Watching Spike Lee’s latest joint Da 5 Bloods, you’re immediately taken aback by how NOW it feels. How immediately it renders right in front of you. His film blends a decades-old story with all of the aggression, angst, and anguish of the modern day Black Lives Matter movement. As I’ve said in my review, it feels as if Spike finished editing it moments before you hit play on Netflix.
Instead, according to Da 5 Bloods cinematographer Newton Thomas (Tom) Sigel, Lee finished the film months ago. It’s just that, sadly, history keeps repeating and reliving itself.
“The sad thing is that it was made before this moment, but Spike knew this moment was coming and already existed in our country and, hopefully, won’t for much longer,” Sigel explained. “Having Black Lives Matter there at the end, you think we’d made it the day after George Floyd died. The issues in this film aren’t going away any time soon, so we need to keep the conversation going.”
Those thoughts and more anxiety over the current state of American affairs peppered my conversation with Sigel. And how could they not? Many Caucasian Americans are only now waking to what Black Americans have known for decades. Those experiences at the hands of the American government and culture drive the thematic narrative of Da 5 Bloods.
And to help tell this important story, Spike Lee reached out to long-time cinematographer collaborator Tom Sigel.
Filming Da 5 Bloods Using Four Distinct Visual Styles
Having previously known and worked in commercials with Lee, Sigel dreamed of partnering with him on a feature film. When the Bloods script finally came, Sigel was blown away not only by the material and its many thematic layers but also by its epic nature. Having just wrapped Extraction, Sigel found himself initially reluctant to take on something so massive.
Some cajoling by Lee stifled those concerns.
“But then you have Spike Lee telling you, ‘Don’t worry! You’re a veteran! We’re both veterans! We’ve been in combat together, and we can do it!,” Sigel shared. “And then you go, ‘OK,’ and you say yes and then you think, ‘What have I gotten into?’ I have no legitimate reason to say that it worked out, but it did. I’m very proud of the film. Sometimes, things are just meant to happen, and you just have to go with them.”
To bring the multi-generational story to the screen, Sigel worked with a lensing and film stock palate that comprised of four different combinations. The modern day Ho Chi Minh City-set sequences feature the vivid reds that bring to mind feelings of passion and elevated blood as well as direct historic references to the revolutionary spirit of the Vietnamese during the war. These images were so vividly captured using a large format digital Alexa camera in a traditional cinematic 2:40 aspect ratio. That widescreen format helped Lee achieve the visual appeal of one of his primary cinematic influences for Da 5 Bloods: the epic films of David Lean. When those epic moments were captured, Lee would break out into cries of pleasure: “David Lean, man! David Lean!”
When the Bloods venture into the jungle on their quest for gold, the frame opens up to a 1:85 aspect ratio. That sounds contradictory, Sigel admits, but the film needed to expand the top and bottom of the frame. The sides remained the same, but you’re able to see more of the jungle and escape the widescreen look of the city. That shift, Sigel said, helps give the audience the feeling that the jungle is growing over the characters as the film progresses.
The biggest shift in visuals happens during the Vietnam War-set flashback sequences. For those sequences, Sigel shot in 16mm film in a 4:3 aspect ratio true to the medium. The visual inspirations for this shift stem from the look of newsreel footage captured during the period. This was, after all, the first war that was truly televised for American audiences. Sigel also used his experience as a documentary filmmaker and Vietnam documentaries of the period to influence these sequences.
Choosing this filmmaking technique was not an easy decision. There are significant risks baked into shipping dailies back to one of the remaining Los Angeles labs that could process the footage. The crew also had Chadwick Boseman (who co-stars as “Stormin’ Norm” in flashbacks) for two weeks, enhancing the risk of using that older filming style. Still, Lee supported Sigel’s choice despite pressure from production to film digitally and apply filters in post.
“I’m really grateful for that because I don’t think it would have looked the same,” Sigel reflected. “I could have done some tricks in post, but it never would have been quite the same.”
Finally, the fourth filming technique used in Da 5 Bloods was a Super 8 camera to film home movies on a riverboat-set sequence.
Reaching That Moment of Cinematic Perfection
Given the multiple filming styles and challenges inherent in making Da 5 Bloods, it would seem difficult to pinpoint a single visual moment in the epic. However, Sigel does indeed call a specific late scene as one of his personal favorites. Toward the end of the film, Delroy Lindo, giving a career-best performance, embarks on a direct address into the camera. He’s lost one of the Bloods to a land mine. He’s separated from his son. Oh yeah, and he’s been bitten by a poisonous snake.
Insanity and hallucinations ensue, during which he sees a ghost from the past.
Given the thematic weight and importance of the moment, Sigel knew it had to be magic, but the original location chosen for the sequence didn’t fully satisfy. While working in the area, Sigel found another area that would ultimately serve as the filming location for this key moment. When it came time to shoot the sequence, all of the elements – both cinematic and natural – came together perfectly.
“The time we shot, the weather, the light, and the way the atmosphere sat in the air just made that move off of Delroy’s close-up up into the sun down to [spoiler]… it was a really magical moment,” Sigel recalled. “That was very much a moment in the movie where everything came together. Lightening in a bottle.”
Da 5 Bloods is now streaming on Netflix.