A More Perfect Union
The final days of The Great Emancipator come to life in Steven Spielberg’s intimate political drama, Lincoln
by David Heuring photos by David James
Fifteen years ago, Janusz Kaminski shot Amistad, his third project with director Steven Spielberg, and his second Academy Award nomination – the first being for Schindler’s List, which won the Polish-born DP an Oscar. While Kaminski and Spielberg have collaborated on 10 more films since Amistad, including A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can and Saving Private Ryan (which won Kaminski another Oscar), Lincoln marks their first return to the mid-1800s, when slavery tore America apart, and the popularity of a new medium called “photography” etched the nation’s leaders in vivid relief.
Lincoln, written by Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner, based on the best-selling book “Team of Rivals” by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, masterfully depicts America’s most revered leader using his considerable powers of persuasion and compromise to pass the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery and was a crucial step toward ending the Civil War. Kushner spent years paring down Kearns Goodwin’s exhaustive source material, eventually homing in on the two-month period leading up to ratification, surrender at Appomattox, and assassination.
Daniel Day-Lewis leads a stellar cast that includes Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as one of Lincoln’s sons. Spielberg gathered many of his longtime collaborators, including composer John Williams, production designer Rick Carter [see sidebar], and Kaminski. Operator Mitch Dubin, and first AC Mark Spath, both 20-year veterans of Kaminski’s team, led the camera crew. After more than a dozen feature films, Kaminski says he and Spielberg’s communication has been boiled down to an essence. Or as Kaminski puts it: “Part of Steven’s success is his great skill at finding talented people and letting them do their jobs.”
Lincoln was shot in Virginia locations, including the state capitol in Richmond that served as the Confederacy’s base during the Civil War, and the town of Petersburg, which Lincoln actually visited. A 360-degree view of period buildings still exists in Petersburg, and Kaminski says the goal was to create a film that felt naturalistic and true to how we imagine the period, rather than a gritty documentary. Some early tests were done with Technicolor using portrait lenses to vignette the edges of the images, combined with zooming in on a portion of the frame, rendering a more archival feeling. That was dropped for a less self-conscious approach that “embraces the story.”
Spielberg and Kaminski make no apologies about their preference for film. Like every live-action feature they’ve made together, Lincoln was shot in 35 mm, in this case KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, a stock Kaminski calls “the best in the world.” The format was 3-perf Super 35 for a widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio, like War Horse, a departure from Spielberg’s longtime 1.85:1 standard. Capture included a Panavision Platinum and two XLs, one of which was dedicated to Steadicam. The lenses were Panavision Super Speeds.
“Janusz doesn’t like the sharpness of modern lenses so much,” Spath relates. “So we used older Super Speeds from Panavision. We had the full set, from a 14 millimeter up to a 180 millimeter. That added to the overall period look of the movie. On War Horse, we used the Master Primes, and on Munich, we used Cookes. I think War of the Worlds and Minority Report were Primos. Janusz wants to provide a sharper image if there are a lot of visual effects, and when he wants to soften it up, he’ll use Schneider Classic Soft diffusion filters, which we used on Lincoln.”
Aside from a brief early scene showing hand-to-hand combat, and some post-battle scenes with Honest Abe riding through the devastation, Lincoln does not portray the war itself. The focus is on the president’s human relationships and drama with his cabinet, the Congress, and his wife, who is driven mad with grief by the death of their young son.
While day interiors predominate the story, the lack of electricity in the mid-1800s meant light had to be motivated by oil lamps and candles. “We usually take tremendous liberties with that idea, and we never really considered using just candles or oil lamps,” Kaminski reports. “You can’t make a movie with Steven like that. There are just too many camera moves, and it’s too restraining for everyone. We used those sources in the frame, but very seldom did I use existing fixtures to illuminate the actors. I used movie lights – HMIs, Babies, and Tweenies. We staged scenes against windows with strong sunlight. So you feel the light to some degree.”
Costumes, makeup and sets, which included recreating period interiors at the White House, including Lincoln’s bedroom, his office and a large corridor, played into this naturalistic approach. “We didn’t manipulate the look at all,” Kaminski recounts. “Occasionally we would desaturate some colors and stay within the cooler palette, not blue, but cooler. I desaturated a couple of scenes in the DI because we wanted to follow some existing photos of Lincoln that were colorized, and we felt that full color probably would have been too distracting.”
The filmmakers recreated the poses and framing of several historic period photographs, including one of Lincoln at his inauguration, and one on his deathbed. Day-Lewis’s performance is the heart and soul of the movie, and it became Kaminski’s main priority. He says Spielberg allowed “many, many” takes. Except for the hand-to-hand combat scene, a single camera was used, in part because the director felt it would help Day-Lewis to only play to one camera.
“Daniel was amazing,” Kaminski continues. “He wanted us to refer to him as Mr. President throughout the shoot, which was great. We ended up calling all the actors by the names of the characters they were recreating, which I think was very interesting for the actors as well. It was a very respectful practice, not just requested by Daniel, but also called for by the subject matter.”
As for the period makeup, the aim was to accentuate wrinkles and Lincoln’s deeply set eyes, as revealed by period photographs. “Steven would frequently request that I not light Daniel’s eyes, which to me means light the eyes, but make them look dark,” Kaminski continues. “We had a lot of toplight on him and occasionally shot some light from the back, from below. Daniel played a lot of the scenes looking down, not often having eye contact with people. When he did have eye contact with other actors, it gave extra emphasis to the point he was making in his dialogue.”
Dubin says his collaboration with Day-Lewis was unusual. “As an operator, the most fun I have is watching actors perform and watch the unleashing of their role,” Dubin remarks. “Because Daniel Day Lewis is such a method actor, it’s really a different approach. It’s more of an internal process that really can’t be interfered with. You have to respect it from a distance and figure out the best way to capture it without involving him. It’s a different way of working, and a very intense process. Usually on Steven’s movie, since we all know each other so well, it’s a boisterous set. Here, it was very quiet, and everything was done before Daniel stepped on the set. And once he was in, nothing changed. We didn’t rehearse – we just shot.”
The film is less “cutty,” according to Kaminski, utilizing grand, wide shots, slow push-ins and graceful edits. This kind of restrained movement was difficult in the Virginia statehouse, which is designed after the U.S. Capitol and also stood in for that location. There was only occasionally room for dollies. Most of the moves were achieved through the use of a Technocrane, which was brought in in pieces and reassembled in the hall.
“We still moved the camera,” Dubin recalls. “We were just clever with how we did it. We had a little jib along with a Scorpio head, and we could usually fly to the right spot.”
One emblematic shot starts on a newspaper in the Senate chamber, then pulls back on the Technocrane and floats above the Senators, finding carefully cast faces in the group. “I remember that it wasn’t necessarily a tricky focus shot,” says Spath. “It was more of a timing thing. But when we saw it, I realized how beautiful and flowing it is, and how it brings you into the scene. We don’t see dailies anymore on most projects. But Janusz still wants to see the film printed and projected. So we get an Arri Loc-Pro. When you’re able to see this stuff, you feel more involved and inspired. When it all comes together – the cranes, the dolly grips, the dance floor, the actors, and the camera – there’s something magical about watching it on a screen. It gives you confidence, and it’s a kind of reward.”
Dubin notes that good operating must be story based. “When you put your eye to the eyepiece, everything else has to go away,” he says. “You’ve immersed yourself in the frame. It’s not just composition. It’s not just efficiency of the frame. Operating is almost like an editorial process. It’s also what you choose to exclude from the frame. It’s all of the decisions that you’ve made before the camera even rolls, about what lens, what height, physically where to put it. It must all be based on the best way to tell that story.”
Kaminski did a digital intermediate at Technicolor. He had done some early photochemical tests with a slight ENR silver retention process, and he used the DI to match that look. He also perfected some rain scenes in which he wasn’t satisfied with the amount of backlight and the resulting visibility of the rain in the original photography.
“The DI is liberating because you can manipulate particular scenes,” he says. “You can apply silver manipulation to certain scenes by doing it to the negatives. Otherwise, you must apply to the whole movie. In the DI, I can increase the contrast, de-saturate and increase the highlights, and create semi-silver retention looks just for certain scenes, which is very interesting.
“I think the DI also helped a lot in terms of making the windows white rather than warm or yellowish,” he adds. “And I was able to increase the contrast much more than I would be able to do with regular printing. It’s a very interesting look.”
Kaminski was grateful to have his entire Los Angeles crew along for the shoot. “We did have additional crew from the Richmond area, usually working as a wrap or pre-rig crew,” he concludes. “But having my entire crew was very helpful and allowed us to make the movie on that schedule, while providing the quality of work we are used to.”
Spath agrees that the familiarity of the crew leads to efficiency. “Our ability to jump right into the project is important because Steven likes to move fast. Our shooting schedules are short, and there’s a lot to do. The learning curve is eliminated because we have a core group that understands Janusz’s process as well as Steven’s. Mitch understands the shots and can decipher Steven. It’s a good chemistry and a good group.”
And as Kaminski adds: “Watching this amazing group of actors speaking these beautiful lines written by Tony Kushner, it felt very much like watching a play while we made the movie.”