“Pawn Sacrifice,” director Edward Zwick’s biopic of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, tells us that after only four moves, a chess game offers more than 300,000 billion options to consider. However, Fischer (by way of Tobey Maguire) later explains that those limitless possibilities are illusory. There is usually only one right move in any situation. And what made Fischer a “da Vinci from Brooklyn” was that he saw a different “one right move” than everyone else.
On a micro level, cinematographer Bradford Young shared a similar illusion of possibilities while making “Pawn Sacrifice.” With a camera truck crammed with 16mm, 35mm and Arri Alexa cameras and various flavors of film stocks, Young relied on his intuition in choosing the appropriate tool to make that “one right move” in each moment.
The “Selma” and “A Most Violent Year” cinematographer spoke to Indiewire about his cache of “Pawn Sacrifice” formats, the kitsch of 1960s Los Angeles and his begrudging acceptance of keying with frontlight.
Did you have any rules on “Pawn Sacrifice” for this arsenal of cameras you had at your disposal? For example, did you reserve certain formats for specific time periods?
We didn’t have any rules. I just kind of rolled with it and worked from the heart. It was super intuitive and very loose. We shot the “archival” footage on film and we often had multiple cameras running. My camera assistant, Dany Racine, brought his Bolex and sometimes he would grab that and shoot alongside me and my camera operator Sylvaine Dufaux. So there would be times when three of us were running around. Sometimes we would dress the operators in period clothing so we could incorporate them into the shot (as members of the media following Fischer). So some of those camera folks you see in the film are actually our crew.
Walk me through the different film formats you used for those “archival” shots.
We had Kodak 5222 black-and-white film stock in both 35mm and Super 16mm. Then we had regular Kodak 5219 (color stock). Because (the portions shot on film) were going to be used as archival footage, I tended to lean towards stocks with an aggressive amount of grain. Kodak 5219 is pretty pristine, so I would push it two stops (in the photochemical processing) in order to bring some texture into the image.
We also used a special reissued Agfachrome, which is a Super 16mm positive film stock that we found a few rolls of in Germany. My AC Dany Racine hunted down something like 30,000 feet of it. You have to be really careful with Agfachrome. It’s super volatile. You never know what the results are going to be.
When you say it’s super volatile, do you mean that the latitude is limited or that the color rendition is unpredictable?
Both. The exposure latitude is crazy and the colors are very magenta. It’s an almost monochromatic film stock. The images tend to lean on the Sepia side of things. You just have to be very careful with it.
With a digital camera like the Alexa, the camera body is intertwined with the sensor. But with a film camera – where the stock is responsible for the look of the image – does the physical camera body make much difference?
The ergonomics of the body can affect the look. A big camera is going to lock you down more and give you more observational shots. But if you’re using a Bolex or the Aaton Penelope, which is what we ended up using for most of the black-and-white 35mm stuff, they’re so light that you can be free-form with them. But with film, really, your paintbrushes are your lights and the film stock and all the film stocks have their own personality.
What did you select as your lenses for the Alexa?
I used Cooke S4s.
There’s a trend toward using older lenses to take some of the harshness out of the digital image. Why, for this period movie, did you opt for a set of lenses that is, relatively speaking, newer?
I didn’t go for the old lens look because I really felt that it would not create enough contrast between the official narrative of the film shot on the Alexa and the archival footage. But Cookes are very soft and they’re pretty creamy and very flattering. I also wanted lenses that would flare every now and then if I was doing something like using serious backlight at the right time of day. I didn’t want lenses that were super sharp and colorful and Zeiss lenses are a little bit more precise, contrasty and colorful.
How did you differentiate the look of Bobby’s childhood in 1950s Brooklyn with the turquoise and tangerine of 1960s California, where Bobby travels for a chess exhibition against the Soviets and their world champion Boris Spassky?
When I think about New York, I think of overcast skies. I wanted the Brooklyn scenes to be subdued and very cool and blue. I wanted them to have a cobalt feel to contrast against the scenes on the west coast, which are warm and bright and crisp. And we also wanted to play off of the kitschiness of Los Angeles in that period, which we see in the hotel where Bobby Fischer stays. Boris Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber) stays in all the best hotels and Bobby Fischer was in dumps. But what we consider a dump in New York is not a dump in L.A. (laughs) A dumpy hotel in L.A. could be on the beach.
There’s an effect early on during Bobby’s childhood where text hovers over the chess board, illuminating the various paths his pieces could traverse. But outside of that moment, you chose to shoot the chess matches in a fairly straightforward fashion.
Chess is so pure and meditative. It’s not a fast-paced game and I felt like if we tried to bring that shooting style to the chess games, it would be counterintuitive. So in terms of shooting the board, we kept it really simple. If you needed to see the king move from one point on the board to another, we shot a close-up of the piece and then the player’s fingers would come into frame and grab the piece. Then we’d cut to where the piece landed. We tried to keep it basic. Once we tried this high-angle tableaux shot where you saw the entire board and not the players and it just didn’t work.
Below, Young walks us through a few shots from “Pawn Sacrifice.”
Coming out of self-imposed retirement, Fischer travels to California to face a contingent of Soviet chess masters. In his first match, Fischer waits until he’s seconds away from disqualification to make his first move.
I’m glad you picked this one because it’s a good example of my growth as an image maker. This shot is front lit by the windows behind the camera and it’s brighter than I would usually go. But lighting it that way meant the reverse angle on Bobby Fischer would be backlit, which is what I love to do. So I had to figure out a way to make this shot front lit and still make it interesting. The windows were 100 feet wide and maybe 30 feet tall. My key grip Alain Masse, who’s amazing, had to build a teaser that was equally as big as those massive windows to cut the light off the background but keep light on the foreground so that as you get further away from the players, the (level of light on) the audience starts to fall off. By the time you get to the people in the deep background, they are barely there.
Fischer dons a paper grocery bag to avoid the media at the airport on his way to Iceland. This looks simple enough, but I’m guessing it was more complicated than tossing a bag over the camera and rolling.
It was not tough to achieve, but it took work. And it’s an important shot for the ethos of the film because we want the audience to be in Bobby Fischer’s head and this is a shot where the camera literally becomes Bobby Fischer.
I shot towards the windows so I could backlight the bag, which gives it that nice texture. I chose the 32mm Cooke, which had the closet minimum focus. Then we had the bag rigged out off the camera on a set of rails so we were able to adjust how close it got. It’s so funny, when you look at a frame like the previous one we talked about, it’s obvious that it’s a collaboration between the director, cinematographer and production designer working together to create this massive, beautiful set. But you never think about how a shot like this entails that same sort of collaboration even though it’s just a paper bag.
Fischer suffers a paranoid breakdown in his room in Iceland, where he’s traveled for a weeks-long showdown with Spassky. There’s a mix of warm tungsten from the practical lamp and the blue of the daylight outside, which is a color contrast you use frequently in the movie.
I just lit this scene with that lamp you see on the ground and I didn’t really do much more than that. Then we let Tobey wreck the room. This moment was about being authentic and not imposing our idea of what is or isn’t good lighting, because this moment isn’t about that. It’s about capturing something raw.
I did a lot of lighting in the movie with the practicals you see in the frames, which gives the film a particular patina because you’re not lighting with big, massive film lights. You get something a little big more subdued and intimate.
Fischer and Spassky prepare to face off in Iceland. For an event that caught the media attention of the era, I wasn’t able to track down much archival material from the match.
Our production designer Isabelle Guay is an amazing archivist and she gave me still photo references from the games. That light you see (above the stage) is a direct homage to the light that actually lit the match. It was a great opportunity to use two things I love – toplight and a soft single source.
For shooting purposes, I could also lower that light all the way down to the chess board, which I did a lot. Then I had blacks hidden in the ceiling so that I could lower and raise them if I wanted to take some light off the walls or those curtains, which were super reflective and a challenge to work with.