Being reunited with director Robert Zemeckis on “Flight” was just like old times for cinematographer Don Burgess. The last time they worked together was on “The Polar Express” in 2004, Bob Z’s first foray into performance capture. But in terms of live action, you have to go back to “Cast Away” in 2000. So a lot has changed in the “digital stew,” as Zemeckis likes to refer to virtual production. Still, after lensing all of his live action movies since “Forrest Gump,” the two have established a visual rapport built around the old Truffaut maxim about movies being part truth and part spectacle.
“The starting point is that it’s a movie about truth and honesty,” Burgess confirms. And so that’s the driving force behind the lighting and the clarity of the lenses. I didn’t want any of the lighting to feel too theatrical. I wanted it to be as real as possible and always connected to Whip [Denzel Washington] and his struggle with alcoholism.”
So they came up with the sensation of Whip “floating” through the use of the Steadicam whenever he’s under the influence, as opposed to normal steadiness using a dolly. “The biggest difference is that we shot this digitally with the Red Epic,” Burgess adds, “which is a lot smaller than a film camera, and was very handy during the plane crash sequence to make those shots work within a real in real space.”
For the frenetic white knuckler sequence, in which Whip extraordinarily flies the plane upside down to avert disaster while inebriated, they not only wanted us to experience the horror, but also cue in on Whip’s POV. “We had different levels of camera movement,” Burgess continues. “We had a gimbal and I could move my lights to simulate what would actually happen outside with the sun and the sky or the storm in the clouds. You throw all those elements together and decide if the lens should be wide or in their face.”
However, like Zemeckis, the cinematographer’s proudest moment is a philosophical conversation in a hospital stairwell between Whip, a recovering substance abuser (Kelly Reilly), and a cancer patient (James Badge Dale). The quiet bonding comes out of nowhere and marks the longest and most sublime scene in the director’s career. And for Whip, it represents a confrontation with mortality and loneliness.
“When you first read the script, you ask yourself, ‘What is this about? How did this end up in the movie?’ And then it becomes this wonderful moment that takes the movie to another level,” Burgess marvels. “But you’re playing a fine line with the lighting. You want it to feel like a real stairwell — which it was, by the way — and yet you want the lighting to have a mood to it that’s not just a washed out, fluorescent look.”
Burgess pushed the light and shadow to give each character their own little environment in that stairwell because ultimately that’s what they’re looking for: their own spot for a moment alone with their cigarette. “Yet they all end up together and solving the world’s problems,” he suggests. “It’s amazing how difficult something that simple is. It was a tight, sweaty place to work in and nobody was comfortable, but it was nice to see Bob go in there and take these actors and mold it. It’s all about human drama and when cinema becomes about our lives.”
From there, we venture to Whip’s family farm to provide a glimpse of where he came from, where his roots are, and how he became the legendary pilot before life got the better of him. “It was a struggle to find and once we found the runway and the warehouse hanger, we built part of the structure of the house. The trick to that was making you believe it was on location.”
The most powerful trick of all, though, was the suspenseful boozy candy store scene in a hotel room. They built the refrigerator from scratch so Burgess could light it for the moment when all the little bottles are sitting there to tempt him. The mood of the lighting works its way into the night and early into the morning. Whip hears the refrigerator kick on mysteriously from the adjoining room and wanders in with the cold light coming from the city behind him.
“When he opens it up, it’s unbearable to watch with this product placement shot of the alcohol sitting there,” Burgess says. “And then the camera comes around him when he looks into the refrigerator. You see him put it back and the camera slowly pushes in on the bottle; there’s a painfully long moment when you think it’s over and he’s left it. Then he comes back and grabs it. We shot at high speed to heighten the grab. As anybody knows who’s been involved with an alcoholic, you want so much for him to conquer this problem. No…no…no.”
Part truth, part spectacle, indeed.