Creative Analysis: Part 11 - Cinematographer Stephen Whitehead On An Elephant’s Journey

There’s a famous saying about working with children and animals. During production of An Elephant’s Journey, cinematographer Stephen Whitehead would encounter both, and face the challenge of depicting the vast African landscape in a manner befitting a story from the grand tradition of children’s adventure writing.

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Based in Toronto, Whitehead didn’t immediately leap for a career behind the camera. “I'm from Canada originally, born and raised. At 18 years old I spent a few years in eastern Europe, working as a Russian translator. But photography was always my passion. Growing up I had a room in my house and I did a lot of black and white photography. Once I got to film school, I went to Ryerson University in Toronto.” There, Whitehead won the Technicolor award for cinematography in 2006 and 2007, and met Torben Johnke, ASC, who he describes as “my mentor for a number of years.”

The route from assisting to cinematography was, he says, prompted by the popularity of a particular piece of equipment. “I kind of jumped from 1st ACing directly to shooting. The thing that made me not want to pull focus anymore was the Sony HDW-F900. For whatever reason I found it very frustrating. From a first AC standpoint I found it very frustrating to work with having mainly worked with Arri 535s and 435s.”

Like many nascent directors of photography, Whitehead “went over to shooting whatever I could. I've shot a lot of documentary over the years, and several features, mostly in the one-to-four million dollar range. Some TV, a fair share of commercials and music videos. I've been to 72 countries now shooting.” Some of these were more accommodating than others: “India was my least favourite. A year and a half ago I got put in jail in India shooting a doc. We were in the city of Varanasi, which is their holy city. We had all the permits. We were shooting this religious ceremony at sunset, and the police pulled us aside and put us in jail and were looking for a bribe, which is what they ended up getting from the producer. Reminded me of my days in Ukraine!”

Getting around that much doesn’t always make for plain sailing. “I work in eastern Europe quite a bit,” Whitehead continues. “Ironically not Russian-speaking places, but Romania and Bulgaria where the Russian comes out as well. A year ago in Bulgaria we were shooting this TV series called The Pact, set in this post-apocalyptic future wasteland.” One key location, the giant saucer-shaped concrete monument to Bulgarian communism at Buzludzha, atop a forbidding Balkan peak, was entirely snowed in. “We tried to get the crew and trucks up first day - couldn't do it. Our production staff were Romanian and were freaking out, so I ended up going into the mayor's office and using my Russian organised three snow plows for the week for 800 euros.”

Whitehead’s series of collaborations with director Richard Boddington began through a chance acquaintance and a need for equipment. “I was looking to borrow a 35mm film camera,” Whitehead recalls. “He had a Konvas 1M which I knew from my Ukraine days, because I'd go and hang out at the studios and talk. He did his first movie, Dark Reprieve. We used a BL3 on that, and the Konvas. He said ‘you seem to know enough about the cameras to come out and be a focus puller!’” Whitehead would move on to be the second-unit director of photography on Boddington’s subsequent feature The Dogfather, photographed by Denis Maloney.

Boddington had raised An Elephant's Journey perhaps eight months before the start of principal photography, with negotiations beginning in earnest around six months later. “It was twenty-five shooting days in Africa, then just one day in Canada,” Whitehead says. “Richard had a good idea going into it where he wanted to shoot. We shot a lot of it on this elephant wildlife reserve – he knew Sean Hensman who ran the reserve. We used those elephants and that property. Then we went back to Johannesburg and shot a lot of the scenes that didn't involve elephants.”

Boddington and Whitehead had already enjoyed a positive experience with both the South Africa and local crew. “It was the second time we'd done a movie together in Africa. We'd done Against the Wild 2 and we shot at a lot of the same locations. The crew was entirely different, not because I wasn't happy, they were all great, it was just availability. The crew on Elephant Adventure was brilliant.” Here, Whitehead is particularly keen to credit key grip Willem Daniel Du Plessis and gaffer Emmanuel Chonco Sithole for their work.

Other than the camera body, Whitehead’s own, camera and lighting equipment was supplied by Panavision’s Johannesburg office. “I spent quite a bit of time in camera prep at Panavision, getting the lighting package ready. Overall they were very accommodating. We sent our body off to Panavision before we showed up, they Panavised it for us, putting on their lens mount, and we used it, and at the end they put it back to PL and I took it home with me.”

Choice of lenses was driven by Boddington and Whitehead’s desire for a clean, classic image. “People talk about Panavision less these days,” Whitehead muses, “but I still think their lenses are the best on the market… they definitely have that classic Hollywood look.” Mindful of the need to move quickly, Whitehead chose “an 11:1 zoom and a set of Primo primes. I would say 90% of the movie was shot on the zoom. I love that zoom lens. I think it came out in the early nineties, but it has wonderful softness to it. It's a pleasing-looking lens and the falloff is very nice.”

Zooms are, he says, increasingly common, and driven by “speed. Schedules have reduced. Twenty days, for an indie movie, is now a decent time. On made-for-TV movies we get fifteen. I'd love to shoot it on my primes or another set, but you need the speed.” On occasions where the primes were essential, such as scenes set in a gloomy cave, Whitehead used a 1/8 Black Promist filter, but otherwise “didn’t use filtration. When I use diffusion, I like Glimmerglass, sometimes a one-eighth Promist, but I really liked how the zoom lens looked. It wasn't too sharp. It sat in the sweet spot.”

Whitehead’s department was intent on the best, despite the remote location. “The key grip insisted we used a Fisher 10 dolly, the really big Fisher. I said ‘why don’t we use the 11, it's smaller.’ But they wanted the stability. My words to them were ‘if you guys want to do it, great!” For traveling scenes, one of the picture vehicles was rigged with a camera mount improvised from parts on hand.

“That was a rig the grips built up... a bunch of suction cups, then they put god knows how many pieces of speedrail on it. We didn't have any sort of shock absorbing rig, we just had to steady it as best we could. The results were really good considering how bumpy the road was and how bad the suspension was.” Whitehead operated throughout, including a few handheld scenes in vehicles. “I don't operate all the time. For Richard I usually end up operating, and I was doing that handheld in the back of the car. Me inside, tucked in with a jelly roll!”

Lighting setups were required to cover both the sun-drenched Africa veldt and inside tents at night. Whitehead’s style is, he says, “minimalist. I tend to start with practicals and natural light and figure out how to augment from there. I'm not one for perfect 3pt lighting in every setup, it's very stagey.” The package included two 18K HMIs to fill day exteriors, or to recreate the sun during rare overcast moments, as well as 20-foot square frames for diffusion and bounces. “The cherrypickers only came out at night to create moonscapes,” Whitehead notes, though he preferred, as ever, to minimise the artificial light where modifiers would work instead. “I like to avoid 18Ks on a sunny day. I like shaping the available light better, I find it more flattering.”

Exteriors, of course, involved more space than any production could hope to light, and, as Whitehead puts it, the key became blocking and staging. “It was a constant debate on set how to stage the scenes. Obviously I like keeping the sun at the back, on a hard African sunlit day. It's much harder to front or side light. Everything went to back or side light, then I shaped the front. In combination with the telephoto look, it created that classic Journey Home kind of look. Like an episode of Lassie or something like that.”

Occasionally, Whitehead used what he describes as “a sky blue bounce. The makeup was simulating sunburn after a while, they paint them red. But the African soil is red and by the time we had all that red, it was overbearingly red, so I kept my bounces colder.” Likewise, the bold beams which define the cave scene were actual sunlight. “To get that pool of light we didn't use an 18K, you can't shoot an 18K straight down. We used a mirror board. That's real evening sunlight.”

There wasn’t even a need to use smoke: “it was just a dusty cave! I am a big fan of atmos but on Richard’s movies I don't tend to use it that much. He likes a very clean picture. I'm shooting this movie now, the classic Lifetime romance, and they would be very upset if you hazed up their set. They want the ultra-clean look. A lot of their audience watch on bad TVs in the Midwest in America. They want the image very clean to start with.”

The film is punctuated by details of Africa that other productions might have delegated to a second unit, but Whitehead was often able to capture them between takes. “I'd see various animals and things and I'd zoom in and grab a shot. It's useful to Richard to have that B-roll. Normally, if you did that, you'd have to tell the script supervisor, who would have to tell the director, who would have to bring it up with editorial, who would have to figure out how to catalogue it. It would create a whole big conversation and the conclusion would be ‘this is too much hassle, don't do it!’” The freedom to work in this way was, Whitehead feels, “a little bit documentary. It reminds me of being that kid at sixteen who went out with his Pentax K1000 to shoot beautiful stuff that's interesting. There's a freedom to that.”

The image audiences will see is replete with a golden warmth that Whitehead says was “fully by intention.” The production was graded by Rob Evans at Technicolor Toronto. “I thought he did a great job grading it,” Whitehead goes on. “We only saw him three times. Once to set some looks, once in the middle and once at the end to set some notes on it. Some colorists are disappointing, if you work with them like that you don't get what you want, but he got that gold look really well. It was a pleasure to watch.”

An Elephant’s Journey was released to 725 screens in the United States, and picked up by Lions Gate. “There's a lot of things about this movie that Richard likes,” Whitehead concludes. “He likes warmth. Even his last movie here in Canada, when it's a cold rainy day in Canada it's blue! But he likes a warm palette, he likes telephoto lenses, he likes that look. If you look back to how people lensed things in the 80s it's like that. If you look at a trailer and it's warm and beautiful and striking… it's almost a throwback to classic movies of that genre… and working with Richard I've done a lot of animal movies. And that elephant was great!”

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