RAMPART: A study in extremes

By the time we meet police officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), he is a man whose world is crumbling. The visceral psychological drama, RAMPART -- co-written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman, who also directed --follows Brown through his tumultuous life at home and on the beat in the crime-ridden Rampart district of LA, as a lifetime of bad deeds finally catch up to him. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, who previously collaborated with director Moverman and Harrelson on the critically acclaimed THE MESSENGER, pushed the ARRI ALEXA's sensor to its limits in creating a visual representation of the troubled central character's psyche.

RAMPART trailer

DP Bobby Bukowski, who previously collaborated with director Oren Moverman and actor Woody Harrelson on the critically acclaimed THE MESSENGER, pushed the ARRI ALEXA's sensor to its limits in creating a visual representation of the troubled central character's psyche.

We are charting the deterioration of a man's mind and his increasing paranoia," Bukowski explains, noting that much of RAMPART's look involves extremes of lightness and dark. "Oren and I started to talk about how we could visually represent someone who is 'fading away.' So one thing we came up with was to shoot him against windows where it's very bright outside so the very edges of him start to deteriorate."

 

Bright sunlight, he adds, plays an important role in telling the lead character's story. Bukowski describes the second day of scouting LA locations with Moverman. "He lost his sunglasses," the cinematographer recalls, "and he's blue-eyed and fair and he was having a horrible time feeling the LA sun.  It was so bright and he wanted to use that as part of our visual language. He decided he wanted to exploit the sun for its corrosive quality."

Working with such brightness extremes would be challenging on any production, especially a digital one, and Moverman's overall approach to shooting and staging RAMPART without any traditional movie lights or predetermined blocking only enhanced the degree to which the ALEXA's imager would be stretched. "Oren wanted to give actors free reign," the cinematographer says. "We covered them with two cameras at all times and they were free to go anywhere and do anything they felt was right for their character and the scene. The actors loved it and I think it gives everything a feeling of being very real and immediate. As operators, we never knew exactly what was coming next."

The limitations on lighting and grip equipment did not compromise the filmmakers' vision for RAMPART's look, Bukowski explains, it enhanced it. Decisions about the photography evolved during the prep period as the cinematographer and director researched existing imagery for inspiration. "We watched every LA cop movie ever made," Bukowski says, "and Oren kept saying, 'I don't like the way this looks.' All the images he did like came from still photographs of the era shot in available light. I realized he didn't want 'movie lighting;' he wanted it to look like those pictures that were shot in available light, often with slow shutter speeds."

RAMPART was among the first handful of features to shoot with the ALEXA and Bukowski put it through its paces in pursuit of that look. The camera package was supplied by Otto Nemenz International. "I knew I had a tool that could handle ASA 800 and even 1250 or 1600 if I needed it to," he reports. "I could light the set with the production designer virtually a 'co-gaffer.' We could walk into a room and I'd say, 'I'm going use the ambient light bouncing off the tabletop as my key so let's use an opaque shade and put a lot of bulbs inside.' And that would be the lighting for the scene."

For interiors, the light levels were often so low that Bukowski could dial in a readable amount of illumination using a headband made out of LED ribbon light that he wore while operating. "It was on a dimmer that I could control from my belt," Bukowski explains, "and I could just bring it up if I needed a tiny bit of fill."

Bukowski knew from his initial testing that the ALEXA could hold up to extremes over- and under-exposure but he recalls being particularly surprised during one shot that pushed the sensor further than he'd thought possible.

"We were shooting a scene inside the house and I wasn't planning on the shot continuing outside," he recounts. "But the actors decided to go outside with the two of us operators following them and the crew running all over to get out of the way. When we got outside, I looked in my monitor and everything looked completely blown out. So when we cut, I went over the digital imaging technician's station to see if any of the shot was salvageable. It was all there! Six stops over and plenty of detail!

Bukowski, who has since used the ALEXA on another feature and a pilot, says the old concerns about exposing for digital cameras really no longer apply. "I can treat the ALEXA essentially like I would a film negative."