As Michael B. Jordan stepped back into the role of Adonis Creed for “Creed III,” he also stepped into the directing ring for the first time. Also returning for the latest installment is cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, who was tasked with framing the film’s epic boxing matches. Together, Jordan and Morgenthau worked to create the franchise’s most visually unique chapter to date.
Bookending the film are two brutal boxing matches that serve as pivotal moments in Adonis’s life and professional career — the first, Creed’s retirement fight in South Africa, and the last, his face-off against former childhood friend Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors) in Los Angeles. Those particular sequences are intended to show that there is more to the fights and the athletes than meets the eye. For Adonis, being in the ring gives him the opportunity to lay his demons to rest and find peace in his life.
“They’re not just fights, they’re dramatic scenes between two people,” Morgenthau tells Variety. “You’re really getting the story of the two guys, what they’re going through and how they’re talking to each other with their fists. It’s an emotional journey. It’s not just a slugfest.”
Written by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, “Creed III” follows Adonis as he comes face to face with his past, when Dame reappears after a lengthy prison sentence. The freshly-retired Adonis is moving onto a new phase in his life, while Dame has his sights set on becoming the new boxing champion. Throughout the film, there are visual clues that indicate the collision course the two men are heading for as their uneasy reunion quickly sours.
When lighting Adonis for the film, Morgenthau bathed the character in red. He says, “That’s his energy, success and the burning fire underneath him. His logos are red, his gloves — there’s a red light focused on him as he does his walkouts. There’s even a red hallway he walks through.”
In contrast, Damian was bathed in a rich, almost emerald green. Says Morgenthau, “It’s this world of unsettledness, envy and this much more tormented world that’s around him.”
Eventually, Adonis and Dame wind up squaring off in the ring, in a fight dubbed “The Battle of Los Angeles.” Set at Dodgers Stadium, the epic duel has the boxers battling in their minds as they work through their painful past.
However, the sequence did not shoot on location in L.A., but was instead shot on an Atlanta soundstage. To mimic the look of the iconic stadium, Morgenthau added more white light “as if it’s coming off the stadium lights, with a bluish top light based on Dodgers blue.” He says, “The blue hue, as a confident color, helped define the world, and the way it reflected on their oiled skin, made it feel larger than life.”
So — with Jordan’s Adonis wearing crisp white boxing shorts in one corner, Majors’ Dame in black silk shorts and a diamond logo in the colors of the Pan-African flag in the other — Morgenthau aimed to capture a “Gladiator”-esque moment.
“They’re in this immense arena before a world stage, so you really want to feel like they’re picking up all the colors of the background. We were trying to fill all this color around them and feel this massive audience,” Morgenthau explains. “It was almost like a Shakespearean moment, particularly when they go into the 11th round, which is what we nicknamed ‘The Void,’ which was sort of this abstract moment.”
What Morgenthau is referring to is a surreal sequence in which Adonis and Dame are quite literally fighting scenes from their past, as Adonis begins to see visions of the bed-bug infested mattress they used to sleep on in the group home, while Dame is faced with the iron bars of a prison cell.
Further influencing the visuals for this sequence — and all the fight scenes — was Jordan’s love for anime.
“I’m looking at anime every day, that’s my thing,” Jordan told Variety in an interview ahead of the film’s debut. During production, the actor-turned-director used the art form as a visual reference to help his co-stars and fellow filmmakers understand the themes he aimed to achieve. He’d say, “This is the essence of what we’re trying to pull from. This is what we’re trying to capture.”
The challenge, Jordan explained, was finding a way to “find the right balance, bringing the essence of what anime give you and what I love about it and import that into a family drama-thriller.”
With “One Piece,” “Naruto” and “Dragon Ball Z” among his inspirations, Jordan had an opportunity to pay homage to the classic anime he grew up watching. “I’m so proud of the nuances and references that we were able to pull off,” Jordan added.
To bring these ideas – which Morgenthau refers to as a “bit of abstract theater” – to the screen, the cinematographer worked closely with the VFX team at Crafty Apes, fight choreographers and coordinators Mark R. Miscione and Eric Brown to map out every moment. Using a motion-control camera, Morgenthau could slow moments down to have the fight be abstract and immersive.
“A lot of the fights were shot with a Steadicam, which allows the camera and the operator to dance with the boxers and find the sweet spot of the choreography,” Morgenthau says.
The DP notes that he integrated camera work with the stunt team for over a month and shot all the fights in rehearsals as stunt visualization videos, editing them together to see how they were working. “We took that anime language and integrated it in a way that was 100% MBJ’s vision.”
Angelique Jackson contributed to this report.