Cinematographer George Steel laid out a color map for Barry Levinson’s “The Survivor,” the HBO movie based on a true story that follows Harry Haft (Ben Foster), an Auschwitz survivor who is forced by the Nazis to box other prisoners. In 1953, he made headlines going up against Rocky Marciano.
To tell the story, the film traced three different time periods.
“We shot the camps in black and white,” Steel says. “The post-war world was shot in a desaturated color palette with more color returning to the image as we reach the ’60s.”
The most challenging aspect was settling on which palette to shoot the camp in, with Steel try- ing numerous tests.
“We had experimented with doing this in reverse, but the camp footage was too disturbing in color,” he says.
For the black-and-white footage, his approach was to have it feel like found footage.
“It was mismatched, underexposed and push processed.”
Steel also wanted to create iconic images within his imagery. Wide lenses were used for closeups of faces, and he shot from low angles.
“For the black-and-white moments, we lit in high contrast. [For one boxing sequence], we used a real arc searchlight as our principal source,” he says. “The hardness of the light would cut across Ben creating incredible relief of muscle and sinew across his starved body, literally showing his incredible commitment to this story.”
The idea of the scene as Harry has to face a former French champion, was to show the unending challenges that he fought whilst imprisoned. As the fight transitions from day to night, Steel’s camerawork highlights the extremity of the fight Haft puts on — literally and physically.