I’d seen movies like "Sin-City," "300," and the lesser-known "The Lady and The Duke"by Eric Rohmer. I knew it was possible to shoot a whole movie on a green screen stage and build its environments digitally. No one had done it with vintage photographs, but I figured, , why not? It took a lot of testing during the pre-viz process to find an approach that would work for the story, and remain doable on a very indie budget. One of the earliest choices I had to make was black & white vs. color. If we went all one way or the other, we would be continually trying to trick the audience into believing that the actors and the sets co-existed in the same narrative reality. The problem with that approach is that a visual effect that’s 99% right looks 100% wrong, and on our budget we could never maintain that level of quality. Instead, I realized stylization would save us. By keeping the actors, furniture and props in color, and leaving the vintage plates in black & white, I could offer a stylized world that never attempted to trick the audience. And that stylized look suits the nature of the narrative because Lamon’s story is a memory piece. I named this new cinematic style CineCollage, and it owes as much to stage craft as it does to cinema craft.
When we were shooting, the actors and I worked on a huge green screen stage at Atomic Studios in downtown LA, the only affordable place of its size. Unfortunately, it’s not really a soundstage, and we often had to cut for trains, planes, helicopters and sirens. I remember it fondly, however, because it was such a creative space for the whole team.
I purposely cast the movie with an eye to stage experience. We treated our huge green box like a little black box theater. We did rough compositing on-set so that we’d all be on the same page. This allowed our DP, Alex Naufel and our VFX Producer, Kristian Hansen, to match camera height, distance and lens with the work of pioneering photographers like Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner. It also enabled the cast to envision the environments they’d ultimately occupy. While actually shooting, however, they relied on each other to stay grounded in Lamon’s reality.
In this clip, I include three short, consecutive scenes that illustrate three different challenges we faced in our CineCollage process. In part 1, we have an outdoor scene that emphasizes the epic scope of our film. Lincoln and Lamon test Spencer’s new repeating rifles at the foot of the unfinished Washington Monument – an iconic image in "Saving Lincoln." The sky glows white, a characteristic of the wet collodion photo process that could not capture contrast in brightly lit areas. Those ghostly skies form a motif in the film, suggesting death not as tragedy, but as destiny. This is a visual way to get at the heart of Lamon’s narrative. Like the soldiers who died before him, Lincoln’s life and struggles served their intended purpose. He completed his journey, and felt gratitude for seeing his work completed. Over the course of the movie, those skies occupy more and more of the frame as Lincoln’s inevitable demise approaches, and they finally help Lamon redefine the meaning of that event.
In part 2, we have an indoor scene at the Armory Square Hospital. Because wet collodion photography required so much light, there are relatively few indoor pictures, making this a fortunate find. The photographs also required long exposure times, so subjects had to be absolutely still or end up blurred. In this case, I had to choose whether or not to keep our period “extras” in the shot even though some would be blurred in a manner not acceptable for a normal movie. I chose to honor the boys who sacrificed their lives and limbs in the Civil War. I couldn’t have done that if the choice popped our audience out of Lamon’s narrative, but once again, CineCollage allowed us to make a stylized choice consistent with Lamon’s memory piece and Lincoln’s own love for the soldiers in the Union Army.
Finally, in part 3 we have a kitchen converted to a surgical ward. Washington DC was ill equipped to handle the enormous number of injured men returning from battle, and such scenes were common. The point of the scene is Lincoln’s reaction to the gruesome procedure. I needed to move the camera past the operating table, lest the audience focus on that painful image rather than Lincoln’s own grim determination to witness the practical effects of his written orders.
To accomplish that move, our visual effects team had to convert a 150 year old, 2D image into a 3D environment through which the camera could dolly. It’s a huge job, requiring the compositor to build a 3D model and skin its surfaces with photographic material. We could never afford to do that for every scene, so I had to pick my spots carefully. The impact of this scene justified the effort.
Having made one CineCollage film, I’d like to make another. We spent enormous resources learning how to do it, so we’re the go-to team for this approach. Nina and I have been researching John L. Sullivan, the last Bare Knuckle Champion of the world, and the first modern celebrity. He lived in 1880’s New York, and the photographs of that period are stunning. The lessons of CineCollage, however, extend far beyond period photography. What we’ve really done is learn how to make an all-VFX independent film that’s epic in scope yet intimately performed. I’ve also got a science fiction saga in mind, based on books written by Dani & Eytan Kollin that are absolutely brilliant, and perhaps that will be next.