Cinematographer Don Burgess, ASC, Discusses his work on Source Code

Don Burgess, ASC, grew up in Santa Monica, California, and began his career while still a student at Art Center College of Design. A 2nd unit DP, Johnny Stephens, who was also a friend of the family, asked him if he wanted to work as a loader on a film called “The Sorcerer,” which was shooting in the Dominican Republic. The experience shaped a career that went on to include a collaboration with director Bob Zemeckis on five movies: “Forrest Gump,” “Contact,” “What Lies Beneath,” “Castaway,”  and “The Polar Express.” Other notable directors he worked with, to name a few, include Phillip Noyce, “Blind Fury,” Billy Crystal, “Forget Paris,” Sam Raimi, “Spider-Man,” Gary Winick, “Thirteen Going on Thirty,” Joe Roth “Christmas with the Kranks,” Frank Marshall, “Eight Below” and Albert and Allen Hughes, “The Book of Eli.”

His myriad awards include an Oscar nomination for best cinematography in 1995 for “Forrest Gump;” two ASC Awards nominations, one for “Forrest Gump” in 1995 and a nomination for outstanding cinematography in a movie of the week for “The Court-Marshal of Jackie Robinson” (1991); a BAFTA Film Award nomination in 1995 for “Forrest Gump,” three  award nominations for “Cast Away,” including the 2001 Chicago Film Critics Association Award, the 2001 Las Vegas Film Critics Society Award and the 2001 Phoenix Film Critics Society Award; and a 1998 Golden Satellite Award nomination for “Contact.” He recently completed production on “The Muppets,” and took some time to talk to Panavision about his career and the recently released film “Source Code,” which debuted at the SXSW Film Festival and opened in wide release on April 1, 2011 to positive reviews.
 
When were you were first introduced to Panavision?
DB: The first show I worked with Panavision cameras was in 1976 on “The Sorcerer,” with director William Friedkin. We were on location in the Dominican Republic for three months; it was my first feature as a film loader. The original camera crew was British and Johnny Stephens, who I went down there with, ended up taking over the movie, and finished shooting first unit. I was in film school at the time and I had seen Panavision’s logo, but I didn’t know the equipment. 
 
What was the first project you used Panavision on as a DP?
DB: The first movie that I shot with Panavision cameras was when I was 23 years old. I shot a picture called “Ruckus,” and the director was Max Kleven. It was released by New World Pictures and starred Linda Blair and Richard Farnsworth. It was a 30-day shoot and while we were in pre-production the director said to me, “We’ve got to make this look like a real movie, so we have to shoot with Panavision.”
 
What was it that influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?
DB: When I was in high school, I took black and white still photography classes and that started my interest in photography. I started shooting Super 8 movies, ski movies, and projects my friends were working on. Then, Johnny Stephens invited me with him on a commercial shoot, for Porsche. I thought to myself, “This isn’t so bad, the guy flies around the world shooting commercials and making movies,” and that’s when I turned the corner from still photography to cinematography. I had no idea how to get into the movie business, so I started school at Art Center, and went from there. I began as a documentary cameraman shooting sports movies: mountain climbing, scuba diving and skiing. I think you learn more about the practical side of the filmmaking business when you shoot action work. I learned from Max Kleven, who really knew how to shoot action. I had good instincts as an operator, so that was my way in, and then I began working as a 2nd unit DP on action features, which was the next step.
 
How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, key grip, operator and assistant? 
DB: The business has changed drastically. Before, when we did a lot of stage work in Los Angeles, you had your crew and went from picture to picture and it became extremely efficient; you could heighten the quality of the work because you had your team. Now it’s different, you are forever putting together new teams to make your movie. It’s not as efficient, and if you move the camera a lot, like I do, then you have to train your dolly grip and it takes time to set up shots. You are gambling on someone else’s movie, and it’s made the job of a cinematographer tougher.
 
What is your decision-making process between shooting spherical or anamorphic? 
DB: Every project is different in that regard. Some directors aren’t that concerned about the format and some are. With “Forrest Gump,” I felt very strongly about shooting anamorphic: it depicted the character’s relationship to the world and how he saw the world. I thought anamorphic lens worked so well, compositionally. With the character of Forrest Gump, I short-sighted him a lot to put him out of context, so he always felt odd with things around him. The anamorphic format has a tendency to short-sight better anyway, and we used really wide lenses focused on him; I think it creates that feeling of his relationship to everything else. “Castaway” was 1:85 and I think that became more about director Bob Zemeckis wanting to show the world of Tom Hanks in that composition. With Sam Raimi, I was pushing very strongly to shoot “Spiderman” in scope and he always saw the movie 1:85; so we duked it out for a while and I eventually had to give up. I try to approach each movie individually with what feels right to me, and what the story feels like compositionally. To this day, I don’t know exactly why I chose what I did; it was a gut feeling about each movie.
 
What elements do you take into consideration when shooting anamorphic? 
DB: One thing about anamorphic is that you have to be very conscious of the composition, of how things line up, because it’s pretty powerful. You have to guide the audience -- whether it’s utilizing color, composition, contrast – in order to have them looking where you want them to be looking. And, of course, if Tom Hanks is in the frame, the audience is going to look at Tom Hanks. With wider shots, depending on what you are trying to say, you have to design it, which is great. It makes cinematography what we want it to be. With a medium shot, you want to keep the storytelling between the people talking, and you need to put all that information in that plane. It’s more focused on where you want it to be. There is less misinformation at the bottom of the frame than if you were shooting 1:85. The difference is that if you try to do it spherical and go out on a long lens, you truly isolate your subject, but with an anamorphic lens you can be tight on that person and see the rest of the world. It’s a great storytelling tool.
 
You have been experimenting with the use of digital imaging on such films as “Book of Eli,” “The Muppets,” and a particular scene in “Source Code.” How do you determine at the beginning of a project what format is best suited for that project, and how does that decision get made?
DB: I think that it’s changing so fast; two years ago we would not have had this conversation, unless I was forced to shoot digitally. “Book of Eli” was a turning point for me, because the directors, Allen and Albert Hughes, came into the project with a preference to shoot with the Red camera. The storyline was based on a post-apocalyptic world, and the director wanted a very de-saturated look. We felt the Red camera could accomplish that look. Fortunately, I had a lot of time to test, and the directors had very good ideas from the beginning of what they wanted the movie to look like, so we were able to get comfortable before we started shooting. I was able to try several different lenses: I tested the Zeiss Master primes, the Cooke S4 lenses and the Panavision Primos, and based on those tests, we preferred the look of the Primos. 
 
What was it about the quality of the Primos that made it the best choice?
DB: With “Book of Eli,” I felt those lenses gave me the most filmic look. With “Source Code,” it was the same thing. I ended up with Primos, again, because it gave me the most filmic look. I was comfortable with the look I was going to get. 
 
Let’s talk about “Source Code.”  Was the use of the Red MX camera for a totally different look than the film images?
DB: The director, Duncan Jones, was always searching for the pod sequence to have a different look than the rest of the film. The main character, Jake Gyllenhaal, goes into this pod throughout the movie, and the director wanted something that was completely isolated from the rest of the film. 
 
Were you happy with the look?
DB: I think it works quite well, I’m happy with the way it turned out. In some ways, it’s pretty subtle, but I think the way it all came together with set design and the way we lit it, and the use of that camera, it does have its own look to it. It was a concept started by the director, and what he wanted to say, and it became a matter of testing things as to how we were going to get there. It was at the time when the Red cameras were upgraded with the new MX sensor, so it was a step up. It’s always a little scary trying something new, but I guess that’s what keeps it interesting. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and now I’m learning how to do it all over again. It’s changing the game, and there are more ways to think about it, and there are more tools for the palette.
 
When shooting “Source Code,” what can you tell us about how you designed your lighting to photograph key actors. 
DB: The challenge of that movie was that it takes place on a moving train, shot on a soundstage in Montreal. We used green screen out the window of the train, with wide lenses, but looking out it’s difficult to make it feel like natural light is coming in and still get the sense of movement on a train. That part of it worked, but to light this sequence that happens over and over again, you can’t just light it once and recreate it every time. There are nuances and different touches the audience is going to be expecting, so you have to light each segment and have a thought of what that’s going to be. It became a challenge to keep it the same but new and different. It’s a matter of laying out the concept, and there are ways to make lights feel they are moving. We worked with computer programs where we actually move the light itself, and brighten and dim the lights so it feels as if you are traveling. With the lights on a computer board, the lights are never 100% constant. We used tungsten lighting and fluorescent lighting outside the train, and all kinds of lighting imaginable inside and outside the train. Everything is moving all the time. So there is a sense of coming back to the same place, a repetition, but the characters come back and do different things, so that’s where the alternate takes place. 
 
Were there difficulties with the train itself?
DB: I rode a commuter train in Chicago and took my Canon 7D with me to record the passage on a train. I recorded what it really looked like on a morning commute. I wanted the sunny side to be the side I sat on, so I had to change what was perceived as the direction the train was heading into Chicago. We had to alternate the sun raking across the train window and how it changes when the trees go by. As for lighting, I always try to motivate most of the sources from outside, keep it as natural as possible. It had to be as real as possible. Fill lighting was difficult because it’s a wall of mirrors inside the train. It’s tough, but you have to figure out how to get the light where you want it, because you want the scene to feel correct. Once you have that, then you have to light the principal actors, and then figure out how not see yourself in the mirrors. My production designer was Barry Chusid, who I had worked with on a previous film, “Aliens in the Attic.” Barry had also done a couple of big action films. He came up with the concept and design of the train, and then we got very specific, working through the design to make things look more cinematic and still make it look like a commuter train. Designing it properly but making it movie friendly as well. It’s always better when you have a relationship with someone, you build a trust, and it makes it much easier the second time out.
 
Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses? If so, why?
DB: I would say that in every set of lenses, there is that lens. With anamorphic lenses, the (C-series) 50mm lens would be my workhorse; if I’m shooting spherically, the 27mm Primo lens becomes the real workhorse.
 
Out of all the projects that you have shot, what was your favorite? And why? 
DB: I would say that certainly one of my favorites is “Forrest Gump” and how we used the camera to tell the story. But I feel that my best work was in “Contact.” It was the most seamless work. Some of the toughest work we do as cinematographers is the work that audiences don’t even notice. I’m proud of how that movie seamlessly goes together. It was shot in several different formats, including 65mm and anamorphic. I think we shot every format there is known to mankind in that movie! I feel that good photography is like music: if you get the tone right, then nobody actually notices how you are doing it. Some stories need more dramatic lighting, some stories need more of schizoid, stressed look, but it should always complement what the director wanted.
 
If you had a chance to sit down with any cinematographer, past or present, who would that be?
DB: There are a lot of cinematographers who I’ve had the opportunity to sit down and talk with, people who have been influential in my career, and it’s wonderful to meet these people. We are very similar, because in the end, we are very passionate about what we do. We do this for a living, but most of us are driven and enjoy going to work each day, because we love creating these images. I remember asking John Box (the production designer for David Lean on “The Sorcerer”) about his job, and what it was all about. He said, “You know, we come up with these ideas and we try really hard to get it right, and we put these ideas onto film.” At the time, we were sitting on a helicopter coming back from the Dominican Republic. The sun was setting and it was a spectacular sunset, and he said, “Look out the window: there’s the magic. That’s what we’re trying to create, and when we do, it’s magic. We just keep trying.” When we are lighting we start out with a game plan, and then we see other things, and it brings it to life. It’s an organic process. You have to be able to, at that moment, dance the dance. The proudest moment of a shot is when you have 15 people who have to be absolutely perfect, and all of a sudden, you hit that note where everything comes together. So many times Bob (Zemeckis) and I would be sitting in our chairs together, and I would look over and see a smile on his face, and I knew we had gotten it just right.