Looking Back - The Cinematography of JFK
Oliver Stone's controversial 1991 thriller is an example of how visual authenticity can be a powerful and persuasive tool in political narratives. Together with his virtuoso cinematographer Robert Richardson, Stone used a brilliant mixture of historically accurate footage and reconstructed scenes to present an alternative myth about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
JFK traverses the boundaries of documentary and political drama to make the compelling - if not always historically accurate - case that the murder of the President was a conspiracy at the highest levels of government.
Every week we are looking back at a film from the American Society of Cinematographer’s list of Milestone Films in Cinematography of the 20th Century. What started with me taking some personal notes for my photography reference has evolved into a weekly blog post. If you enjoy the articles remember to subscribe for the latest.
About the Film
JFK is a political drama that follows the obsessive investigations of Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), a former New Orleans district attorney who becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the official story presented to the American public at the conclusion of the Warren Commission investigation into President Kennedy's assassination. The film alleges that there was a extensive cover-up of critical evidence which proves there were multiple shooters on the day, and proposes that the President's murder had been authorized by the then Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson.
It garnered several academy award nominations and won for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.
Impressions of the cinematography
At the heart of the movie is a roll of super-8 film that was shot by Abraham Zapruder, a private citizen watching the presidential motorcade wind down Elm Street in New Orleans before crowds of cheering onlookers. It graphically captures the precise moment in which Kennedy was shot.
The super-8 film forms the stylistic foundation for the movie, a visual refrain for the film's master cinematographer to riff on like a jazz musician dipping into a central theme. JFK slides in and out of archival style footage (often shot in grainy black-and-white) and classical film photography to create a visceral sense of authenticity.
The whole Zapruder film is presented and analyzed in the courtroom scene. It's a key document, a real minute by minute account of the assassination...I didn't want to make a documentary, where you're here and the film's there and you're far away, but rather one where the viewer is inside the film, participating in a democratic way.. - Oliver Stone.
JFK is liberally intercut with camera shakes, motion blur, projector skips and other flourishes that we instinctively associate with newsreel footage and shaky homemade film. This punctuates the action and keeps the viewer locked in a sense they are sifting through historical evidence.
Regardless of the whether film is historically accurate or not in all of its details, it feels authentic, because everything on screen re-enforces the idea that it is based on research and evidence; even if most of the actual footage is reconstructed or staged.
While much of the film uses a documentary style motif, it doesn't stop the filmmakers from strutting their stuff with beautifully shot compositions and lighting, especially as the film moves the third act, and it transitions to a more classically shot court-room drama.
On the whole, it is a beautiful film to watch with plenty of deep focus shots, film-noir style compositions, and rich low-key lighting (high contrast ratios between the shadow and light areas).
The use of bold rim lighting and heavy bloom (highlight areas which are blown out) help bind the archival, recreated footage, and narrative scenes together. I think because we associate home-made films with overexposed highlights it provides a consistent visual anchor.
The film seamlessly juxtaposes black-and-white and color footage throughout. In an era when many filmmakers were aiming for the highest fidelity possible, JFK embraced the graininess of newsreel footage, and in many cases emphasized it, to continually remind viewers they are watching 'authentic' footage from the day, and tapping into the American public's cynicism about cold-war politics.
About the cinematographer
Robert Richardson, ASC is a highly acclaimed American cinematographer and holder of three academy awards. He graduated from the Road Island School of Design, and has an MFA from the American Film Institute. He is best-known for his work with Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.
Richardson is known as a highly experimental Director of Photography, who rose to fame at a time when Hollywood films were increasingly moving towards more self-consciously expressive cinematography, and moving away from the more paired down, realist shooting styles of the 1970's.
He has a distinctive visual style, and is most often associated with the use of strong top-lighting or rim-lighting, with over-exposed and blown out halos on the actors.
In his words:
'I have no idea what led me to adopt this approach; I've been moving in that direction for a awhile. Personally, I find it a visually engaging look, so I've always been attracted to it. It tends to draw the eye to the characters; that was the motivation on previous pictures with the characters of Oswald and Jim Morrison. - Robert Richardson
Richardson describes how the effect is similar to spotlight or interrogation lighting, but is more aesthetically palatable.
Richardson is also known for mixing a variety of film stocks to achieve different looks, and blending different formats including super 8, 16mm film, anamorphic and super 35mm and video, which especially the case in JFK.
Apparently, Richardson kept a diary during the filming. An American Cinematographer article from the time relates this entry:
"All the characters are hiding. Something reminds me of Robert Frank's photographs (in) 'The Americans.' There are faces blurred by motion; for a cameraman, it appears that shadows and objects are the most available (ways) to hide identities. A sense of foreboding needs to occupy our frame . … Richardson in ASC Mag
As a photographer myself it's interesting how many famous cinematographers have referenced the work of Robert Frank in the American's as a major influence.
In another quote from American Cinematographer article Richardson references another photographer Alex Webb:
"Garrison's office: I've preconceived New Orleans as having a quality of light which is a blend between the tropical texture of Alex Webb's photography and the lighting and composition [by cinematographer Robert Krasker] in The Third Man. Perhaps the 1963 material in New Orleans should take on a cooler look, which could best be described as without red, chalky; we are attempting to do that now with desaturation. - Richardson
A creative collaboration
Oliver Stone had been originally attracted to working with Robert Richardson in part because of his background in documentary filmmaking. In Stone's words:
[speaking about Richardson]'Frankly I didn't want a cinematographer like Storator who makes me wait for hours while he adjusts the lights - I like to work very quickly...I had shots that take forever to shoot' - Stone speaking to Michael Ciment 1987
By the time they began working on JFK the duo had an established track record, having collaborated on 7 previous films including classics like The Doors,Platoon and Wall Street. It was in JFK however that Richardson's background shooting documentary films in 16mm, combined with his signature high-contrast lighting style, would come particularly in handy. However fruitful their partnership may have been however, it seems their working relationship was at times intense.
By his own admission, Oliver Stone is a hard taskmaster. He has been widely noted in articles as pushing both his actors and crews to the limits.
He can be brutal,” Richardson said. “I nearly died on a number of occasions with him as the director.”
He manages to split everyone into cells. It makes the work more difficult because you are always struggling to get someplace. He feeds on this. It creates an element of creativity that is very high. But it leaves you exhausted at the end of the day. - Robert Richardson
Much of the film was shot in the actual locations that events are based on. Principal photography was done in Dallas, and the location of the assassination in Dealey Plaza was decorated to look as it was in 1963.
Some of the scenes are shot in the actual School Book Depository from where Oswald took aim. Other real locations were used such as the police headquarters, Oswald's boarding house, and other neighborhood locations. The trial section was filmed in New Orlean's and in the criminal courts building is where the trial took place.
Stone often mentions liking to work with several cameras shooting simultaneously to capture the action from different angles. It was something that was becoming increasingly common in Hollywood films from the era, partially to cut down on filming costs.
According to American Cinematographer:
A total of seven cameras and 14 film stocks were used; overall, there were 70 to 80 35mm black & white shots and hundreds in 16mm. - American Cinematographer Magazine
Many sequences were shot using both 35mm (anamorphic) and 16mm cameras - some of which actually appear in the film - again heightening the sense of authenticity. Stone also mentions them shooting video footage, and extensively employing black-and-white 'to match people's visual memories'.
Richardson's signature blown out lighting effect was achieved mostly by using strong theatrical top-lights, overexposed, and filling in the scene with reflectors. The use of diffusion filters on the lens provided further burn-out and flare. Richardson also mentions using a bleach bypass to mute the colors.
Breaking with the classical tradition
Richardson describes Stone's unconventional approach to filming:
Stone's methods may be rigorous, but they often lead to movie magic. Oliver disdains convention. He tries to force you into things that are not classic. There's this constant need to stretch, which forces your lighting into very diverse positions. Rarely do you resort to classic lighting modes. More often you do something quite contrary, which inevitably involves risk - and with risk comes failure or success. - Robert Richardson
None-the-less there are still some very classical compositions, framing and lighting in the film, particularly in the courtroom sequences which feel more traditionally Hollywood.
The film was highly praised by audiences and critics alike for its aesthetics, but it met some strong criticism in regards to its expansive factual inaccuracies and conjectures - such as the black-and-white shots showing Oswald speaking Russian (Oswald did not speak Russian). I think however its visual effectiveness is part of the reason it was so widely attacked (it's certainly not the first Hollywood film to take historical liberties). As one critic said:
The wizardry of the film lab, which can produce a grainy news film of LBJ making deals with the masterminds of JFK's assassination - part of Stone's mythic truth - can also produce Arafat urging Sirhan to kill RFK. Every artist deals in myth, but anyone arguing for Stone's manipulation of history should be aware of the morally tricky terrain and the downsides of mythmaking..' - Alexander Cockburn
What makes JFK remarkable from a cinematography perspective is how it blended the narrative, mythological world of Hollywood storytelling with a historical, documentary style to create a hybrid which was so highly persuasive.
It's safe to say that some of the strong critical reaction to the film is down to how convincing it is visually. It looks authentic, which means the narrative feels authentic. Even if we question the conclusions drawn, it evokes a prevailing sense amongst viewers that the cold-war era 'powers -that be'; the political establishment, the CIA, FBI.. were all actively hiding things from the public. That the truth is somewhere amongst the large number of clippings on the editor's cutting room floor.
Robert Richardson's signature look involves heavy use of halos or blown-out highlights, usually lit from a high-angle.
It is an intense and dramatic lighting style, but not an easy one to technically get right.
Experiment with achieving this effect by placing a strong, focused light source, without diffusion, high above your subject and slightly from behind. This is going the be the main light source in the scene.
Make sure there is a dark background behind your model so the halo effect can be seen. Place a large white card or reflector in front of your subject to bounce light back into the front of your subject and fill in the shadows.
If possible, set your camera to spot metering and take a reading off the part of the subject's face that you want to be correctly exposed. Set your camera exposure to this value. Ideally, the highlights will be several stops brighter than this value so they will overexpose.
To enhance the effect, try adding a diffusion filter to your lens to help blow out the highlights.
Silet, Charles L.P. Conversations with Filmmakers. University Press of Mississippi. 2001 Kagan, Norman. The Cinema of Oliver Stone New York,NY: Continuum, 2000 Toplin, Robert Brent. Oliver Stone's USA: Film, History and Controversy University Press of Kansas, 2000 Salt, Barry. Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis (third edition), London, Starword 2009 Keating, Patrick. Cinematography, London. I.B. Tauris, 2014
Magazine & Newspaper Articles
Fisher,Bob. The Whys and Hows of JFK American Cinematographer, February 1992