The transitioning camera
Stephen H. Burum shooting Danny DeVito’s HOFFA
Stephen H. Burum is one of the most respected and visionary directors of photography (DoP) within the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). During the 1950s and 60s he learned from and worked with the legendary James Wong Howe as teaching assistant during his time at UCLA. Later Burum went on to become the DoP of APOCALYPSE NOW's 2nd unit. Later he would shoot for director Francis Ford Coppola RUMBLE FISH and THE OUTSIDERS. His most remarkable works however, emerged from his long time collaboration with director Brian DePalma with whom he created seven feature films. Amongst others landmark productions, most know and popular project are THE UNTOUCHABLES or MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. After his last camera work in 2004 Burum was asked to revise the entire ASC Manual for its 9th edition, a monumental mission that should provide the technical basis for future cinematographer generations.
HOFFA was Danny DeVito's third feature film and second collaboration with Burum. The film depicts the rise and fall of Teamster union leader and American worker activist icon James Riddle Hoffa. Spanning a period of four decades the film shows Hoffa's first achievements in 1935, his election as president of the Teamsters union, the senate hearings and eventual imprisonment up to his mysterious disappearance in 1975. The script was written by David Mamet based on the real events. Jack Nicholson plays the title role accompanied by his faithful partner Bobby Ciaro played by Danny DeVito himself.
Styles of transition
As biopic, the movie has to cope with 40 years in the life of Jimmy Hoffa. Set as continuous two and a half hour parallel montage the narration constantly jumps between a parking lot scene in 1975 and the past events of Hoffa's career. To make these jumps in time visible and comprehensible to audiences Burum created a variety of different seamless transition methods that would give an immediate understanding of time and place, carefully layering the action. Those transition are not only driven by visuals but rather tied-in to the narration's content and react on either audible or narrative cues. Now, such transitions usually are credited to the editor, but in the case of HOFFA a great number of transitions was carefully planned and executed before the film material entered a cutting room.
In the beginning when both main actors are sitting in a large black limousine on a parking lot outside the Roadhouse dinner, DeVito's character is constantly thinking back to his past. Here a transition is always introduced by a slow dolly-in, tracking toward his face until reaching an extreme close up, then dissolve to the past event which is, for instance, verbally cued by Nicholson's character. To achieve the extreme close-up shot without losing focus Burum applied the so called Snorkel Camera which is a 35mm periscope camera system mounted on a crane or jib. Fitted with a special set of lenses the camera was shooting the image from a small tilting mirror that was moved close to objects or actors. This technique gives the camera image more range to move and captures rather unusual angles.
As the story progresses transitions became more and more sophisticated and less induced or depending on editing techniques. Transitions in time and space where arranged by moving set pieces as well as moving cameras. Sets were build to serve two locations at once. The prison dialog scene with Hoffa and his wife is the best example for this technique. The camera starts tracking alongside prison bars, following a guard passing on a very low angle. As the guard exits the frame the camera pulls in toward Hoffa and his wife talking in the visiting room. Both actors are seated on a special constructions of apple boxes and chairs on rubber wheel wagons to give them the needed elevated position for the low angle framing. As the dialog ends both actors were pulled to the side while the camera tracks further in, now focusing on the room's ceiling. Several lights appear when the camera begins to tilt down while the crane lifts it upwards. Finally the long shot ends with a cheering crowd in a convention center welcoming Hoffa's release from the prison.
Another transition back into prison was made with DeVito's character. As Ciaro stands inside the dinner, still waiting for a scheduled meeting, he looks outside the window toward the car with Hoffa sitting inside. Real prison bars are now sliding into frame from the left. With an almost perfectly exact match frame due to precise cadrage of the image the editor dissolves into the next scene, a prison cell. Position of the bars and Ciaro's are the same. Then Ciaro moves into the cell while the camera lifts up and pans down. The cell looks very empty and clean. In the next transition it will be filled with objects to display the further passing of time.
However, HOFFA not only offers transitional layering in time and space as described above but also minor forms of transition within single shots and angles. Burum is taking great use of tilt-shift lenses with varying focus levels. To keep the attributes of long focal length lenses during dialog scenes while arranging two or more characters in a wider distance to each other those lenses compress the space and establish a closer relationship of the actors. Furthermore, tilt-shift lenses are always selective lenses, picking certain spots from the image to draw the viewers attention to them. Images do hold a certain alienating aspect as the transitions between the focus levels is deliberately visible in a number of shots. Most DoPs try to hide the change of focus by using plain or simple structured image backgrounds. Burum uses specifically charged images, which provides another emotional quality layer to single characters. Betrayal, for instance, can be visualized that way.
The Loading Yard
One of the most complex long sequences, introduced by a sophisticated match dissolve transition takes place right in the beginning of the film. When Hoffa left Ciaro's truck after their first meeting, Ciaro drives on dissolving into another scenario where he goes to work in the morning. The camera follows him entering the warehouse reporting to work while Hoffa is standing outside the loading zone protesting against the factory owner, convincing workers to join the Teamsters. Eventually he will reveal the meeting with Ciaro to his boss. Ciaro gets fired and jumps on Hoffa, a small riot breaks loose.
Several techniques have been used to realize this extreme long shot in all its movements. Ciaro's driver cab was rebuild and rigged onto another truck that could also serve camera and lighting constructions. As this truck moves along a brick wall, the camera shoots Ciaro driving. A strong light projector is beaming Ciaro's silhouette onto the wall behind. The camera slowly pans outside the cab onto the wall showing the full silhouette. Now, the image transforms into a profile of Ciaro walking along another brick wall, shot by a steadicam operator. Both, the silhouette as well as profile shot are exact match frames with careful cadrage . The steadicam now follows Ciaro around the corner of the wall and reveals the busy loading zone courtyard of a warehouse. The steadicam moves onto a crane platform to get elevated, still tracking alongside with Ciaro who crosses the yard. On the other side, the crane moves down again, releasing the steadicam which follows Ciaro through the warehouse till his confrontation with Hoffa.
This sequence is remarkable for its seamless choreography and smooth camera work as it is hardly visible that there is also a transition in shooting equipment and techniques while the scene progresses. Burum was using this crane-steadicam combination on several occasions throughout the film, mainly to transit from a wide scene with a great number of extras to a narrow, targeted view toward a main character. In a sense he is not only establishing the character within the environment but also using it as a tool to isolate or connect - sometimes simultaneously within the same sequence like in the loading yard example.
The Courtroom scene
According to Burum, the courtroom scene was staged during the rehearsals and turned out to be way too long running with all its sophisticated dialogs. The filmmakers wanted to keep this scene as it was important but not drag it too long at this point of the narration. As the courtroom scene demanded a questions-answer-action-reaction scenario a classic conception would have made it slow and less attractive for audiences. Hence, Burum applied a whole array of transitions that would make the scene less bold and offensive but rather subtle, more intense in its dramatic notion.
The betrayal to Hoffa is shown with a simple three actor arrangement shot. Hoffa, Ciaro and their friend sitting in the courtroom, camera shoots straight on. As the bailiff orders the next witness to take his stand Hoffa and Ciaro turn their heads toward the friend. He disappears via a dissolve out of the frame. The following questioning is made with cut-out close-up shots of the witness and prosecutor, dissolved and intercut with a two-shot of Hoffa and Ciaro sitting in the background.
This technique makes the scene comparatively short and very intense, as the audience is close to the characters. At the same time the relationship between everyone involved is carefully established on a mere visual level without the use of additional dialog. Finally the scene does not feel like a traditional court confrontation but rather like a silent confession in a church.
The Night Riot scene
The night riot scene is one of the biggest scenes within the film in terms of number of extras and set size. But it also is one of the most symbolic in terms of cinematography employing certain layers of light and movement. Introduced by a car driving off in a rainy night, cutting a round pit. The shape of the pit dissolves into the reflection of the moon in another, larger pit. As three men step into the pit a steadicam picks them up following across a roof. All three men halt at the railing and look down on a factory courtyard. The camera reveals the scenery in full by passing the men and panning down.
As night scene, the location is barely lit in order to provide a natural feeling of the moon light. A bluish and strong key light, presumably 18K, is installed from the lower right corner, beaming an even cool light throughout the entire place. Distinctive warm highlights are coming from the many torches among the protesting worker crowd. Also yellow lit are the factory boss' offices, high up in the main building. The offices are fitted with huge glass fronts facing the courtyard so the light coming from inside is giving a special highlight to the scenery. The color choice and shape clearly symbolize an elevated power position. Burum is giving the scene a religious element by placing another strong light source on a very high position behind the factory's chimney. This gives the factory with its offices a glow of superiority but also provides a wide ground light for the building's facade located on the opposite side.
Symbolism can also be found within the color palette employed by Burum. Shot mainly in grey and green shades adding only slight influences of blue during night scenes and yellow on day scenes. This palette created a uniform mash that underlined the basic ideas of unity and parity that the Teamsters wanted to convey. During large scale scenes with loads of extras no particular distinction can be drawn. Main characters usually get singled out of this crowd by either letting them stand in a free part of the location, barely surrounded by others or placing them elevated on an improvised stage. During the night riot scene this grey-green pattern is occasionally interrupted by the yellow-orange of the workers torches that set a visual connection to the yellow lighting of the boss' office, symbolizing not only the desired change in system and torching of old values but also the workers reach of self-controlled power.
As the scene progresses workers are clashing with angry strike-breakers, a harsh and violent face-to-face battle emerges. To capture the fighting crowd Burum used a Wescam, a gyro-camera mounted on a rope that was controlled via a large crane. The time both sides clash with each other the camera pulls up fast, enlarging the frame extensively. In order to increase tension and action the camera starts with a spiral movement to emphasis the atmosphere of chaos and mixing of people between both sides.
The scene escalates as the gates of the factory building open and hordes of new strike-breakers charge out into the fighting crowd outnumbering the workers hopelessly. Burum places strong lights behind wide diffuser silk frames that spread the light even through the gates. This arrangement made the new strike-breakers exiting the building underexposed, dark figures, increasing the notion of evil enemies. In addition, those backlights are strong enough to create beams of lights outside the gates that would cut through the fighting crowd as the charging-in strike-breakers do.
• Camera: Panavision Cameras and Lenses
• Negative format: 35 mm
• Process: Panavision (anamorphic) - Aspect ratio: 2.35 : 1
• HOFFA (DVD) 20th Century Fox 2004
• Reflections: Twenty-One Cinematographers At Work - A S C Holding Corp (June 2002) - Benjamin Bergery
• Cinematographer Style - The Complete Interviews - Jon Fauer, ASC - Vol.2
• Property of ©20th Century Fox (1993/2004)