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‘Miles Ahead’: Non-Traditional Visuals Inspired by Jazz

Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer strove in his visuals to match the action’s loose vibe.

Miles Ahead, which director Don Cheadle wrote with Steven Baigelan, is a part speculative, often fantastical, look at the musician’s life throughout the mid-20th century, as imagined by the subject through a haze of pain medications, street drugs and alcohol. While a journalist (Ewan McGregor) seeks an interview with the reclusive Davis, the film sweeps between jazz clubs performances, his rise to success and his personal demons and even a wild car chase as he speeds through the city streets in his Ferrari.

Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, ASC, AIC, strove in his visuals to match the action’s loose vibe. “Don and I would ask each other, ‘Did we play it too safe? Did we go where we said we were going to go?’ And usually we hadn’t played it safe and I’m very proud of that. We’d remind each other, ‘This is what we’re going for and there’s no sense backing down!’”

Photo by Brian Douglas/Sony Pictures Classics.

Upon reading the unusual script, Schaefer recalls, “It came to me: it’s a Miles Davis fever dream. These aren’t really flashbacks—they’re ‘memory fusions.’ It was all very trippy in that way. Don taught me the term ‘modal’ – a non-traditional musical mode made popular by artists such as Davis and John Coltrane. I loves Miles Davis and jazz but I didn’t know that term, where the musicians play off two different themes going back and forth. We’re going back and forth in the film between [Davis’s] thoughts and memories. One thing triggers another and the whole film becomes a fusion of different times and images.”

The independent feature was shot primarily in Cincinnati, Ohio and Schaefer mixed Alexa material and some Super 16mm (7219 shot with an ARRI 416) for most of the film, and a Canon C500 for night scenes of Davis driving taken from inside a small sports car. Though he’d have preferred to shoot the majority of the material in 16, he was discouraged by concerns about getting lab work done quickly and efficiently in the region and the money and scheduling involved in shipping everything to Los Angeles was prohibitive. “I decided to shoot the older period in super 16 and use that look to match the Alexa footage to that as much as possible,” he explains.

Colorist Stephen Nakamura of Deluxe’s Company 3 in Santa Monica, explains that he worked with Schaefer to infuse much of the material with a subtle hint of the feel of mid-century studio photography. “I tried to remember photographs from the ’50s to the ’60s,” notes Nakamura, who works in Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve. “I don’t know if it was the print stock or what it was but they had a higher contrast than you see now. We brought a lot of that feel to scenes Roberto shot in 16mm and the Alexa material. Then we also added some grain to the Alexa footage – bigger grain, like the 16mm film has naturally from being blown up more than 35mm neg.” “Nothing severe,” Schaefer adds. “I wanted everything to feel—to use an overused term—‘organic.’ The film covers many decades and most of what orients the viewer to whether it’s the late ’50s or the mid-’70s is all about the production design and costumes.

Photo by Brian Douglas/Sony Pictures Classics.

Schaefer did build a ‘vintage’ feel into the ‘neg,’ by shooting the 16mm material with a decades-old Canon zoom and sought old Cooke Panchro primes for their uncoated front element but ended up using newer Super Speeds. He used Cooke S4 glass on the Alexa, adding that for all digital cinematography, “I almost always use Schneider Hollywood Black Magic [filters] to soften the contrast a bit. The harder roll-off between highlights and mid-tones is one of the things that really declares ‘this is digital!’ and the contrast range of digital cameras makes things look too sharp and the diffusion really helps with that.”

One of the more fanciful, least biographical sequences involves a night car chase scene. “It was inspired by the ‘blaxploitation’ films of the ‘70s and we had a fairly low budget to shoot it and to make Cincinnati look like New York,” the cinematographer says. “The chase goes up six blocks on a main avenue, over two blocks, down another six blocks and back over another street. We certainly couldn’t do big lighting for this whole area. We scouted an area that could pass for New York and put some period vehicles in there.

“The script says he’s driving his Ferrari, which in reality was a two-seater,” he adds. Getting into that model with a camera would have been impossible so they used a Jaguar XJ, which at least had a back seat to house Schaefer and a camera, although even that fit was by no means luxurious. Space was at a premium and the Alexa was simply too big to fit. “Even the M series,” he says of the two-piece head/body configured Alexa, “would require a fiber optic cable to connect to a recorder that would essentially take up as much space as the Alexa I was using.”

Ewan McGregor as Dave Braden. Photo by Brian Douglas/Sony Pictures Classics.

After testing several alternate cameras for the sequence, the DP decided to go with a Canon C500 for its small footprint, its ergonomics when used handheld, and the image quality it output at high exposure indices. “We recorded to the external [Convergent Design] Odyssey 7, which is quite small and has an onboard monitor that helped the focus puller. We really weren’t going to be working with much additional light at all so I wanted to shoot at [EI] 3200. We tested the C500 at that speed and it looked really nice. So that was how we shot all those car shots. I looked into why it looked better at 3200 than other cameras and Canon people explained that it was not just adding gain to the sensor, which increases noise, but it also changes the voltage to the sensor which raises the sensitivity and results in a cleaner image.”To Schaefer, the element that really sells the story is Cheadle’s performance. “He’s said he hates when actors pretend to play an instrument that they can’t play,” the cinematographer recounts. And while his playing was overdubbed for the final by artist/producers Robert Glasper and Herbie Hancock, Cheadle did work very hard on his playing for the camera. “We’d sometimes do extra takes,” he recalls, “because Don didn’t feel he had done the fingering perfectly.”