Magazine article American Cinematographer

Forrest Gump Gallops through Time

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Forrest Gump Gallops through Time

Article excerpt

With the help of CGI effects, cinematographer Don Burgess sends film's protagonist on tour of America's socio-political landscape.

Filmmakers often try their hand at interpreting real-life events, but never has the language of film been used so specifically to rewrite history as it has in Forrest Gump. Described by director Robert Zemeckis as a "docu-fable," the film spans four decades in the life of a dim-witted innocent (Tom Hanks) whose destiny guides him through a series of extraordinary adventures that include personal encounters with such cultural giants as John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, John Lennon and Martin Luther King. Born with an I.Q. in the mid-70s and a spine with more curves than a country road, the Savannah-born Gump accidentally discovers a fleetness of foot that ultimately catapults him to stardom as an All-American football player, war hero and businessman.

Guiding Gump through time and introducing him to a host of luminaries were just two of the magic tricks required of 37year-old director of photography Don Burgess, whose previous experience consisted of modest features and second-unit work on adventure films like Zemeckis' two Back to the Future sequels, Batman Returns and Backdraft. "This picture was literally a puzzle that needed to be put together piece by piece before we ever started snooting," Burgess says of his first major feature. "The character weaves through history and relates to a lot of reallife characters, so the sequences were actually written and designed around existing footage. We often had to work backwards: sequences had to be figured out shot by shot before we ever got started."

The puzzle pieces included 35mm anamorphie color footage, historical footage, new 16mm material shot to look "aged," and images designed to look like television broadcasts. The "television" footage is often tised as a transitional device as the film jumps out of one context and into another. In one such scene, the point of view changes from Forrest's mother watching him on a black & white television at home to "live" color location footage of the same event, and then to Forrest's football coaches watching on the nightly news.

Budgeted at more than $40 million, Gump was shot in 11 states over 80 days and includes scenes with thousands of extras. A typical shooting schedule during location work in Washington, D.C. saw Burgess capturing a candlelight vigil outside the White House and then lighting the entire Watergate Hotel later that same night. "Bob wanted you to really see the shape of the Watergate Hotel because it's so unique," says Burgess. He maintains that rigging the two big Musco lights required for that chore was much easier than shooting the White House. "You can't actually light the White House," he explains. "It's against the law to aim any bright lights at it, so we had to shape light down the street for the actual White House itself and work backwards off the existing light, balancing out the foreground exposure in relationship to the background."

An anti-war protest scene involved a crowd of 200,000, all but 1,000 of them digital replicants. "The challenging part about working with Bob is that he likes to play a lot of things in one shot. The shot must move extensively and cover everything, but still work as a whole, from the closest things in the frame back to 200,000 people away," says Burgess.

A graduate of the film program at Los Angeles Art Center College of Design, Burgess (who is now working on Richie Rich) had previously served as director of photography on relatively lowbudget films, including Mo' Money and Josh and Sam. But he had also collaborated with Zemeckis on a Tales from the Crypt episode, and the director was impressed enough to give him a shot at the big time. Says Zemeckis, "I had a good instinct about him, which is what you always have to go on. [Don] came to the project with a real sense of what he wanted it to look like. …

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