David Boyd, ASC and WWE star John Cena stay light on their feet for a wild rumpus through the streets of the Big Easy

In synopsis, the Fox Atomic feature 12 Rounds sounds conventional enough. Detective Danny Baxter captures a criminal mastermind, whose girlfriend is inadvertently killed in the process. A year later, the vengeful villain escapes prison and takes Danny’s fiancée captive, threatening to kill her unless the cop makes his way successfully through a series of one dozen grueling ordeals – the titular ‘rounds’ – across New Orleans in a single day.  But given that the shoot was budgeted at just twenty million dollars [below the line], the project turned out to be far more unconventional than the average high-octane action flick. Branching out from their cable TV arena, World Wrestling Entertainment Studios [formerly WWE Films] created 12 Rounds as a starring vehicle for one of their biggest stars, John Cena. The package was made even more interesting with the presence of Renny Harlin, the Finnish-born director who dominated Hollywood shoot-‘em-ups in the 1990s with hits like Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, only to fall off the filmmaking map in the last decade with works like Cleaners, The Covenant, and Exorcist: The Beginning.

Harlin says he sold Fox on the project by pitching it as a “feature-length episode of Cops, only with much better production values.” He told them his approach would differ from studio action flicks [like Harlin’s own past efforts] – weighed down by a ponderous machine of massive grip and lighting trucks, and endless lines of trailers. “We got away from all that,” the filmmaker insists, “putting our equipment in little vans so we could move and shoot very quickly. My crew would be chasing the story, catching things as best we could documentary-style. I didn’t ever want to have to tell John, ‘That was not good, you went out of your key light.’ I realized I needed a DP who would be at home with this radical approach to shooting, framing and lighting, and I found David Boyd’s (ASC) take on lighting, along with his hand-held and zoom lens work for Friday Night Lights exceptional. He struck me as exactly the right choice.”

A Feel For The Game

Boyd, whose career includes critically acclaimed television series like Deadwood and Without a Trace, worked his way up from the operator’s chair, and brought an instinctive feel to Harlin’s run-and-gun approach. “I photographed the first season of Deadwood, which was fairly loose with blocking and heavy on handheld,” Body explains. “On Friday Night Lights I both shot and directed, working with three Super-16 cameras. [For that pilot] director Pete Berg and I decided to shoot scenes unrehearsed; sometimes we’d pull out of an unfinished scene, run up the street and shoot an entirely different scene, then come right back and complete the first scene with no down time. Camera operators handled a lot of their own focus, and focus pullers relied on their experience and onboard monitors. Once you demonstrate to a crew that no one’s going to get fired for any ‘mistakes,’ that risk-taking is encouraged, the project lifts off the ground.”

The DP has been equally fearless in his approach to lighting. For Joss Whedon’s space series, Firefly, Boyd employed two lightweight 35mm cameras and avoided lighting from outside [the spaceship], unless there was a window and a sun nearby for motivation. “I came out of documentaries, where you can’t control anything,” Boyd elaborates. “When Mick Jagger comes in, he might go left, or he might go right, but you’re not going to be telling him where to go.  So my first experiences in lighting came out of the need to create an arena within which the action can be captured appropriately. Some of the best photography comes out of these situations, like the beautiful [D. A.] Pennebaker documentaries; they make the choice only to capture truth as it happens, and not to influence it.  They created a language for the viewer that we sought to draw on in photographing 12 Rounds. An audience feels like what they are watching is happening for the first and only time.”

While Harlin opted to shoot guerilla-style, production had only budgeted for one to two cameras. Boyd, however, knew that a third camera would allow the most unique compositions to happen, so he went to the producers seeking approval for a no-cost test to prove his point. “I did this on my own, getting some film from Eastman, stealing a location and covering a bit of action from three angles, then repeating the process a couple more times, changing lenses and camera position for each new take,” he explains. “For a big scene, shooting nine takes with three cameras gets you 27 angles, and in all those angles, the editor finds all the moments the director needs.”

After Boyd timed the test and filmed-out at Post Logic Studios, FotoKem issued a final print, which was evaluated by the producers, who elected to follow the cinematographer’s three-camera plan. “We would shoot with no rehearsals and no marks, moving the cameras around after each take. So with three takes – four or five at the most – every dramatic moment was covered. There wasn’t any downside; performances were fresh, with actors not having to worry about repeating their moves precisely and knowing that every important moment is being captured.”

That isn’t to say that Harlin and Boyd worked without a safety net. “Renny and I storyboarded and shot-listed every scene,” the cinematographer notes. “We published that list and had it attached to each day’s call-sheet.” For the film’s “docu-action” look, Boyd referenced gritty ‘70s-era thrillers like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Three Days of the Condor [shot by Owen Roizman, ASC], and Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry [shot by Bruce Surtees]. They moved freely from one style to another, so each ‘round’ would have its own unique feel and approach. One sequence might recall The Warriors [Andrew Laszlo, ASC], while another would draw from a contemporary inspiration. Shooting Super 35 for a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, all three principal cameras [lightweight Millennium XLs] were rented from Panavision’s New Orleans branch. “We went light so we could handhold,” Boyd adds. “If we ever used the 11:1 zoom, we opted for a fluid head under it over a geared head. It always had to look somewhat unsettled, a ‘found’ frame that produces tension and suspense, at the expense of a composition that we legislated.”

Crescent City Flavor

Amazingly enough, 12 Rounds was not written to take place in Louisiana. Rather it was director Harlin who thought New Orleans would lend a textured backdrop; after scouting out the city the creative team opted to feature classic Crescent City landmarks like the streetcar system. Some dilapidated architecture and areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina gave the film a sense of character no other city could possibly reproduce.

Character is also what Boyd went looking for when he set about casting his camera operators – most of them drawn from the Louisiana talent pool – much the way a filmmaker hires actors who are all on the same page dramatically. “I skipped over guys who were kind of set in their ways, in favor of those who would be totally up for this,” the DP recounts. “You have to accept going in that in terms of focus pulling this kind of show, take one is somewhat crash and burn, especially if it is long lens stuff. But maybe two of your three cameras will get it right on take two.  And there’s great stuff on all of them by take three. On a different kind of show, people get fired for out of focus work. But there was no fear associated with occasionally missing shots, so everyone felt inspired and had a sense of contributing, and energy on set stayed way up.”

There wasn’t even a conventional camera hierarchy, with Boyd never designating A, B, or C-cameras. “We had a red, a green and a blue camera, but there was never a sense of one having more importance over the others,” he adds. “I’d assign shots based on the personalities and talents of the operators – which group is better on close-ups, which can run – and the sound guys got the cast all wired up so we could shoot wide and close at the same time. Mike O’Shea is a wonderfully versatile operator, doing Steadicam as well, and Francis James and Jerry Jacob turned in fantastic work.”

Production designer Nicholas Lundy had unearthed a variety of fresh locations that had the appropriate ‘found’ feel, while allowing Boyd latitude to shoot in all directions. The latter was especially beneficial given the cinematographer’s unorthodox plan for dealing with changes in the weather. “Why shouldn’t we take advantage of real rain?” Boyd remembers, adding, “That way we didn’t have to spend money faking it.” He anticipated scenes that might look better when wet, and the company would just switch over to those if the sky opened up. “It was hard on the A.D.s,” Boyd admits. “But it permitted us to let the elements work with us. Nobody had time to go sit in a chair or go to a trailer, because we were always on to the next setup.”

As with many contemporary action pictures, 12 Rounds features a small army of transportation devices employed and later destroyed. These range from a bus to streetcars to freight elevators, helicopters and fire engines. The latter, which John Cena drives through or over nineteen automobiles, was acquired via eBay auction. A larger number of cameras were used, many of which could be cranked above the 50fps rate at which the Panavision cameras maxed out. “We damaged a few Arri3s and several Eyemos,” Boyd remembers. “Sometimes Renny wanted the camera closer to the action, and they’d get run over. But all of those units were repaired locally and returned to us quickly.”

The three principal Panavision cameras were used to shoot the WWE star in the fire truck’s driver seat, both from within the vehicle and on its exterior. “We deployed two of our manned cameras inside the vehicle,” explains Boyd. “One could be between the front seats, aimed at John’s profile, another might be behind him, shooting forward through the windshield. The third camera was outside looking in. We put another steering wheel in on the right side so John didn’t actually drive the thing; it all went fast because we were handheld and not spending time switching out rigs.” In fact, their highly efficient machine averaged 86 setups per day, and wrapped nearly a full week early.

That’s Entertainment

Boyd made an effort to subconsciously reinforce the public’s perception of Cena as a WWE champ. “John was a pro, totally up for this crazy schedule, so I tried to include references to the wrestling world. One sequence takes place on the roof of a hospital at night, and we made the helipad there look something like a wrestling ring.” The lighting package for the faux smackdown included tungsten [1200-watt Firestarter bulbs in Par cans and Maxi-Brutes] and daylight [18K, 12K, 4K and 1200 Par HMI] units, with electrical equipment provided by Panavision Dallas and New Orleans-based Available Lighting, Inc. The DP used Kodak Vision 2 500T 5218 throughout. “The higher speed got us a better stop, which helped when pulling focus,” he states. “Plus I like [having] one single grain structure for whole shows, even the green-screen. They tried to talk me down from that, but I’ve been around long enough to know that while you need to listen to everything people tell you, in the end you have to make your own choices.”

He describes one sequence where production considered spending upward of $200,000 to construct a freight elevator, which Boyd instead found inside a local hotel with a functioning lift. Two-dozen CGI elevator shaft set extensions [provided by Pixel Magic] made the four-story lift appear to be more than twenty stories up. The documentary style shooting complicated tracking of live-action, but also added a level of credibility not always found in big effect cuts. “The elevator scene had a lot of digital embellishments,” Harlin admits, “but we kept it realistic-looking so nobody would notice.”

More digital sleight-of-hand was used for the film’s climax. Pixel Magic’s Raymond McIntyre, Jr. helped design helicopter shots for the green-screen stage. One he developed shows Baxter launching himself out into space over a vertiginous drop from the hospital roof to catch hold of the helicopter’s landing skid. “We had the helicopter hover over the hospital,” McIntyre reveals. “The stunt man jumped [onto the skid] with the safety of the roof and crash pad a few feet below him. In post, we had that portion of the roof removed, [then] composited the side of the building so it appeared he jumped out over a 12-story drop.” McIntyre completed the vista with a city background plate, and facilitated the rest of the scene, which climaxes with the detective plunging safely into a pool before the helicopter explodes.

12 Rounds marks Renny Harlin’s fourth feature with the DI process. “I love it. It is a very essential part of cinematography now – to push highlights and create shadows in post – so you have license to not light everything perfectly.” Cinematographer Boyd worked with colorist Doug Delaney at Post Logic for two weeks. “When I color-timed it, I kept looking for a good spot to take a break and refresh our eyeballs,” the busy DP recalls. “But there was just no dead time, no breathing space. The film plays much like the way we made it, a juggernaut that just can’t be stopped.”

By Kevin H. Martin / photos by Patti Perret