John Schwartzman is well known for his action work for Michael Bay on “The Rock” (1996), “Armageddon” (1998) and “Pearl Harbor” (2001). Although “Seabiscuit” is a period piece, far different in mood and scale from those projects, Schwartzman says his background was extremely useful in shooting realistic horse-racing sequences.
“Having worked with Michael Bay, I knew where to find resources to explore the boldest ways to capture the action,” he explains. “I had relationships already with the vendors who specialize in this kind of equipment. I could call (camera vehicle engineer) Alan Padelford and the manufacturers of gyro-stabilized camera heads (in particular, the Wescam XR head and the Libra head), and get them to come up with things we needed, on a tight budget. That let us do tons of tests for (director) Gary Ross, so we could develop a specific approach for filming horse-racing.”
One big challenge was the production was limited in the use of racehorses each day. “The best analogy is that of a Major League pitching coach — we had limited resources to go out and try to win the World Series,” says Schwartzman. “We were only allowed to run and film our racehorses for a limited period each week. If we used up our horse resources unwisely, we wouldn’t have any to use for the next several days. We therefore made a very detailed plan of attack.”
Schwartzman says his crew, filming at racetracks, was more spread out and harder to communicate with than on typical shoots. “That’s one reason I used Kodak (super-35mm) 5274 stock, because it is a medium-speed stock, and I knew I could push the shoot each day to the last bit of daylight using it, without having to switch film stocks midway through,” he explains. “Filming horses at tracks where cameras were often two-thirds of a mile away from each other, coordinating all those logistics, with limited daylight, we couldn’t afford the time necessary to keep changing stocks around, so this seemed like the best approach.”
Key tools: Panavision Panaflex Platinum cameras; Panavision Primo lenses; Kodak Super 35mm stock 5274 (200 ASA) and 5218 (500 ASA).
Aesthetic: “The idea was to utilize today’s tools to create the complete experience for viewing horse racing. In that sense, we did not shoot the way the traditional racing camera cinematography of that era was done. We wanted to let the film unfold without lots of cutting, with the camera movement being part of the drama, instead of being imposed on it.”
Challenge: “(Having limited time available to work with racehorses each day) was, technically, a huge challenge. This was certainly the most extensive planning on a shot-by-shot basis that I had ever done in my career.”