Tom Stern, ASC and Clint Eastwood re-imagine the rugby match that made a nation

“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole.
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.”

—William Ernest Henley in 1875

Invictus is an appropriate title for a motion picture about a seminal chapter in world history. It is drawn from the poem Invictus quoted above, which Nelson Mandela frequently recited when he was leading South Africa out of the dark ages of apartheid.

The script is an adaption of John Carlin’s history book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation. Morgan Freeman plays Mandela and Matt Damon is Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks rugby team that represented South Africa during the 1995 World Cup championship games.

Beginning in 1962, Mandela spent 27 years in prison for leading resistance to his country’s apartheid policy, which segregated, impoverished and denied basic human rights to the native people of South Africa. After his release, he was elected president in 1994. The film spans a six-month period after it was announced that South Africa would host the World Cup rugby games in Cape Town. Mandela envisioned the competition as an opportunity to unite the people of his country as they rallied to support their team.

A New Beginning

Invictus is the eighth film that Tom Stern, ASC has shot with Clint Eastwood at the helm, beginning with Blood Work in 2002. Stern was also the gaffer on 16 films that Bruce Surtees, ASC and Jack Green, ASC shot for Eastwood.

The cinematographer says he had never been to South Africa until he travelled there about a month before production began. The location manager and production designer had already scouted potential sites. After Stern visited those locations, he met with production designer James Murakami to discuss ideas for enhancing settings.

“Jim is resourceful and talented,” Stern observes. “He was Henry Bumstead’s art director and took over as production designer on Clint’s films after Henry died.”

It was a given that Invictus would be produced in 35 mm anamorphic format, because according to Stern, “Clint loves the organic look and feeling that you can render with anamorphic lenses, and the (2.4:1) aspect ratio gave us flexibility to compose interesting shots with characters interacting in their environments. We envisioned making frequent use of over the shoulder and other shots from subjective points of view.”

The camera package provided by Panavision in Los Angeles included Platinum Panaflex XL and ARRIFLEX 235 bodies and the same anamorphic lenses that Stern has been using since he shot Eastwood’s Oscar-winning drama, Mystic River. It includes C-series 25 to 100 mm primes, E-series 135 and 180 mm long lenses, and an Angenieux 10:1 zoom. The lenses have periodically been upgraded, and are carefully maintained and stored in a vault until Stern needs them.

Travelling to South Africa with Stern was Steadicam/camera operator Stephen Campanelli, first AC Bill Coe and gaffer Ross Dunkerley, all regulars on Stern crews. “We’re like a family,” the DP explains. “We don’t have to spend a lot of time getting to know one another and learning what different people are capable of doing.” The remainder of the crew was assembled locally during preproduction.

On The Pitch

Part sports film, part human theater, Invictus blends exhilarating re-creations of the rugby competition with dramatic scenes, including character studies, especially between the evolving relationship of Mandela and Pienaar, as well as occasional flashbacks using archival footage. “I sort of got into Clint’s mindset and created a graphic chart of the characters and what was going on emotionally in their lives,” Stern continues. “I used that to figure out peak moments and the emotional tones of different scenes.”

Example given, there are times in Invictus when Mandela’s eyes reveal his thoughts and emotions, and other shots when they conceal what he is thinking and feeling. Stern says prosthetic makeup was developed for Freeman to make him look more like Mandela whose brows hood his eyes.

Dramatic scenes were mainly filmed with a single camera, sometimes two, and rugby sequences were covered with two and occasionally more cameras. “It’s faster and less intrusive shooting scenes with a single camera when characters are talking and interacting in other ways,” the cinematographer observes. “I believe there has got to be a good reason to use two or more cameras in those situations.

“In a sentence, it’s a story about Mandela’s humanity, his evolving relationship with Pienaar, and how they helped bring people together,” Stern adds. “There’s an interesting dynamic between them. Mandela is the head of state and an international figure, so he’s a broader, larger character, but they are both on a journey. At the end, Mandela and Pienaar both come across as regular guys who relate as equals.”

Eastwood and Stern have been working with Dunkerley for years, and the DP discussed his plan with the gaffer to create mainly “honest or naturalistic lighting,” coupled with some surrealistic components, “which is another way of saying that it’s a little interpretive,” Stern says.

His film palette was limited to Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, which he rated for an exposure index of 400 to get a somewhat richer look. The exception was the use of a slower stock on aerial shots used to establish settings.

Stern says they began shooting those portions of the movie before the rugby players were assembled and began rehearsing plays. Exterior dramatic scenes were filmed at practical locations, including outside the presidential palace. Interiors were primarily filmed at practical locations. The main sets were Mandela’s office and a television studio.

“I was usually standing where I can judge the lighting, and Clint was generally to my left watching the actors perform,” Stern says. “We watched a rehearsal, usually did one take, and trusted the crew to get it right. We were moving fast, but I’ve never felt rushed. Clint believes it helps the actors concentrate, and I agree.”

In The Scrum

There was no video village or playback, which is standard procedure on Eastwood’s films. There were small monitors on the cameras. They transmitted signals to small, portable monitors that Eastwood and Stern would glance at to check framing.

“I didn’t know anything about this story before I read the script,” Campanelli says. “I was totally moved, because you couldn’t write a fictional script like this and make it believable. Mandela forgave and forgot transgressions and re-united his country.”

The camera operator goes on to describe a “magic moment” where Mandela is walking through a tunnel leading to the field where Pienaar is going to introduce him to the team. “Tom did a beautiful job of silhouetting him walking through this tunnel into the stadium,” he remarks. “People in the stands went wild when they saw that he was wearing a green Springbok jersey. I followed him as he headed to Pienaar and shook his hand. It’s a beautiful moment. You can literally feel the emotions.”

Campanelli generally had the Panaflex XL camera on a Steadicam, and trusted his instincts while following and framing the actors in their environments. “There weren’t a lot of marks,” he reveals. “Clint gave the actors freedom to move about the set. This wasn’t a typical Steadicam project with a lot of shots running up and down stairs and chasing people. It was more about following people around and bringing the audience into conversations. I knew what I could get away with, because Tom is tremendously adept at lighting in the most challenging settings.

“There were times when I would listen to the dialogue and then suddenly pan to another actor’s face, and get an amazing reaction to what was being said. That was often a lot more powerful than staying on the actor who was speaking.”

The rugby practice and game scenes were mainly filmed at the famous Newlands Stadium in Cape Town where the actual competition occurred. They also spent one to two weeks filming additional rugby scenes at a stadium in Johannesburg.

“Rugby is a complex game,” Stern observes. “One of the surprises was how fast those guys are. There is no place to hide on a rugby field. Clint decided early on that he didn’t care if the audience learns how to play rugby. You just get a sense of the game. There are a bunch of big strong guys with a ball who are trying to go in one direction, and other guys are trying to stop them, take the ball and go the other way.”

There was a sports coordinator who planned rugby sequences, but Eastwood gave the athletes freedom to improvise plays. Chester Williams, one of the heroes of the 1995 championship game, served as technical advisor. “We re-created scenes from a night game between the South African and French rugby teams that was played in the rain,” Sterns says. “We lit those scenes with a powerful ARRI (Studio) T24 Fresnel light that was 80 to 100 feet in the air. It looks natural.”

Eastwood, Stern and the crew watched rehearsals at about half speed and figured out where the cameras should be. Most coverage was designed to pull the audience inside the game rather than observing it as spectators.

Campanelli was generally running with the camera on a Steadicam fluidly following the action, though at times Stern called for handheld shots. The ARRI 235 camera was usually on the front, back or side of a supercharged golf cart with rubber bungee cords used to absorb the shock. A zoom lens was used to grab cut-away shots.

“I’ve shot football, golf and other sports films, but didn’t know anything about rugby,” Campanelli admits. “I studied a lot of DVDs and tried to figure out where to put the camera for the most dynamic shots that tell the story. We all tried to figure out how to get inside, underneath and around the plays. Sometimes, I whip panned to someone just as he was catching the ball. If you try to plan shots like that, it doesn’t feel organic.”

“Clint is a big jazz fan,” observes first assistant camera Coe, who has teamed with Stern and Campanelli 10 times since 2002. “You can definitely draw a relationship between the improvisations of jazz music to making films with him. He inspired us to try things that you probably wouldn’t normally do and to not get bogged down in technical details. The atmosphere allowed everyone to be extremely creative.”

The exposed negative was flown to London every night, where someone met the plane and supervised transferring the film to a flight to Los Angeles. The negative was processed at Technicolor and digital dailies were shipped to Eastwood and Stern.

Stern knew upfront that he would be adding painterly touches to the look during digital intermediate timing sessions with Jill Bogdanowicz at Technicolor in Los Angeles. She observes, “This was our seventh film together. Tom would start a sentence and I could finish it. It all begins with the exposed negative. He never failed to record the deep black tones with details that Clint likes, along with a beautiful range of contrast that gave us the flexibility we needed for fine tuning some images.”

Coe concludes, “There is an iconic still picture of Nelson Mandela at the actual World Cup championship game where he was handing the trophy to Francois Pienaar. That was a special moment in history that we had the privilege of being able to re-create on film. I got chills just being a part of it! What made it more interesting was that we were actually filming it where it happened. It’s kind of ironic that a bunch of Americans are telling this story. In a way that was a heavy weight on our shoulders.”

But nothing, all of the Invictus teammates are quick to add, compared to a nation’s burden riding on the shoulders of one visionary leader and a sports team bent on victory.

By Bob Fisher

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