Given to Fly
In October 1948, Jesse Brown became the first African American to complete the U.S. Navy’s flight training program and received his Naval Aviator Badge. The feature Devotion, directed by J.D. Dillard and based on the bestselling book by Adam Makos, recounts the true story of Brown’s distinguished service, focusing on the year 1950, at the onset of the Korean War, when he and his fellow pilots in Fighter Squadron 32 deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Leyte, first to the Mediterranean Sea and then to the East Sea, off the coast of North Korea.
The movie features Jonathan Majors as Ensign Brown and Glen Powell as his wingman, Lieutenant Tom Hudner. As Dillard got underway with preproduction, he soon found his own wingman in cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, who had previously worked with and was referred by producers Molly Smith and Rachel Smith and line producer Bruce Franklin.
“I had a two-and-a-half-hour Zoom call with J.D., and we talked about movies and life,” the cinematographer recalls. “We totally hit it off. We finished the call, my phone rang 20 minutes later, and he said, ‘Do you want to do the movie?’ I said, ‘Of course I want to do the movie!’ That was five or six months before we rolled the camera, so we had a lot of prep time together.”
That prep began with discussions of “what the movie should look like, how it should feel, and what the audience’s experience should be,” Messerschmidt explains. “This is a war film, but it’s really a character drama — the war is the situation that the characters are in. It’s the characters’ experience of the situation that’s important.
“We wanted the film to feel structured and designed, not frenetic,” the cinematographer continues. “We wanted it to feel like a drama. And it’s a period film, so we wanted to use period techniques in terms of camera direction and blocking and staging, but we also wanted it to have a modern look in terms of color and aesthetic.”
Collaborators for Camera and Color
Working with Panavision Woodland Hills, Messerschmidt selected Panavision’s Millennium DXL2 as his primary camera, which he complemented with RED Komodo 6K cameras that would be mounted onto the production’s airplanes. In front of the DXL2, Messerschmidt opted for large-format Panaspeed spherical primes. That combination, the cinematographer explains, grew out of the desire for the movie to “have a large-format 70mm feel in its scope and focus falloff. When I met with [Panavision’s senior vice president of optical engineering and lens strategy] Dan Sasaki, he suggested the Panaspeeds, because I also wanted to make some modifications to add some spherical aberration without a lot of flare or chromatic aberration. Dan and I cooked up a recipe, and we ended up with two beautiful sets of primes for the movie.”
Within those sets, Messerschmidt gravitated toward the 40mm, 50mm, 65mm and 80mm focal lengths. “The lenses are really fast,” he says, “but I wasn’t going to use them at a T1.4 all the time, especially if we were focused close. Even though super-shallow depth of field is very in vogue and looks really cool on a monitor or a phone, it doesn’t always feel right, especially in a theater on a 40-foot screen. So little of the frame can be in focus, the audience can be confused about where to look. So in many cases I was lighting to a T2.8½.”
Early in prep, the cinematographer connected with Light Iron supervising colorist Ian Vertovec to further develop the movie’s look. “Because of the integration with Panavision and the DXL2, it felt obvious to work with Light Iron,” says Messerschmidt, who first met Vertovec during the final grade for director David Fincher’s feature Gone Girl, shot by Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, on which Messerschmidt had served as gaffer. “I sat in on color sessions with Jeff and Ian, just watching the process and learning,” he recalls. “So Ian and I had a long preexisting relationship, and I wanted a post house where there’s a familiarity when you walk in, like walking into your living room. Ian also has extraordinary tastes, and because we were working during Covid, I knew we weren’t necessarily going to be able to supervise sessions and sit in there together. You can let Ian run, and he does great work on his own.”
Capturing at 7K with the DXL2 for a 4K finish, Messerschmidt employed a 15-percent center crop, allowing for reframing and stabilizing in post, while framing for a 2.20:1 final aspect ratio. The center crop, he says, is “something I’ve done a lot with David Fincher and have grown to really love. The flexibility in the DI to make adjustments to the frame is incredibly helpful, especially if you’re looking for really perfect compositions.”
The 2.20:1 aspect ratio, Vertovec adds, “was a great choice because it’s still wider than the 2.0:1 aspect ratio a lot of streamers are going with, so it feels more cinematic, but it’s taller than 2.40:1. That extra height was great for the vertical element of the airplanes and their up-and-down choreography.”
As the cinematographer and colorist began their collaboration, Messerschmidt explains, “we did a lot of testing, looking at color, different ISO ranges, and how much light I wanted to have on set. I like the digital ‘negative’ to be really thick, like shooting film, and we wanted to have enough color separation that we could really play with the grade, so I ended up rating the camera at 640, sometimes 800 for some of the night exteriors.”
The cinematographer’s preproduction time with Vertovec also resulted in the development of the show LUT for principal photography and dailies. Vertovec recalls that the LUT “came together really fast. Erik had a very clear idea of what he wanted, and I had already been thinking about some ideas that were similar.”
Messerschmidt describes the desired look as having a “khaki feel with slightly amber midtones, but not red.” To achieve this, Vertovec details, “I pitched the idea of working with a fairly warm white point to match the period, and then we would have a very modern film transform underneath, creating rich, almost cobalt-blue shadows. So there would be a kind of push and pull between a modern rendering of color and something more old-fashioned with this warmer white point — it’s almost like taking a cool image and printing it on warm paper. That played well with how Erik wanted to represent the period and the uniforms and the production design, which have a lot of earth tones.”
This approach also produced “really great skin tones with delicate color separation,” the colorist adds. “When you have these beautiful close-ups, they feel very rich and clean, but you still have a period look.
“We built the LUT using actual footage that Erik had shot during prep, including quite a bit of airplane footage, so we could see things like how the sun wraps around and gets really bright as the plane turns, and how warm we would want those highlights to be,” Vertovec continues. “Erik wanted to monitor in HDR on set, so we built the show LUT in HDR and then derived an SDR version from that. He had also used ACES before and wanted that familiarity, so we built the LUT to exist in an ACES ecosystem.”
Principal photography took place in and around Savannah, Georgia. “We shot the movie in 52 days, which was a real triumph,” Messerschmidt notes. “The script had a big appetite, but we didn’t have a very big budget. There were expenses that were tremendous for a movie of our size — the period airplanes and our enormous aircraft-carrier set. The trick was everyone sitting down together and determining how we could spend our money wisely so we could put as much of it on the screen as possible.
“A lot of that came from J.D. being able to commit to what he knew he needed so we could just focus our energy on those specific shots and not build anything more than we would see, not shoot more coverage than we knew we would need,” the cinematographer continues. “I really admired that about him. It was complicated and challenging, but collaborating with people to figure out that puzzle is also one of my favorite parts of the process.”
For scenes set atop the USS Leyte, production designer Wynn Thomas oversaw the construction of the full-size carrier deck at a private airstrip. “So,” Messerschmidt notes, “all the aircraft carrier flight-deck sequences were shot in the middle of a field in Georgia, surrounded with a bluescreen.”
The crew employed multiple cameras to capture the action on the carrier deck, but otherwise, Messerschmidt says, the main unit’s approach to principal photography “was A and B camera for the most part, with both cameras getting something vital to the assembly of the scene. It’s very classically shot. Most of it’s on a dolly. There’s no Steadicam. We did do some handheld in some of the battle sequences and the intimate scenes in Jesse’s house. There’s also a scene on the beach before Jesse goes to war, and we shot three cameras there because we wanted to shoot at a certain time of day. But there are also scenes that were shot as oners, so the entire scene was just a single cam.”
Light Iron provided HDR dailies throughout principal photography, and Messerschmidt kept in close contact with Vertovec throughout the shoot. “There were some dusk and dusk-for-night scenes in particular where he wanted me to take a look and weigh in to make sure everything would match,” Vertovec shares. “I was able to do a test and send him a still and say, ‘When we’re done, here’s what it will look like.’ The dailies don’t incorporate power windows and everything else we’ll have in the DI, so it’s really helpful for me to jump in and do a version, even if it’s just a still, so everyone can see that it’s fine. And then that still can also provide a template for how they’ll shoot future material that needs to match that scene.”
Up in the Air
As Devotion begins, the aviators are stationed at Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island, where they initially fly Grumman F8F Bearcats before being tasked with mastering the Vought F4U Corsair in advance of their deployment aboard the USS Leyte. For all of the movie’s aerial sequences, the question facing the filmmakers was how to capture shots of the pilots in their cockpits without it looking like the actors were simply seated in front of a greenscreen. “Obviously it’s been done and can work,” Messerschmidt notes, “but we were worried that it would look exactly like what it was.”
Complicating the issue, the Corsair only exists in a single-seat configuration, precluding the option of placing actors in the back seat and shooting them as though they’re piloting while the aircraft is in flight. Fortunately, Messerschmidt says, for the first flying sequence, which involved the Bearcats, “we had a trainer aircraft that was a good match for the cockpit, and we were able to put the actors in the back seat and shoot them for real — in a real airplane over a real environment — with Komodos mounted in the cockpit. We shot that sequence quite early, so it gave us a good reference and set the tone for what the rest of those flying scenes should look like.”
For the remainder of the flying sequences, the filmmakers opted to place the actors in an LED environment. “From a financial point of view, greenscreen or bluescreen was the most cost-effective solution,” Messerschmidt says, “but we felt the movie needed more integrity than that, so we designed an LED virtual-production space, with a parabolic-shaped screen that was 9 meters high and had about a 250-degree field of view. The aerial unit shot plates for us, and we were able to use those on the wall and shoot the actors in front of it. It was great — we essentially got most of it in camera, with real reflections and real backgrounds.
“It also meant that as J.D. and the editor [Billy Fox] were cutting it, they didn’t have to imagine what the background was,” the cinematographer continues. “It was all there, which makes the assembly process so much better. That really helped the film in a way I hadn’t appreciated before.”
On-set HDR monitoring was particularly critical for scenes captured in this LED volume, ensuring the filmmakers could accurately judge the ratios between the actors in the foreground and the LED screens behind them. But Messerschmidt stresses the value of viewing HDR on set in all situations. “Monitoring in SDR and finishing in HDR is like exposing film with a video tap — it’s not the right way to do it,” he says.
“Monitoring in HDR gives you the best visual representation of what the camera’s actually seeing,” he continues. “It allows me to use less fill light and really understand where my highlights are, how much overexposure we can get away with and what’s going on in the background. I also feel like it’s incredibly helpful in terms of getting the SDR to feel like a derivative of the HDR and not a completely different-looking show. Light Iron provided HDR dailies that were shared through Frame.io, and when Ian and I did the DI, we did HDR first, so our workflow the whole way through was HDR.”
Vertovec performed the final grade using Baselight, and Messerschmidt notes that the main areas of focus at this stage were integrating the visual effects and refining the look that had been established with the show LUT. “There are shots with set extensions and some shots that are entirely CG recreations,” the cinematographer says. “Ian was incredibly helpful with communicating with visual effects so we could make sure everything felt singular.”
Building upon the foundation provided by the show LUT, the final look preserves the warmer white point — “D55 as opposed to the ‘standard’ white point of D65,” Vertovec notes — and cooler shadows. As Messerschmidt describes it, “The white point shifts warm, but the skin tones don’t feel graded warm — we didn’t want everybody to just turn orange. I was much more interested in this kind of manila, eggnog feel. It’s not sepia, but it has a hint of tonal difference. One of the things I learned from Ian is that a lot of that is felt by shifting the shadows in the other direction, toward cobalt blue or a cerulean tone. Then, suddenly, the white feels warmer when we might not have touched it at all.”
Compared to the show LUT, Messerschmidt adds, “we ended up going a little darker and heavier, with more green, for a slightly more intense look — the grade has a khaki, taupe-green feel. The only place we really let the film breathe visually is the Cannes sequence.”
In this sequence, the aviators, sailors and soldiers aboard the USS Leyte are granted shore leave for the day before the carrier departs the Mediterranean for Korea. As the pilots stroll the Cannes shoreline — which in fact was provided by Savannah’s riverfront — “the film opens up,” Messerschmidt says. “It’s brighter and has more color and a slightly different feel because they’re in such a different environment.”
Vertovec adds, “Instead of the rich, military look with its warm and cool wash, we went with much more of a mid-century Ektachrome look, almost like early color vacation photos. It’s a completely different look, but it works because they’re on shore leave and they’re not in that military world anymore. It’s also right in the middle of the movie. It feels great for that moment, with this beautiful beach, to open up before the story comes back down to Earth and we go back into the military world — and then they’re in winter in Korea.”
Vertovec worked closely with both Messerschmidt and Dillard throughout the final grade. “Erik and J.D. both contributed a lot, and they were always on the same page,” he says. For portions of the final grade when Messerschmidt wasn’t available to join Vertovec in person, the cinematographer would review reels remotely and provide notes via Frame.io.
Another component of the grade was the addition of texture. “We talked about grain early and often,” Vertovec recalls. “The other aspect of texture is adding halation to the highlights — so if you have a lightbulb in a scene, for example, instead of it being a solid white circle, it will be more bloomy. With the grain on top, that feels natural and not just ‘blurred.’ The bloom, the grain and the wash are all of a piece.”
For both Messerschmidt and Vertovec, the opportunity to collaborate with Dillard in bringing Devotion to the screen stuck a personal resonance. The movie, Vertovec shares, “feels very modern. Previous generations of war films have tended to be either explicitly pro-war or anti-war, but this is much more focused on the human drama and the human tragedy, and it doesn’t really take a stance on war itself.
“On a personal level,” the colorist continues, “I have a very nostalgic connection to Navy pilots. My uncle was a fighter pilot in the Navy, and I definitely idolized him. And for J.D., his dad was a Blue Angel pilot, so this is a very personal story for him. We both have this generational connection to pilots.”
Messerschmidt adds, “We were a big little movie and a really tight crew. I’ve been working with a lot of my crew for a long time, so we were very much in it together. And that translated to post, too, with Ian and the whole Light Iron team working together with us.
“Hollywood has a fascination with World War II and the Vietnam War, but the Korean War is not often discussed,” the cinematographer reflects. “The story of Jesse Brown in particular is a true story of heroism and sacrifice. All of us felt a responsibility to respect his story and be as accurate as we could.”
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Additional behind-the-scenes photos courtesy of Erik Messerschmidt, ASC.