Oscar-nominated cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska) cut his lensing teeth outside of the studio system on low-budget indie films, the kind of films often produced by the great Roger Corman. He shares that early trajectory with director James Mangold with whom he would build a strong working relationship over the course of four films. Their fifth film together, Ford v Ferrari, and its classic visual style and complex race car interior camerawork benefitted from their tight collaborative skills.
“We always approach the bigger studio films with that independent spirit. As I was setting up shots for our first collaboration Identity, he would say, ‘Push in a little bit. Boom down a little lower.’ I realized early on he had a very good eye,” Papamichael explained. “His precision goes across the board from actors to camerawork. He’s a complete filmmaker.”
Their partnership allows Papamichael the ability to expand beyond the traditional duties of a cinematographer. He and Mangold collaborated on shots and camera movements in a near-symbiotic relationship. Call it a shared brain if you will. Or great minds thinking alike.
Ford v Ferrari is, first and foremost, a natural period piece. Set in the mid-1960s, the film needed a specific visual style that reflected the era in which it was set. Papamichael’s childhood in Europe was steeped in race car driving as much as it was the cinema of the French New Wave. His father and uncle were rally drivers in the 1950s using old Jaguars, so he immediately understood the visuals required to bring Ford v Ferrari alive. He assembled a mood board of collected images from the period to refer to when crafting the film’s color palate.
For the racing sequences and interior shots, Papamichael and Mangold often leveraged earlier films, classic race films from the 1960s and 70s like Grand Prix and Steve McQueen documentaries.
“Mangold and I are not really action filmmakers. We always like to center and build things around our characters and tell the story from the perspective of the characters,” Papamichael shared. “We have elaborate car sequences in this. We always tried to tell it through Ken Miles’s perspective through close ups.”
The intimate racing sequences were filmed as live mechanical stunts with actor Christian Bale (Ken Miles) in the car. Papamichael used hard camera mounts to a pod car driven by a precision driver. Drones or more modern camera techniques were not used to recreate the racing sequences. The camera team all relied on gritty, near-period cinematography ingenuity to achieve not only the classic feel to the film but also the intimate experience of the actors. Bale’s reactions are real and do not rely on the benefit of green screen projections to simulate the racing sequences. He’s really there in the car living the role as Ken Miles. That intimate positioning and expert stunt work helps the audience more closely relate to the character and his experiences within the race car.
Camera lens selection was also inspired by the classic Cinemascope and Kodak Technicolor looks of racing films like Grand Prix. Papamichael used the Alexa LF (Large Format), a new large-format camera with prototype lenses that were only available to the crew a few weeks before shooting started. The digital prints were then color tinted to approximate the higher contrast, higher saturated film prints of the period. Through the course of multiple films, he has managed to stick to the easier, lower cost world of digital cameras while using advanced color tinting technology to bring about the visual style of film stock he loves dearly.
“To me, I’m comfortable working in the digital format, but I’ll never argue against it. I’m happy to shoot 16mm with old grainy stock. I like it. If anything, I try to make my digital cameras look like that. I don’t like the clean, smooth looks of digital film.”