The most infamous and galvanizing hate crime of the Civil Rights era is brought back to life in a stirring new Hallmark Channel television feature

(L to R) Harrison Knight, David Alan Grier, Anika Noni Rose, Skai Jackson, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and Bryce Clyde Jenkins / Photo by Annette Brown / Copyright 2013 Crown Media, Inc.

James Chressanthis, ASC has added another chapter to his eclectic career with the production of The Watsons Go To Birmingham. The project, airing September 20th on Hallmark Channel, integrates an intimate family story with a horrific real world hate crime that occurred during the summer of 1963 when the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb in the 16th Avenue Baptist Church that served the African-American community in Birmingham, Alabama.

That infamous explosion killed four girls. [President Obama recently dedicated Congressional Gold Medals to the memories of the murdered children.] Two-dozen years later, the hate crime was examined in a documentary entitled 4 Little Girls, produced and directed by Spike Lee and shot by Ellen Kuras, ASC. Lee’s wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, was executive producer and wrote the screenplay for The Watsons Go To Birmingham. Her script is based on an award-winning novel written by Christopher Paul Curtis. Lee and executive producer Nikki Silver organized Tonik Productions, which produced the film at practical locations in Georgia, taking advantage of that state’s attractive tax incentives.

James Chressanthis, ASC, recreating a winter scene on the Georgia-area location of The Watsons Go To Birmingham / Courtesy of James Chressanthis

Chressanthis is no stranger to dramatic television, having shot episodic series and 25 cinema and television movies, including Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows and 4 Minutes.  He earned Emmy nominations for both films, and an Emmy nomination for a documentary he wrote/directed/produced (shot by Antka Malatynska) called No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos, about Laszlo Kovacs, ASC and Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC.

“Director Kenny Leon and I discussed collaborating on the television movie version of the Broadway play A Raisin In The Sun in 2008, but my schedule on The Ghost Whisperer didn’t permit it,” Chressanthis recalls about his involvement with the new Hallmark Channel film. “When Kenny called this time, I jumped at the opportunity.”

The Watsons Go To Birmingham centers on an African-American family from Flint, Michigan. Daniel and Wilona Watson are the mother and father. Their children are 15-year old Byron, 11-year old Kenny and eight-year old Joetta. The story begins during an icy Michigan winter, and Byron caught up in behavioral problems. His parents decide that the time is right to take the family on an automobile journey across the country to visit Wilona’s mother, Grandma Sands, in Birmingham, Alabama. The cast includes Wood Harris (Daniel), Anika Noni Rose (Wilona), Harrison Knight (Bryon), Bryce Clyde Jenkins (Kenny), Skai Jackson (Joetta) and LaTanya Richardson (Grandma Sands).

(F to B) Skai Jackson, David Alan Grier, Bryce Clyde Jenkins, and Harrison Knight / Photo courtesy of Quantrell D. Colbert / Copyright 2013 Crown Media, Inc.

“It took more than nine years from the time Tonya conceived the idea until the film was produced,” Chressanthis relates. “Her passion for this topic is weaved into the fabric of the story. During our earliest meetings, Kenny and I discussed how we were going to take the audience inside a very intimate story that happened 50 years ago, and with three children playing key roles.”

The DP says his connection to the script was personal, having witnessed segregation in Missouri, and other nearby southern states, in his childhood. “I saw the brutal inequities that black people suffered,” he states. “There were tragic incidents that were unfortunately normal, daily experiences. I felt that I could contribute to this film by drawing on my memories of those incidents.”

During pre-production, Chressanthis researched and found period-specific photographs taken by Leonard Freed, Danny Lyons, Bruce Davidson, Morton Bronfman and others. He also studied several documentaries, including 4 Little Girls and Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment. The latter is a Robert Drew film (shot by Gregory Shuker) about a famous 1963 conflict between President John F. Kennedy and then-Alabama Governor George Wallace over two African-American girls enrolling in an all-white school.

Georgia-area location of The Watsons Go To Birmingham / Courtesy of James Chressanthis, ASC

Chressanthis showed 4 Little Girls to executive producer Nikki Silver and Leon. He explained that he intended to use different digital cameras and Super 8 film to create textures and tones that visually augment settings and emotions. “There is a direct correlation between cinematography and sculpting,” he says. “Cinematographers create multi-dimensional moving images in space and time, and we model with light and movement to tell stories the same way a sculptor works with clay.”

In fact, the cinematographer sculpted and taught art at the university level for seven years after earning a master of fine arts degree at Southern Illinois University. His career turned in a different direction after he made a personal diary film about his ancestral village in Greece, which he later sold to PBS. That experience inspired Chressanthis to enroll at the American Film Institute where he focused on cinematography. He earned his first narrative cinematography credit in 1991.

On location in Georgia with Chressanthis was his regular Steadicam/A-camera operator Marcis Cole and 1st AC Emil Hampton. The remainder of the camera team crew were local hires, including B-camera operator Robert Arnold, 1st AC/B-camera Yuri Karjane, digital loader Oren Malik, key grip “Bubba” Sheffeld and gaffer George Chapelle.

“The crew was fantastic,” Chressanthis effuses. “We had a demanding schedule, shooting entirely at practical locations with children in many scenes. Production designer David Chapman and costume designer Johnetta Boone helped us transport audiences 50 years back in time. It was like walking into a time machine. David built a section of the church that was blown up for the chillingly chaotic aftermath scene.”

Diner scene: (L to R) Wood Harris, David Alan Grier, Harrison Knight, and Bryce Clyde Jenkins / Photo courtesy of Quantrell D. Colbert / Copyright 2013 Crown Media, Inc.

The Grandma Sands family homestead scenes were produced in a residential neighborhood in Stone Mountain, Georgia. In Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963, he mentioned Stone Mountain as one of the infamous centers of racism. It was a KKK stronghold that was notorious for cross burnings and lynchings.

Chressanthis shot most scenes with two ARRI ProRes 444 digital cameras with images composed in 1:78:1 aspect ratio. Two handheld Canon C300’s were used for point of view action scenes, including shots taken in a moving car during the road trip, a near drowning underwater sequence, intimate dialogue scenes produced in small rooms and for point-of-view shots in the aftermath of the tragic bombing. The DP also used a Canon FX100 HD camera to record scenes that would emulate the look of color and black and white television news film from the period. He purchased a Rhondacam DeLuxe Super 8 film camera from Pro 8MM, in Burbank, California, which supplied Kodak Vision 3 250D and 500T negative in Super 8 format. The Super 8 footage was mainly used to record “Kenny Watson’s well of memories” that are integrated into the story.  Pro8MM processed the negative and converted it to digital video format.

“We tended to use two cameras, sometimes in unusual ways,” Chressanthis adds. “There is a scene at Watson’s house. Someone is in the bedroom and there are children on the porch. I put one camera in the bedroom and panned from the character to the window, so the audience sees outside. We had a camera on the porch looking over the character’s shoulder through the window into the bedroom. Each camera was just outside of the other camera’s frame line. The lighting looks natural, with a hint of subtle drama.”

Pauletta Washington as schoolteacher Mrs. Glenn / Photo by Annette Brown / Copyright 2013 Crown Media, Inc.

Some dialogue scenes were shot on Super 8 with synchronized sound. “I love how the layers and textures of the film seem timeless,” Chressanthis continues. “It was helpful having [gaffer] George’s [Chapelle] eye. We consciously created sources of light that look and felt real to the time. Interior day scenes were motivated by light coming from windows and open doors.”

There were also large scenes set in a church and movie theater. The latter begins with Grandma Sands’ boyfriend, Mr. Roberts, taking Byron, Kenny and Joetta to see To Kill a Mockingbird at a local moviehouse.  After he buys the tickets, the teenage boy attempts to go in the front door of the theater but Mr. Roberts pulls Byron away. They walk around the side of the building, down an alley until they come to a doorway that says “Colored Entrance by Order of the Police Department.”

“They have to sit in the upper balcony,” Chressanthis explains. “In a voice-over, Kenny observes: ‘These white people aren’t very smart treating us this way. Why would they put us over their heads in the theater?’” And when the movie ends, Mr. Roberts throws popcorn on the crowd below.

“That scene called for very difficult lighting,” the DP shares. “We had cues at the beginning and end of the movie when the lights in the cinema came on.  Lighting was also motivated by the images projected on the screen.”

Georgia-area location / Courtesy of James Chressanthis, ASC

Postproduction was done at Light Iron in Los Angeles, which Chressanthis describes as a future-forward experience. “We used Light Iron Lily Pad and Outpost workstations on location to create digital dailies that we viewed with an iPad the same day we shot the scenes,” he explains. “It wasn’t unusual for us to watch dailies of scenes we shot in the morning during lunch!”

Light Iron digital colorist Corinne Bogdanowicz brought seven years of experience as a DI timer to the project. It was the first time she had worked with Chressanthis, and the partnership went well. “We did some testing of Ektachrome looks to create a period feeling for flashback sequences,” Bogdanowicz recounts. “We gave the Super 8 film an Ektachrome look, and in some cases replicated that look using digital images recorded with the Canon camera. When you cut to a grainy Super 8 film look emulating news film from the 1960s, it takes the audience back in time. Jim’s work was impeccable. It was a pleasure collaborating with him on this meaningful film.”

Of their collaboration Chressanthis adds: “We created newsreels of church meetings and student freedom marches that were intercut with archival newsreel footage. Corinne did a wonderful job adding grain and a kinescope flicker to the look. I used this technique when I shot the television movies Life With Judy Garland and Four Minutes. I was also deeply influenced by the cinematography in The Incredible Lightness of Being by Sven Nykvist and JFK by Robert Richardson.

Wood Harris as patriarch Daniel Watson / Photo by Annette Brown / Copyright 2013 Crown Media, Inc.

“Our editor, Margaret Goodspeed was very brave in using this material,” he continues. “She used a combination of Ektachrome color film and black and white newsreels in flashbacks, where kids are talking about the May 3, 1963 civil rights demonstrations, and it’s really vivid.”

In fact, the notorious hate crime highlighted in The Watsons Go To Birmingham was a tipping point in a sweeping, non-violent based civil rights movement that began with 250,000 marching on Washington, D.C. and led by Rev. Martin Luther King in October 1963. “There is a scene in the movie where Reverend Bevel is giving a non-violent protest sermon to children,” Chressanthis concludes. “He asks them to come forward and give up their combs, brushes, penknives and anything else that could be construed as a weapon. He said their mission was to be arrested and non-violently bring the plight of African-Americans to the world stage. You feel as if you were there witnessing history.”

By Bob Fisher