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‘Ford v Ferrari’ DP Phedon Papamichael Talks About Creating Racing Action

Framing The Scene: DP Phedon Papamichael Talks About Creating Racing Action in 'Ford v Ferrari'

“Ford v Ferrari” marks James Mangold’s fifth collaboration with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. It’s a relationship and collaboration that works well, Papamichael says, “We have similiar backgrounds; my father was a paint and production designer for Cassavetes, and his father was a painter.”

Papamichael first worked with Mangold back in 2003 on “Identity,” and recalls, “I didn’t know too much about him. I know he’s good with actors. He’s very precise in carving out his performances and spends a lot of his time in pre-production writing and adjusting the script.” Looking back, Papamichael says Mangold would give him feedback on composition, lighting and framing. “I knew then that he had a good eye.”

The two have worked on films such as “Walk The Line,” “3:10 To Yuma,” “Knight and Day” and now, “Ford v Ferrari.” Matt Damon stars as Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as the race car driver Ken Miles. Together, they work with Ford to thwart Enzo Ferrari’s domination of the racing track at the 1966 Le Mans.

Papamichael frames key scenes in the film, looking at Mangold’s approach to capturing both actions, but also the emotional context in framing the scene.

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The Last Drive

People always ask me how we do something that’s very technical. We approach it the same way we do any other film; we bring the actors; we watch blocking, we find the moments and set up the shots, but we don’t pre-conceive too much. We don’t sit there and make shot lists. Instead, we find these little moments that are instinctive that you really can’t pre-plan. By working with the actors first and doing a little bit of prep for the technical aspects, we can capture what we need to from the actors.

Our lensing approach is to get physically close but not to isolate the actors. We use a wider lens, so you can feel the surroundings, and that’s what we did in “Ford v. Ferrari.”

We hard-mounted the camera to the car. We get the close-ups on Christian Bale but with a wide enough lens. The action is designed to tell the story through him. You see Christian doing all these things; He’s talking to himself, singing and to see the action with the car in Willow Springs. It’s how we approached the drama scenes.

We realized very early when we were testing equipment; the way to do this was the old school way.

The approach was getting close to the actors and telling the story through them. It’s about friendship and the passion of pursuing your love, and it’s also a corporate movie.

We didn’t have a blue screen and no stage work. I know how Mangold loves his sound design; he really pushes it. The performances benefit from it because they are experiencing everything. By being low and close with the actors, we capture what we need to. For the Ford car, it’s a pod car and controlled by stunt drivers. They are sitting in the vehicles, and they experience the G-force, the vibrations and the sound. That’s something that just can’t be created on stage and with LED. We do it all practically. We shoot close enough to capture the actor’s point of view.

When Ken drives for the last time, it was out in the Mojave Desert. It’s an hour and a half from L.A., and we had limited time. We did a couple of shots with Matt sitting by the trailer. I said, “Let’s quickly get out there, do a lap.” We had a pursuit car. We had this driver in the Ford and even that scene where he’s driving was stuff we did on the spot. We rushed back and put the camera on and with the sun setting on the horizon.

The close-ups of Christian were with the camera hard-mounted and you can see the low sun playing over him. It became such a beautiful naturally lit moment. You hear Shelby’s voice. It’s not a total action movie, but it’s really nice when it works that way and you get these moments that work for the story and visually.

When Shelby Takes Henry Out

The audience really loves the scene where Shelby takes Ford out and says, “Why don’t you hop in?” Tracy Letts is a great actor, but what you see is the real action and what he’s experiencing. We sent him off and watched the action. His white-knuckling of the dashboard and we continued running the scene. This was one-take and we watched it. We thought it was fantastic. He’s so great in that scene.

Shooting At LAX During Magic Hour

That’s a very special scene. I wanted it at dusk, and you have a 20-minute window to shoot that. We could have gone back the next day, but we were so restricted at the airport because planes were coming in and out on the next runway. We couldn’t set up equipment as they said winds could pick up and have it fly over into a flight path, so I couldn’t lay any track.

Christian sat down and we had seven setups and coverage and 20 minutes to do it. The scene starts and the lights in the distance were ones that I couldn’t control, but luckily I had the big number 8 to light their faces. We planned it and went for it. It was really stressful, but we knew we had it.

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