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Monday, 13 December 2010 19:09

Racing with the Genesis

Written by  Count Alexander
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CameraCol_Dean-Semler_2Based on a true story, the Disney film Secretariat tells the tale of the legendary 1973 Triple Crown winner and stars Diane Lane as stable owner Penny Chenery and John Malkovich as horse trainer Lucien Laurin. Shot by veteran Aussie Cinematographer Dean Semler, ACS, ASC, whose extensive credits include two Mad Max sequels, Dances with Wolves (which won him an Oscar for Best Cinematography), Apocalypto, 2012 and Date Night, Secretariat reunited the DP with Director Randall Wallace, for whom he shot We Were Soldiers. Semler talks about the project and his love of HD, and reveals just how he was able to get such amazing, in-your-face race footage.

You’re a big HD fan, aren’t you?

I love HD and I shot this with Panavision’s Genesis HD system. Although Randall had never shot with the Genesis, while I’d done six movies with it prior to this one, he’d seen Apocalypto, Get Smart and the others I’d shot with it, and he didn’t need any persuading to go this way at all. He was really enthusiastic about using the Genesis and going digital.

What about the studio and producers? Isn’t it more expensive to shoot this way?

You’re right. We were on a pretty tight budget from Disney and producers aren’t normally such an easy sell, because initially there’s more cost involved. Lenses are the same, but the cameras and a few bells and whistles are more costly. But, in the end, we’ve always found we save money in post, making it either a wash or a savings shooting digitally, so everyone was happy to shoot HD. And we got a great look, with some very beautiful shots of the horses and stud farms and so on.

The racing footage is amazing. How did you get the camera so up close and personal with the horses and riders?

[Randall and I] both really wanted to fully capture all the excitement and drama of the races in a way that’s never been done before, so we experimented with various handheld cameras, and, in the end, we used the Genesis HD system along with the new Olympus PEN E-PL1, or “Olycam” as I call it, for all the real close-up stuff in the races. It’s amazingly small and light –– it weighs just a half pound –– and it’s also very cheap, and we went to Hollywood Park and we did some tests, and the very first shot blew everyone away. No one had ever seen anything like it before: racing at 40 miles per hour, with the lens literally one inch off the ground, right behind the horses’ hooves, inches away from the jockey’s faces and hands [and] the horses’ nostrils and eyes. We even mounted it under a saddle strap shooting backwards between the horse’s legs, getting angles and footage never captured before. It was simply amazing. That’s when we decided to combine the two cameras to get racing footage like you’ve never seen.

Where did you shoot all the race scenes?

We had a very tight 43-day shoot, and we shot at some of the historic locations in Kentucky, including stud farms, churches, ballrooms and various racetrack exteriors, such as Churchill Downs and Keeneland, which doubled for Belmont. But we didn’t shoot any race material in Kentucky because the tracks were too limiting for what we needed to do with the insert vehicles, Condors and lights, and with the hours that we could use them. Luckily Production Designer Thomas Sanders found a privately owned racetrack in Lafayette, La., so we shot all the races there. We had six Olycams and ran three Genesis cameras nearly all the time, especially on the races and for crowd coverage. We had two [in] front on –– one wider, one tighter handheld, and then one from profile with the Hubble lens, which is great for compressing crowds. And we also did lots of plates for backgrounds, so they could add crowds to the stands later. All the visual effects were created by Pixel Magic, and the final race sequences are just so exciting and look so great. I was thrilled with the results.

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