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Thursday, 12 July 2012 19:07

Hunting Vampires with Abraham Lincoln and Caleb Deschanel, ASC

Written by  Bob Fisher
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pro_abrahamlincoln_caleb_df_00494“The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter. It’s the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.” – Mark Twain

This prescient observation about writing by the legendary author is also true for stories told with moving images. Audiences innately know whether the images projected on theater screens look and feel right for the times and places in which the stories are happening. Well, they’re in for a thrill with the new action feature Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which transports audiences around 200 years back in time. Produced by Tim Burton Productions and distributed by 20th Century Fox, the film stars Benjamin Walker as Lincoln and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his wife Mary. Born in a one-room log cabin on a Kentucky farm in1809, Lincoln overcame formidable obstacles on his path to become a self-educated lawyer. His election as the 16th U.S. President in 1860 was followed by the Civil War in 1861 and the end of slavery, but the movie focuses on a fictional historical twist when Lincoln discovers that vampires are plotting to take over the nation.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
is the first film collaboration for Russian Filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov and Oscar-nominated Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, ASC. Their ultimate goal is to transport the film’s audiences to the times and places where Lincoln’s vampire story occurs — and their ultimate challenge was to make the vampires feel frighteningly real. “Abraham Lincoln is among the most fascinating persons in American history,” says Deschanel.  “This film is obviously an extreme fictional revision of reality. Seth Grahame-Smith wrote the novel and also co-authored the screenplay. A main theme is that Lincoln was motivated by the fact that a vampire killed his mother when he was 10 years old.”

pro_abrahamlincoln_alvh-080Deschanel’s research included reading and referencing pictures from approximately 25 books found in libraries and bookstores about Lincoln and the Civil War. “The American Civil War was thoroughly documented by Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan and other great photographers,” notes Deschanel. “The pictures they took gave us insights into what things were like at the time.” During preproduction, Deschanel watched and discussed movies about Lincoln and vampires with Bekmambetov, who is known for his epic vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch. “There have been vampires in movies from the earliest days of the industry,” Deschanel observes. “They have ranged from completely schlocky to fairly sophisticated and fascinating. Obviously, you try to adhere to the sense of the things that existed during the period.”

Produced in Louisiana and shot mostly around New Orleans, the story of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter takes place during Lincoln’s early years in Illinois and his political life in Washington, D.C. Bekmambetov and Deschanel shot with film in addition to using digital imaging technologies. The movie’s fight and slow-motion scenes were shot in Super 35 film format at 60 frames per second with an ARRI 435 film camera. All other scenes were recorded digitally with an ARRI ALEXA. Deschanel reports that Production Designer François Audouy and Gaffer Paul Olinde both played important roles in achieving the film’s look. “We worked together creating elements that help tell the story from a visual point of view in terms of settings, lighting and everything else,” says the DP. “If it was a night scene, it was [filmed by] candlelight or firelight with the right flickering effect. If it was day, it was daylight.”

While the streets of New Orleans had the right look for the film’s storyline, the production had to be very careful because the city’s architecture is “sort of” French Colonial with some Spanish influences. “We had to find the right places that had elements which felt appropriate for Washington, D.C. and Illinois when the story was happening,” says Deschanel. “That was the most difficult part. We found places and, when necessary, François altered them so they look appropriate. The good stages were all taken, [so] we ended up building sets in an old building that was once a warehouse. It was noisy during thunderstorms, because it has a tin roof.” Deschanel adds that he joined the production a bit late. “They were already building some sets and had made decisions about where we were going to film scenes,” he explains. “François and I got along really great. He made some alterations to the size of windows and the placement of things to accommodate lighting. We had a very good relationship, and he did a very good job.” One of the challenges of shooting in Louisiana was that the land is very flat. “It was hard to find any kind of hills,” the DP recalls. “We had a scene that takes place on a cliff overlooking a riverbed, [but] that location didn’t exist in or near New Orleans. [Second Unit DP] Giorgio Scali shot some backgrounds on location, and we built a big cliff outside behind our stage in New Orleans.”

Deschanel feels that audiences will enjoy Benjamin Walker’s performance as Abe Lincoln because the actor is simply “great” in the role. “When he delivers the Gettysburg Address, you really feel like you are there while it was happening,” says the DP, who also credits the contributions made by Makeup Artist Greg Cannom, who has four Academy Awards. “The makeup was extraordinary. You can see Lincoln transform as he ages. I remember the first day [Walker] came on the set as the Abe Lincoln we know with a full beard. [And] Marton Csokas plays one of the vampires, [and] that aspect of the movie took on a life of its own. It was fascinating making a historical film with vampires and finding the right mix of genres.”

pro_abrahamlincoln_alvh-060Deschanel says that much of the movie is told through Lincoln’s point of view. The film’s scenes were captured with two cameras and sometimes more, depending upon what was happening. “We’d do a medium shot with one camera with a second one slightly off angle or maybe a little bit tighter, rather than at cross angles, to keep the lighting consistent,” he explains. The cameras were generally on dollies or cranes, but battle scenes and other action sequences were shot with handheld cameras. The cinematographer’s palette of films were KODAK VISION 5219 500T color negative for interior and night scenes and KODAK VISION 5213 200D for daylight exteriors.

Deluxe Labs in Los Angeles processed the negative and provided dailies on Blu-ray Discs, and Deschanel used a projector and a 6-foot screen to watch dailies in his hotel room. “You discover things when you watch dailies that you didn’t realize, because when you are shooting you are always to some extent influenced by the emotions and energy on the set,” notes the DP. “I think there is a tendency when you shoot digitally to think you've seen it, but, often, you’ve seen it with a certain kind of attitude that you have while you are shooting, which is full of energy. You’re not really seeing it as an audience. Watching dailies helps because you are separated from it by a day or two. I believe that’s really valuable.” Deschanel is also invested in the editing phase of the film. “To me, a movie doesn’t exist until it’s edited,” he says. “The way it’s cut together affects every scene. Until you see that, you can’t make the final decisions about what a movie should look like.” The film’s digital intermediate was timed by Deschanel and Bekmambetov in collaboration with Colorist Dave Cole at Laser Pacific in L.A.
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