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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 T2.8 .

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.

Look Development

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.
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