Don Burgess, ASC, makes a headfirst slide for home to visualize the most inspiring sports legend in American history, Jackie Robinson
Color. Cinematographers are constantly looking for new ways to manage it. But in 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers fans knew a limited palette of colors: white uniforms with blue piping, brown earth, and green grass. Black, of course, was never on display until a steadfast general manager named Branch Rickey brought forth the nation’s most talented (and determined) young African-American ball player, Jackie Robinson.
In writer/director Brian Helgeland’s 42, Rickey (played by an irascible Harrison Ford) declares, “We conquered fascism in Europe, now it’s time to conquer racism at home.” The film from Legendary Pictures/Warner Bros. chronicles the fabled athlete who wore number 42 (the only jersey permanently retired by Major League Baseball). The stirring portrayal of Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) and his journey to “the bigs” from the former Negro Leagues never backs down from the brutal racial and cultural barriers of post-war America, yet its message is supremely optimistic: character, not color, is the true path to success and admiration.
To visualize 42’s single-year timeframe, Helgeland, (who won an Oscar for his screenplay for L.A. Confidential), at the suggestion of Robert Zemeckis turned to Don Burgess, ASC, who was previously nominated for an ASC Award for The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (1991). “You don’t get a lot of opportunities to make movies about something so important,” Burgess recounts. “Jackie saw things as they should and would be, but weren’t at the time. Rickey absolutely picked the right guy to be the first.”
Keenly aware that most contemporary impressions of Robinson’s rookie season are from black and white photographs, the filmmakers referenced the work of Neil Leifer, a noted color sports shooter from the 1960s. As production designer Richard Hoover describes: “Leifer had a modern approach to photographing the sport. His images were really close up, as if he were trying to get inside the game, as opposed to making a spectacle.”
“His colors are pushed forward,” Burgess adds, “to accentuate things like the players’ uniforms and other details. Brian didn’t want a 1940s movie. He wanted it to feel modern and accessible – more like the 1970s, with a little bit of an edge.” Hoover and costume designer Caroline Harris also referenced photographer Saul Leiter, whose scenes of New York City in the 1940s provided period-accurate inspiration.
To get a defined period look, Burgess created a sophisticated on-set color-management system that he first began developing two years ago while shooting The Book of Eli (ICG January 2010) in New Mexico. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to shoot a digital movie, there’s no reason why I can’t have control of the look from Day One,” the DP recalls of his partnership with DIT Mark Gilmer, of HD Mobile Labs, who first suggested using color-grading software to avoid having to send files back to Hollywood.
“After working with Mark on Eli,” Burgess explains, “[Red Digital Cinema founder] Jim Jannard introduced me to Michael Cioni [CEO of Light Iron, and a specialist in Red camera digital workflows], who said: ‘I’m going to design carts that you can take with you on location.’” The resultant system, which made use of Light Iron’s Outpost and Lily Pad Carts, was put to work on The Muppets and again on Flight, both shot by Burgess with the RED EPIC. Observes Cioni: “Not every DP understands how to leverage the Red’s capabilities. Don can take the exact same camera and workflow and make it work for three different movies with completely different looks.”
Carissa Ridgeway Tudor, who had started as Burgess’ camera production assistant in 2005, was moved up to DIT to handle on-set color timing, while Gilmer created LUT-applied dailies for viewing and distribution. Burgess brought test footage, shot with the EPIC at a ball field in Westlake Village, CA, to Light Iron colorist Corinne Bogdanowicz, in advance of production.
“He definitely wanted a period look – desaturated and warm,” Bogdanowicz recalls. “But since there’s so much range with the Red, we were able to play around with popping certain colors to make it feel a bit more modern. You don’t see noise or grain, so it doesn’t really look old – it’s just nodding in that direction.”
HD Mobile Labs provided Tudor with its own Go’Cart, similarly installed with RED’s REDCINE-X PRO color timing software. After completed takes, Tudor was given the EPIC’s storage media, from which she would download the data, copy and do a check-sum, before importing into REDCINE-X.
Referencing the original looks and her notes from pre-production timing, Tudor would then apply the looks to the takes, utilizing an Avid Artist Color Panel.
“It has wheels and balls that correlate with the various parameters within the software, so you don’t have to move everything with a mouse,” she describes of the Avid tool. “It’s really like having a mini DI suite.” Adjustments to lift, gamma, gain, warmth, color temperature and contrast are applied as overall looks using the system, sometimes varying the looks from take to take. “Shooting in the South, Don often had varying cloud cover from take to take, even within setups,” she adds. “So I adjusted the color, sometimes between takes, just to make sure everything would cut and be consistent, and Don would pop over between takes to okay everything.”
Those applied color settings were then stored as RMD files – RED Meta-Data – along with the RAW image files, and passed along to Mark Gilmer, who was set up in the back half of a nearby trailer, also provided by HD Mobile Labs, with the hardware from Light Iron’s Outpost Cart (including two Mac towers running REDCINE-X) set up in a custom rack. “I’d collect the sound files and sync them to the RAW data, and then apply Carissa’s RMD look files to the images,” Gilmer explains.
Gilmer and Tudor’s efforts created dailies that were viewed by Helgeland, Burgess, producers and other crew at lunchtime – with looks applied, similar to what the final color-timed image will be – and projected on a 4-by-6-foot screen in the front half of Gilmer’s trailer. “I don’t like to sit and look at what I shot on an iPad,” Helgeland says unapologetically. “It’s pointless.” Burgess agrees. “We apply the look to the dailies when we’re shooting, so that the director, the editor, and everybody else can see what I’m doing, so there’s no surprises at the end.”
Gilmer also created PIX files through an Internet protocol for studio execs back at Warner Bros. “Those were uploaded by the editorial team, who had access to larger bandwidth,” he notes. “They’d wait until Brian and Don had viewed the dailies for notes or changes, before uploading the files.”
Back at Light Iron, Bogdanowicz was able to apply final looks with both Tudor and 2nd Unit DP Michael Burgess in attendance, who brought notes from the set. “I used different layers of qualification, versus power windows alone, to make certain colors pop more,” the colorist says. “It’s very precise,” adds Cioni. “It’s like painting on top of a picture.”
The baseball sequences for 42 were shot at five different locations for ten different historic parks. “It was challenging remembering the looks for each of the parks,” recalls Burgess. “So I put together a 60-page bible of all the filters and lenses and diffusions for each,” for use by 2nd unit, visual effects, and, of course, color timing.
Finding baseball parks available in spring and summertime was not easy, says visual effects supervisor Jamie Dixon of Hammerhead Productions. “One of the challenges of shooting a baseball movie in the spring is that any decent park is being used to play baseball,” Dixon shares. “We really needed to own a place for several weeks.”
Ultimately, production found several, most notably Engel Stadium in Chattanooga, TN, built in 1930 for the minor league affiliate of the Washington Senators. “We basically used older Triple-A stadiums, because, like Engel, they look like they’re from the era,” Hoover relates. “Engel was in a state of disrepair, and they were looking for someone to come and invest some money in it, so it worked out fine for everyone.”
The production designer says he pursued “intense research,” to assure accurate looks of all the parks represented, especially Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers, for which Engel was used. “Because of the constraints of the streets where Ebbets was built, it had an 80-degree inside angle to the stands,” Hoover adds. “So we ripped out the stands in right field and built them in to match Ebbets.” Hoover also built changeable advertising along the outfield walls, as well as an accurate working replica of Ebbets’ scoreboard.
A real player tunnel was built at Engel for several key scenes. One, where Robinson emerges for the first time onto the field as a Dodger, and another where he, having been humiliated by a racist manager from another team, smashes a bat against one of the tunnel’s walls.
Helgeland and Burgess decided to shoot both scenes from one end of the tunnel, two-camera, to capture master and closeup. “We knew that if we did coverage, it would look manufactured,” explains the director. “We wanted Jackie back in the tunnel a certain distance,” adds Burgess. “The idea was to have bright, hot, white light coming in from the inside, so it could bounce off the floor and illuminate the rest of the tunnel.”
Another key location is Branch Rickey’s office, built as a set at Raleigh Studios, Atlanta, and based on historic photos. Burgess worked closely with Hoover on window placement, to allow powerful light to fill the office from 20K light sources outside. “Don wanted it flooded with light,” recounts Helgeland, “to say ‘This is where all the important decisions in Jackie’s life are made.” Or as Burgess, describes: “It’s where the clarity of truth comes out of the darkness.”
Cioni points out that conventional wisdom says to avoid such blasts of light when using digital cameras, “Everyone’s afraid of blowing out highlights, like it’s illegal or something,” he laughs. “But Don was able to soften them, and then Corinne softened them more, controlling the contrast in the room. You are in that office 60 years ago.”
Stadium extensions, as well as the worlds seen outside the parks, represent about half of the film’s 400-plus visual-effects shots. “Brian wanted to avoid making a spectacle of the stadiums, using the kind of intimacy seen in Leifer’s photos,” Hoover explains. Subtle insertions, such as Pittsburgh’s Tower of Learning building, seen briefly outside Forbes, were made possible by a massive 1,400-foot-long by 45-foot-high green screen, built along the Engel Stadium back wall from 1st to 3rd bases. “Everything above that ad wall is visual effects,” notes Dixon.
Dixon also built an army of 40,000 baseball fans, using 115 costumed extras borrowed from the main unit at Engel. “We’d transport 10 at a time, and have each one do a pre-determined seven-and-a-half-minute routine of movements,” he explains.
Each was photographed by six different computer-controlled Canon T2i cameras, then shot a second time turned slightly, to produce 12 optional angles of each extra.
“We could then build a crowd, with selected parameters of sex, race, age, et cetera, running through any portion of the routine we needed, and shown from any angle. It was amazing
how well that worked,” Dixon says.
The striking baseball specialty shots in the film were shot by 2nd Unit director Allan Graf and Michael Burgess. Helgeland had worked with Graf on A Knight’s Tale, bringing his skill capturing the impact of football in unique ways to a jousting film, the director notes.
“My impression of baseball is that it was much more of a contact sport back then, and Allan knows how to capture that,” Helgeland states. Adds Graf, “It really did have a physicality back then, so we tried to get the camera right in there with Jackie.”
Graf and Burgess dug holes and set the EPIC into the ground, covered by Plexiglas, to capture images of Robinson sliding into bases. They also photographed Robinson running bases in a unique manner, following him, both at face level and foot level, by setting Steadicam operators Matt Moriarty or Bob Scott on a Golf Rocket cart, supplied by Gentleman Grips, who trailed Boseman as he ran the bases.
“Jackie’s bigger than life in those scenes,” Michael Burgess explains, “so we wanted to see his reaction and get a sense of his speed by keeping the camera as low as possible,” using a Kleven cradle rig to sling the EPIC close to the ground off the Golf Rocket.
Coupling creative camera work with new technology is both fruitful and, these days, unavoidable, according to Burgess senior. “I’m not feeling compromised at all by new technology,” he concludes of his experience on 42, “as we all have to go there. But, really, all I want is for people to watch the images onscreen and be connected to this movie. People worry with digital technology that we’ll somehow lose that connection. But the technology’s not in my way; the technology is helping me get there.”
By Matt Hurwitz / Photos by D. Stevens & Warner Bros. Pictures