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By David Heuring
Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

The Bourne Ultimatum is the third installment of a trilogy based on the spy thriller novels of Robert Ludlum. It follows in the wake of The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy. Super spy and amnesiac Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) races to uncover the mysteries of his past before his former handlers eliminate him.

Oliver Wood photographed all three Bourne films. The first was directed by Doug Liman and the second and third by Paul Greengrass. Liman has segued into producing. His credits include the television productions The O.C., Heist and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. He was also executive producer of The Bourne Ultimatum.

Greengrass began his career shooting hard-hitting documentary footage for the British series World in Action. He brought an immediate, visceral feeling to the Bourne series, mostly achieved through handheld cinematography and kinetic blocking and staging.

Wood’s credits include more than 40 narrative films in a wide range of styles, from effects-laden blockbusters (U-571, Fantastic Four) and hit comedies (Freaky Friday, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) to tender, human-scaled tales (Mr. Holland’s Opus). He also helped alter the course of television cinematography through his slick, trendsetting work on three seasons of Miami Vice during the 1980s.

To prepare for The Bourne Ultimatum, Wood and Greengrass reviewed the first two films, and took cues from French gangster films of the 1960s starring Alain Delon. Wood also cites The Ipcress File, a 1965 British production directed by Sidney J. Furie and photographed by Otto Heller, as a major inspiration.

The Bourne Ultimatum was a globetrotting project, with major shoots in Berlin, London, Madrid, Morocco, Paris and New York City. As in The Bourne Supremacy, most of the decisions about the look and technique grew out of the handheld aesthetic. The operators created a raw spontaneity by fighting the instinct to create images that were smooth and well composed in the traditional sense.

“Working on these movies is sort of an education about how to operate the camera,” says Wood. “Paul told a story about another film he’d been on where they coined a term: ‘reckavic.’ He said they’d collected all the outtakes and material they hadn’t used, and cut it together. Anything that didn’t work or wasn’t quite right, we began to refer to as a reckavic shot, as shorthand for primitive.”

Second unit director Dan Bradley told operators to do the shots as though they were lucky to have caught them on film. “The shots cannot look planned,” says Wood. “It’s as if it happened, and you just happened to be there at the right time to capture it. That feeling is the goal.”

Wood says that in many cases, the most skilled operators were the best at throwing away their instincts. “In a way, you had to destroy their training,” he says. “They had to get rid of any misconception that a shot was going to be a great shot. We might see a conventionally great shot, but in this case, we learned to hate that. We wanted something else. If I had to go off now and do a straight movie, I’d have to be very careful not to continue with this counterintuitive thinking.”

Asked about the effect of changing technology on their approach, Wood mentions The Battle of Algiers, shot by Marcello Gatti in a semi-documentary style in war-torn Algeria in the mid-1960s. “That movie was shot in a very similar way,” says Wood. “The technology is not really all that different, although the cameras are a little lighter today.”

Wood says that Greengrass’ directing style is geared to creating spontaneity. “He almost throws the script away and starts


again, in an attempt to let things go. It’s important that nothing feels staged.”

Wood chose to work with ARRI cameras in Super 35 format, which results in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. At least two cameras rolled on almost every shot, and often three or four. In New York, for example, the package included three ARRICAM Lites and two ARRI 235s. The compact 235 cameras are roughly half the weight of an ARRI 435. Wood says the decision to shoot with ARRI cameras was based in part on the production’s Europe-based schedule.

“Generally in Europe I choose ARRI because the technicians have been trained on Arriflex cameras,” he says. “It’s second nature to them. I usually go with Panavision when I’m shooting a film in North America.”

Wood also chose Arriflex cameras in part because their lightweight worked with the handheld approach. The crews customized them further to get rid of surplus weight and to enhance ergonomics.

“The operators and assistants—particularly Bebe Dierken, the AC with the first unit in London—worked for weeks on these cameras, breaking them down, making them work differently, and adapting zoom handles. In fact, we developed a whole package for them, which we called the gizmo package. Of course all crews do this to some extent, but in this particular case it was extreme.”

In keeping with the handheld, caught-on-the-fly look, the cameras were almost always mounted with lightweight zoom lenses, and in some cases, zooms were incorporated into shots.

“Tripods were almost never used,” says Wood. “On rare occasions, we’d use a dolly with a very long lens. The zooms gave us a newsreel feeling, as if you’re there, see something and zoom in. On the second Bourne movie, there wasn’t as much available. So on this one, I went out and got every kind of lightweight zoom I could find. I even had a couple made. I found two Nikon digital lenses and sent them to ARRI in Munich, where they were transformed into lenses that would work with the ARRI film cameras. One was a 28-70mm and the other was an 80-200mm, both T2.8 because they had to be fast.

“I’d say that 80 percent of the first unit photography ended up being shot on those two lenses,” Wood says. “The 80-200 worked all the time, but we had some problems with the shorter one. ARRI subsequently decided to develop these lenses, and they are in the process now of making ten of each.”

The filmmakers also made use of a 15-45mm ARRI-Zeiss zoom lens, an Optimo-Angenieux 28-70mm zoom lens, and an older Century Precision 28-70mm zoom lens. “Today, the zoom lenses we use are brilliant,” he says.

Wood used two stocks: KODAK VISION2 500T 5218 and KODAK VISION2 250D 5205. “I basically always use those two stocks,” he says. “They work for me. I’m not one to mess with stocks very much, ever since I did my first DI. I just use the best stock available, and if I want a special look, I’ll change it in the DI.”

Like the operating, Wood’s approach to lighting was against the book. “It became sort of anti-lighting,” he says. “As soon as it looked beautiful, I would probably get a disparaging remark from the director saying, ‘Oh, very BBC drama.’ Sometimes you’d do something that was absolutely beautiful and everyone would love it and that would be all right, but you never quite knew where you were going to go with things. If I started to light things traditionally, the set started to get that feeling of being lit, which is of course not the right feeling.

“So I began a policy of lighting and then turning off one or two of the lights,” he says. “And in some cases that might be all the lights I’d put in. Sometimes it was more a question of getting the courage up not to light.”

Wood says that he went on a dozen or more tech scouts with New York gaffer Rusty Engels, and planned the lighting for huge night exteriors.

“None of that ever materialized,” he says. “Rusty is a brilliant gaffer with a tremendous track record. He basically ended up lighting this movie with two Mini-Flos and a 4Bank Kino Flo. I had this talent on my crew, but in a funny way, I needed very talented people who were able to work that way.”

Nevertheless, some sequences required massive lighting schemes. For one chase sequence photographed over four nights in Berlin, which was standing in for Moscow, “We must have used every 18K HMI in Germany, which is a lot,” recalls Wood. “We lit at least 20 square blocks around a station and a huge housing complex. We laid snow everywhere and there were lights on every rooftop and down every street. It was probably the biggest lighting setup on the whole shoot.”

Wood scouted the Berlin locations over a weekend. The gaffer on the German leg of the shoot was Ronnie Schwarz. They then collaborated remotely on refining the lighting plan using Google Earth, a virtual globe program that maps the earth using superimposed satellite imagery and aerial photography.

“We could zoom in on three-dimensional images of Berlin, and plant little flags everywhere while discussing it over the telephone,” says Wood. “Over the course of three weeks, we were lighting over the Internet.”

The biggest lighting setup on the New York City leg of the shoot involved a hospital sequence at magic hour. The location was actually a courthouse in downtown Manhattan. The sequence ends on the roof as night has fallen.


“There were an awful lot of scenes, and we needed to make them all late evening,” says Wood. “There was too much to accomplish at actual magic hour, so we lit the inside of the lobby with about a dozen balloon lights. That way, whatever the level was outside, I could balance it inside. We lit all the streetlights and the cars had lights on, and in the end it was quite effective.”

But for the most part, Wood says, his lighting setups were “sketchy.” Production designer Peter Wenham’s work was similarly restrained. “The director generally wanted to shoot in public places,” says Wood. “That makes it difficult to do any major art direction. These movies are about what’s there. The art direction was similar to the cinematography in that regard.”

Like The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum includes some distinctive and shocking car crash scenes filmed inside of the vehicles. Some of these shots were done on greenscreen stages, with Damon in the car. The vehicles are rigged to a rope and swung in a semicircle. The jarring impact is created when the car hits a row of tires and bounces off. Wood mounted some cameras on sliders so that their movement would enhance the realism of the shots.

Digital intermediate timing is planned at Technique in Los Angeles. Wood will collaborate with digital film colorist Stephen Nakamura, with whom he worked on Fantastic Four in 2005.

“I generally use the DI to tighten up the look, and to make scenes consistent,” he says. “We approached this film with the ‘reckavic’ aesthetic, but scenes still need to look like they were shot at the same time, even if they were done two weeks apart. On other films, I’ve used the DI to correct the look, and I’ll probably do something with the flashbacks. But I won’t know what it will be until I’ve done it. But generally, I won’t be creating the look of this film in DI.”