Don Burgess, ASC and the brothers Hughes whip up a storm in the high New Mexico desert for The Book of Eli.

By Margot Carmichael Lester

Filmmaking twins Albert and Allen Hughes don’t make a lot of movies – four in sixteen years by last count. But when they do critics and audiences take notice. Their last film, released in 2001, was the bloody-good Jack the Ripper yarn, From Hell, while their first picture, the gritty urban indie, Menace II Society, was released in 1993. Their newest effort, The Book of Eli, may be the most daring and disturbing in a resume packed with radical choices and characters. Set in post-apocalyptic America, it focuses on Eli (Denzel Washington), a survivor who holds the keys to saving humankind through a book he has in his possession. Eli is trying to outrun a local warlord, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who wants possession of the sacred tome. It’s an edgy take on the classic themes of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it and good-versus-evil, and as Albert Hughes points out, it was the first thing that came along in a while that caught the twins’ singular sensibilities. Hughes says he was inspired to take on The Book of Eli after immersing himself in the Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero album. “I listened to the songs and then I had an eight-hour dream about the movie,” he recounts. “I filled pages getting the visuals from my head down on paper. I damn near went crazy with it because I got no sleep.”

A Meeting of the Minds

Of the two brothers, Albert works closely with the cinematographer (Albert shot the twins’ feature documentary, American Pimp), and so approached Don Burgess, ASC, for The Book of Eli. Burgess, who handled DP chores on such studio hits as Forrest Gump, Spider-Man and The Polar Express (co-photographed with Robert Presley), liked the script right off the bat. But he said he did have one hesitation.

“The thought of working with two directors can be kind of an, ‘Oh, my God. What a nightmare’ situation,” the Oscar-nominated DP laughs. “I’ve experienced something like it on commercials, where there are directors, creative directors and clients. But in movies? That’s a whole different thing. Honestly, I can’t imagine making a movie with my brother, but they have their way of doing it. And because they’ve done it so long, they’re good at dividing up the responsibilities.”

Satisfied the division of labor would keep sibling conflicts to a minimum, Burgess signed on. “I could see something for a cinematographer to actually do,” he says. “From the first meeting, I was able to come up with a lot of story-telling from a visual standpoint. Albert and I had a meeting of minds over the picture.”

In addition to the Nine Inch Nails, iconic director Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns also influenced the Hughes brothers’ vision. “That’s the obvious one,” Albert allows. “But I’ve always liked [Leone’s] style and that great Western framing. It’s always about the build-up.” Eli’s color palette and feel were also influenced by French movies from the 1970s, with Albert adding that he likes that period’s “highlights and the grainy look.”

For his part, Burgess says he honed his vision for the film by rummaging around an art bookstore. “I came up with some religious imagery by Gustave Doré, and some raw black-and-white stills from the book, Nagasaki Journey (The Photographs of Yosuke Yamahata), from the day after the bomb hit Hiroshima. Somehow, I put that together.”

Between the stark visuals and the desperately nervy story line, Albert  knew he wanted to experiment with cameras and gear; that’s where the RED ONE™ camera made its entrance.

Seeing RED

Form the outset, the RED was slated for just one scene: a shoot-out at a remote cabin. “I’d envisioned the scene as a single shot combining hand-held, Steadicam, bungee cams and other weird rigs,” Albert recalls. “I was thinking, what if we gave the camera to a small boy who was a major action fan? What would he do and where would he go with no sense of death or danger? Would he run there? Would he go here? It was all about capturing that enthusiasm and energy.” The RED’s small size made it worth exploring, as did the camera’s stark color palette.

Burgess did extensive tests with the RED on location in the New Mexico desert, where most of the exteriors would be shot. [The Book of Eli was shot in the small rural town of Carrizozo and on stages in Albuquerque]. Burgess had mounts made for the camera so he could use Panavision Primo lenses. Then he tested it side-by-side with an Arriflex 435 from Otto Nemenz International. “Because of its desaturated nature, the RED was able to provide the look within its limitations,” Burgess explains. “We didn’t need the full dynamic range of color negatives. And there really was no difference for me than shooting film. It worked out very well.”

So well, in fact, that Albert and Burgess decided to use the RED for the entire movie. And Burgess wasn’t overly concerned, given that 1st AC Don Steinberg and A-camera operator Peter McCaffrey had used the rig before. “They were my safety net,” the DP smiles.

Jeroen Hendriks, who served as the film’s RED camera technician, calls it “the simplest camera ever; basically just a pimped-up still cam that shoots 24 frames a second in RAW, like a Canon 5D,” he explains. Hendriks says the main thing to be concerned about is exposure. “The RED’s open format means anyone along the production line can manipulate the look,” he continues, “so as a DP, you want to make sure it looks like what you want it to look like before you send it out. If you put a look on it, there is no need for other people to tinker with it.”

And that’s exactly what Burgess and Albert did. They joined digital colorist Maxine Gervais at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging before filming commenced to set the look and establish the range that would be needed in DI.

“When we got the movie back, the proxies were a guiding light and kept everyone on the same page,” Burgess reports. “I find that a big plus – and a lot better than when we would time movies in the dark in a crummy room in a lab.” But there are a few kinks in the system. “In the old days, total timing might be 6 to 8 hours,” Burgess notes. “Sometimes now they want to book me in for 10 days!”

Though Burgess says he liked the experience, he’d hardly call himself a RED convert. “It’s not a process cinematographers are in love with,” he says. “I’d still rather shoot everything anamorphic and run it through the lab. But that’s the world we live in now.”

Making Memories

Of all the visual striking moments in The Book of Eli, the previously mentioned shoot-out scene best showcases camera and support crews. During the sequence, in which the heroes hunker down in a house surrounded by villains, the camera follows the action from inside, out and back in again. Getting the shot required what Burgess calls “the world’s biggest bungee cam.” The result has a rough, in-the-moment feeling, like watching life in real time.

“We were fortunate to have Michael Coo as key grip. He’s fantastic with different rigs and solving problems,” says McCaffrey. “We did a couple of lunchtime tests and captured the concept footage on video. The sequence required traveling the camera over long distances, quickly and at a range of heights. The Steadicam wasn’t an option because it didn’t have the height range, and the handheld created too shaky of a feel; we needed something in-between.”

McCaffrey says the Eli team built a rig off a 100-foot construction crane with 200 feet of bungee cable! “It was like zero gravity,” he remembers. “It allowed us to travel from behind armored cars into and around the house, and gave me the freedom to put the camera wherever I wanted anytime over a 400-foot radius at any height. It’s one of those sequences where there are lots of seamless cuts and transitions, and yet appears as one 2.5-minute shot in the midst of absolute chaos. It was a hell of a lot of fun to be involved in!”

But Mother Nature almost prevented the shoot from happening. “We were shooting in the middle of a plain, not a tree around,” recalls Alton Walpole, a New Mexico native and Eli’s unit production manager. “We incurred some pretty heavy winds which were the worst working conditions.” In fact, production was delayed for two days until the wind died down to a more moderate 70 mph. The crew wrapped all the gear as if it were raining, and wore protective eyewear. “The wind looks great on film, but isn’t great to work in,” adds Walpole. For Burgess, it was all in a day’s work. “To me, you gotta go there to get the image to go right. If it’s not beating you up, you’re probably not there yet.”

Another memorable shot is a rollover sequence on a stretch of deserted highway. Albert wanted to focus inside the car and then pull away to capture the rollover. “The helicopter was flying beside the car looking in the passenger and driver’s side windows,” the co-director explains. “We went from backlight to frontlight to sidelight. We were flying low and had a count for the car to pull away violently. The pilot needed to stay in there till the count was complete. We did two rehearsals and one take!”

Aerial DP Steve Koster used a Wescam 100 series coupled with the RED camera.” It gave us a steady image that was matched for color and exposure with the ground based cameras,” Koster says. The running footage was shot in Palmdale, Calif., and was matched afterwards with a Technocrane for a seamless shot.

Old-School, New-School

Producers Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove at Alcon Entertainment, were interested to see how the Hughes Brothers would approach their first effects-rich film. “ One thing early on that gave us comfort was that they were very well prepared and put together a look book. From their experience in commercials, they came in with a complete presentation of their vision for the movie,” Johnson says. “Between what they were going to do visually and our common passion for substance of screenplay, we were comfortable that we could deal with the challenges of working with two people instead of one.”

The Book of Eli also marks the first time the Hughes Brothers have worked with an “old-school” director of photography. “It was Generation X meeting Baby Boomer,” Albert laughs. “There wasn’t tension, but there was that generational gap. [Burgess] was talking about all these rules that I was hearing about for the first time! So we did butt heads on a few things. But he let down his guard on some things and I did mine and we came together. Don really cares about the story.”

That attention to the narrative is the key to Burgess’ success, according to crewmates like McCaffrey. Along with his Oscar nod for Forrest Gump, Burgess has two ASC nods, and a BAFTA nomination. “He’s a master in moving the camera to tell a story within a scene,” observes McCaffrey. “It’s a joy to watch because each movement makes perfect sense to the feel and emotion of the movie.”

For his part, the cinematographer says he is amped about the film and having worked with a pair of talents like the brothers Hughes, who in many ways have defined filmmaking for a new generation. “I’m excited about the way it looks,” says Burgess. “It’s some of the best work I’ve done in a while, and the best thing I’ve seen shot on the RED.”

photos by David Lee / Warner Bros. Pictures