Like “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” two years back, Tom Stern shot two Oscar-contending features for Clint Eastwood a few months apart using the same basic production methodology honed by Eastwood’s team over the years to produce two wildly different results. First came “Changeling,” which visually strives to be a classic 1930s-era period mystery, followed by “Gran Torino,” a stripped-down, contemporary morality play.
As is always the case on an Eastwood project, both films were shot at a rapid-fire pace — 45 days in late 2007 for “Changeling” and 33 days this past summer for “Gran Torino.” Crafting different visuals for each, according to Stern, flowed from the nature of each story, thorough prep that precedes each Eastwood production, and subtle differences in film stock and use of the digital intermediate process at Technicolor Digital Intermediates.
“In ‘Changeling,’ we had a classic 1930s visual language, but still with our fluid camera movement and Steadicam,” Stern explains. “I was trying to create a nonobtrusive frame — a period kind of frame to highlight (Angelina Jolie’s) performance. The problem with period films is that, sometimes, you can get the cart before the horse and make it lush and fantastic but take away from the performance. What we set out to do was create frames that are deep and magnificent but unobtrusive in terms of performance. To a degree, we referenced (Conrad Hall’s work on) ‘The Day of the Locust’ — but somewhat more desaturated and more realistic.
“‘Gran Torino’ is an urban, contemporary picture on the border of gritty realism,” he continues. “It was somewhat like (2003’s) ‘Mystic River’ but even more realistic. I guess you could say I was referencing myself in that sense. But that film had three main characters, so it was a bit more magisterial. Here, the film is about one character, so there is more raw honesty to the piece.”
Stern shot both films in the anamorphic format using standard Panavision 35mm film cameras and Panavision C-Series lenses. For “Changeling,” he used the same film stock he has used for several pictures — Kodak Vision 500T 5279 stock — an older stock now out of production. He then made his first significant emulsion switch (for Eastwood) in years for “Gran Torino” — using the newer Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 stock and taking advantage of its tighter grain structure and the resulting ability to highlight blacks, which is an Eastwood visual trademark.
“We wanted blacks deeper in ‘Gran Torino’ because it’s contemporary,” Stern says. “We are constantly working to go for deeper blacks, and we got further into them for ‘Gran Torino’ than we did for ‘Changeling.’ ”
Both pictures also feature subtle use of the so-called digital ENR process: a digital intermediate technique that mimics the traditional photochemical ENR process that desaturates the image. “We felt we took the digital ENR look about as far as we could on (the two Iwo Jima pictures), so we headed into another direction with ‘Changeling’ — it’s far more subtle there, and then, a little more pronounced on ‘Gran Torino,'” says Stern. “It’s become a refined tool for us now — we just have much more control doing it digitally than in the laboratory.”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Camera: “We used a Panavision Platinum as our A camera. A Panavision Millennium XL2 was used on the Steadicam.”
Secret weapon: Extensive Steadicam “and fluidity of camera movement” on both films.
Aesthetic: Similar frame construction to emphasize performance in contrasting period and contemporary pieces.