“Open Range” marks James Muro’s debut as a feature d.p. after working since the early ’80s as one of Hollywood’s top Steadicam operators on dozens of features. In those years, he worked on three Oscar-winning films under other lensers: “Dances With Wolves,” Dean Semler; “JFK,” Bob Richardson; and “Titanic,” Russell Carpenter.
He’s known “Open Range” director-star Kevin Costner since working as a camera operator on “Field of Dreams” and “Dances With Wolves,” and credits Costner with taking a chance on him as a tyro d.p. Since the film came out, his work emphasizing “those big Canadian skies and prairies” and bringing a gritty realism to the movie has earned critical praise.
Muro persuaded Costner to use several approaches he was not used to — high-definition dailies and a digital intermediate, in particular, performed at Cinesite in Hollywood.
“Those decisions were very important to the overall look of the piece, particularly since our budget and our shooting time were both limited,” says Muro. “We shot the movie keeping the (capabilities of the DI) in mind, knowing full well what could be enhanced or refined later, and what couldn’t. For instance, a 360-degree Steadicam shot during the gunfight might normally pull the camera’s iris constantly, but in the DI, we got better control over riding the iris later. Also, every daytime exterior shot in the film is a stop-and-a-half underexposed to retain as much detail as possible for those Canadian skies.
“We also used an HD dailies system, with Alpha Cine Labs (Vancouver) proving very capable in turning those images around. I was able to communicate with our colorist there using digital (still) photos that I shot myself and color-corrected using Photoshop on a Macintosh computer. That provided the dailies colorist with a tangible template of what we were looking for, and it also let us conform and preview a high-definition version of the entire movie to large audiences during the test-screening phase.”
Key tools: Panavision Panaflex Platinum cameras; Panavision Primo anamorphic lenses; Super 35mm Kodak 5274 stock for daytime sequences, and Kodak 5279 for nighttime sequences.
Aesthetic: “Color, realistic light, and emphasizing those big Canadian skies, the prairies and the (climactic) gunfight were particularly important (to Kevin Costner). He wanted very realistic, low-light levels, like you would really find if you were out on the range at dawn or dusk.”
Challenge: “Our budget and shooting time were very limited, so advance planning was crucial. The realistic, low-light levels were also challenging. The nighttime ambush scene around the campfire illustrates this. It was supposed to be a very dark scene, with characters emerging from black. We shot the whole thing with a few flickering lights and a touch of blue background information from BeeBee lights and my Steadicam.”