In-Camera Techniques on Seabiscuit
Under the guidance of director Gary Ross and DP John Schwartzman, ASC, the Seabiscuit crew uses in-camera techniques to capture gritty horseracing footage at California’s Santa Anita racetrack.
Production of Seabiscuit, a period piece based on Laura Hillenbrand's novel about the rise of the legendary and unlikely 1930s horseracing champion, illustrates the clever lengths to which some modern filmmakers will go to acquire complicated images in-camera. The collaboration among director Gary Ross, DP John Schwartzman, ASC, and their crew to produce what Schwartzman says are "probably the most realistic horse-racing sequences ever placed on celluloid" illustrates an entirely different filmmaking approach from the typical summer blockbuster.
Designing the Shoot
Certainly, the Universal film has a digital touch, but not a digital foundation—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 180 digital shots to the project, but almost all of them were of the invisible variety, designed to delete modern buildings and add 1930s-era set extensions.
"I wanted classic composition, not being intrusive, not using a lot of modern techniques to yank the viewer out of the period," says Ross. "But at the same time that we show what horseracing was like in that era, we're not trying to replicate movie-making of that era. That's why we played it wider than you would normally do for a movie of this scope. To get it done, John and I pre-designed cutting patterns, planning about 450 scenes and how they would link together visually."
The basic problem the team had to solve in presenting the horseracing sequences, according to Schwartzman, was "how to get our cameras into the middle of a horse race, and how to do it safely, since horseracing is such a dangerous sport." The solution was to build sophisticated camera insert cars and to use the most complex camera cranes and remote heads available. Schwartzman's experience shooting action for Michael Bay came in handy here, and he turned to his key grip, Les Tomita, and Hollywood vehicle engineer Allan Padelford to build and configure the tools he would need to film at racetracks, including California's Pomona and Santa Anita, New York's Saratoga, and Kentucky's Keeneland.
But first Schwartzman had to push past his aversion to shooting Super 35, rather than his preferred anamorphic approach. The DP explains that the widescreen nature of horseracing imagery made Super 35 attractive, but he had concerns about getting an adequate blowup out of the smaller negative space. After several tests prior to production, Schwartzman finally became convinced that the rapid evolution of the digital intermediate process would mitigate the problems he experienced the 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 both digital and optical blowups of Super 35 footage last summer, and I concluded the digital blowup exceeded the optical blowup this time," says Schwartzman. "I really felt super, focal-length lenses would help tell this story better and would let me better demonstrate, and enhance, the speed of the horses. Also, since we'd be hanging the cameras off Technocranes at the racetracks, it made sense to have as little wear-and-tear as possible on the lenses.
"I eventually concluded I could shoot Super 35 and get a great digital blowup without the problems I had on The Rock. We took this movie to Technique primarily because some of the same guys Gary worked with when he helped pioneer digital intermediates a few years ago on Pleasantville [at Cinesite, Hollywood] are now over there."
Schwartzman turned to Tomita to figure out what kind of cranes he would need, and he hired Padelford to build two camera vehicles to help the crew keep pace with the horses used in the movie, including six horses to represent Seabiscuit at different ages, situations, and POVs.
"Allan built the cars Tony Scott used to get that amazing auto-racing footage on Days of Thunder, so we were pretty confident we could get what we needed with him helping us," says Schwartzman. "He built us a 28ft.-long, 13-ton truck we could run down the side of the track at 40-plus miles-per-hour, safely putting cranes 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 the front was a fixed crane arm that could move up and down. That one had the new Wescam XR remote head on it—a new device with a rock-solid [three-axis] gyro platform that we were actually beta testing at the time we shot this movie. The Technocrane arm used a Libra head with a wide Panavision 4:1 zoom lens on it, and the camera on the Wescam XR had a [Panavision] 11:1 zoom lens with a doubler.
"The movie has about 450 scenes, and we viewed them as individual sentences that, together, make up a paragraph," says director Gary Ross.
"This was the only way to get detail on the eyes of the jockeys and the horses, showing the horse's nose flaring, and so on. This technology was also crucial because we did not have unlimited use of the horses, and each race sequence, we had limited takes to get it right. We were allowed to run each horse only twice a day, and then that same horse could not work again for two days."
Schwartzman adds that Padelford also built the production a second vehicle, dubbed the "S.S. Seabiscuit," a flatbed vehicle about 12in. off the ground carrying two animatronic horses that slid up and down a short track on the flatbed. The purpose of that vehicle was to get moving footage of the jockeys in the heat of a race, as they bump and slide into each other.
"We had handheld cameras around them, which was the reason they were so close to the ground," says Schwartzman. "We could move that thing about 70mph around the track, while getting closeup footage of the actors."
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