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Fighting In The Streets Of New York

Stefan Czapsky, A.S.C.,   loves New York.  When he was contacted to act as cinematographer for Dito Montiel’s new feature, “Fighting,” he viewed Montiel’s “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.”  From that viewing, he was sold.

“Much to my liking, ‘Guide’ was very much about New York,” said Czapsky.  “Growing up in Queens, I recognized the film’s attraction to the dirtier side of the city.  It was evident in that film that here’s someone who’s not going to make a picture postcard of New York.”

“Fighting” is a movie that closely follows the friendship of two unlikely men, Channing Tatum’s Shawn MacArthur and Terrance Howard’s Harvey Boarden.  “The prototype we discussed before shooting was ‘Midnight Cowboy.’  The movie is meant to be about the relationship of the two characters in the environment of the street life of NYC, where people didn’t stay in their apartment, they went out on the street to make a living,” said Czapsky.

Czapsky was drawn to the prospect of filming a very real, flawed, dynamic New York, and treating the city as a character in the film.  His hope in joining the production team was to photograph New York in a way the city is not generally seen, and perhaps even “develop some new, iconic images of a contemporary New York.”   What would be asked of him as a cinematographer went beyond simply capturing new images.

“Dito’s a performance-oriented director and purposely not technical,” said Czapsky in regards to his first meeting with the director.  “If an actor decides to get up, whenever they want to get up and leave a room, he wanted the camera operator to follow them.”   Unlike the standard technique of blocking a scene for everything from character entrances to where chairs and glasses should be set, Montiel’s style was to allow the actors to move freely and completely unrestricted within each scene.   Blocking marks were not permitted for individuals and objects.

This style of shooting effects every crew member on the set.  Because an actor could move in any given direction at any time, sound, lighting and the camera crew had to ensure all their staff and equipment would never be in the frame.   Montiel also preferred to shoot full, lengthy scenes in this style instead of breaking the scenes down into sections that could be bridged together in editing.  Whenever possible, Montiel shot scenes in their entirelty to allow for natural, uninterupted performances from the actors.

The biggest challenge for a cinematographer on this type of shoot is lighting a 360 degree scene.

“We shot in a lot of tiny places,” said Czapsky.  “I actually used a lot of little lights.  I used scoop lights with regular bulbs.  With current technology there are a lot more miniature lights that you’re able to power through a lighting board, so you can quickly decide to turn this light off and that light on, or brighten that light, or darken this manually.  The lights also run through skinny little cables.  It’s an advantage that wasn’t there ten years ago.”

Although some light rigging was done through the board, many of the scenes shot had characters moving through the streets of New York.  For this, some very old fashion techniques were employed.

“I think that for this to be successful, the crew really has to be engaged, not only thinking about how to place the cameras, but I need the light and grip people to be aware that the job isn’t done while we’re shooting,” said Czapsky.  “The actors might be walking as we’re shooting and we might have to move the light on a stick in front of them.  We might have to move out of a room or go down a hallway, or walk a quarter mile down the street.  It doesn’t look like it in the final product, that there are moving lights there, but I’m actually moving crew and lights.”

Czapsky used an Arriflex camera for the shoot.  He liked being able to obtain a three camera package with multiple lenses on the limited budget.  The three cameras really came in handy while working on the fighting sequences.

“When we got to the fight scenes, Dito wanted to continue the same style of shooting,” said Czapsky.  “Most of the movie was shooting these characters traveling through NYC to these fights.  We actually started out discouraging the choreography of the fights.  Dito wanted them to fight, and me to photograph it.”

It became evident pretty quickly when actors started to get hurt that the crew’s fight choreographers would have to step in and work out some moves.

“We wound up still shooting the fights continuously which was more free form, and I would usually run three cameras, because he didn’t want it to seem fake or polished or set up in some sort of way,” said Czapsky.  “They were then broken up into pieces where I shot at least two cameras handheld, and there was more set up involved.  We did this shot with a young Russian fighter.  I had him just punch towards the camera as if I was Channing Tatum.  He punched so fast that you couldn’t see the punches.  Those were real punches, but you couldn’t see them in real time.  We had to shoot them in slow motion.  We really did have to fall on the craft of fight shooting for those sequences.”

Czapsky has worked in a variety of cinematic styles, including documentaries with noted director Errol Morris.  The method of shooting use in “Fighting” was a new challenge that he feels glad to have taken.

“I think what was interesting for me as a cinematograph and shooting improvisational, unstructured format was the opportunity for discovery.  To figure out how you’re going to light it, and then to get the kick that you actually did it,” said Czapsky.  “In my training and experience, the actors are the focus on the set and you’re there to capture their performance.  What made this exceptionally interesting to me was that I got trusted with how to photograph it.  No one really told me to put the camera here and use this lens or that lens, or light this way.  It was a lot of responsibility to give a cinematographer, which is a smart thing to do, because it makes you want to work really hard.”

Said Czapsky, “I’m proud of the cinematography in ‘Fighting.’  I’m especially proud of the cinematography I did in New York City.”