Magazine article American Cinematographer

Photographing "Independence" Where It Happened

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Photographing "Independence" Where It Happened

Article excerpt

At Independence Hall, cradle of America's nationhood, top actors and technicians of the film industry gather to pay tribute cinematically - and find the experience great fun

It was some time last spring that I received a letter from the Department of the Interior and another letter from John Huston asking me to photograph "INDEPENDENCE", a half-hour picture to commemorate the American Bicentennial. Everybody engaged for the production would be working for union scale and the aim was to get together a very highly qualified cast and crew. Naturally, I accepted, because I loved the idea of working with John Huston (whom I'd never met), plus the fact that I felt it was an opportunity to do something for my country, as we all did.

I met with Huston once and we scouted locations in Philadelphia, mainly around Independence Hall. John said to me: "Come up with some unique photographic style for the picture."

I wracked my brain to try to think of something that would be new and different, but it seemed like everything had been done before. I experimented with different filters to get ghostly effects, because the characters to be represented in the picture - Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, among others - were to appear somewhat mystically. For this reason, we didn't want them to look contemporary at all. Keeping that in mind, I made tests and came up with dozens of different things, none of which seemed to be very exciting.

John Huston arrived the night before we were to begin shooting, having been heavily involved in editing "THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING", and we had another meeting at which he decided to shoot everything before sun-up or after sundown. When the people from the Production Department heard that they came apart. Their mouths fell open, and their wallets, as well. A quick meeting was held about the feasibility of doing the project that way and it was decided that it was absolutely not possible financially. So John said to me: "Well, come up with something, Owen. See you in the morning."

I spent the night thinking about it. The next morning I took a combination of filters I'd experimented with, plus some others, and looked at them by eye. Then, as so often happens on the spot, I made a decision about what to use. I decided on a certain combination of filters and then, as we proceeded into the project and saw dailies, I became bolder and went even heavier with the filtration. I finally hit on one combination that through the lens looked like mush. You couldn't see anything. But on the screen it was just right, so we continued along those lines.

I did vary the filters from scene to scene, depending upon the situation, but I stuck with basically three combinations. I used all Harrison filters, starting off with a combination of a #2 Low Contrast and #4 Diffusion. Then, when I wanted to go a little bit softer later on, I went to a #2 Low Contrast plus a #5 Diffusion, but the combination that I used the most throughout the filming consisted of a #2 Low Contrast, a #2 Fog and a #4 Diffusion. While I decided on this combination strictly by eye, I knew what the filters would do because of the tests I'd made up front. These were the ones that pleased me the most.

The filter pack varied somewhat depending upon whether it was a cloudy day or a sunny day, whether we were shooting in backlight or overhead light (which was the case very often, because it was summertime and we had straight-down sunlight) or whether it was an interior and windows were involved or not involved.

We had decided at the start to use smoke outside and for certain scenes inside, as well. Of course, when you work with smoke you have to worry about wind and it seemed that we always had wind. Not only that, but the wind seemed to change directions constantly in the Independence Hall area. We'd have a special effects man with a smoke machine really inundate the background with smoke and just when we were ready to go the wind would come up and blow it right out of the scene. …

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