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Contender-Tom Stern-DP-Flags

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“The biggest challenge in Flags of our Fathers was to keep it intimate in the face of all that scale,” says Tom Stern, the film’s director of photography. “I was determined not to make it some empty war epic, but to see it through the eyes of a few individual soldiers who are at the center of the film.” Flags, directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story behind the iconic raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima and its aftermath for three soldiers who were enlisted to be the heroic centerpiece of a government bond drive. Though frequently sweeping in its scope, at its core the film explores what it means to be a hero and the consequences.”One theme that has interested Clint a lot, going back to Unforgiven and even before that, is the idea of the lone man,” says Stern, who has collaborated with Eastwood on 10 films, going to 1982, first as a gaffer and then lighting director. Since 2002, he has served as his cinematographer, lensing Blood Work, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby.”You start with all these generals with their grand schemes, and all those battleships and landing craft and airplanes,” he notes. “But once the marines hit the beach, it’s the individual soldier amidst the confusion with sand in his mouth and shooting from every direction—it’s primal” The film has two distinct looks. The brutal battle scenes are suffused with blacks and grays. They were filmed in Iceland where there are black sand beaches and sparse terrain, which comes closest to duplicating Iwo Jima. The island itself was off limits because the Japanese consider it sacred ground. Meanwhile, the interwoven bond drive scenes back home were shot in muted color tones. “The conceit is trying to remember what that time looked like, so it’s a bit faded,” Stern explains. Some of the effect was achieved in the digital intermediate stage, but he attributes much of it to the skills of production designer Henry Bumstead, who passed away earlier this year.The production used a lot of computer-generated imagery. The landing was shot with two dozen boats and a few hundred actors playing troops. These were later multiplied exponentially through the use of CGI. Similarly, a packed bond rally at Chicago’s Soldiers Field relied on CGI to create the illusion of 80,000 in attendance.”Clint and I had this running joke,” Stern recalls. “He would look at the handful of people or boats we were actually filming and he’d turn to me and say, ‘I hope this CGI works or else we’re screwed.’” As soon as Flags wrapped, Stern began shooting Eastwood’s companion film, Letters from Iwo Jima. It tells the story from the viewpoint of the 14,000 dug-in Japanese defenders who largely perished. Most of it was filmed in a set of caves in central California.”It’s about how to remain honorable while you take this journey to oblivion,” he explains. Letters is set for December release in Japan, and early next year in this country. The film is 95 percent in Japanese and will be subtitled.Stern has somehow found time to fit in two other shoots, both now in postproduction: Tenderness, staring Russell Crowe; and Things we Lost in the Fire with Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro. Having spent much of his career as a lighting technician, the gifted DP seems to making up for lost time.

Written by Jack Egan

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