MANDY WALKER SEEKS TRUTH IN NEWSROOM CHRONICLE

Truth retells the 2004 episode that ended in newsman Dan Rather’s exit from CBS after 43 years with the network. Rather reported documents critical of U.S. President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service, and after the authenticity of the documents was questioned by bloggers, a media firestorm and investigations ensued. Producer Mary Mapes was fired and Rather eventually retired under duress. The story is often cited as a turning point in the weakening of network journalism in the U.S. and the rise of online, amateur newsgathering.

In the Sony Pictures Classics feature film, Robert Redford plays Rather and Cate Blanchett plays Mary Mapes. The cast also includes Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid and Elizabeth Moss.

Cinematographer Mandy Walker, ASC, ACS and director James Vanderbilt, who also wrote the screenplay based on the book by Mapes, imagined a newsroom drama that evolves from colorful and light to contrast-y and desaturated. Over this arc, the camera moves less and less, until it becomes static and unflinching as the intensity level peaks. Another major component of the look is a widescreen 2.4:1 aspect ratio achieved with Panavision anamorphic lenses. 

"We also chose anamorphic because we liked the look of the lenses on the digital cameras. Anamorphic brings some romance back to the image."

“When many people are sitting down in a small room, you’re really working with the horizontal dimension,” Walker points out. “With the widescreen frame, we could put more people in the shot if we wanted to. We also chose anamorphic because we liked the look of the lenses on the digital cameras. Anamorphic brings some romance back to the image. And when we drop the light down and lower the depth of field, there is a much greater impact with anamorphic than if we had shot spherical.” 

Walker and focus puller Ricky Shamberg tested a variety of lenses and chose Panavision G Series glass because the anamorphic traits were subtler than some of the older series, rendering a more contemporary look, and because they could execute a sharp image when necessary. The package was rounded out by 135 mm and 180 mm E Series models, and the new T150, which was used for specific long lens situations when Walker wanted to isolate the subject with shallow depth of field. The lenses were used with ARRI ALEXA XTs recording in ARRIRAW format at 2.8K. 

Almost 90% of the film takes place in interiors. Locations predominated – the only sets were an airplane interior, Rather’s balcony and the dark-walled boardroom at CBS headquarters in New York, known as Black Rock. For TV studio situations and portable interview setups, Walker recreated typical lighting using period-accurate fixtures. Close ups were sometimes treated with a Classic Soft #1 diffusion filter, and wider shots with very light 1/4 - 1/8 filters. 

“During the middle of the film, there’s a subtle change to the images,” says Walker. “When the Mary Mapes character is being interrogated, the camera slows down and the lighting gets more dramatic. We put her more in the center of frame, and reduced the depth of field.” 

By the time the story reaches its culmination at Black Rock, almost all color is drained from the production design. “The only color is in the skin tone, so you’re really focused on the faces,” says Walker. “There are dialog scenes that go on for 10 minutes, and we didn’t move the camera at all, except in Mary’s final speech we did a very slow push in, where we wanted to emphasize a moment, and because we hadn’t been moving it becomes more of an emotional effect.”

One key to the film was to make the transition to more dramatic lighting, framing and use of color imperceptible for the audience. “People might wonder why, in a 10-minute dialog scene, we didn’t move the camera to keep things interesting and visual,” says Walker. “But we didn’t want to draw attention to the camera, or seem manipulative. We don’t want the audience to see the change – we want them to feel it. Also in the final most dramatic scenes of the movie we wanted people to be listening to the dialogue and watching the actors.”

"With Panavision, it’s not just technical – they understand the art of cinematography."

The 50mm lens in particular produced a slight vignetting that also directs the audience’s attention to the face in the center of the frame. Walker and Shamberg enlisted Panavision’s Mike Hibarger in Los Angeles, and Grant Hansford in Sydney, during prep to help dial in this effect by adjusting the optical elements.

“Ricky would explain to Mike and Grant during prep where we wanted to place the optimal focus,” says Walker. “You can push it to the sides slightly, but for this film, we decided it should be the center. When the character is center-framed, the face is slightly enhanced and emphasized, and the edges fall away.”

Walker says that’s just one example of the service and expertise she’s gotten from Panavision, which is the reason for her 20-plus years of loyalty to the company. “If I go in there and describe a particular look I want from a lens or camera, I always start by consulting Paul Jackson in Australia, and Lori Killam in the U.S. On Tracks, in conjunction with my first AC Larry Neilson, they rebuilt an anamorphic 2000mm lens for us to use in the desert. They’re always very innovative in coming up with adaptations and solutions. With Panavision, it’s not just technical – they understand the art of cinematography.”

Truth was released by Sony Pictures Classics in mid-October 2015. Walker is currently putting the finishing touches on Jane Got a Gun, a Western filmed on 35mm film with Panavision G Series anamorphic lenses.