THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES
BLUE CUT TRAIN SEQUENCE
Looking at Lighting
The Blue Cut train robbery was shot on a small railway line at a museum park in Edmonton, Canada. The advantage of this was that we could have total control of the train and the line. The disadvantage was that the train was a little small for our purposes and we would need to work to make it appear more substantial.
The whole scene was storyboarded and we spent some time on location working out our shots and the sequence in which we would shoot them. Some shots inside the boxcar could be made during the afternoon and this helped with our rigging for the exterior night work.
The first image shows the setting at dusk as Jesse contemplates the robbery. This is shot using a specially constructed lens, which involved mounting the front element of a Kiowa wide-angle lens onto a standard Planar prime. The effect is to somewhat mimic the look of an old box camera of the period and there were a number of reference images we used to develop this look.
The initial lighting plan that is posted here bears little relationship to how the scene was actually lit. At first I had intended to light the set as if by moonlight using a layer of smoke and backlight to silhouette the trees and the cut. However, as the look of the film developed, and having grown to better understand Andrew’s sensibilities, I decided to go in a different direction. On the day of the shoot I had only two small cranes holding a couple of 5K lamps each to give some edge lighting to the trees if I needed it. They were by this time only a back up and as we were setting up to shoot I turned these lights toward the base camp where they served only as a work light. My final choice to do this was because the wind had died down as we were readying for our first set up. We lay in some smoke and the way it hung in the moist air meant that, as it appeared in the distance, the train light alone created this wonderful silhouette of the cut.
It was only at that point I realized any other lighting was superfluous. Of course, now I wonder how or why I had anything in mind other than what you see in the film but it’s easy to overthink things when you are confronted with something that you haven’t dealt with before!
The light on the front of the train was a 5K Tungsten Par lamp. These lamps had just come into service and it was perfect for our needs. An electrician on the train was riding a dimmer so that as the train neared the camera he would dim the lamp down to avoid it flaring out the lens.
We also rigged a series of 1K bare bulbs beneath the train to mimic light from the furnace and give some shape to the underside of train. These were dimmed way down and also set on a flicker generator, though with all the steam the effect is minimal. The steam was created by our effects team on set and was timed so that Jesse disappears from the shot once the train has stopped. I think we tested this once and the whole shot worked on the first take.
The lantern that Jesse is carrying, as well as those carried by the gang, is rigged with a 250 watt halogen bulb and, as he sets the lantern down on a sleeper of barrier, the cable was left dangling. As the backgrounds were usually so dark this was not so much of a problem but where it appeared it was removed in post.
The shots of the gang amongst the trees were also lit using a 5K Tungsten par lamp but this time we had it mounted on a motorized flatcar so that we could easily maneuver it about. On the front of the train it was mounted within a housing to mimic the actual train light whereas now it needed to be panning. The real train light would never reach into the trees as this one does.
The shot of the gang with the sparks flying in front of them was made off a dolly with a specific rig.
As the gang descent towards the train we added much more steam so that the train would be revealed as they get near. We shot this hand held using an Arri 11C in ‘point and shoot’ mode. I had done this a lot previously on the film ‘Jarhead’. When you are running at speed there is no way to look through an eyepiece so we had a ‘gun sight’ mounted above the lens and that was it.
As you can see from the interior lighting plan below we had a series of batten strips mounted inside and above the coach windows in order to project light out towards the gang. These 6’ wooden batten strips held 500 or 300 watt mushroom bulbs, which were warmed by dimmed them down. This lighting had to be taken away whenever we were shooting inside the train as the inside was lit using the practical lights alone.
We were shooting everything inside the main carriages of the train with a Steadicam so the lighting had to accommodate every camera direction. Consequently the practical lights were specifically chosen and rigged for the film.
The wall lights were chosen for their large soft diffusion glass and the hanging lanterns were chosen for their metal shades, which could be used to hide some additional lighting ‘gags’. All the practical lamps were rigged to hold 100 watt or 250 watt halogen bulbs instead of a wick, whilst a ring of 4 x 250 watt bulbs was rigged under the metal shades of the hanging lanterns. The effect was of light coming from the shade rather than from where the wick actually is but I felt this was a more natural solution to the lighting than adding anything from the top or side of the shot.
Inside the baggage car we used the same trick with the hanging lanterns whilst some of wall sconces were actually the original flamed oil lamps. Consequently the light in the baggage car was balanced at wide open.
All the practical lights were set back to a dimmer board, which was housed along with a generator in a coach towards the rear of the train. Our gaffer, Marty Keough, told me that more than 2 miles of cable was used in rigging the lighting of this sequence.