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Contender: Cinematographer Don Burgess – Wonder

January 6, 2018 | By
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Don Burgess in classroom, courtesy of Lionsgate & Dale Robinette

Cinematographer Don Burgess’ work on Wonder, directed and co-written by Stephen Chbosky, is based on the R. J. Palacio children’s novel of the same name. This heartwarming story follows young Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), who was born with a craniofacial abnormality and has undergone numerous surgeries, throughout his first year in the 5th grade of a traditional school. His parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) have homeschooled him up to this point to protect him. Says Burgess, “It’s kind of his coming out into the world.”

Burgess was interested in shooting the film because of the “message about kindness and humanity,” backed up by a “lovely script that sucks you in” and a “passionate filmmaking team.” In this first collaboration between Chbosky and Burgess, their initial conversations were about Auggie’s journey. When Auggie first goes to school, he is isolated. Burgess wanted to “treat that isolation at the beginning with longer lenses, shallower depth of field, and a mixture between starker tones and a cooler reality outside” his home, which was made to feel warm and comfortable in contrast. Burgess continues, “as he becomes acquainted with the friends at school, and he becomes more of a part of society, I started widening the lenses, using more depth of field and letting him feel more connected to his environment and to the people around him.”

Julia Roberts & Jacob Tremblay, by Dale Robinette

Julia Roberts & Jacob Tremblay, by Dale Robinette

The film has a unique structure. Although it is primarily seen through the eyes of Auggie, there are sections where we see from the points-of-view of several other characters, including his sister Via (Izabela Vidovic). “I’m a strong believer in keeping the audience connected to the POV from where you’re telling the story,” says Burgess. “I always try to drag it back specifically to the character, whose ever scene it happens to be, or in this case, the different characters’ stories.”

Via’s friend Miranda’s vignette is particularly interesting. Chbosky referred to her character as “lost behind glass,” so they chose locations with reflections. In a phone conversation between Miranda and Auggie, the camera slowly moves in closer on Miranda, and “you get the sense of where she is, by the reflections in the glass of the staircase, or the rest of the apartment.” In another scene, she “stands outside Auggie’s house on Christmas Eve and watches the family from a distance,” highlighting her feeling of separation, where she feels “tossed away when she started to create this other life.”

Burgess and Chbosky went through the script scene by scene in preproduction and came up with ideas on how to cover it, and the scene transitions. From those discussions they sketched out the blocking and created a shot list. Says Burgess, “Stephen’s a writer by trade, so he’s not a visual guy, although he has these great ideas about the story,” says Burgess. “So I feel like I can help to execute those concepts and ideas. I think we worked well together in the execution of those ideas.”

Burgess draws a “roadmap all the way through with an idea of every lens, filter and color temperature of light that I’m going to do for a scene before I start a film,” which helps in shooting out of continuity. He breaks down the conceptual roadmap into the desired “tools: composition, focal length of lens, camera movement, amount of contrast, and color temperature – all those things that we do to tell a narrative story.” Burgess continues, “I think contrast is an important part of the mood and feeling of how you want to push the audience to feel at that part of the movie. It’s part of the toolbox, so I’ll keep track of the amount of fill light, or how much over the key it is” during the shoot.

Burgess talks about his shooting style, “I try to be elegant in camera movement, so it’s subtle, yet feels that it’s unfolding the story.” He continues, “it’s either taking you someplace to reveal something, or it’s truly emotional.” He believes in saving those “notes for when they’re appropriate so it actually works, because if we have a tendency to do too much, then it just becomes the norm.” It’s important to “take the audience somewhere, especially in the first act of the film, to know where you’re going to start them, and then know where you want them to finish.”

Regarding his choices on how to move the camera, Burgess talks about which platform to use, whether it be dolly, crane, Steadicam or handheld. “I start with the feeling first, and then choose the best weapon for the execution for whatever that idea is.” If it’s an aggressive scene with a fight, he might want to go handheld, with the additional choice of shooting “handheld on a shoulder vs. off a handheld rig, where the camera is on a cable – it’s a different feeling.” Steadicam has “a certain feel, and I tend to use them only when I want that feel,” although sometimes he uses it “as a dolly, because it’s a faster way of working.”

If the scene should feel elegant, Burgess shoots from a dolly or crane. “I tend to do more on the crane in those situations where most people might use a dolly,” because “you can actually work a lot faster off a crane arm then you can moving dance floor around.” In addition, with the crane “you’ve got an instrument that can go over a table, or over actors. Sometimes there’s more freedom; it’s easier for everyone to work. So my weapon of choice has always been a crane arm. But I would put it in the same category as a dolly, as far as feeling of movement to the audience.”

For much of the movie, they shot with three cameras. It’s difficult to shoot with kids, “especially when you’re starring kid is going to be in make-up for two hours every day. And you only really get them for six hours, so now you’ve got them for four hours.” For the classroom scenes “You need them all for the master, so the only way to skin that cat in this situation is to have three cameras, and then cover it the best you can,” says Burgess. His son Michael was the A camera operator and also shot the New York City exterior scenes, as he was busy doing the grading for Allied.

There’s really only one good place for the camera to be, and the rest of it is a compromise. So you set up your A camera for your primary shot, then you set up the other cameras and keep covering the kids, ideally keeping them in the same direction.” If there’s time, they can go back and shoot a better coverage with “a proper lens closer to them, which will cut better.” The wonderful thing about working with kids is “you get a little bit of gold.” They “come up with magical things that are happy accidents you had no idea they were going to do.”

Burgess and Chbosky spent a lot of time working out where the kids would sit, which kind of kid would sit where in the classroom, “because of the type of kid they are.” Then Burgess would suggest adjusting the placement “to make it cinematic, to make it photograph, to connect the dots between the characters.”

Burgess tested Auggie’s make-up with different lighting situations, which helped the make-up effects artists make adjustments. “They ended up coming up with something that worked really well. There weren’t any lighting issues by the time we were done testing.” Interestingly, they made the choice to have Auggie “look better at the end of the film than he did in the beginning. So as you become more accustomed to him,” they made slight adjustments in the make-up and lighting to “make him look a little better” as he becomes more comfortable in his new situations.

The wardrobe was tested up front in the same way, providing the costume designer Monique Prudhomme with “different lighting set-ups that will represent if it’s a daytime exterior, or daytime interior, or nighttime exterior, or night interior. It gave them the opportunity to adjust if they want to.”

Regarding the production designer, Kalina Ivanov, Burgess felt she “really delivered on a lot of fronts on a movie where there wasn’t a lot of money to go around. So I though she delivered in a big way, and was a major contributor.” “It’s very important to have a good relationship with the production designer,” says Burgess, “because they’ve been involved with the project a lot longer,” and it’s essential to listen to their ideas and “open up those discussions. You’ve got to go through the scenes and really nail down which way you’re going to be looking and where you’re going to be shooting.”

Says Burgess, “In the triangle between you, the director and the production designer, you’re going to go around to all these sets, and you’ve got to get everybody on the same page making the same movie.” How much of the set needs to be built? Do any walls need to fly? Will they need ceiling pieces? Do the colors work? Answering key questions can save time and money.

The family’s house, including part of the exterior, was a set built in a warehouse in Vancouver. Translights were set up for what is seen through the windows. For the most part, they rigged Arri SkyPanels on the grid that they built, and worked through a board, so he would have control of dimming and color temperature. “I try to rig all sets so that you can sit at your monitor with your gaffer and an iPad and tweak the lights. It’s so much faster, and you can make subtle changes.” He also used some smaller and lighter LEDs in “practical locations where you don’t have the room.”

Burgess used traditional lights “when you need a little more punch.” On the house set he “had a couple of 20Ks for when I needed some hard slashes of light.” And he used HMIs outside the classroom, a practical set, “to add some feeling of sunlight coming in from the outside.” They also hung blacks for negative fill “where there’s too much bounce coming off a wall.”

The lighting arc of the film progresses to the kids’ camping trip and the awards ceremony at the end. Burgess shifted the color temperature so it “follows the narrative theme of how you want the audience to feel by the end of the film. You get to take them to that place of warmth and happiness, and a brighter happier life.”

Burgess shot 6K on the Red Weapon. “I’m a big fan of the Red camera combined with Panavision Primo lenses. It’s always been very easy for me to get the look of the film I’m doing at the time.” Burgess generally sets the camera to one LUT, “and then all of the tweaking that you do on set is not changing the LUT.” He worked with Chris Bolton (DIT) to do some tweaking on set for dailies, so his colorist would have, “in essence, a good workprint to start off with.”

Burgess has a great working relationship with his colorist, Corinne Bogdanowicz, “so the process was pretty straight-forward.” He wrote out his “photography theory” explaining “how I saw the film when I shot it.” With the notes, she was able to do a first pass on the film, after which they went through it together scene by scene.

Regarding Burgess’ relationship with Chbosky, “You have to develop a relationship with the director so they trust that you are doing the best for the movie – not the best for the lighting, or the wardrobe – it’s the best for the movie. So you have to always keep that in mind in the way you express” your thoughts. “He’s telling the story he sees.”

Summing up his approach to cinematography, Burgess says, “I’m not heavy handed in what I do. I don’t think (the photography) should jump out at you.” But if you go back and analyze what you did, “hopefully the movie is working and you’ve enjoyed the film. Then I think we’ve done our jobs right.

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