins with a close-up of Vallon’s face after his body is loaded onto a wagon. Scorsese wanted the camera to gradually pull back to reveal all of Paradise Square, then all of Five Points, and finally all of Manhattan and the wilderness beyond. "We knew that 90 percent of the landscape would be CG, but we had to initiate the move and bring the camera up to a certain height to show our set," says Daily, who was charged with building a rig to facilitate the shot.

A 75' Akela crane located in France was ruled out because the production’s shifting schedule made it too difficult to lock down the crane’s availability. "In retrospect, the Akela probably wouldn’t have been the right piece of equipment, because 75 feet isn’t much of a reach when your set is acres in size," Daily notes. His next idea was to table-mount the camera and use a construction crane to pull it back. "Italy has a lot of really good cranes and we used them often, but Michael wasn’t comfortable with that plan because he was concerned about the rig’s vulnerability to winds," Daily says. "So I finally decided to make a cable slide and basically slide the camera up to a fixed point."

Daily chalked out the stage floor and made small foamcore cutouts of the Five Points set to show Ballhaus and Scorsese what he had in mind. They approved his idea, and when the production broke for Christmas, Daily returned to Los Angeles, put together the necessary hardware and shipped it to Italy. "When we got back to Cinecittà in January, we built the rig and tested it with a video camera," he recalls. "The Paradise Square set was about 800 feet wide. We put a construction crane on one side of the square and attached the cable to it, about 40 feet off the ground. At the other end of the square, at the high end of the move, we had a 170-foot crane. It was a fairly slack cable, and the idea was that the weight of the camera [which was on a Libra head and mounted on a speedrail sled] would pull the cable taut enough to pull it up and out of the shot. A Range Rover was our power source – Italian key grip Tommaso Mele cued the driver with a radio, and he simply drove down the road to his mark.

"When the time came to film the scene, it only took us two hours to put the rig in place," he continues. "It ended up being about a 700-foot move, and the camera ended up 150 feet in the air. When the camera finally landed you could see all of the set and even beyond, to the stages and off the studio grounds. It worked spectacularly, and it’ll drive me crazy if everyone says, ‘That’s a great CG shot!’"

The film’s climactic action sequence encompasses the Draft Riots, which began as a citywide protest of the Civil War draft order and quickly degenerated into mob violence that devastated the city. The aftermath of the riots called for a technically intricate camera move that required a makeshift bluescreen projection deep in a hole. "It began as a wide shot overlooking what would ultimately be a CG cityscape," Daily explains. "The camera starts about 100 feet in the air, pans across the flaming horizon and then tilts down the face of the Old Brewery, a five-story building that’s now crumbling and on fire. The camera had to tilt down the face of the building and then look straight down at people dumping bodies into a giant hole, which was supposed to have been created by a cannonball that had broken through into the catacombs below the city. The camera was to do a very slow move down toward the hole, and then it would become a CG shot as the camera enters the catacombs.

"We used a construction crane for our move – we cable-slung the Libra head and camera so it was looking straight down," he continues. "It was a night shot because Michael likes to shoot right at the edge of complete darkness, with just a little blue in the sky. We had our giant softbox hanging off to one side, and then Jim Tynes and I had to come up with a way to create a bluescreen projection at the bottom of the hole."

In accordance with visual-effects supervisor Michael Owens’ specifications, Tynes and Daily built an 8'x8' softbox with a milk Plexiglas cover, and they filled the box with Super Blue fluorescent tubes gelled with a combination of full CTB and heavy blue gels. The lightbox was placed at the bottom of the hole, and the art department dressed the edge of it with dirt and debris to suggest the shape of the hole. The bluescreen element was later keyed out and replaced with CG catacombs.

Several months after the production wrapped, the filmmakers decided that they needed to reshoot portions of the climactic battle scene in order to clarify some action. Ironically, these two days of reshoots were the only bit of principal photography that actually took place in New York – on a soundstage at Silvercup Studios in Astoria. "It was the kind of situation that’s an absolute nightmare for every director of photography," Ballhaus remarks. "The scene in question had been filmed more than a year earlier, and it was shot in bright daylight on the Paradise Square set. We had to recreate it on a soundstage with just a few background elements, and we had to do 25 shots in two days.

"We had filmed a different battle scene, one that was filled with smoke from grenades, onstage at Cinecittà, and we tried to take the same approach at Silver Cup," he continues. "We hung a lot of space lights overhead to create the feeling of soft daylight, and then we filled in and had a little key from one side to suggest the angle of the sun. Fortunately, the shots were close, so we used long lenses and just fogged the set in heavily so you couldn’t see much of the background. It was quite difficult, but it worked."

Ballhaus notes that the variety of challenges posed by such a unique project helped make Gangs of New York "a big celebration of moviemaking." He adds, "Everyone involved really wanted to make this movie, and that made all the difference. In a way, it was like a dream come true. Nowadays you rarely have the opportunity to work with a wonderful director, an excellent script, the perfect cast and a production designer who tailors everything to your needs. The combination of all those things creates an unbelievable situation for a cinematographer, and I don’t know if I’ll ever have that again. Everything was right."


Super 35mm 2.35:1

Arriflex cameras

Zeiss, Angenieux and Cooke lenses

Eastman EXR 50D 5245, Kodak Vision 320T 5277, Vision 500T 5279

Printed on Kodak Vision Premier 2393

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.