American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 41

Unit photography by Jahi Chikwendiu, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Opposite: After
witnessing
unspeakable brutality,
slave and Baptist
preacher Nat Turner
(director/producer/cowriter Nate Parker)
orchestrates an
uprising in 1831, in
hopes of leading his
people to freedom in
the feature The Birth
of a Nation. This
page, left: Slavepatrol captain
Raymond Cobb
(Jackie Earle Haley)
searches for Turner's
escaped father.
Below: Parker
discusses a scene with
cinematographer
Elliot Davis.

would be low budget - around $8
million for a period costume drama with
battle scenes. It had a brutal schedule: 27
days for principal photography in
Savannah, Ga., and about five weeks for
prep. There would be no overtime, no
frills, not even a rigging crew. But on the
strength of the script, Davis was able to
draft a formidable team of longtime
collaborators, including gaffer Dan
Riffel, key grip Richard Mall, and fellow
camera operator George Billinger.
"They all jumped on this film," says
Davis.
While crewing up, Davis insisted
upon and got one extra position: an onset colorist. As an artist, Davis says, "the
DI is the most important instrument I
have. It's more important to me than
light, than lenses, than anything. It's
where the emotional look of the film is
made." For that reason, he strives to set
the look as early as possible and get it
firmly planted in everyone's mind at the
dailies stage. He's taken this approach
since 2013's Man of Tai Chi, when he
and director Keanu Reeves went to
China with a then-new Alexa Studio
camera package. "This film made
history by being the first film in the
world to shoot full-resolution ArriRaw,
with anamorphic lenses - Hawks -
utilizing the camera's 4:3 sensor," Davis
says. "There was so much data, the
Chinese couldn't handle it." They

brought in a DIT from Australia,
Michael Taylor, and trained a Chinese
colorist to do on-set dailies. "[We] had
full DI capability, including windowing
and secondary color control," Davis says.
Color-corrected dailies would be
handed over to Reeves on an iPad. "I've
continued that technique in all my digital movies since," Davis says.
Both he and Parker wanted a
modern look for The Birth of a Nation,
underscoring the continuing relevance
of the movie's issues. As the director
says, "I was not interested in a film with
contemporary themes that feels like it
can only exist in the 19th century. I
wanted to use temperature to describe a
lack of passion or empathy, but also to
wink at 2016 and show parallels
www.theasc.com

between what you were seeing then and
what you're seeing now."
"Basically," Davis elaborates, "the
overall look was cool and desaturated,
with high contrast and pushed whites.
I've done movies with that kind of look
before, though not applied to a period
film. That look, for me, was a modern
look, a more 'tech' look. It was really
good to separate it from more conventional historical pictures, which are
either very normal-looking or shift
towards the warm side, like somebody's
idea of what 'old' is supposed to look
like. In reality, The Birth of a Nation is
about the present reality of America. We
never wanted the audience to forget
that."
The 2.39:1 aspect ratio was likeNovember 2016

41


http://www.theasc.com

American Cinematographer - November 2016

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of American Cinematographer - November 2016

Contents
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - Intro
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - Cover1
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - Cover2
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 1
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 2
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - Contents
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 4
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 5
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 6
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 7
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 8
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 9
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 10
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 11
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 12
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 13
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 14
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 15
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 16
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 17
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 18
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 19
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 20
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 21
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 22
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 23
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 24
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 25
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 26
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 27
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 28
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 29
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 30
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 31
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 32
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 33
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 34
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 35
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 36
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 37
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 38
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 39
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 40
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 41
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 42
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 43
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 44
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 45
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 46
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 47
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 48
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 49
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 50
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 51
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 52
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 53
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 54
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 55
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 56
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 57
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 58
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 59
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 60
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 61
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 62
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 63
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 64
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 65
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 66
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 67
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 68
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 69
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 70
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 71
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 72
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 73
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 74
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 75
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 76
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 77
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 78
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 79
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 80
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 81
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 82
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 83
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 84
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 85
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 86
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 87
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - 88
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - Cover3
American Cinematographer - November 2016 - Cover4
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