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Shooting Horses on Courses

In-Camera for an In-Post Age

When director Gary Ross insists, “I’m not hung up on sayingSeabiscuit is my vision — it was a total collaboration inevery sense of the word,” his DP on the film, John Schwartzman,ASC, immediately contradicts him.

“It is your vision,” Schwartzman says, reminding Rossthat he is both the director and the writer of the piece. “Mysuccess on this movie came from getting inside your head.”

“He’s being humble,” Ross retorts, giving no ground.“We spent months discussing this movie, planning shots inintimate detail. The results you see on film can’t be the vision of anysingle person.”

Their friendly argument aside, production of the true-life drama— a period piece based on Laura Hillenbrand’s novel about therise of the legendary and unlikely 1930s horseracing champion,Seabiscuit — clearly illustrates the clever lengths to which somemodern filmmakers will go these days to acquire complicated imagesin-camera. Coming in the summer of the digital epic — MatrixReloaded, The Hulk, Terminator 3, et al — the collaborationamong Ross, Schwartzman, and their crew to produce what Schwartzmaninsists are “probably the most realistic horse-racing sequencesever placed on celluloid” illustrates an entirely differentfilmmaking approach from those blockbusters.

Designing the Shoot

Certainly, the Universal film has a digital touch, but not a digitalfoundation — this was old-fashioned, gritty, location filmmaking.It’s true that a few effects shops (primarily Sony Pictures Imageworks,The Orphanage, and Cinesite Hollywood) contributed a total of 180digital shots to the project, but almost all of them were of theinvisible variety, designed to delete modern buildings and add1930s-era set extensions.

Also, at press time, the filmmakers were just beginning thedigital-intermediate process at Technique, Burbank. Ross, however,insists that they weren’t planning any fancy tricks with the footagethat they captured at racetracks around the country over a span of 78days earlier this year. Instead, the director says, filmgoers will getan up-close experience of what Schwartzman’s camera team captured atthose racetracks during the shoot — images painstakinglydesigned, ordered, and structured by Ross, Schwartzman, and theircollaborators over three months prior to the start of production.

“I wanted classic composition, not being intrusive, not usinga lot of modern techniques to yank the viewer out of the period,”says Ross. “But at the same time that we show what horseracingwas like in that era, we’re not trying to replicate movie-making ofthat era. That’s why we played it wider than you would normally do fora movie of this scope. To get it done, John and I pre-designed cuttingpatterns, planning about 450 scenes and how they would link togethervisually.”

The consistent thread in that visual link was the autumnal andrestrained color palette designed for the film, according to Ross,meant to reflect the story’s Depression-era timeframe.

“The jockey silks were the only really colorfulelement,” says Ross. “Other than that, we were prettyrestrained — not as much as Road to Perdition, but prettyclose. Lots of red, brick, beige, brown, olive stuff in it. This was adifficult time in American history, and the color scheme was purposelydesigned to reflect that. The horse-racing stuff is a bit more colorfulto be — as it really was back then — a bit of a break fromthe daily worries of the Depression.”

The basic problem the team had to solve in presenting thehorse-racing sequences, according to Schwartzman, was “how to getour cameras into the middle of a horse race, and how to do it safely,since horse-racing is such a dangerous sport.” The solution wasto build sophisticated camera insert cars and to use the most complexcamera cranes and remote heads available. Schwartzman’s experienceshooting action for Michael Bay came in handy here, and he turned tohis key grip, Les Tomita, and Hollywood vehicle engineer AllanPadelford to build and configure the tools he would need to film attracks, including California’s Pomona and Santa Anita, New York’sSaratoga, and Kentucky’s Keeneland.

Equine Cinematography

But first Schwartzman had to push past his aversion to shootingSuper 35, rather than his preferred anamorphic approach. The DPexplains that the widescreen nature of horseracing imagery made Super35 attractive, but he had concerns about getting an adequate blowup outof the smaller negative space. After several tests prior to production,Schwartzman finally became convinced that the rapid evolution of thedigital-intermediate process would mitigate the problems he experiencedthe last time he shot Super 35 — on Bay’s The Rock(1995-96) — when he struggled through an optical blowup.

“[At several facilities around L.A.], we tested doing bothdigital and optical blowups of Super 35 footage last summer, and Iconcluded the digital blowup exceeded the optical blowup thistime,” says Schwartzman. “I really felt super, focal-lengthlenses would help tell this story better, and would let me betterdemonstrate, and enhance, the speed of the horses. Also, since we’d behanging the cameras off Technocranes at the racetracks, it made senseto have as little wear-and-tear as possible on the lenses. Sincespherical lenses have fewer moving parts than anamorphic lenses, I feltSuper 35 would be an advantage there, as well. For a while, Iconsidered shooting the rest of the movie anamorphic and thehorseracing in Super 35, but that was just too much work, money, andgear to drag around. Therefore, I eventually concluded I could shootSuper 35 and get a great digital blowup without the problems I had onThe Rock. We took this movie to Technique primarily because someof the same guys Gary worked with when he helped pioneer digitalintermediates a few years ago on Pleasantville (at Cinesite,Hollywood) are now over there. It helped quite a bit that I was workingwith Gary Ross, because I consider him the Jonas Salk of digitalintermediates, among directors anyway. [At press time], we were juststarting the [digital-intermediate] process, but I think the approachwas definitely the correct one.”

Schwartzman turned to Tomita to figure out what kind of cranes hewould need, and he hired Padelford to build two camera vehicles to helpthe crew keep pace with the horses used in the movie, including sixhorses to represent Seabiscuit at different ages, situations, andPOVs.

“Allan built the cars Tony Scott used to get that amazingauto-racing footage on Days of Thunder, so we were prettyconfident we could get what we needed with him helping us,” saysSchwartzman. “He built us a 28ft.-long, 13-ton truck we could rundown the side of the track at 40-plus miles-per-hour, safely puttingcranes on the noses of the horses. The vehicle had two crane arms on it— one off the back was a 30ft. Technocrane arm, and one off thefront was a fixed crane arm that could move up and down. That one hadthe new Wescam XR remote head on it — a new device with arock-solid [three-axis] gyro platform that we were actually betatesting at the time we shot this movie. The Technocrane arm used a[Wescam] Libra head with a wide Panavision 4:1 zoom lens on it, and thecamera on the Wescam XR had a [Panavision] 11:1 zoom lens with adoubler. This was the only way to get detail on the eyes of the jockeysand the horses, showing the horse’s nose flaring, and so on. Thistechnology was also crucial because we did not have unlimited use ofthe horses, and each race sequence, we had limited takes to get itright. We were allowed to run each horse only twice a day, and thenthat same horse could not work again for two days. So all this wasdesigned to make sure we maximized the amount of usable footage wecould get out of each take.”

Schwartzman adds that Padelford also built the production a secondvehicle, dubbed the “S.S. Seabiscuit,” a flatbed vehicleabout 12in. off the ground carrying two animatronic horses that slid upand down a short track on the flatbed. The purpose of that vehicle wasto get moving, closeup footage of the jockeys in the heat of a race, asthey bump and slide into each other.

“We had handheld cameras around them, which was the reasonthey were so close to the ground,” adds the DP. “We couldmove that thing about 70mph around the track, while getting closeupfootage of the actors.”

Shooting real horses in action, though, even with the insert car,required careful planning and practice because horses can acceleratefaster than vehicles.

“We had to figure out how much of a head start to give the carbecause it took a quarter-mile for the camera car to get up to fullspeed, while the horses could accelerate to full speed much quicker— they can generally go from zero to forty in three or fourstrides,” says Ross. “If we held the horses back, it makesthem mad, and they would swing around and sometimes slam their headsaround because they want to run full speed. It was a lot like afootball team, with lots of people doing lots of little jobs to createa single physical entity moving at the same speed — in our case,around 45mph. That required months of planning, but it paid off.Eventually, we would hit that magic moment at the six-furlong polewhere the camera would be in exactly the right position and the horsejust sort of materialized right under it.”

Wireless Assist

Schwartzman adds that because the production filmed these sequencesat racetracks, various crew members were often a mile or more apart. Asa result, the crew made extensive use of wireless communication andcontrol equipment. Even the jockeys wore wireless earpieces to hearinstructions from Ross or Schwartzman during filming. The DP creditsthe world of television for making such technology available, and hesuggests the use of those tools on feature films is becoming morewidespread, creating what he calls “an interesting synergy”between TV and feature films.

“We did both wireless and microwave control of the cameraheads, sometimes to decrease weight of the vehicle on sharp turns,sometimes just for safety or simplicity,” says Schwartzman.“And we were all communicating with wireless headsets — farmore useful than the walkie-talkies we have traditionally used. Garyand I realized the ability to see our video playback live at theracetrack, and then communicate our needs immediately to people spreadout over a mile, was essential for the efficiency of the production,and also to be more creative. To drive back to video village in themain grandstand each time and then try to pass the word around would betough. We hired Aerial Video Systems (AVS, Burbank), and they createdaerial microwave transmitters for our vehicles and cameras all over theracetrack, and they built me handheld monitors so I could scrollthrough the shots and contact everyone instantly across the racetrack.The whole thing worked fabulously and really helped us out.

“This kind of equipment is far more user-friendly than it usedto be because of the innovations they are developing for television. Inthe feature film world, it seems like we always agonize over it. Willit work? Can we afford it? And yet, they use this stuff all the time atmajor golf tournaments to televise them live. So it’s nice to see thattechnology working its way into the film business. We are not the onesdriving that train, but it is nice to get the benefit of it.”

Technical Bits

Schwartzman’s team also created pieces of black-and-white newsreelfootage to mix with newsreel footage from the era. “We shot ourown stuff with a 144-degree shutter to match the older filmcameras,” the DP explains, “and then took it into onlinesessions to give it a similar look as the old footage, in terms ofgamma and scratchiness. We combined the old and new elements onto ahigh-def, D5 master at 24fps, and played it back on two, stackeddigital projectors in a regular movie theater, while filming the actorswatching it.”

Visual-effects shots, meanwhile, permitted Ross to film whatever hewanted at modern racetracks without worrying what might creep into theshot’s background. As Ross puts it, “CG is mainly used in thismovie as a backplate, and it worked very effectively.

“Any time you deal with a period piece, you want a broadcanvas, and digital effects have advanced so far that I can just eraseor change anything from the modern shot to transform it into a periodshot,” says Ross. “CG is a useful tool, though it doesn’thave the same, obvious impact as it does in a modern sci-fi movie. Forinstance, we did extensive set extensions. We shot at the racetrack inPomona, for example, and turned it into 1930s Tijuana because theforeground stuff worked well and CG elements were used as thebackplate. As the director, this is also important because it makes thewhole thing more affordable.”

In the end, Ross returns to the collaboration theme, insisting thatcommon stylistic tastes among the key players on his crew are mostresponsible for giving the movie unique shots that fit his story,audience, timeframe, and budget.

“It all goes back to the work we did pre-designing the shotsand developing cutting patterns for the sequences, developing contextfor each shot,” Ross says. “The movie has about 450 scenes,and we viewed them as individual sentences that, together, make up aparagraph. So, rather than saying three consecutive pages of our scriptwere ‘a scene,’ we linked the visual design to the themesin the movie. By that, I mean we designed the shot list by connectingthe way things looked in one scene to other scenes that may have beenshot on a different day in a different place. When we have a jockeyflying past the camera and then do a crane move to an actor talkingabout how riding a horse is like flying, we considered this the samescene, even if the actor was talking three months later in a differentlocation.”

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