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A Legend From LA to Antarctica

A Legend From LA to Antarctica

Articles - Cinematography

Don Burgess and Robert Zemeckis
(L-R) Cinematographer Don Burgess, ASC and director Robert Zemeckis on "Cast Away". (copyright 2000 20th Century Fox / photo by Francois Duhamel)

His name may be indelibly linked to some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters—Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Spider-Man, The Bourne Identity, Terminator 3, The Polar Express—but Don Burgess isn’t afraid to admit it that it is takes a great team to make a successful movie.

Currently at work on Frank Marshall’s Antarctica, before an online chat with the International Cinematographers Guild (www.cameraguild.com), MM spoke with spoke with the Los Angeles-born Burgess about his introduction to Hollywood, working with Robert Zemeckis and how he’s managed to build such a notable career.

Bob Fisher (MM): How did you get an opportunity to shoot bigger budget features?

Don Burgess (DB): I was shooting cable and independent movies. I took the gamble of going back to doing second units on bigger pictures, hoping to meet directors who I could work with in the future. The gamble was that people want to typecast you and put you in categories. If you’re the second unit cameraman, there is a presumption you don’t know how to light and/or how to tell stories—which, of course, isn’t true. I did second units on Back to the Future Part II, Backdraft, The Rookie, Batman Returns, Death Becomes Her and for various other films.

Bob Zemeckis decided he wanted me to shoot one of his pictures. That’s what it takes—someone who is willing to stick his neck out for you. That has happened periodically throughout my career, going all the way back to the beginning with Johnny Stevens and then with Max Kleven. I didn’t have the resume to do those jobs, but they relied on their instincts. I think Zemeckis took a big gamble by asking me to shoot Forrest Gump. You don’t get chances on those kinds of studio movies unless the director has major clout. Fortunately, I had a relationship with Bob from second units on Back to the Future and Death Becomes Her.

MM: Was Forrest Gump your first big-budget movie?

DB: Forrest Gump was the first big-budget film that I shot. I was 35 years old. When Bob called and asked me what I thought about the script, it was one of those moments that can change your life. I was as honest as I could be about how I felt about the script and what I thought we should do with it. He asked me to shoot his “Tales from the Crypt” TV episode, “Yellow,” which was about seven to maybe 10 days of work. At the same time, I had been offered a four-month miniseries with a very good director. I had three little kids, no money in the bank and I had to turn down four months of a miniseries to work seven to 10 days with Bob. Decisions like that take the support of your family, especially, in my case, my wife. I turned down the miniseries even though I had no other work lined up. You make those choices along the way.

MM: That couldn’t have been an easy decision

DB: They are all hard decisions, because this is a freelance business. There’s no steady work. You’re always looking for your next job. Nobody is booked years in advance. Pictures are only greenlit right before they go. People talk with you about movies they want you to shoot, and they have the script for you to read. They’ll tell you they want you to shoot it next summer. You say, ‘I’d love to do it,’ but you know that the chance of that picture being made is probably slim. You are always trying to find the best material and trying to make a living at the same time. It’s a very difficult, complicated thing to do—especially when you’re raising a family. I think I’ve been very fortunate. If it ended today, I think I’ve had one hell of a career, but in my own mind, there is a lot more to come and my best work is still ahead of me.

MM: Was there a particular scene in Forrest Gump that set the tone for the story?

DB: One of my favorite shots is when Gump is a soldier marching through the rain. At the end of that shot, the rain stops falling and the sun comes out. It’s a beautiful day and then all hell breaks loose. Tracer fire suddenly goes over his head; Gump hits the ground and he rolls into a ditch.

We did it all in one shot. It began with a very passive camera move, tracking along with Gump as he was marching through the rain. The rain stopped, the sun came out and life was great until all hell broke loose, and we followed him rolling into the ditch. The camera was mounted on a Steadicam on a dolly that was tracking with the character while he was walking. We wanted it as smooth and steady as possible. When the enemy started firing and Gump hit the deck, camera operator Chris Squires jumped off of the dolly and followed him into the ditch. Then, it became an over-the-shoulder shot, looking toward the enemy. You only see flashes of weapons from the point of view of the character; you don’t actually see the enemy. The movement of the camera was significant, because it allowed the audience to experience the chaotic situation. They become part of that scene because of the way we used the camera.

MM: Can you talk about the use of the GPS (geographic positioning system) on that film? I never heard of that before.

DB: Before we built Gump’s house, I used a satellite navigation system to determine what the angle was going to be at different times on the days when we were shooting there. They built the house on a spot that was exactly right for the position of the sun when we were going to be shooting key scenes. With the GPS, you log in exactly where you are on the planet, and that allows you to figure out the angle of the sun in 15-minute increments. We didn’t use it on every shot; it was just on those scenes where we wanted the images to be perfect with the sun in exactly the right place. It was especially important when we were matching live action with archival footage use to establish the place and period.

MM: Did you know that the movie was going to be a phenomenal success?

DB: I was very excited about the script. I think it was better than the book, and the movie is better than the script. It’s just one of those fortunate things that ended up in the right director’s hands with the right stars. Zemeckis inspired all of us to do our best work. By the middle of production, we all knew we were making something special. Just watching the dailies was inspiring every day. I wrote a letter to my mother halfway through the film, saying ‘Thank you for my life and for the opportunity to go to school and study filmmaking. Thank you for pushing me in the direction I wanted to go instead of staying in the family business.’

MM: A movie like that had to be hard on Tom Hanks, because he was on camera almost all the time. How do you relate with actors and help him through those situations?

DB: Tom Hanks is a great actor and a great human being. He has a way of keeping both feet on the ground, even when he’s in the middle of a film. He was in almost every shot playing a character who was humorous, but there were also some very serious scenes with sad material. I remember one day when he was at the gravesite after Jenny had passed away. We were doing this dolly move as he was doing his, ‘You died on a Tuesday morning,’ speech. I had a grip who was about 6’6”, 265 pounds, who was in tears while he was pushing the dolly. One of the highlights of making a film is when you get to witness performances like that. It’s like a miner striking gold. Every once in a while, Bob and I would look at each other in awe about the magic that was happening. We had 27 guys tiptoeing around with microphones, manipulating crane arms and making dolly moves in addition to the operators, focus pullers and prop men. Everybody had to be perfect for it to work. When that happens, its magic.

MM: One of the scenes from Cast Away that still sticks in my mind is the plane crash. Will you tell us about it?

DB: The design of the plane crash is material for a textbook. First of all, the story is told entirely from the central character’s point of view. We never cut outside the airplane to see it crash. You don’t have to see the crash; what makes it terrifying is that you feel that you are sitting there with Tom Hanks and you’re going through the same experience that he is going through. That sets up the dramatic curve of the story… and it does it perfectly.

What makes Zemeckis such a great director is that he sticks with the point of view of the story he is telling. When you can connect an audience to the character the way he did in Cast Away, it becomes so much more powerful. I’ve had people tell me that they won’t fly in airplanes after seeing that sequence because they’re just terrified by it. We had seven different levels of the intensity of camera shakes that peaks during the crash scene. We used specific lenses for wider-angle shots early in the scene and a long lens for a more claustrophobic look that makes him look more isolated. We used lighting to simulate the feeling of the power outage on the plane and when the wind is blowing through the plane we used dust to make the audience feel the movement of the air in the cabin. You can’t just go in there and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to shake the camera and we’re going to have a little bit of this and that.’ You have got to design and build a dramatic structure.

So many people fail with camera movement because they don’t set the shots up to tell the story as it unfolds. The pacing has to make the audience want to keep going in the direction that you are taking them, and it has to pay it off in the end. The camera has to get to a point, from the right angle with the right lens, where it’s either going to resolve a conflict or it’s not. You have to design the pace of movement for that moment in the story.

MM: There are a lot of technology vendors out there who say that anyone can put a camera on their shoulder, push a few buttons and fix any problems later in post-production. What do you think?

DB: I think that’s wrong. Individual cinematographers bring a personal touch that goes into their work and into the movies they work on. The problem I see for cinematographers in the future is the lack of understanding of what we do and how we are perceived. You see commercials claiming anyone can make movies with their iMacs. You also see that mindset happening on feature films with digital intermediate finishes. Supposedly anybody can come in, sit down on these comfy couches, look at images on a giant screen and push some buttons to create the look. I personally don’t think that’s a good thing. There’s a reason why there are cinematographers, directors, producers and all of the other people it takes to make movies. Everyone has a role to play. There are directors who are visually strong, but their most important job is to get great performances on the screen that tells the story.

MM: The Polar Express was revolutionary in the way that a cinematographer to play in the making of a computer-animated movie. Do you get asked about it a lot?

DB: The question I get asked on a regular basis is what is the role of a cinematographer on a computer-animated movie? I think the best answer is that I have been part of Robert Zemeckis’ team for years. I think he wanted to keep the team together and figure out how to reinvent the wheel. It was all about problem solving, which is one of our jobs. Once it was decided to use motion capture, we had to decide how to set it up and how to discuss different shots. We had to make sure that each shot was properly blocked and that we used the right lens language. We created a very specific language for movement and composition and choosing focal lengths for lenses, which allowed us to talk about shots the same way that we’ve always done. Everyone was involved, including the wardrobe and prop people.

MM: You recently participated in a seminar at the American Film Market with more than 100 young and low-budget film producers and directors in the audience. They seemed genuinely surprised when you told them why it’s important to have cinematographers involved before they made major decisions during pre-production planning. Why is that?

DB: That comes back to people’s perceptions of what cinematographers do. Some people have the idea that we walk around with light meters and figure out how much light we need to expose the film. There is obviously a lot more to it than that. It requires a lot of knowledge and teamwork to put compelling images that tell a story on the screen.

I’ve been fortunate that the people who I have worked with have brought me onto films sometimes months ahead of time to discuss locations sets, and other issues regarding production. There are artistic questions regarding use of colors that we should have a say in; there are also practical questions regarding what it would take to shoot on a particular set or location. I remember one of the questions someone in the audience asked was about shooting at a very large location—I think it was a big train station. They chose that location before they hired a cinematographer. I told them choosing that location without the cinematographer involved could make the difference between gelling windows and using a particular film stock, and spending three weeks pre-rigging equipment to make the set work. The more you plan up front, the better the execution and ultimately the film is going to turn out better. I think cinematographers have a very important role to play in pre-production.

MM: Do you think that the evolution of technology is going to change the role of cinematographers and the crewmembers who work with them?

DB: Technology is constantly changing the role of the cinematographer. We once had handcranked cameras and black-and-white film. Everything is better today—film, lenses, lighting and the ways we can move the camera, and, of course, the DI bays… But, you know, Connie Hall, Haskell Wexler, Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs made beautiful movies 30 years ago that anyone would be proud to do today.

The perception is that it’s easier today, and in a way that’s true, because of all the new tools. But it still takes a great eye to make a great picture, regardless of the set of tools or paint brushes you have. They were going to create great images. New technology is enabling a lot of people to do some form of cinematography, but that doesn’t make them great cinematographers.

MM: Does it get easier as time goes on?

DB: I don’t think you can ever get too comfortable, because you’re always searching for ways to take a story to the next level. A producer explained to me a long time ago that if the director screws up, chances are you can fix it in the editing room. But if the cinematographer screws up, it may mean you need a re-shoot on a picture that’s costing $200,000 a day. That brings up the question: How much of a risk are you willing to take?

We try to test as much as we can in pre-production, but ideas come up during the making of the movie. Things happen, because it’s an organic process, and you’ve got to be willing to take some chances when things are happening differently then you intended—even though there are risks involved. That’s the daily battle of trying to make it interesting and different while delivering on time and budget. That’s also why teamwork and a great crew are important. No one make great movies alone.

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