Phedon Papamichael, ASC, GSC and James Mangold Blend Action and Character

In many ways, Ford v Ferrari, the Fox-Disney feature film set in the world of 1960s auto racing, is a hybrid. The film exemplifies director James Mangold’s career-long fascination with reconciling artistic aspirations with the dictates of commercial Hollywood studio production. The action is intense and competitive, but at its heart, the story is about the relationship between Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale). And the movie takes advantage of today’s filmmaking tools while avoiding the swooping, fast-and-furious style in favor of the more intense and direct style of 1960s classics like Le Mans and Grand Prix.

The result looks like an artistic and box-office success, passing $100 million in receipts in ten days, while garnering critical praise and awards, including a Golden Frog nomination at the 2019 Camerimage Film Festival in Poland – often a leading indicator for the Oscar race.

Director of photography Phedon Papamichael, ASC, GSC brought a life-long interest in auto racing to the project. His uncle, Nick Papamichael, was a champion rally car driver and winner of the 1953 Rally Acropolis in Greece, driving the Jaguar XK120. On Ford v Ferrari, his goal was to deliver a sense of what it’s like in the driver’s seat.

“Jim and I are not action filmmakers per se,” says Papamichael. “We’re focused on the drama. Of course, we had elaborate rigs for shooting the racing scenes, which are extensive. But we’re always asking ourselves how a given shot communicates a character’s thoughts and feelings.”

That instinct for character led in part to the choice of format. Papamichael and his team shot mostly with the ARRI ALEXA LF camera, using Panavision lenses specially adapted to fill the larger sensor area. Shooting close with wide lenses brings the viewer into the driver’s world, while simultaneously including the environment – the track conditions, the other cars and drivers, and most importantly, the sense of speed and danger. Hard-mounted cameras, available natural light, and car-to-car shooting were in tune with the overall aesthetic. Russian arms and other remote camera systems generally couldn’t handle the G-forces produced at high speeds. Visual effects were surprisingly minimal.

“Jim embraces being physically close to the space of the actors,” says Papamichael. “I would have been happy to shoot everything on the 40 mm. With this combination of lenses and sensors, even if you’re in tight, you’re not isolating your actors. You always feel the environment and are able to compose with all their surroundings. You feel the proximity of the other cars, which are all precisely choreographed. We exposed Christian to all the movement and all the actual interactive light and reflections. We embraced the vibrations. We’re trying to communicate what it’s like in a little metal box with a huge engine and a bunch of fuel going 200 miles per hour. We thought that smoothing things out would be a mistake.”

On the set, Papamichael is driven to improve every aspect of the frame continually. He considers himself a non-technical filmmaker. The high technology used to dependably capture the shot is not on his mind, and digital imaging technician Lonny Danler ensures that it stays that way. Papamichael and Danler first worked together on Nebraska, a black-and-white film that brought the cinematographer his first Oscar nomination. On Ford v Ferrari, the LFs were generally set to capture 4.5K ARRIRAW using a 2.39:1 excerpt of the full OpenGate sensor. The workflow used CODEX SXR 1TB High Speed Capture Drives and CODEX SXR Readers. Monitoring was done via 24fps 1080p Log C with a single LUT applied.

Papamichael’s career path has been non-standard. His father was a well-known production designer in Europe who worked with John Cassavetes. The younger Papamichael was born in Athens, educated in Munich, and came to the U.S. before he was 21. Using a 16mm camera borrowed from family friends, he photographed a film that won a prize at the Cork Film Festival and was soon shooting low-budget features for Roger Corman, where his crews included future masters like Janusz Kaminski, Wally Pfister and Mauro Fiore. Since then, he has balanced more intimate work with more significant studio projects, forging relationships with visionary directors like Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) and Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line).

Regarding his affinity with Mangold, Papamichael says, “We have the same influences embedded in us. We love the same filmmakers. We love Ozu, and the Italian neo-realists, and the French New Wave, so we’re speaking the same language. But more specifically, we have very similar compositional instincts and aesthetics. We’re both still photographers. That really helps when you’re making decisions on the fly.”

Currently, Papamichael is shooting The Trial of the Chicago 7 for director Aaron Sorkin. Set in a similar period, the film is being shot on the same combination of ARRI ALEXA LF and Panavision anamorphic lenses.

Camera Type: ARRI ALEXA LF
Camera Rental by: ARRI Rental US
Director: James Mangold
Director of Photography: Phedon Papamichael, ASC, GSC
DIT: Lonny Danler

Codex related product and workflows

Images copyright 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

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