Mystery Train

Larry Fong reteams with boyhood pal, J.J. Abrams, to conjure a magical era of moviemaking in Super 8

In the late 1970s, when cinematographer Larry Fong was just a teenager, he loved to make movies on Super 8, the favorite home movie format of that time. One day, while shooting a film outside a friend’s house, a neighbor kid – also a Super 8 fan – came from across the street, wanting to get involved.

“He kept coming over and bugging us, because we were a couple years older,” Fong laughs.  “That’s how I met J.J.”

“J.J.”, of course, is J.J. Abrams, the prolific filmmaker, producer and writer behind such hit films and TV series as Lost, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III and Fringe. And since their Super 8 days, he and Fong have remained friends, working on projects like the pilot and first season of Lost, and several others.

Their new film, Super 8, is a case of back to the future. It centers on a group of kids in 1979 in the fictional Ohio town of Lillian (named for Abrams’ grandmother), who, while making their own Super 8 zombie film at the local train depot, witness a catastrophic crash, out of which emerges something that came from the fabled alien stomping grounds of Area 51, the military base in southern Nevada.

Super 8 also reunites Abrams with another childhood acquaintance – Steven Spielberg, who is one of the film’s producers.  [See Exposure]

“In a way, this film is a tribute to Steven,” Fong says.  “J.J. and I, like everyone else, idolized Spielberg in the 1970s; little did I ever expect that we’d do a literal homage.”

The director and his DP also gathered a crack team of camera veterans they had previously worked with, including operators Phil Carr-Forster and Colin Anderson, 1st AC Don Duffield, Jr. (known to most as “Junior”) and 2nd unit DP Bruce McCleery.

Interiors for Super 8 were shot at Raleigh Studios Playa Vista and at other locations around Los Angeles last fall. Weirton, in West Virginia’s north panhandle, became the small town of Lillian, Ohio.

“It has a certain charm,” explains Fong.  “But also, if you look at the time frame and feel of the script, [Weirton] feels very late 1970s, with a heavy Spielberg influence.”

Fong says he and Abrams wanted to evoke the period without tilting into parody.  Great art direction, led by production designer Martin Whist, and art directors David Scott and Domenic Silvestri, helped to influence Fong’s lighting. Particularly evocative were the scenes where the kids are screening their prized footage on a small projector in a bedroom.

“I [distinctly] remember closing the curtains, with my friends, turning on the Super 8 projector and experiencing that magic of the chattering noise and flickering light and the glow of the screen,” Fong recounts. “We wanted to conjure those feelings, of the light leaking through the curtains, and maybe a couple of lamps you may leave on in the room; hoping Mom doesn’t burst in with the bright hallway light, announcing dinner in five minutes and, ‘Shut that thing off,’ which actually happens in one scene.”

Shooting with multiple cameras is not unusual for Abrams, although in this case, three rigs were used because, as the filmmaker explains, “When you’re working with young actors, their time is incredibly limited.” Adds Carr-Forster, “[Shooting with three cameras] is very efficient because it reduces the amount of setups you need.”

Lighting for three cameras, of course, is another matter.

“We had to keep lights out of the shots, while still keeping the light right for each camera angle,” Fong describes.  “Instead of lighting one shot at a time, you’re lighting entire scenes. It was complicated, but once we figured it out, it allowed J.J. to work quickly without too much of a reset or keeping him waiting for me and my crew.”

Keeping the many cameras from seeing each other also required coordination – something with which Carr-Forster and Anderson have plenty of shared experience.

“On Star Trek and MI3, I was A-camera and Phil was B-camera, and on this film, he’s A and I’m B,” Anderson explains. “It’s great, because there are no egos with us. We try and stay out of the way, and still get something that’s complementary.”

Adds Carr-Forster, “We know each other well.  What we do is try and hide the cameras somewhere and talk to each other – ‘Do you see me here? What about if I’m here?’ It’s all done quickly,” though, as Anderson laughs, “We still shoot each other sometimes.”

Abrams’s energetic visual style added another layer of complexity that inspired a mantra for the entire team: “With J.J., the camera is always moving,” notes Anderson. “Anything that makes the shot feel alive, he wants.”

And at the core of each scene is the A-camera master, which Abrams describes as the “hero camera telling the main story.” A hero-cam, that is, of course, never a static, wide master, augmented by close-ups and cut-ins.

“There is always an effort to make sure every shot – from the beginning to the end of the master shot – is very interesting,” Fong laughs. “And by ‘interesting,’ I mean elaborate and complicated.”

“[The master] is invariably an intricate move, whether we’re on a Steadicam or a Technocrane or a dolly,” Anderson adds. “That’s because J.J. designs these wonderfully elaborate moves that tell so much in one shot.”

The A-camera on the Technocrane often sat on a Chapman-Leonard Maverick™ Mobile Arm Vehicle (M.A.V.), giving Abrams even more flexibility in his shot designs. The rubber-tired Maverick is capable of moving at high speeds, and as Abrams describes, was something that, “in many cases, proved its value in its flexibility and ease of use.”

Operating a Panavision® Millennium XL, usually outfitted with an anamorphic 40mm Primo or 60mm close focus lens, Carr-Forster would descend from high above to a mere foot from one of the child actors in a single move. One such example begins with a vista of the train depot as the kids arrive in a car. The crane pushes in over the tracks and, as the wind picks up and script pages fly from the hands of one of the kids, the camera pushes in on his face.

“These [type of] shots are remarkable,” Carr-Forster relates, “because they bring you from well outside the canvas all the way into the scene.”

Travelling from 50-feet to 14 inches in a single move presents a huge challenge for the ACs, which is why Duffield, Jr. says, “everything on A-camera was push-in or rush-in to minimum focus,” with the task made doubly tough by the novice cast.

“When we started, the idea of hitting marks was new to them,” recalls Carr-Forster.  “But they soon picked up the idea and were incredibly helpful and hard working.”

While Carr-Forster’s A-camera was often on the Technocrane, Anderson’s B-rig was typically on a dolly or Steadicam, often with a Panavision ATZ 70-200 zoom lens.

“Colin was usually gathering either tighter action or something on the same axis as the A-camera, to avoid any untoward lighting issues,” Abrams explains. “The great thing about working with a wonderful second operator – and I’ve been lucky to work with both Colin and Phil in that position – is that they’re both artists and storytellers, and hungry to find great pieces. When I’m in the editing room, I cannot tell you how often, and how grateful beyond words, I was for what they found that wasn’t necessarily in the plan.”

The team was rounded out by another veteran, John Skotchdopole, on C-camera, using a Panavision 400mm prime or a 420-to-840mm zoom lens, the latter nicknamed “The Hubble.”

“Skotch would either be picking up different pieces of the action, or finding a way to focus on one particular child,” Abrams describes. “He’d be positioned in places behind the periphery, with the longer lens and, a lot of time, his stuff was the footage I’d use.”

Duffield’s AC crew was rounded out by Mateo Bourdieu on B-camera, and Eric Laudadio on C-camera, both of whom were put to the test.

“With so much movement, not as many rehearsals as you’d like, and shooting anamorphic at night, focus pulling can be incredibly difficult, and they did a stupendous job,” Fong praises.

The scene that sets Super 8’s story in motion is the massive train crash – originally planned for West Virginia but shot at Firestone Ranch, in Agua Dulce, north of Los Angeles, to provide more overall control and integration with VFX.

Whist, replicating the train depot in Weirton, including buildings and railroad track, built a 400-foot by 400-foot set. As seen in Super 8’s much talked-about trailer, a wayward pickup truck finds its way onto the tracks as a train is approaching at full speed.  The ensuing impact derails the train’s cars, which smash through and explode the depot. All of the action is captured by the kids making their own Super 8 movie, including the unleashing of something that may not belong on our planet.

The complex set piece was done in two four-day shoots – a “pre-crash,” where the kids can be seen making their own film, and a “post-crash,” after Whist re-dressed the set. Production captured many shots, both during and after the crash; for the actual impact, a total of nine cameras were used: four manned, and the remainder unmanned crash cams, such as Eyemos, placed in harm’s way (though all survived undamaged).

The sequence was planned out with Visual Effects Producer Chantal Feghali and Industrial Light + Magic Visual Effects Supervisor Kim Libreri (with effects produced under direction of ILM effects legend Dennis Muren). ILM Animation Supervisor Paul Kavanagh created a simple animatic previsualization.

“It was mainly to block out basic action beats,” Libreri explains. “But J.J. had this great idea, given that it was such a large scale environment. Instead of pre-determining everything, he knew what the basic beats were, which he had drawn on little mini-boards. That was our beat sheet, to ensure we were shooting everything in the right order.”

Whist also built a 6-foot by 3-foot model, which enabled the team to envision where things such as cranes, crash cams and explosion events would be set.

“That was where we discussed the best angles for the camera, and where the kids could run,” Libreri recalls. Abrams still added cameras/moves on the actual day, insisting he didn’t want to bleed the scene of its reality through previz and storyboards. And Muren concurs, noting that a lot more was discovered on the day than VFX had anticipated. “You really want to leave directors and cameramen open to what they feel on the set,” Muren says. “Because the movie’s better that way.”

The crash, filmed on the “post-crash”-dressed set, involved capturing the “locomotive” (a green screen vehicle with a headlight, like that of the CG vehicle that would replace it) acting as a ram and smashing through the depot set. The ram was pulled through at a fairly fast clip (about 40 mph) by a cable attached to a crane.

Stationary cameras, of course, were not a part of the equation. In fact, Carr-Forster, shooting from the 50-foot Technocrane on the Maverick, was able to keep the scene’s focus on the kids, despite all the wild mayhem.

“So many other directors would use the explosion as the primary object,” Anderson says. “But J.J. is the kind of storyteller who uses the people as the primary object, and the explosion is almost secondary to the scene.”

Anderson’s B-camera was on Steadicam on a dolly track, following both the train ram and the kids, and being pulled by grips moving at the ram’s speed. Libreri says it was like “a Ben Hur chariot Colin was on, to get some high speed motion, following the kids.”

Skotchdopole was also on a dolly track, shooting the train, while Fong ran a remote-operated camera on a crane situated behind the train station. Second AC Rodney Sandoval was placed with a camera on-axis with the train ram – at a safe distance away.

“I give full credit to Junior [Don Duffield] to be able to manage all those cameras and have it all done and shot on time, and then get on with the rest of the day’s work,” marvels Carr-Forster. “That doesn’t often happen.”

One post-crash moment typifies Super 8’s kinetic yet character-first approach. As the children run away from the explosion, they come around a train car – tracked by Carr-Forster on the Technocrane/Maverick combo, the camera mounted on a Libra head, running parallel along a dirt road. Abrams cuts to a tight frontal shot, captured by Anderson on his dolly-mounted camera, plus C-camera shots.

“The kids come parallel with me,” Carr-Forster describes, “and then my camera starts lifting up and scoping out, and you see the whole battlefield, which is exploding all around them. They’re running in between explosions, and we’re able to get all this great coverage that really takes you into it.”

A second unit, run by DP Bruce McCleery, also employed unique methodology. In a scene where a bus comes under attack, McCleery suggested an Ultimate Arm vehicle (placing the camera on a remote head on a crane arm) to track the bus traveling at speed. Driven by a precision stunt driver, there were cameras on either side of the bus and in front, as a tire blowout was captured, before the bus overtook the tracking vehicle.

A similar method was used for first unit, when Anderson’s Steadicam was unstrapped and placed upon a Grip Trix motorized vehicle tracking the kids on bikes. A second camera, mounted on a gyro-stabilized Libra head with a wider lens, was placed alongside.

Incredibly, Abrams was able to direct second unit footage via wireless video transmission and/or cell phone and walkie-talkie.

“I’d line up a shot and show it to him, and he’d say, ‘Can you move the camera back 10 feet?’” recalls McCleery. “It’s brilliant and he’s the only guy I can think of that could pull it off. All this while directing his own first unit.”

McCleery also shot some newsreel “found footage,” showing long-ago scientists at work on some unearthly evidence. “J.J. wanted it to feel like real newsreel stuff,” the DP recounts. “So we were in there handheld with zooms, hunting and pecking around the laboratory. You get to play with bad photography, which is an art form unto itself!”

Fong had a similar approach when creating the kids’ Super 8 footage. Though he and Abrams did testing with a number of Super 8 cameras, it was determined that, due to the imposition of visual effects, a higher resolution image was needed. So they used a 16mm ARRI SR3 (sometimes operated by Abrams, who could not resist a return to his roots).

“You’ll laugh when you see how those scenes are lit,” Fong shares. “I had to summon how I lit things back when I was in high school. We had this truck full of lights and many, many talented people. And, I would end up just lighting with one or two clip-on hardware bulbs, and making sure we could see the mic boom in the shots!”

Fong and Abrams both effuse over the chance to return to the era when their passion for filmmaking was sparked, hoping that love translates into the visuals up on-screen.

“When you walk on the set, and you see 100 extras dressed up in period clothing, and it really looks like 1978,” Fong smiles, “it’s already a kind of magical thing. Then you sprinkle your own magic on top of that, and everything just comes alive.”

By Matt Hurwitz / photos by Francois Duhamel