Cinematographer Jim Chressanthis Takes a Journey to a Dark Time in The Watsons Go to Birmingham
by Bob Fisher

The Watsons Go to Birmingham, Kenny Leon’s TV movie airing tomorrow night on the Hallmark Channel, takes the audience on an emotional journey some 50 years back in time. The main characters are based on a 1963 novel with the same title by Christopher Paul Curtis, documenting the real-life events that culminate with a horrific hate crime.

The story begins in May, 1963. The audience is introduced to an African-American family that lives in Flint, Michigan. Daniel and Wilona Watson (Wood Harris and Anika Noni Rose) have three children: 15-year-old Byron (Harrison Knight), 11-year-old Kenny (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) and eight-year-old Joetta (Skai Jackson). The family drives across the country to visit the children’s grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama. After they arrive, a bomb explodes at the 16th Street Baptist Church in the African-American community – an explosion that ended the lives of four young girls.

Spike Lee created a 1997 documentary titled 4 Girls about the bombing and the toll it took. Six years later, his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, wrote the screenplay and is executive producer of The Watsons Go to Birmingham. She and director Kenny Leon are behind Tonik Productions, which produced the film and is planning to produce other socially relevant films in the future.

Leon is the Artistic Director of the Alliance Theatre, which produces stage plays in Atlanta, Georgia. His film credits include the television movies Steel Magnolia (2012) and Raisin in the Sun (2008). For this project, Leon tapped cinematographer Jim Chressanthis, ASC to collaborate with him. Chressanthis has earned Emmy nominations for the television films Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows in 2001 and Four Minutes in 2005.

“I witnessed segregation in Missouri and in Southern states when I was a boy, and saw the brutal inequities,” Chressanthis says. “There were many tragic incidents that were unfortunately normal, everyday experiences for African-Americans.”

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Between takes during shooting of the aftermath of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. // Photo: Gordon Calloway

 

The Watsons Go to Birmingham was produced at practical locations in Georgia. The audience witnesses the Watson’s cross-country journey, their arrival at the grandmother’s home in Birmingham and the bombing of the church.

“This project was a bit like walking into a time machine,” Chressanthis observes. “Production designer David Chapman created natural-looking 1963 environments.”

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Shredded cars from the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. // Photo: Gordon Calloway

 

The camera crew that Chressanthis assembled included Steadicam/A camera operator Marcis Cole, first assistant cameraman Emil Hampton from California, key grip Bubba Sheffield, gaffer Chapelle/B camera operator Robert Arnold, and first assistant B camera Yuri Karjane from Georgia.

“The crew was fantastic,” Chressanthis says. “We had a very demanding shooting schedule with children in most scenes.”

Chressanthis shot most of The Watsons Go To Birmingham with an ARRI Alexa ProRes 444 camera, while composing images in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.

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Cinematographer James Chressanthis, ASC operates the Canon C300 inside the “Brown Bomber” a 1949 Plymouth. // Photo: Robert Arnold

 

“For creative purposes, I used several other cameras and technologies to get different looks that were right for elements of the story,” he says.

Chressanthis used a Canon C300 422 digital camera for handheld, point-of-view action shots taken in a moving car, underwater coverage of a near drowning sequence and for  intimate dialogue scenes. He used a Canon XF100 HD camera to create images that look like 16 mm black and white and Ektachrome news film from the period. Chressanthis added film grain and kinescope flicker during postproduction at Light Iron.

“Our intern, Nubia Rahim, sat in the audience during a scene where Reverend Bevil is speaking to teenagers calling for a non-violent protest,” Chressanthis says. “He used a GoPro POV digital camera to capture images from the audience’s point of view.”

Chressanthis used Super 8 film to record images for what he describes as “the deep well of Kenny Watson’s memories of what happened during that time of  his life.”

“I bought a Rhondacam from Pro 8MM, in Burbank, California,” Chressanthis says. “It’s a re-built 1970s Canon Super 8 film camera. They also provided Kodak Vision 5205 and Kodak Vision 5219 color negative films in Super 8 format, which are respectively balanced for exposure 250 daylight and 500 in 3200 K tungsten light.”

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Super 8 Minolta (left) and Pro 8mm RhondaCam Max-8 format Camera (middle). Shooting Pro8mm 5207 Daylight Negative Stock. Chressanthis’ still film camera right. // Photo: Annette Brown

 

Pro8MM processed the negative and transferred the images to digital format.

President Barack Obama recently posthumously awarded four Congressional Gold Medals to the memories of the four girls murdered in the church bombing. There are plans for a premiere screening at the White House in early September. The Watsons Go to Birmingham will premiere on the Hallmark channel at 8pm EST, September 20, 2013. MM

Slider image caption: Prepping the Canon C-300 in the Gates underwater dome housing with Nubia Rahim, intern, James Chressanthis, ASC, Marcis Cole, Operator. (Photo: Robert Arnold)

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