DP Emmanuel Lubezki jumps in the ring with Ali

Director Michael Mann thumbs his nose at illusion when the realistic approach will do. Consider this scene from his latest movie, Ali: The film's subject, heavyweight boxing champ Muhammed Ali, né Cassius Clay, is flying to Zaire for the famous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” match with George Foreman. Ali, played by Will Smith, awakens near sunrise, and is led into the cockpit to meet the pilots — who are black. “That for him is an incredible realization,” says DP Emmanuel Lubezki. “In Africa, black people fly planes, they are presidents. Suddenly the first rays of light come up, and he sees the coast of Africa. It's a very emotional moment, and it's beautiful because there's no dialogue; the images say everything.”

But how are such crucial images obtained? “Usually in Hollywood you have a mockup of the plane and a greenscreen, and you rig your lights with motors or cranes so you can change the angle of the light as the sun comes up,” Lubezki continues. “Then the second unit shoots beautiful plates.” In this case, “Michael said no way — we're going on a plane.”

After a period plane and two black pilots who spoke French were found, the crew faced the other consequences of this Manndate. “He wanted to be flying at 30,000', going into the coast of Africa towards the sun, which comes up for just three minutes,” says Lubezki. Key grip David Merrill adds, “We worked all night on our prerigging, and then at 2am everyone boarded the plane. We put Kino Flos in there, and several banks of battery packs, because you can't run off the plane's power, and we rehearsed in the dark while flying.” The batteries went down midway through shooting. “All we've got to do is switch, it's a repatch between takes,” says Merrill. “Michael says, ‘We don't have time for that. We're going to shoot.’”

“I take my meter out and try to read the light, and my meter says go home,” Lubezki recalls. “We opened some windows to get something, and Michael says, ‘Roll cameras.’ I have the cameras on automatic iris control, and we start at f2. Suddenly a ray of light comes in the window, and then another. I cued the pilot, he turned a little to the right, and the rays moved inside the cabin. They opened the cockpit, and I had to change the f-stop to something like 11 because there's a lot more light, and we can't put NDs or anything on the windows. Suddenly there are the most incredible clouds on earth — pink, purple, magenta. The next day, we see dailies, and it's the most beautiful scene.”

Merrill, who found Mann's methods at times hard to take, isn't so sure: “It's silhouette city,” he says. The filmmaker's gall does tend to take people by surprise. “Will Smith was laughing,” Lubezki remembers. “He said, ‘You'd better tell Mario Van Peebles, since he's playing Malcolm X, to get ready for his assassination.’”

A lot of the Ali shoot was like that. The $100-million biographical drama, which Columbia Pictures released Christmas Day, concentrates on 10-15 years of Ali's life: “Liston to Foreman,” says Mann. The film went to locations in California, New York, Chicago, Florida, and Mozambique, ranging from giant sports arenas to cramped tenement rooms. “We didn't shoot anything on a stage,” says the Mexico-born Lubezki, who therefore found the film to be a departure from the soundstage-confined flights of fantasy like those found in his two Oscar-nominated efforts, Alfonso Cuaron's A Little Princess, and Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow.

“[Mann] hired me seven or eight months before the shoot of the movie,” the DP continues. That is unusually early, but “he allowed time for us to create a frame of reference, discover the best way to shoot the movie. We talked about making it in black and white, about it being anamorphic, about it being a thousand different ways. At the same time he's testing, because he's a test maniac. And he's putting together the biggest library of references on Ali's life — images, recordings, outtakes from [the documentary] When We Were Kings.”

After all that, Mann arrived at a style that shouldn't have been surprising: “He wanted the movie to feel very current, very immediate. Many things in the movie are historic events, and are very fresh; people who were there are still alive. All those things needed a certain realism, to be recreated in a way that would feel real.” In other words, no more talk about shooting in black and white.

Nor, generally, did complex lighting plans remain on the table. “I wanted the light to be very simple, because I knew the editing and the way the camera was moving were going to be very intricate,” says Lubezki. Every scene in Ali is shot with at least two cameras, and “never in the same axis. We had two cameras all the time that were A camera.” Camera operator Gary Jay was always on one, while Jimmy McConkey operated the Steadicam. Up to five cameras were used in some scenes: “Sometimes I had another camera, or Michael had another camera, or everybody had a camera,” the DP says. For the fight sequences, visual effects supervisor Micheal McAlister of Cinesite came up with a lipstick camera system — two 2"-long Elmo CC491 video cameras coupled together and held in Mann's hand, allowing him to get further inside the boxing action.

But the director wanted every scene to have an immersive effect on the viewer. According to Lubezki, “99% of the movie is shot handheld or Steadicam, so it's a mixture of being very flexible and quick and spontaneous, and being able to move with the actors.” Despite this, he says, “the shots are pretty planned. But Michael is always fighting that; he doesn't want the audience to consciously feel that he's selecting these shots.” On dolly shots, for example, the crew placed sandbags between the head and base of the camera to create a wobble — “anything to help you feel that you are there watching it for the first time.”

Lubezki says that simplifying the lighting was also a necessity, considering the multiple cameras and the all-location, all-the-time approach. “We were shooting in a lot of little tiny rooms packed with people,” he says. “I knew the light was going to have to come from the top or from real sources. I wasn't going to be able to hide massive sidelights.” Gaffer John Buckley says that in interior scenes, “it's a lot of Kino Flos, put on the ceiling, usually with a full grid cloth underneath.” Practicals were generally an “on-the-day kind of thing, because Michael may not have liked them. But we would put 300W household lamps in, dim them down, and push them to the limit.” For daylight and street scenes, Buckley used Arri or Sunray HMI PARs, or for one particularly challenging shoot at a Florida warehouse surrounded by power lines, a series of Condors and scissor lifts with 18ks and 7k xenons. “I had a great rigging gaffer, Gary Dahlquist,” says Buckley.

The core of Ali is, naturally, the boxing sequences, which were photographed at the beginning of the shoot. In terms of lighting, they stand out from the rest of the film. “During our six months of preparation,” says Lubezki, “we had a plan for lighting the boxing scenes. At the beginning the venues were lit with tungsten light, almost with light bulbs. By the time we arrived in Africa, the fights were going to be lit with PAR cans and mercury vapor lamps. We talked to the people who actually lit the fights, from Madison Square Garden to the Astrodome. We wanted every fight to look different, so you could see the evolution.”

But two weeks before shooting, Mann had one of his revelations. As Lubezki recalls it, “Michael says, ‘Chivo, we have to talk: I found a picture that clarifies everything for me.’ It was from an Ali vs. Frazier fight, and it had nothing to do with what we'd been talking about. It was slightly overexposed, very harsh, very contrasty light. He says, ‘I want the fights to look like this.’ His thought was, more important than the historical reconstruction of the fights is what's going on in Ali's head. The fights are where Ali is most confident, strongest. So the light has to reflect that — we're not doing a documentary, we're doing a drama.”

Lubezki eventually came around to Mann's way of seeing, but, he says, “There's only two weeks, and I have to change everything I was going to do for the first two or three weeks on the shoot. And I didn't even know if it was a good idea.” The DP, key grip, and gaffer devised a 20'×20' overhead rig on chain motors containing approximately 255 Mole-Richardson PAR-64s on Strand dimmers, pointing straight down on the ring. The PAR cans ranged from spot to wide focus, and carried varying degrees of diffusion, but the effect was generally hard and overexposed — when the camera was running at speed, six to eight stops overexposed on the canvas mat, which acted as a bounce source. To avoid totally blowing out the image, the canvas was painted a grayish brown shade that still read as white. However, says Merrill, “You never knew when Michael wanted to run speed. All of a sudden, he'd say, ‘Camera number four will be handheld on the Frazier lens at 72 frames.’ Or, ‘I'm going to handhold the Elmo cameras.’”

That was the least of the key grip's troubles. Apart from the African sequence, the fights were shot in three LA-area venues, each representing several matches. The first was a sprawling warehouse ill-equipped for a major overhead lighting rig. “The roof supports 11lb per square foot, which is almost nothing,” says Merrill. “Originally we were going to use 36 scoop lights, which weigh 15lb apiece. But then we go to 255 PAR cans, which weighed 10,000lb, hung on five points, and, of course, it's got to be infinitely adjustable, because of Michael's simultaneous camera angles.”

Therefore, Merrill continues, “We worked a couple of nights to build an exoskeleton outside the building, going to the perimeter walls, which were 200' away from each other. The works were cabled down on 1,000lb blocks.” In addition, “The chain motors couldn't be up within the works, because they didn't exist in 1964. So they ran up through holes in the ceiling, outside the building, then back down inside, and I built a rack on the inside for 30-40 chain motors, and a vertical rack to support them. I had to build a Neoprene gasket in the holes, because they had to go up and down. We painted the whole ceiling black, and remanufactured the truss from research photos. I would cover the cable with chain where chain was applicable, or rope where rope was applicable. They hung a lot of stuff on the fly back then, and just hung it from ropes — of course, you can't hold 10,000lb up there with ropes.”

The PAR-64 configuration was used for all the fights, which were also shot at the LA Sports Arena and Olympic Auditorium. What would change was the perimeter lighting, “to make the impression that we were in different places, and also to make it more historically correct,” says Lubezki. “Some venues have scoop lights, some have 1ks, and so on. Some of the venues that were slightly larger, we had space lights to add fill light. The most difficult thing was that all of these venues were packed during the real fights. But we couldn't afford the extras. So we had real people in maybe the first eight rows, a combination of real people with cardboard cutouts for the next 10, and [beyond that], cardboard cutouts with one or two real guys, to add movement. Sometimes we added real wardrobe to the cardboard cutouts to give a little impression of volume. You have to be very careful how you expose. You don't want the audience to feel that these places are empty, but you also don't want them to see that these places are packed with cardboard cutouts.”

One very complex job was at the LA Sports Arena, which represented both the Houston Astrodome and Madison Square Garden. In addition to the top light, the crew built articulating pentagons of ring light for the Astrodome, with effects supervisor McAlister digitally adding in the venue's famed ceiling and expanse. Two hundred chain motors were hung in the Sports Arena. “USC was playing basketball at the same time, so we had to make sure that the scoreboard could come in and out while we were filming,” says Buckley. “We could fly it all, and we made it so the Houston Astrodome could slide over Madison Square Garden.” Merrill says, “We shot there Monday through Thursday; Friday was the USC-UCLA game. So everything had to be gone, and it had to go back in for a Monday shoot. Our rigging crew was really heroic. We changed our minds a lot, and we were very inflexible.” Whatever the setup, every single light was on a dimmer circuit. “All of a sudden Michael would want to shoot 120 frames,” Buckley says, “and at that point you have to pump the stop up by 2½ stops.”

Most challenging was the “Rumble in the Jungle” location shoot, in an abandoned soccer arena in Mozambique, which suffered from years of civil war. “It holds 65,000 people, and there was not one bit of electricity or lighting,” says Buckley. “I think we ended up with 30,000A to power it all.” The crew recreated the PAR-64 boxing rig, and set to work on the perimeter lighting, which included a large canopy loaded with PAR cans. In addition, “There were four towers that were going to be backlighting the arena,” says Merrill. “Unfortunately, those had rusted out years ago. We had to lay them down and remanufacture them.” The towers each held nine dinos and three Maxi-Brutes, lighting the ground and the stands. Nook lights lit the stadium structure, and “there was a press box where we put all these Kino Flos in blue, for a color contrast,” says Buckley. Equipment was obtained from AFM in South Africa. The African sequences closed out the shoot in late May.

The movie was shot in the Super 35 format, which Mann also used in The Insider and hadn't embraced. “Michael's first approach was to do the movie anamorphic,” Lubezki says. “Michael and I would watch Will Smith train, and we would talk about shots. I discovered that the camera had to be very agile, and had to be going from extreme close-up on Ali, maybe 6" from his face, pan to a large shot of the audience, and come back to a full shot of Liston — all very fast, and the cameras had to be not so heavy. It didn't make sense to shoot anamorphic.” The aspect ratio was right, he says, but another downside was the loss of depth of field. “I felt that the texture of Super 35 was right for the movie,” says the DP. “Usually I shoot all my movies with 200ASA, because it's grainy, but not a grain that's jumping all over. But in this story I felt the need of more texture, more grit, to make it more … smelly.” He shot Ali with Kodak Vision 200 and 500 stock, but also with Fuji 500 pushed a stop and rated at 1,000ASA. In addition, several nighttime Chicago sequences and one of Ali running in South Miami were shot with Sony high-definition cameras, generally at a gain of +6dBs, which equals 2,000ASA.

Though Merrill likens Ali to “a documentary shot by a tyrant,” Buckley is more nonchalant about Mann's approach: “I worked with Jim Cameron on Titanic; they're rather similar,” he says laconically. Lubezki, of course, is ready to work with the director again. Looking back on that lucky sunrise shot from the airplane, he contends, “that kind of thing only happens because Michael is pushing everybody to do crazy stuff.”

Contact the author at jcalhoun@primediabusiness.com.