Mitchell Amundsen and crew capture horses, ironclads, and all that jazz for the New Orleans shot sci-fi Western Jonah Hex

Mitchell Amundsen’s motto –  “they call it a movie because everything has to move, especially the camera,” has been put to good use on films like Transporter 2, Transformers and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. So, naturally, Amundsen and his team jumped at the chance to bring their hyper-kinetic style to Jonah Hex, a story set in the rare but still classic cinematic genre: the Western.

Based on the popular comic book character created by writer John Albano and artist Tony Dezuniga, Jonah Woodson Hex first appeared in the 1972 DC Comics title All-Star Western #10 (the series became Weird Western Tales two issues later). The Western anti-hero – a scarred bounty hunter with a strong personal code of honor to protect the innocent – also appeared in a number of titles and time frames, including a brief stint as a Mad Max type character in a post-apocalyptic world. Josh Brolin plays the titular loner in the upcoming Warner Bros film, which was shot on location in Louisiana and incorporates much of the character’s original history despite the project’s modest budget. With strong LA state tax incentives, and a striking geographic palette to work with, Hex’s camera, grip, and lighting teams, took every opportunity to get as much bang (literally and figuratively) for their buck, helping to stage the comic book saga in anamorphic splendor. Call it high tech gunslingers set loose in the Crescent City.

Tall in The Saddle

After lengthy discussions with director Jimmy Hayward, who comes from Pixar’s animation department with credits on Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo before helming the animated film Horton Hears a Who!, the decision was made to employ a 50-foot Technocrane – not for a few key shots but every day.
“The 50-foot Techno offered massive movement to cover the horses,” Amundsen shares. “We could get eye level, shoot from above, swing around, everything. We were also on really rough terrain. So, rather than build long sections of dolly track, we felt a well placed 50-footer would give us an amazing amount of shots. We put our wide zoom on the 50-foot Techno so it could wrap around for master and coverage.”

Amundsen singles out a sequence where he had the crane placed on a flatbed of a moving period train. “There’s a little boy playing with his tin soldiers, and it looks like we’re locked onto him in the window of the moving train, with reflections of a field going by,” the DP describes.

“All of a sudden we start pulling back and see other people looking out the windows and soon, in the reflection, we see these bad guys riding horses. We keep pulling back, seeing the whole train car, then suddenly whip around and see the bad guys in the flesh, as we keep craning on this train. There’s also a shot where we’re following a military officer walking through a flatbed car of soldiers and think it’s a hand held or dolly shot, then it arcs and arcs and off we go, 50 feet off the train.”

First assistant cameraman Todd Schlopy, who has worked with Amundsen for years, says the team’s A-camera alternated between a Panaflex XL and an ARRI 235, while the B-camera was a Panaflex Platinum. He calls the ARRI configuration somewhat unique.

“Many people are using the 235 in handheld configurations,” Schlopy remarks. “We have refined a setup with a system of handles that allows us to use the rig in a fighting mode, in a great way for the operator. We use a lightweight battery belt and video transmitter, so no wires to interfere with the shot. The operator is free to hold the system very close to his body so he can make it as steady or shaky as he wants.

“Jim Bartell’s BarTech Focus Device is the perfect lightweight tool for this setup,” Schlopy continues. “I adapted the motors and the actual receiver in their lightest weight. There’s no eyepiece to verify focus, just an onboard monitor, so the operator trusts me to get it right. With an anamorphic movie, your lenses are twice as long so you can’t just set focus and hope your stop will do all the work. On this shoot we’d run around focused on action from 20 feet to infinity but then land at the end on an actor in a ‘hero close-up’ at two feet, so I need a focus system that is extremely accurate.”

Lead operator Billy O’Drobinak can testify how well the 235 and its special riggings performed. “We never stopped moving the camera,” he says. “We didn’t just do one style of handheld. We did slow, ethereal, then frenetic action, and then some very stable, soft handheld. Todd designed all kinds of ways to put handles on the 235 so that you could hold it and operate off the monitor, from your feet up to over your head. You could run with it, move it all around, and change the handles; it was genius on his part.”

Prairie Fires

Second unit camera operator Sean Fairburn, SOC also praised the modified rig. The only active duty Marine to have won an Emmy for his live action combat footage shot during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Fairburn was in the middle of the action for Hex’s climactic encounter between Civil War-era ironclads, à la  Monitor and  Merrimack/CSS Virginia.

“I was in a head-to-toe three layer Carbon X fire-suit, and using the 235 while covering the stunt guys, who Jonah Hex was hosing down with a flamethrower,” Fairburn recalls. “By looking through the monitor, I was able to move quickly and have situational awareness, always a plus when doing fire. We needed to get in close and Mitch asked: ‘you feel good about this?’ ‘Absolutely,’ I said. He saw that I was comfortable and was completely aware of my own safety and said, ‘whatever you want to do, I’m OK with it.’ They lit up the stunt man and I chased him in a nice tight over, passing right down the line of fire off the edge of the boat onto the pads. I had a blast!”

Both Amundsen and Schlopy confess a love for their anamorphic lenses of choice, the C series. “The C Series lenses we like are optically very sharp, compact; we love the way they flare and they are very flat for anamorphic lenses,” Schlopy says. Kodak 5205 and 5219 were Amundsen’s stock of choice, but for the opening sequence, he used 5201 with ASA 50.

“Jonah comes to this town where everybody’s corrupt,” the cinematographer describes. “It was built on this white sand dry river bed. The production designer (Tom Meyer) had to build the set with northern facing front light. He couldn’t get around it. I’m kind of a back light guy. Then I remembered The Proposition where they shot a lot of front-lit stuff and also remembered The Four Feathers where (cinematographer) Robert Richardson shot a fight in the blazing hot Sahara sun at like T2. So we had blazing front light and with the ASA 50, I opened with NDs up to a T2.4. We were at like ASA 6. The idea is bright front light with no depth of field. It has a cool, but very weird vibe.”

Gaffer Andy Ryan has been working with Amundsen for two decades, and their collaboration has led to a close friendship, with Amundsen even acting as best man at Ryan’s wedding. Ryan said they wanted Hex to be dark, with main source light being fire and candlelight.

“When we talk about motivating by fire, we don’t use flicker boxes, we use real fire,” Ryan explains. “Everybody always asks us how you do your fire, it looks so good. And we always say, ‘well, it looks good because it’s fire!’ We’ll have the effects guys bring us flame bars because nothing looks like real fire except real fire.”

And because it was a period piece, Ryan said that there were no practicals. “For the night scenes we decided to illuminate with fire and a nice moon backlight,” he continues. “We used 18Ks on Condors with a half CTO to give us that backlight. And then we used a lot of tungsten lamps and corrected them with a 1/4-straw to warm them up because in the background and in many places you don’t really need to see the flicker.

“We’d use the flame bar or a little more traditional lighting when we got in close with the actors,” Ryan adds. “The last thing you want lighting Megan Fox is to have something flickering on her face. We used the traditional lighting for that.”

Bayou Heat

Due to the Louisiana film incentives, New Orleans area production has intensified, leading to more facilities, equipment and trained crew. Amundsen staffed his camera unit with two highly praised local hires, Jerry Jacob, SOC, who shot the film’s single Steadicam and was 2nd Unit DP, and Jacob’s first AC Michael Charbonnet.

Both were surprised with how well specific spots in Louisiana were able to stand in for different sections of the West, including the night shoot in the French Quarter with dirt covering the streets. “I was born and raised in Louisiana, and aware of the different terrain here,” Jacob observes. “But I was still impressed, and give kudos to the location managers, the art department and the producers for coming up with locations that worked so well. They even built a little Mexican town, right in City Park here in New Orleans, which looked incredible. Another location was outside St. Francisville, in an old quarry that had red clay. It really looked like some of the mesas in West Texas or New Mexico.”

Amundsen was so impressed with Jacob and Charbonnet, that he hauled them along on his next project, the remake of Red Dawn in Michigan.

By all reports, Jonah Hex dailies were so well regarded, O’Drobinak recalls the producer relaying a studio note about another film WB was shooting, with twice the budget as Hex, that didn’t look as big.

“That was a real compliment to Mitch, because he’s very good at maximizing the cinematic production value of a location,” O’Drobinak says.

As unflappable as a gunslinger, Amundsen says his style of shooting, while unique, recalls another classic American genre: jazz.

“Every sequence is storyboarded and then we pick up stuff on the day,” the DP explains. “I’m a big fan of improvising and taking advantage of the location. So, we did a lot of Jonah Hex as a jazz piece, especially with the 50-foot Techno where you’re not locked in to any direction. You do your blocking, and your master, then all of a sudden you kind of play jazz on it. It doesn’t take any more time because you’re already lit. If you have guys that are really good, you can deliver these masters that are different every time. It makes it much more interesting. And it gets better and better for every take because you’re always finding new stuff.”

By Ted Elrick / photos by Frank Masi