No Pain, No Gain

Concussion examines the hot-button issue of how repeated impacts to the skulls of professional football players in some cases led to death from brain trauma now known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). The documentaries Head Games and League of Denial preceded this film, both highlighting football-related brain injuries, with the latter featuring forensic neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu as he discovers CTE after autopsying former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. League of Denial received a Peabody Award in 2013.

A biographical sports thriller, Concussion stars Will Smith as Dr. Omalu and is based on a screenplay by Peter Landesman, derived in part from Jeanne Marie Laskas’ GQ magazine article “Game Brain.” The film was produced under the mantle of Sir Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions. Initially, Scott had interest in directing the feature (see “Wholly Moses,” HDVideoPro, February 2015), but the filmmaker, with many projects in development, including follow-ups to Prometheus and Blade Runner, ultimately chose Landesman—who had previously written and directed 2013’s Parkland—to take the directorial reins.

Landesman approached Director of Photography Salvatore Totino, ASC, AIC, about shooting the film. After logging an impressive array of commercial spots and music videos, Totino’s big-screen credits began with another gridiron-related effort, Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday. Subsequently, Totino shot several films for director Ron Howard, including The Da Vinci Code and its sequels (the latest installment, Inferno, is currently in production for release later this year).

Written and directed by Peter Landesman and shot by Salvatore Totino, ASC, AIC, the sports thriller Concussion follows Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) and his discovery of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) after autopsying the body of former NFL center Mike Webster and the battle to get the information to the public. The film also stars Alec Baldwin, David Morse and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

“When Peter first sat down with me, I had just finished Everest and wasn’t sure I wanted to leave town and my family again,” admits the cinematographer. “But I liked that he had so much detailed knowledge on the subject, and a very clear point of view about the story and a genuine passion for telling it.”

Landesman had admired Totino’s work on Frost/Nixon, but a pair of other similarly acclaimed features informed the pair’s visual take on Concussion, namely, The Insider (shot by Dante Spinotti, ASC) and Michael Clayton (cinematography by Robert Elswit, ASC). “Those two films gave us a general guideline in terms of our intentions and approach, as we decided to not do anything tricky or fanciful with the photography,” informs Totino. “We didn’t want the audience to ever feel the camera’s presence and felt that would help draw viewers into the story.”

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

Totino was introduced to the real-life Omalu as the film came together, and it proved to be more than just a 21st-century version of TV’s Quincy. “When we met during prep, he came across as a curious-minded person,” reports the DP. “He really needs to be 100% sure of things and won’t just accept the obvious.

“He told us about a young African-American kid who escaped from a juvenile detention center that was found dead in a backyard after a big pursuit,” continues Totino. “We’re talking a 15-year-old kid in good shape, so people wondered was it ‘police brutality’? Bennet orders tests and discovers the kid was highly allergic to various grasses; by jumping fences and going yard to yard while on an adrenaline high, he experienced an anaphylactic reaction. That kind of outside-the-norm thinking said a lot about him, and for me, reinforced how in the film, when Mike Webster’s body came in, he wasn’t about to settle on an easy answer.”

Eerily enough, the good doctor’s influence was clearly evident in Will Smith’s approach to the role. “We were setting up one day while Will Smith was sitting over to one side,” Totino recalls. “I looked at him, and I didn’t even feel that it was Will in the room, but Bennet Omalu instead. Will wasn’t even on camera, and yet here he was completely in character. The hair on the back of your head stands up when something like this happens. His performance was so authentic that there wasn’t much needed to accentuate what the camera caught, and since sometimes Peter didn’t want to rehearse, take one really became the first go-through, and Will’s investment in the character added something special.”

Totino captured Concussion on ARRI ALEXA XTs provided by Keslow Camera. “For me, that camera feels more like a film camera,” Totino relates. “I used Cooke S4s most of the time, though occasionally I went with the 12:1 and 17-80mm Angénieux zooms. I prefer the primes, since you can focus closer and they give you a different perspective when you move in close to somebody’s face. When you’re limited to being four-and-a-half feet back with a zoom, however, the longer lens compresses the field of view and does things to the background that wouldn’t add to the character of the film.”

The cinematographer’s preferred modus operandi is to operate B-camera while employing an A-camera operator (John Moyer) capable of handling Steadicam, as needed. “He and I were always discussing how to keep A-camera moving, but without drawing attention to the action,” states Totino, “to subtly delve deeper into the character and the mystery that he’s uncovering. I used B-camera as part of the essential coverage for a scene instead of, say, experimental footage on the side to see what bonus view can be found. In dialogue-heavy exchanges, it lets me know that I’ve got both of the performers on camera in a good take that you might not get again. The fact editorial doesn’t have to pick through bits from other takes to get the right emotion, as well as continuity, also helps, but for me it’s about the actors responding to one another and their environment in the moment together, and there’s a kind of truth in that.”

Attaining that level of truth can sometimes mean sacrificing image quality, but for the right reasons. “I try to block things so it isn’t cut and dried that the light is good on A-cam side and flat on the other,” he attests. “But if you’re in a living room and lighting in a naturalistic way, as I prefer to, the light coming from the window means one side of the room will be dark and the other light. If you go from A-camera looking out a window to a reverse on you facing out, that light is going be flat. But that’s real, and honest.”

Totino prefers to steer clear of practicals for day interiors, instead bringing light in from the windows. “I just don’t like the mix,” he declares. “Right now, I’m in the lobby of a hotel with a huge window letting all this light stream through—and right in the middle of this in front of the window is a lamp somebody left on. It looks horrible! When you walk in to see a set or location the art department is presenting as fully dressed, every single practical is always already on. In order for me to evaluate what I’m seeing, the first thing I do is turn all those lights off.”

Totino did rely on practicals for nighttime interiors, augmented by a cool moonlight source from outside the windows.

While most of the film utilizes Pennsylvania locales, the morgue set, a hotel room and Bennet’s apartment were constructed on stage at Pittsburgh’s 31st Street Studios. “We had observed a few real autopsies and the room light was pretty flat,” admits Totino. “We had windows in ours that let me bring some natural-looking light in from outside the room for day scenes.”

For me, the [ALEXA XT] feels more like a film camera,” Totino relates. “I used Cooke S4s most of the time…
I prefer the primes, since you can focus closer and they give you a different perspective when you move in close to somebody’s face.

The DP employed 60 PAR Cans, plus Mole-Richardson 20Ks, all arrayed on a truss with chain motors so the angle of illumination could be quickly varied. Window exteriors employed disparate approaches, though in the case of the hotel room, Totino elected to just blow out the windows. “It’s often a matter of how you choose to block things out, so you don’t always need the expense of a scenic backing or putting a greenscreen out there.”

The decision to pursue a restrained visual treatment was reflected in Totino’s use of cranes, which was limited to just a few days. “We did have a copter for a sunrise-to-sunset aerial shoot,” Totino adds. “This was important since Pittsburgh is really its own character in the film. At one point, Peter wanted to do a scene between two principals in a car in Heinz Field’s parking lot, but I pushed back on that because I thought it would be better to be further back from the stadium. So we looked around town and wound up setting the scene in a restaurant across the river. The view from inside overlooked Heinz Field, which happened to be lit that night, and so provided a compelling backdrop to the conversation.”

LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN?

While the film has generated a certain amount of controversy by virtue of its subject matter, the anticipated friction with the National Football League didn’t really manifest.

“There’s no reason for the story to go into the NFL’s house,” declares Totino, “because it isn’t about them. There’s some football in the film, mostly real games seen on TV that deliver story points, plus we shot half a day of school players practicing, but nothing in the League’s backyard.

“It isn’t about saying the NFL is evil, it’s about something happening to people that nobody understood until Bennet made this brilliant discovery, and the sense of denial we all go through ourselves when we first hear bad news, that kneejerk-rejection reaction. We didn’t ever find ourselves in the position of having to sacrifice a good visual or re-create some visual icon with greenscreen and CGI to avoid giving offense.”

For scenes in the film that did require VFX augmentation, Hammerhead and Mammal Studios provided the necessary CGI and compositing. For the production’s workflow, Totino elected to work with live LUTs and then add notes that went to the lab for incorporation with dailies.

“It’s kind of in keeping with my old shot-on-film approach,” he acknowledges. “Before each scene, I used to put a note in front of the lens to the colorist, then get on the phone with him the next day before he got started, explaining what I’d hope to accomplish in each scene. Setting a live LUT is actually going a step further than the old film approach, though in a similar vein. My DIT Francesco Sauta and I have a very good understanding, so we’re eighty to ninety percent of the way there with the look we lock in on set.”

Sauta created LUTs from a curve generated by Sony engineers, one that was also employed for creation of dailies by EC3 (the division of Deluxe arising from Company 3’s association with EFILM).
“I always did a safety backup of the footage on my system, then sent the LUTs with exposed mags to the labs,” reports Sauta. “This way, the whole process was fast and uniform, and my LUTs were matching in their system.”

Sauta additionally shared notes and LUTs with second unit, uploading them via Dropbox or WeTransfer. He also relied on two Sony monitors—a BVME250 and a PVMA250—which, along with second-unit monitors and those used for dailies, were calibrated for reference during prep by Sony.

“The aim was to have an overall quality control of the footage and make sure that the workflow would have been as uniform, fast and efficient as possible,” he elaborates. “This working pipeline was made to ensure that any LUTs generated in the live-grade process would match perfectly in the dailies and the Sony postproduction.” Production worked cabled whenever possible, and captured via ARRIRAW to Codex.

Totino was out of the country during most of postproduction, but was able to spend a day with Company 3 colorist Trent Johnson. He explains that it was largely just a matter of smoothing out skin tones and massaging transitions between scenes. While he acknowledges the vast options for post manipulation of digital cinematography today, Totino still prefers to deliver images “as best and as completely as I possibly can on the day,” he says, “rather than try to fix things after the fact. If I were to do a sci-fi picture, there would probably have to be more fussing and tweaking, but in this case, it’s so much about the story and not getting weird and abstract with the visuals.

“People get distracted by all these digital options,” he adds. “I know I can be. When you’re cooking and making a good recipe, you have to resist the temptation to add something else. Now, I’ll admit there are times when you have to use power windows, but I also know that if I’m on my game and fully prepared on-set during shooting, I can throw that shadowing in with a grad filter.”

Totino pauses and laughs to himself, “Do some of the younger people coming up even know what a grad filter is? Forgetting how to do basic things, or not even learning them in the first place, sounds kind of wrong to me. But the way of things now seems to be relying on tech for all answers, instead of just for the important things that require it. Growing up on digital photography and computers creates a way of looking at things that may contribute to thinking that you can address important issues afterward, instead of while the shoot is happening.”

By way of example, the cinematographer recalled a BMW commercial he shot on film. “It featured the car going through a puddle, but I shot it in reverse,” he explains, “so as the car moved forward, the wake went in the opposite [wrong] direction. It was an effect achieved wholly in-camera on celluloid, which is the way I liked to work on music videos, too, doing in-camera double-exposures. But you can’t do that today with digital cameras, so that kind of inspiration turns into a hugely expensive visual-effects shot.

“There’s a bit of the art and the craft getting lost now, and I admit I push against that to try and keep my work processes very organic,” wraps Totino. “I’m not saying the new ways are bad, but why sacrifice a still useful part of your toolset?”

Learn more about the film at sonypictures.com/movies/Concussion.