Magazine article American Cinematographer

Filmmakers' Forum: Designing Rhythmic, Gymnastic Visuals for Stick It

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Filmmakers' Forum: Designing Rhythmic, Gymnastic Visuals for Stick It

Article excerpt

About a year ago, I received a feature script titled Stick It, which would be the directorial debut of Jessica Bendinger, the screenwriter of Bring It On. From the title, I figured it had something to do with gymnastics and thought, "Oh, another sports movie." But when I read it, I was excited to discover that the characters' emotional struggles drove the story; the exploration of the sport of gymnastics expressed something about the characters. Jessica's unconventional, energetic writing style inspired me to find a style for the cinematography that would carry this same unconventional energy. Easier said than done!

I felt the total effect of the cinematography could be the linkage of shots that might not play out traditionally, but when rhythmically connected would work like notes in a piece of music. Those notes had to be committed in principal photography, but the visual storytelling would have to work in concert with editing and digital compositing. My idea might have seemed bizarre to some, but to my great relief, Jessica saw her movie the same way.

My first preproduction challenge was to design new approaches to propel the audience into gymnastics through the cinematography. The camerawork had to be more compelling than the coverage seen on television. I thought if we succeeded visually, this story would attract a larger audience who could discover, admire and relate to the story. With a limited budget, careful planning was essential to stay on schedule with our unique approach. I needed to learn as much about gymnastics, and fast. In our discussions, I would ask Jessica, "How does this scene make you feel? What music do you hear? What is going on emotionally with the characters that is not on the page?" I needed to get in her head so I could translate her feelings onto film.

Actors Missy Peregrym and Vanessa Lengies were in training, and I spent time watching them in the gym, absorbing how physically tough this sport is. Dona Jones and Pat Warren, the Elite Gymnastics consultants who worked with our cast, generously educated me about what judges look for and what influences their evaluations of an athlete's performance.

I had to convey to the rest of the production team what Jessica and I had in mind. I shot video at the training sessions to find possible camera angles. Jessica would look down a balance beam, and I'd go see why she was observing it from that spot in the gym. I edited this video on my Powerbook to preview which types of shots we should fight for and which shots would not add to the movie.

Various camera speeds were always in my mind, and we had to decide which speeds were necessary in order to make our decisions about lighting and camera packages. To satisfy everyone, we put together a shoot at All Olympians gym in Los Angeles to test camera speeds, as well as isolate some action with greenscreen and lock-off shots to design compositing ideas.

The film test projected on the big screen gave us an enormous confidence boost-the detail and strength could be seen at 64-150 fps. A gymnast swinging on the uneven bars looked too fast at 24 fps; to depict that action in real time, 32 fps looked like reality onscreen. Experimental camera placements conveyed a defiance of gravity. The locked-off shots and small greenscreen were used as elements to create a rough composite of layered athletes on the same apparatus, which was accomplished by Henrik Fett of Look Effects.

I decided, however, that slow motion could not be the only time-warping aspect of the cinematography, because this device can be overused if another type of camera speed isn't contrasted against it. …

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