Matthew Libatique, ASC, tunes up another great musical drama, with Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born.
At the Stagecoach Festival in Palm Springs last year, as the changeover was being made from Tommy James to Willie Nelson, Hollywood star Bradley Cooper took the stage with his band, Promise of the Real, led by Nelson’s own son, Lukas, and belted out two songs (which were not amplified for the festival audience to hear). Capturing the performance was Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique, ASC, and operator Chris Moseley, stealthily grabbing footage before the group hurried offstage.
This grab-n-go indie-style scene opens Cooper’s new take on the Hollywood classic, A Star Is Born, which he also directed. Cooper stars as country rock idol Jack Mayne, alongside Lady Gaga, whose character, Ally, he discovers and helps become a star, even as his own star fades into oblivion due to personal demons. The duo’s naturalistic performances, coupled with Cooper’s earthy visual approach, help tell the tale far differently from the previous three versions (including the revered MGM version in 1954, starring Judy Garland and James Mason).
“Bradley was specific that [his film] should not look like any music movie that went before us,” describes producer Bill Gerber. “He wanted [audiences] to feel like they were really experiencing what it’s like to be a person who gets very famous,” but to do so in a unique way, adds Libatique. “It feels homemade and earnest. It’s crafted and very specific in every decision we made.”
Like its predecessors (including the 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, both of whom visited Cooper’s set), A Star Is Born has a rich love story at its core, interspersed with live performances. And, as Libatique describes, “the narrative and the performance portions were one and the same. We used a lot of handheld and a camera that had flexibility.”
Following initial testing for Gaga with Janusz Kaminski, ASC, Libatique (who has a long history with musical projects, including Straight Outta Compton, ICG August 2015) felt an immediate creative connection with Cooper, even though they had never worked together. “Bradley called me after and said Matty totally got the movie, and already had a shorthand,” offers Gerber. “It was a great collaboration from the onset.”
On the recommendation of Warner Bros. executive producer Ravi Mehta, A-camera/Steadicam operator Scott Sakamoto, SOC, who also had not worked with Libatique, was brought on board. First AC Matt Stenerson, who got his start in the late ’90’s as a 2nd AC for Libatique, pulled focus for Sakamoto. Second Unit DP Chris Moseley operated B-camera, assisted by 1st AC John Holmes, though Holmes would shift to pulling focus for Libatique when the latter operated handheld during concert scenes. Peter Berglund filled out the operator corps as needed.
Libatique used the ALEXA Mini for its small form factor and light weight, both of which provided enough “freedom to shoot handheld and in tight spots, while also offering studio camera quality,” Stenerson says.
Digital Imaging Technician Michael Kowalczyk says a tight prep schedule did not allow time to create LUT’s, so the Mini’s inherent low contrast curve (LCC) was used as a base, with slight adjustments. “Matty would come in the tent and try some things, just to get a sense of what he’d like,” Kowalczyk relays. The DIT would save TIFF images for Libatique, who would do his own grading in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom each night after shooting to give to the dailies colorist.
Kowalczyk describes Libatique as a master of light. “You walk out of the tent, see the sources, and it’s all consistent,” the DIT marvels. Company 3 Co-Founder and Digital Finishing Artist Stefan Sonnenfeld agrees. “Matty and Bradley’s basic premise was to keep a sense of realism, which was so important to this film. But it also had to be quite beautiful, without being overt,” especially in concert imagery. “You don’t come out of this movie saying, ‘God, that didn’t look like a real concert.’ Everything is true to form.”
For lenses, Libatique turned to CamTec Motion Picture Cameras president Kavon Elhami, who provided sets of vintage Cooke as well as older Kowa anamorphics. Elhami worked with Cooke to develop a custom modified coating to help enhance flaring, and for even more pronounced flares during concert sequences, CamTec provided a set of older Kowa anamorphics. “They don’t have a lot of coating on them,” Sakamoto explains. “And they had huge flares when a light hit them.”
The Cooke set also included a 65mm lens, which became Libatique’s workhorse for his onstage handheld work capturing performances of Cooper or Gaga. “That was my favorite lens in the set,” the DP shares, “because it has a minimum focus that’s more akin to a spherical lens. Typically, anamorphic lenses have a weak minimum focus – you can’t get too close to your subject. This lens is essentially a macro – I could really get in close to Bradley when he was playing, and get in close to his fingers,” as well as capture the personal facial expressions so integral to the musical scenes.
Another key piece of gear was Freefly Systems MōVI Pro, a 3-axis gimbaled stabilizer that Libatique used on Straight Outta Compton, and which he has incorporated in different ways ever since – as a remote head or as a handheld device that can move over objects and get through doorways.
The MōVI was typically operated in a two-person fashion, with the rig held/moved by Chris Herr, in conjunction with either Sakamoto or Moseley, who would operate pan and tilt via an Alpha Wheels remote device from 1A Tools.
“Imagine a remote head on a dolly, and you have a dolly grip pushing the camera, but the operator is operating on wheels,” Libatique explains. “It’s the same thing, but here, it’s like a handheld/Steadicam hybrid.” Adds Key Grip Tana Dubbe, “It differs from a Steadicam in that the dolly grip, or whoever is carrying it, can look where he’s going, while a Steadicam operator has to be watching the monitor.” [Dubbe adds that the MōVI’s “Majestic mode,” where the grip also operates, was not used on A Star Is Born.]
Key to the MōVI’s success was Herr using it in conjunction with Cinema Devices’ AntigravityCam (see ICG April 2018, Dream Weaver), a rig that allows the operator to easily boom the MōVI-gimbaled camera up and down, via a system of arms, supported by bungees and pulleys, all while maintaining a constant iso-elastic tension on the bungee. “It’s like a jib arm or crane—there’s no lifting or pushing,” Herr explains. “You just coax it up or down like a weightless camera in outer space.” Herr, who worked all but three days of the 48-day shoot, says Libatique “uses the MōVI in a lot of ways. But Matty’s one of those people who knows when and where not to use it.”
The performance scenes in A Star Is Born were filmed at a variety of locations and music festivals, many of which Production had to squeeze in stage time, or, at the very least, utilize the stage and lighting setup during a publically scheduled show.
Gerber, who has attended Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival for years, arranged with Coachella’s producers, AEG and Goldenvoice, to shoot portions of A Star Is Born there, “and then, two months before shooting,” he relates, “Beyoncé dropped out [of Coachella], so they asked if they could have [Gaga] take her place.”
Production shot between Coachella’s two main weekends, filming the concert after Jack and Ally first perform together, as well as show segments for a road montage sequence. The process was similar to concert scenes shot at The Greek Theatre three weeks later (when Sakamoto joined the production, before wrapping on Black Panther, Steve Campanelli, SOC taking his place for one week during Coachella).
The music, written by Cooper and Lukas Nelson, as well as by Gaga and other contributors, was not performed live for the extras present. Cooper and Nelson’s band had pre-recorded the backing tracks at the famous Village Recorders in West L.A., where studio sequences featured in the movie were also filmed. The band then played along, unamplified, for the camera. [The exception was Gaga’s solo piano performances, which she insisted on recording live.] The two stars’ live vocals, though tracked by the production sound mixer, also didn’t go out through the P.A., though they could be heard by the crew, along with the music, in their Clear-Com HME wireless intercom system. This was used to protect the film’s unreleased tunes from going viral before release.
The extras, when needed, were usually made up of Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters” fan base and invited to participate. “[Gaga] would explain that ‘the songs we’re doing right now, that I need you to cheer for, I can’t really play them,’ and they would cheer as if they could hear them,” relates Stenerson. “But we would take a break or reset, and she would play them her own songs. That’s not something you see all the time.”
Concert footage comprised four cameras: Libatique on handheld (with his favorite 65mm Cooke lens) capturing close-ups of Cooper; Sakamoto also doing close-up work (either handheld or Steadicam), and Moseley and Berglund on long lenses on the sides on stationary dollies. Herr would also have the MōVI onstage, either with Sakamoto operating the wheels, or Moseley operating the MōVI if Sakamoto was on Technocrane with crane grip Bogdan Iofciulescu. In the latter case, the crane base would often be placed toward the rear of the performers, with the arm swinging out to cover musicians.
Cooper’s general approach to concert footage was unique as he assembled a reel of dozens of music films to guide himself and Libatique away from cliché trappings. “Bradley’s instinct, which I agreed with, was to just keep everything onstage – to not have the objective crowd POV,” Libatique recounts. “There are no proscenium shots in the film.” Adds Sakamoto: “He and Matty wanted the camera to feel free and be with [the actors] all the time. It was a story about them, not necessarily their performance.”
Sakamoto says that same freedom extended to the coverage, as he and Libatique would “attack the stage at the same time, trying to avoid each other.” Adds Dubbe: “You can plan all you want, but once the music starts and they get into it, all bets are off. And that’s the way to do it – get your infantry in place, and just be open to inspiration. When he’s [operating handheld], Matty’s like a Tasmanian devil. It’s intense.”
Despite the seeming chaos, Libatique was able to orchestrate the coverage via his HME intercom, noting that he “knew what lens I had on every camera, so I knew what they could each capture and how to guide them.”
A similar arrangement was in place with Libatique’s gaffer, Jeff Ferrero, and dimmer board operator Eric “TK” Androvich. As Ferrero relates: “Matty had all the songs broken down into color palettes,” with various portions of the stage divided up to allow him to call out cues to Androvich to switch on or off, or add a color to fit a mood Libatique sensed in the performance. “Rather than being concerned about effects,” Ferrero adds, “Matty wanted to give the audience a certain feeling via the use of color.”
When possible, Androvich was given the music ahead of time to develop lighting cues, which Libatique would tweak. Then, in final color timing, Sonnenfeld would provide enhancements. “When you polish things too much, they become contrived,” the longtime digital colorist states. “It was important to be meticulous, but not to a point where you’re taking away some of the realism Bradley and Matty put into it.”
The team also made use of the CamTec exclusive Color-Con, and Color-Con Mini, wireless devices developed by CamTec that were operated remotely by Androvich. The Color-Con, placed in the matte box, is ringed with RGB LED’s, which, when interacting with different diffusion type filters, produces a “flashing” of the image in the camera, in essence softening the image based on the color of the light in the scene. Color Con units were placed on multiple cameras allowing Libatique to call out adjustments to Androvich, who would immediately implement them on each camera.
Innovations were also found in scenes away from the stage, like in Jack’s woodsy home, where Cooper’s character ultimately succumbs to his depression. The shot, which shows Jack emerging from his truck to enter his garage, starts inches from the pavement. As his boot steps out from his truck, we follow him into the garage, the camera rising up to drift over his waist, as he places his hat down, and then pulls back as he shuts the door.
“That scene could only have been shot with the MōVI, using the AntigravityCam,” Herr explains. “The way the arms articulate as you move lets us get into the garage, float around, and boom up and out. It can fit into places you wouldn’t think it could.”
The MōVI was also part of a skillfully executed shot revealing the aftermath of Jack’s death. The camera starts on a wide of the house, with police lights flashing, and passes quickly across the yard, making its way into the house, to a close-up of a neon sign of a French phrase uttered upon his and Ally’s meeting.
“That house had become part of their lives, where they started together,” Libatique explains. “So the question was how do you visually show that Jack had been found and that there was an aftermath?”
With a crane out of the question, and the landscape too steep for a Steadicam, Dubbe and her grip team used a CableCam system, tying a cable high in the front of the property, with its other end at a tree close to the house. The MōVI was attached to a carriage and latch, with a wireless release system devised by Best Boy James Coffin, to unlatch it at its far end. At that point, Dolly Grip John Mang, who hid out of sight of the lens, could pick up the MōVI rig and continue the shot, as a handoff, walking it into the house – all with the camera under Sakamoto’s control (via the wheels). “That was Bradley’s vision,” Sakamoto shares. “He wanted the image to keep growing, come into the house, into this great neon sign that is iconic to them and iconic to her.”
“We wanted to refer back to the start of their relationship,” Libatique concludes. “The police light meant the end of it. And getting us up to that neon sign, with those words, at the very end, brought us back to where it all began.”
by Matt Hurwitz / photos by Clay Enos / framegrabs courtesy of Warner Bros.
LOCAL 600 CREW
Director of Photography
Matthew J. Libatique, ASC
Scott Sakamoto, SOC
Stephen S. Campanelli, SOC
A-Camera 1st AC
Matthew T. Stenerson
A-Camera 2nd AC
B-Camera 1st AC
B-Camera 2nd AC
Director of Photography
A-Camera 1st AC
A-Camera 2nd AC