by Bob Fisher, photos by Jamie Trueblood
A-Minima Captures Skateboarding Action for Lords of Dogtown
Aaton’s A-Minima was the camera of choice for DP Elliot Davis when it came to capturing the skateboarding action for this summer’s hit Lords of Dogtown. Mounted to the end of a pole or handheld by a skater, it allowed him to get critical point-of-view shots and close ups in challenging situations where other cameras simply couldn’t go.
Lords of Dogtown is based on the real-life story of a handful of Southern California teenagers who invented and perfected the sport of skateboarding. The time was the 1970s. The place was the mean streets of Venice, a multi-ethnic, economically depressed beach community appended to Los Angeles. The teens lived in a down and dirty neighborhood called Dogtown. They were known as the Z-Boys, short for the Zephyr skating team, and were mostly street kids from broken families.
The Z-Boys were surfers who invented the thrilling, solitary sport of navigating skateboards at breathtaking speeds. Their arenas were frequently empty swimming pools in the backyards of unsuspecting suburban homeowners. It was much more than a sport for the Z-Boys. It was a lifestyle, which evolved into a culture emulated by subsequent generations of teenagers, whose passion for skateboarding affects how they talk, dress and act. The Z-Boys unwittingly created a thriving, global industry. Their exploits laid the foundation for what later became known as extreme skateboarding, which now can be seen in the ESPN X Games.
The narrative film follows in the wake of the 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. The non-fiction film was written and directed by Stacy Peralta, one of the original Z-Boys. Peralta also scripted Lords of Dogtown, with later collaboration from director Catherine Hardwicke. He, along with former Z-Boys Jay Adams and Tony Alva, were behind-the-scenes advisors to Hardwicke and cinematographer Elliot Davis in their quest to interpret reality, while probing beneath the surface and exploring the emotional landscape of the place and times.
This is Hardwicke’s second collaboration with Davis. Their first venture was Thirteen, a 2003 independent feature produced in the Super 16 film format.
“Catherine and I were both trained as architects, so we had that common language,” Davis observes. “She was also a successful production designer.”
They had an ambitious 24-day production schedule for Thirteen. Afterwards Davis timed the film for continuity and took a painterly approach to enhancing the look during digital intermediate (DI) postproduction. The timed digital files that were recorded out onto 35mm film made a compelling case for Super 16 origination. In effect, the look and process he and Hardwicke achieved has blazed a trail that other independent filmmakers have followed.
“Catherine wanted that same sense of tactile energy for Lords of Dogtown,” Davis relates. “The main characters are emotionally and energetically charged boys in the 14 to 16 age range, who are surfers and skateboarders. When they start to become famous it leads to friction between them.”
Davis says that his cinematography is designed to pull the audience into the emotional arc of the story as subjective participants rather than objective spectators. Subjectivity has been a main focus of his cinematography, starting with I Am Sam, White Oleander, and Thirteen.
“We want the audience to feel what the characters are feeling,” he says. “I had about six weeks of preproduction. That was important because it’s a complex picture with all the skateboarding and surfing scenes, and we were shooting with 35mm, Super 16mm, lipstick digital cameras, and had a few Super 8 shots.”
Davis notes that during the 1970s, Venice was an economically depressed neighborhood, which now is gentrified. They had to find appropriate practical locations in San Pedro, which abuts on Los Angeles, because shooting in Venice is now logistically difficult due to the residents and permit process. Surfing scenes were filmed in Santa Monica and at the Imperial Beach pier. Davis says surf cameramen Sonny Miller and Don King were both phenomenal.
“During my first discussions with Catherine, we decided that a somewhat gritty look was right for both the period and the story,” Davis recounts. “We tested shooting Super 16 and 35mm film. Originally, she wanted to shoot the whole movie in Super 16. It would have suited the material. We took the test footage through DI, where we enhanced the looks. We showed that footage to the producers. We didn’t want them to be surprised when they saw the final look of the film after the DI.
“The studio (Sony) was reluctant to shoot the whole movie in Super 16, mainly because of concerns about archiving,” Davis says. “We ended up primarily shooting in 35mm, but got permission to use Super 16 for surfing and skateboarding scenes.”
Davis notes that the surfing sequences were filmed in a rough and tumble documentary style. “It’s not the smooth high speed stuff that you’re used to seeing in surfing films,” he says. “It was all handheld with the operators usually on Sea-Doos (a motorized watercraft) and sometimes floating on boogie boards. We built a housing for the cameras that enabled them to zoom and broadcast to shore via a microwave. We shot some parts of the skateboarding scenes in Super 16, and some point-of-view shots with the digital lipstick camera that records 800 line PAL images. The microwave and lipstick cam were provided by Randy Hermes at Audio Video Services. He was very excited about the project and very helpful. He did a great job.”
An upfront decision was made to compose Lords of Dogtown in 35mm in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Davis says that the narrower gauge felt right for the period, and was also the right aesthetic match for the locations and content.
“We never discussed a widescreen look because it just didn’t feel right for our locations and story,” Davis notes, “though I feel that anamorphic and Super 35 allows for more graphic framing which is right for many other films.”
Preproduction testing, front-end lab work and DI were all done at FotoKem labs.
During technical scouts, we discussed what colors to paint the walls with production designer Chris Gorak, who is also an architect,” Davis says. “This was the first time I’ve ever worked on a film where the director, cinematographer and production designer were all architects. It was great. We didn’t have to start from zero. We already had a common visual language. My theory is that color doesn’t make an emotional impact until it reaches a certain volume in the frame, much like a Rothko painting. Your brain kicks in when a threshold is crossed. I’m a firm believer of form following function. Green can mean one thing in one scene, and something else in another when the context changes.”
He continues, “In Jay Adams mother’s house, we chose more psychedelic purples and blues to define his environment in Venice during the 1970s. We wanted his world immersed in an overwhelming emotion of instability based on his relationship with his mother. There is a level of discomfort in that house which feels emotionally crushing.
“In the surf shop, we wanted the earthiness and grittiness of green and blue backgrounds of the beach to contrast with the yellow and orange surfboards leaning against them,” Davis says. “In contrast, Stacy Peralta’s house is very warm with burnt orange colors and wood paneling. It was a place where you could feel the stability and warmth.”
Hardwicke and Davis wanted the surf shop to be a big open space with directional source light. They found a location with big front windows that allowed more freedom of movement for the actors because the light was a broader source. The main showroom was in front with a separate work area in the back, in which Davis lit the already blue walls with additional blue color-corrected Kino Flo lights.
“The work area was defined as the blue space where they worked on the boards that were a bright white Styrofoam,” he explains. “We wanted the purity of the Styrofoam boards to play against the blue light, like blue water and white foam. When you come into the actual surf shop, we wanted warmer tones. We had corrugated metal on one wall that was painted in various shades of rust tones. It was complimented on the other side of the surf shop with kind of sea green walls.”
Davis covered most scenes with two cameras when possible to give the editors the coverage they needed. He chose lightweight 35mm Millennium XL cameras, with a set of 17-34, 27-58 and 80-200mm zoom lenses. Davis says that the zoom lenses provided the flexibility needed to keep pace with the fast-moving action. Surfing was shot with Super 16 ARRI SRs, and skateboarding shots were primarily filmed with Panavision XLs, ARRIs for special speed variations, and Aaton A-Minima cameras that were used to follow skaters. The lipstick cams were used to acquire point-of-view shots from the perspective of skateboarders and were mounted to skateboards.
“We hardly used dollies,” he says. “When a camera wasn’t handheld, it was usually on a Steadicam. Surfing and skateboarding shots were primarily handheld on motorized platforms-the Sea-Doo on the ocean, and a motorcycle on land. These camera motorbikes, provided by Steve Hallady of Hallady Bikes, were a main method for us in shooting moving skaters. Camera platforms were mounted to the sides of the bikes, and easily switched from side to side depending on the shot. Sometimes we would use two bikes at once. They were big enough to hold the operator and director. These bikes were fantastically flexible in the types of shots they allowed us to get which would have been impossible without the great driving of Hallady and Shawn McConell.”
Davis decided to record images on Kodak Vision 500T 5279 film, one of the older 500-speed emulsions, because it renders more texture than the new generation of negatives. “Thinking ahead to the digital intermediate, I knew it was hard to introduce analog texture–grain,” he says. “Something I learned on Thirteen.” In some scenes, he had the lab push the process by one or two stops to amplify grain. Sometimes, while shooting in bright outdoor swimming pools, he opted to use the Kodak Vision 200T 5274 film, but his preference was to work with a single emulsion. “For me it was about where the exposure of the shadow was placed,” Davis recalls. “Many times, lights would be in the way, so a method to deal with natural light had to be developed. Once I placed the shadow, I let the rest go as part of the look, which in the DI resulted in crushed blacks and pushed whites.
“There were many skateboarding shots in kidney shaped pools, where the deep end was about 10 to 12 feet,” he says. “The skaters were going up and down and around. Some skateboarding shots were made with handheld 35mm cameras with the operator running in front of a skater. We also used the Aaton A-Minima camera handheld following skaters, and other times we gave them to skateboarders for point-of-view shots. Sometimes we mounted those cameras on the end of poles and tracked in front of the skater to get face shots, which was one of the hardest shots to get. We learned one thing quickly, simple is better. No sophisticated equipment, like cranes, etc., could react fast enough to keep up. Lance Mountain, a legendary skater of the era, could. He skated with the A-Minima handheld and followed wherever the skaters went, even above the 12 foot rim of the pools.”
There were even a few Super 8 shots in the Dogbowl pool paying homage to the period. Davis used professional 8mm Beaulieu cameras. He even gave some old Super 8 consumer cameras to actors to film each other.
The movie begins with a 35mm sequence at night of skating down a hill. It transitions to magic hour at sunrise on the beach, which flows into an early morning surfing sequence at the old destroyed Pacific Ocean pier. The surfing sequence was in Super 16mm and heavily desaturated in the DI.
“In the opening sequence, Catherine wanted the water dirty and very polluted looking like it was during the ’70s,” Davis says. “I knew we could crush the blacks and push the whites to make the water kind of a green-gray brownish color. It looks something like a faded, desaturated photograph from the ’70s. The ocean takes on a silvery quality that almost looks like liquid mercury with hues of green, gray and brown. The blacks are heavily crushed and the whites are pushed to extreme. It’s a very dramatic look, especially with the handheld camera creating it’s own energy.”
About 70 percent of the scenes were exteriors. Davis tried to plan each day’s shooting schedule around the angle of the sun. He says that controlling light was particularly challenging during skateboarding scenes filmed in empty swimming pools. The shadows moving during the day were a dead give away to continuity and it was too difficult and expensive to silk in the pools, so careful planning on how and when to shoot was critical for matching. They painted the pools shades of blue, so the light bouncing off the walls was cool. This provided a saturated background to play against the skaters’ skin tones and costumes.
“Catherine likes to shoot as continuous as possible, so we’d start a scene at a door, follow a character into a room and go down a hallway into another room,” he says. “She was usually right next to the camera with a handheld monitor whether on land, sea or motorbike. Catherine treated the camera like it was an actor in the scene. She’d say, ‘This energy doesn’t feel right. It’s not happening. We’re gonna have to do it again.’ This made for a challenging film for everyone on the crew, including the first assistants who had to focus by remote control with the camera handheld and constantly moving along with very kinetic actors. My rule of thumb is that when someone does a good job, I try to hold on to them and bring them back on the next film. “I have to say that first assistant camera David Galbraith did a fantastic job,” he notes. “I’d also thank gaffer Jeff Murrell, and key grip Richard Mall for their excellent work and support. That’s a big advantage of working in Los Angeles and the U.S. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
His crew included camera operators Chris Moseley and George Billinger, who doubled on the Steadicam, first assistants Galbraith and Lee Blasingame, second assistants Bruce Robinson and Bobby McMahan, and loader Jon Lindsay.
Davis describes a night scene where there is a big party outside the back of the surf shop. Yellow bug lights were strung over the top of the outdoor space, which provided hot sparkle spots and a general ambiance that enabled him to shoot in any direction. Davis backlit the area with a 20K lamp gelled yellow that matched the color of the bug lights. In contrast, he lit a mural on the wall with cold, blue light.
“It’s a very noir-ish looking scene with both low and high angle handheld shots,” he says. “One character, Heath Ledger who owns the shop, comes in from outside and drunkenly staggers through the work space where he is hit with blue light continuing into the main showroom which is slightly amber. There, he gets into an argument, becomes angry and frustrated, and ends up on the roof of the surf shop which is painted yellow, throwing brightly colored surfboards off the roof. This plays against a jet-black sky. The only light on him comes from a sign below him in front of the building.”
Davis shot selected scenes at 8, 10 or 12 frame rates per second, when he wanted to “slow” the action down to get trailing effects.
How did he know what frame rate was right for particular shots?
“It’s a combination of experience and instinct,” he replies. “If you expose eight frames a second the shutter speed creates a certain blurring effect. The slower the frame rate, the blurrier the images are. You have to ask yourself, how does that work with the action and emotions of the scene? The other factor is that a longer lens is more likely to cause the camera to jerk and blur than a wider angle lens.”
Davis notes that there are times when the tension between different characters is tactile. In those situations camera movement and angles amplified feelings of discomfort. That is just one example of the countless nuances integrated into the visual language created for Lords of Dogtown that affects the emotional flow of the story.
Greg Curry was the dailies timer at FotoKem and was provided with explicit instructions regarding nuances in looks with daily audio tape recordings accompanying the camera report. Davis was not interested in the way film renders normally, but only in the look that would be envisioned in the DI. He also found an opportunity to sit with Curry in the telecine suite to help establish the finished look.
“I felt it was important for everyone to see how the images would look after the DI,” he explains. “Otherwise, they were going to get locked in to the looks we were creating on the original negative. Supervising the DI is built into my contract. It is the only way the cinematographer can carry through the artistic vision of the film. Cinematography is a craft, but more importantly it is a way of expressing yourself as an artist. You can’t hand that job off to anyone else in postproduction because you are the only one who knows what was in your mind when you shot the film. Finishing the look in postproduction is part of my responsibility and job.”
For more information on Lords of Dogtown, click here.
Reprinted with permission of ICG Magazine.