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Thursday, 12 April 2012 16:33

Filming The Hunger Games

Written by  Bob Fisher
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pro_hungergames_stern2-by-kirkland-1Currently a huge box-office hit, The Hunger Games is a breathtaking journey to a future world where children are forced to fight for their lives. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland, the film is a visual dramatization of the first novel in a best-selling trilogy written by Suzanne Collins. The dystopian story unfolds in nation of Panem (formerly the United States, Mexico and Canada) which is divided into 12 oppressed districts, while an autocratic government with absolute power resides in the futuristic metropolis of the Capitol. When the people of a13th district start a rebellion, the Capitol destroys the district and creates an annual competition to forever punish the oppressed. For this “Hunger Games” event, a lottery chooses a boy and girl (between the ages of 12 and 18) from each district to compete in a televised battle where there will be only one survivor.

The Hunger Games
was the first collaboration for Filmmaker Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), who co-authored the script with Collins, and Cinematographer Tom Stern, ASC, AFC (pictured left). Their mission was to capture the intimacy and urgency of the 74th Annual Hunger Games competition. While the narrative involves children fighting to the death, the film has no blood or gore. Instead, the characters’ desperate battles for survival are told with facial expressions and body language as the youngsters urgently decide on whether to fight or run for their lives. This approach to the life-and-death storyline earned The Hunger Games a PG-13 rating.

Ross has garnered three Oscar nominations for screenwriting before taking on The Hunger Games, his third film as a director. And Stern’s impressive career started with documentaries, TV commercials and feature films, working with cinematographers like Albert Maysles and the late Conrad Hall, ASC. Stern was shooting Clint Eastwood’s biopic J. Edgar when Ross contacted him about The Hunger Games — and lensing a futuristic film with imaginary characters appealed to the DP. “I was told it was going to be a digital production but, as we moved forward during preproduction, an easy decision was made to shoot on film,” Stern recalls. “About 70 percent of the story [involves] exterior, pursuit scenes [that] we were going to film in the mountains of North Carolina.” That choice of location was made for aesthetic as well as practical reasons. “Gary’s vision called for images that look and feel organic,” Stern explains. “He created a lot of pre-visualization renderings that gave me insights into how he envisioned the story unfolding with a lot of very fluid camera movement.”

The Hunger Games was produced in Super 35 format composed in 2.4:1 aspect ratio. Stern says that the widescreen format was another obvious aesthetic and practical choice that would help to put audiences in the environments where the story unfolds. The camera package, provided by ARRI CSC in New Jersey, included two lightweight ARRICAM LT bodies with a range of Zeiss super-speed and Thales Angenieux Optima zoom lenses.

Ross and Stern spent several months scouting the mountains of North Carolina for the right locations — and, to stay true to the story, the locales where events occur in the narrative were treated like characters. The scenes staged in Panem’s Capitol were filmed at locations in Charlotte and Concord, North Carolina, with most sets were built in an empty building that covered 40 acres. North Carolina provides attractive incentives for productions, but Stern notes that the state also offers a deep pool of below-the-line talent. He estimates that about 80 percent of The Hunger Games’ crew (including painters and construction people) were from the region, while his camera crew mainly consisted of collaborators from past projects, including Gaffer Ross Dunkerley and Key Grip Guy Micheletti.

pro_hungergames_instoryFor the shoot, Stern had an array of Fujifilm and Kodak stocks on his palette but he shot mainly on Fuji 500T Vivid 5847 and Fuji 250D Vivid 4846 color negative films. “Gary had a very specific kinetic vision for the aesthetics,” says Stern. “He wanted an organic look with kind of a ‘floaty’ camera movement. We used a lot of different mechanical methods to make camera movement kind of [like] the eyes of characters. Images were recorded from the perspective of long focal-length lenses. Action scenes were generally covered with A and B cameras. Sometimes Robert Baumgartner, the second-unit cameraman, joined us.

“The light was always changing in the forest and the weather was unpredictable,” Stern recalls. “Gary compared it to riding a wild horse. When we were shooting on sets, we had to emulate a realistic look for the environment where scenes were happening. It was kind of a ‘contrasty’ light that felt a little oppressive, which was the right look for scenes taking place where people live in a repressive nation. We used long focal-length lenses to show the audience the unfolding drama through the eyes of the characters.” Stern notes that the young cast was well cared for during the action-oriented shoot. “It’s a pretty physical film, so everyone needed to know that the kids weren’t going to get hurt and that we were there to help them,” says the DP. “We tried to make them feel like they were in a cocoon of safety. I like young people a lot, so we had a good time. Scenes with the youngest cast [were shot] early in the day, leaving [the actors] free for mentoring sessions with their teachers during the afternoons.”

In postproduction, the negative was processed at Technicolor in Los Angeles and the dailies timer was Mark Sachen. Stern timed the DI at 2K resolution with Technicolor Colorist Michael Hatzer.


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