“We’re all used to stunt movies. But to really keep your main character and his emotions as the center of the story, that’s what keeps the audience connected. If it’s just action, you tune out. It’s all spectacular and great, but if you’re not in the guy’s head… then it just becomes boring, no matter how good the action is.” — Phedon Papamichael
Over the course of six films, director James Mangold and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have refined a “classic, old school” approach to filmmaking, focusing most of all on performance, while also crafting extremely precise, cinematic compositions.
With Ford v Ferrari, the pair sought to immerse viewers in the experience of race car driver Ken Miles, played by Christian Bale, as he traveled in a “little bucket of bolts” at breakneck speeds.
Though the film’s racing sequences are lengthy and complex, the majority of the shoot’s logistics were figured out in pre-production, through the creation of an animatic. Traditional storyboards were only created for one sequence: the race at Willow Springs.
Generally, Papamichael has little interest in working with either shot lists or storyboards, since he prefers to find and refine each shot on set.
The DP’s explains that for him, reproducing one storyboard after another can result in a film that feels “sterile.” In contrast, what Mangold and Papamichael prefer to chase with each shot is something “more emotional,” and sometimes “less controlled.”
To keep audiences engaged with Ford v Ferrari’s action, Papamichael stayed in Miles’ perspective throughout each race, getting his cameras in extremely close physical proximity to Bale’s picture vehicle, as well as others on the track.
Rather than “popping on a long lens and panning a car,” the DP shot close-ups of Bale on a wide lens, to capture the depth of the actor’s performance, while keeping him visually connected to the stunts happening all around him, as other drivers crashed or tried to catch up.
For more from our conversation with the Ford v Ferrari cinematographer, read on.
DEADLINE: What drew you into the story of Ford v Ferrari?
PHEDON PAPAMICHAEL: I’m a car guy. My family actually was in racing. My father raced rally cars; his brother was probably the most famous race car driver in Greece in the ’50s. I grew up around people who liked sports cars, and had them, and as a kid, I had an early fascination with them. I wanted to be a car designer before anything else. I mean, all through school I was drawing cars, and I still own a couple of 1972 sports cars. When this came along, I knew the story, and maybe five years prior to this movie, I was looking to buy a Ford GT40. So, to me, this was a dream project.
It’s cars, it’s Mangold, it’s ’60s. I’m fascinated with that period. I grew up watching French New Wave, Steve McQueen. Then, I remember as a kid seeing Grand Prix, remembering those images, and I loved race car movies. I also watched Formula 1 Grands Prix; as a child, I saw Niki Lauda burn live on television. Because I grew up in Europe, I was always around this scene, and my kids race go karts. It’s something in the blood.
DEADLINE: Could you describe the aesthetic you were going for with this film?
PAPAMICHAEL: We didn’t specifically look at Grand Prix, but I remember in [James Mangold’s] office during prep, that movie was just running on a loop, and I kept, just out of the corner of my eye, taking it in and going, “Look how they just hold on this hard mounted onto the chassis, close-up frontal”—[noticing] just how long they hold on the POV from the cockpit. There’s no aerial shots, no fancy wrap-arounds, no fancy camera cars. It really feels basic—gritty, I guess.
In early testing, we realized the most effective way is just mounting these cameras, keeping the main character, Ken Miles, at the center of all the action. Also with the lenses we used, we had these expanded anamorphics, which were a prototype. We went into production with lenses that had never been used, and they gave you the ability to have these large-format [shots]. Because it was an Alexa LF, and the anamorphics don’t cover that sensor, Dan Sasaki, the lens guru at Panavision expanded it, so I’d get the qualities of large format, which has this beautiful falloff, but also the scope.
We like to go in physically close with a camera, and not isolate the actor, so you’re actually shooting close-ups on wider lenses. Then, you feel all of the surroundings, and all the choreography of the driving is staged…Like, in Willow Springs, out in the desert, in the opening race, when you see a car next to him, it is physically inches away from him—and when it spins out and kicks up in the desert, all of that’s happening for real. There’s no CG there.
Christian had to go to racing school. He also used to race motorcycles, even on some of those tracks, so he was very familiar with that scene. Then, we just send them off and get these gems that you can never do with rear-screen projection or LED technology on stage, with hydraulics shaking the car. When you’ve got those goggles, the dirt, and the sun moving across his face, that’s all stuff that can’t really be replicated on the stage, and it’s also for the performance. There’s no question, no matter who you are as an actor, that when you’re actually sitting in the [car], in the sound and the wind, it’s going to enhance your performance.
DEADLINE: What kinds of rigs and tracking vehicles did you use to so intimately track race cars traveling at over 100 miles per hour?
PAPAMICHAEL: In the testing period, we brought out all the toys—little motorized sliders, and pursuit vehicles with crane arms—and said, “Let’s test this kind of shot where we boom up, and the car brakes underneath frame.” Then, we found the most effective ones were where we mounted them to the chassis. Of course, they’re not free driving, because Christian is wearing a period helmet that’s not even safety rated, if he was to go over 60 miles an hour. So, we [used] what’s called a pod car. Basically, the race car is sitting on its own wheels, it has an extended chassis, and it has a pod that’s controlled by Allan Padelford, our stunt precision driver.
In other scenarios, we were pursuing them in a Porsche, but not with an arm on it, because the arm, going around those turns at those speeds, basically the g-force would make the arm very hard to control and get these things. One device we did use is an elevator rig; it’s basically a column that’s hard mounted to the front or back of the car, and allows the camera to travel up and down, so you can put the lens inches off the ground, and then it can shoot up to eight feet. But it’s a fixed column, not an arm that’s swinging.
In Willow Springs, we’re chasing these Cobras on the edge of the track, and zipping into the dirt at like 90 miles an hour, going into these wide turns. I would sit in the vehicle and we’d have to pull iris, and my assistants had to pull focus, and [given] the range of the transmitters, we had to really pursue those cars closely. We always felt safe, but it’s a roller coaster ride, the same thing Christian Bale was experiencing in the pod vehicle.
When we’re doing car to car, of course, it’s a stunt driver. But on the pod car, it’s Christian sitting in the car. It’s an actual race car, whether it’s the GT40 or a Cobra, or a Ferrari for that matter. The chassis is extended so you can fit this pod, which is basically a place to control the car from. The control center for the car mounts to the back of the vehicle, if you’re looking profile or forwards; that’s how you get the shots out the front, [where] you can feel that it’s Christian, you can turn into profile, you can do focus racks. But you’re basically his POV looking forward. Alternatively, it could get mounted to the front. So, all the shots where you’re raking him from the front, then you see the other cars pull up alongside him, or three-quarter behind him, that’s a pod vehicle.
It’s called ‘pod’ because that control capsule, or stunt driver’s control unit, can be mounted in the front and the back, but the car is riding on its own wheels. It’s not like an insert trailer; it’s basically a race car that is controlled from another position. On a traditional sedan, like on the Bourne movies, they mount it on the roof, so you can look all around. But in our case, it was in the front or in the back, depending on which angle we were in.
Then, we built another race car based on our chassis, with the engines that we built the Ford GTs in, and we called that the Frankenstein rig. It’s basically a race car that can keep up with these cars through all situations. It looks like a go-kart with a bunch of black pipes on it; it’s really just like a cage that’s a race car, but you can have little mounts in it. You can put cameras up front, extremely low. That’s when you’re chasing a vehicle, and you’re inches away, and then it brakes, and just opens enough space for another car to cut through—again, inches from the camera. It’s just hard mounted things, but it allows you to go high speed, keep up with the cars, and it was very important for us to go as fast as possible.
We didn’t do the Steve McQueen thing, where he insisted on Le Mans to go actual race speed, which was 200 miles an hour. But obviously, it’s a race car movie, so conveying the speed is the main thing. By being wide angles and low to the ground, and seeing the asphalt strobing by, that’s what gives you the sense [of speed]. You’re not tracking them with drones or helicopters. You’re always in it, on the ground, at the speeds they’re traveling. The wider the lensing, and the lower you are, and the closer you can get to these cars, the faster it looks.
DEADLINE: Did the shoot involve any use of miniatures?
PAPAMICHAEL: No. But in the film, there was one fully constructed CG car. It’s still in the edit, and the reason it was fully CG was because it’s a shot that starts very high and dives in, when Ken Miles keeps breaking his own lap records, before he decides to wait up for the other two Fords. We were looking at it in post, and in the DI, and I’m like, “I don’t know. I don’t like this shot.” Mangold had originally asked for it, and then one day he’s like, “Yeah, that’s not our movie. That’s not our language,” and we cut it in half. You know, it was a really expensive shot, but it just felt wrong. It really stood out, and he goes, “F*ck it, let’s just cut into it much later.” We still used probably the last third of it, and now, it’s not that apparent. But every other car you see—out the windshield, spinning off, exploding, flying through the air—is mechanical effects, and real cars driven by real people.
DEADLINE: While second unit was in Georgia, shooting car-to-car materials for the climactic sequence at Le Mans, you were on a different set in California. Was it challenging, then, to achieve continuity in the footage for this race?
PAPAMICHAEL: It was a huge matching nightmare because there’s this whole timeline. The race starts at 4:00 PM and it’s sunny, and then they go, “Oh, rain is coming,” and it rains at night. They had to shoot very specific beats that fit that timeline, and I had to match it all, because I’m shooting all the pits. The pits were built in Agua Dulce, which is off of the 14 [Freeway], on the way to Palmdale. It’s a little, private airstrip, and I’m coordinating all these shots.
It helps that [the race] is over 24 hours, and of course, the story’s collapsed. That sequence is only 20 minutes, so there’s a little bit of flexibility there. But we had some shots where the sun was on the horizon, and then the next shot we got back from second unit, it’s like noon. It’s overhead, no long shadows.
People who see the movie comment, “It seems like you shot everything in golden, low light, in the sunset,” but it’s because of the orientation of the set. The orientation of the set was dictated by the orientation of the runway, which is our start/finish line. That’s where we built it, and then the sun would rise behind it. In the morning, up to like 11, I had them in shade, so I would do all the dusk and dawn, or overcast scenes. Then, we would break for lunch, and in the afternoon, it would come over and start setting. In the West, there were these mountains, which [had] three-quarter backlight, and I’d get all these beautiful kicks and flares. But it wasn’t really so much by design. [laughs] It was more just the nature of having to shoot out there in the late summer, and not being able to cheat things around.
DEADLINE: You’re currently shooting Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7. What has that experience been like?
PAPAMICHAEL: It’s exciting because it’s only Aaron’s second movie. He wrote it actually for Steven Spielberg. It’s been around for a while, and Steven was going to do it, and at some point [Sorkin] asked him, “Can I do it?” But he’s very different than Mangold.
I just did all these ’60s riot scenes. We’re in Chicago, doing the Democratic Convention in Grant Park, and I have 300 extras of hippies, and Chicago cops. I’m just like, “Okay, Two cameras, handheld, in the crowds. Go make a documentary about this.”
Of course, every movie requires a different language. I’m not normally a big handheld guy because I do come from still photography, and I do like compositions—and Mangold, too. We’re very particular about framing. Sometimes, like I just did last week in Chicago, I’m talking to the operators, but mostly so they don’t end up shooting the same thing. I’m like, “Okay, pan over here. Whip pan to this.”
All this roughness, it’s just a different language, and most of the time, I see [the footage] and I go, “Yeah, that’s really good. It’s well done.” But it’s not for me, like not everyone can write the same style, and not everyone can compose the same kind of score. I appreciate it, but I go, “That’s not me.” I’m more slow dollies, so you can’t really perceive the move, little push-ins when it’s emotionally appropriate—like Nebraska, which is very calm and composed, but uses a close-up when it really means something.