Learn from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael on how he and director James Mangold made Ford v. Ferrari a movie that's more than just (well-shot) race car scenes.
There's nothing more exciting than a car hitting 200mph and streaking around the corners of a race track. Man was not meant to go that fast, so they designed a car. And then we got lucky and the Lumiere brothers made cameras we could strap to those cars.
And so, race car movies were born. The latest entry in that genre, Ford V. Ferrari, is filled compelling emotional stakes, snappy dialogue, and impressive car racing scenes. It's a movie that defines an era of American expansion against a tumultuous homeland -- and it does so with kinetic and arresting visuals. The film's director, James Mangold, turned to legendary cinematographer Phedon Papamichael to help capture all this on-screen. The DP recently sat down with Variety to reveal the secrets behind making one of this year's biggest awards contenders.
So how can you shoot a movie with huge characters, the kinds who became legends? And how can you also highlight the cars themselves as characters, which were also legendary? Papamichael says:
By working with the actors first, and doing a little bit of prep for the technical aspects, we can capture what we need to from the actors. Our lensing approach is to get physically close, but not to isolate the actors. We use a wider lens, so you can feel the surroundings, and that’s what we did in “Ford v. Ferrari.” We hard-mounted the camera to the car. We get the close-ups on Christian Bale, but with a wide enough lens. The action is designed to tell the story through him. You see Christian doing all these things; he’s talking to himself, singing and to see the action with the car in Willow Springs. It’s how we approached the drama scenes. We realized very early when we were testing equipment; the way to do this was the old school way. The approach was getting close to the actors and telling the story through them. It’s about friendship and the passion of pursuing your love, and it’s also a corporate movie.
It's interesting to hear how much they concentrated on character motivation to also motivate the camera. We heard the same thing from The Irishman's camera team.
As far as rigs go, this sounds standard. Sometimes instead of reinventing the wheel, it's important to just get the basics done right and clean.
Especially when you're under time constraints.
Papamichael on Shooting Under Time Constraints
When Ken drives for the last time, it was out in the Mojave Desert. It’s an hour and a half from L.A., and we had limited time. We did a couple of shots with Matt sitting by the trailer. I said, “Let’s quickly get out there, do a lap.” We had a pursuit car. We had this driver in the Ford and even that scene -- where he’s driving -- was stuff we did on the spot. We rushed back and put the camera on and with the sun setting on the horizon.
The close-ups of Christian were with the camera hard-mounted and you can see the low sun playing over him. It became such a beautiful naturally lit moment. You hear Shelby’s voice. It’s not a total action movie, but it’s really nice when it works that way and you get these moments that work for the story and visually.
Who hasn't been on a shoot where they felt like the clock was working against them? It is comforting to know the pros have the same days as us amateurs. But probably with more at stake.
This all speaks to the importance of prep work. You have to have your blocking and shot list ready. Things can go wrong, but always have a backup plan.
Especially if you're shooting at magic hour.
Papamichael on Shooting At LAX During Magic Hour
That’s a very special scene. I wanted it at dusk, and you have a 20-minute window to shoot that. We could have gone back the next day, but we were so restricted at the airport because planes were coming in and out on the next runway. We couldn’t set up equipment as they said winds could pick up and have it fly over into a flight path, so I couldn’t lay any track. Christian sat down and we had seven setups and coverage and 20 minutes to do it. The scene starts and the lights in the distance were ones that I couldn’t control, but luckily I had the big number eight to light their faces. We planned it and went for it. It was really stressful, but we knew we had it.
There's nothing more beautiful than shots at magic hour. We have a whole list of tips on how to make them pop.
In a movie whose story carries its own mythos, you want shots that feel like they can bolster the legend at hand. That's why it's so nuts to hear they did these shots in a twenty-minute window. Especially when you have an actor playing off a kid. High stakes!
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