“Every Day There’s Less People Who Really Know How to Handle Film and Do Focus for Film”: DP Newton Thomas Sigel on Da 5 Bloods
There’s something circular to the idea of Newton Thomas Sigel shooting firefights in the jungle on 16mm.
It’s how Sigel’s career began, hauling gear into Central American combat zones as a photojournalist and documentarian in the 1980s. His first narrative as a cinematographer, Latino, was set during the Contra War in Nicaragua. His first studio break came with a 2nd Unit gig on Oliver Stone’s Platoon.
Sigel’s latest, Da 5 Bloods, finds him back in the jungle, 16mm camera in hand. Filmed over three months in Vietnam and Thailand and directed by Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods follows four of the titular quintet of vets as they return to Vietnam decades later to find the body of their fallen squad leader (played in 16mm-lensed flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman)—and, while there, maybe just dig up a few million dollars of long-buried gold too.
Filmmaker: You started your career in the early 1980s as a documentarian, often working in precarious situations. How did you end up on that path, working in war zones in your early 20s?
Sigel: I made little movies in high school, then worked for a year at a place called Media Study in Buffalo, New York, which was designed to teach filmmaking skills to people in the community and to invite visiting artists to come and show their films and talk. These visiting artists were really art filmmakers, experimental filmmakers. Actually, one of the first times anyone ever asked me to shoot something for them was Kenneth Anger when he came through that program.
I also painted back then and, after a year [at Media Study], received a fellowship at the Whitney Museum. So, I went to New York City and spent a year there. After the Whitney I went to Hampshire College, where I met Pamela Yates. She had just spent two years as a photojournalist in Mexico for [the newspaper] Excélsior. Along with Peter Kinoy, we created Skylight Pictures and began covering the wars in Central America for our own documentaries and as camera people for the news networks and European television.
Filmmaker: Were you basically a skeleton crew where you’re loading your own mags and doing everything yourself?
Sigel: Pam Yates was the sound recordist, I was the cinematographer and Peter Kinoy was the editor. So, when we traveled to Central America it was oftentimes just two of us—Pam doing the sound and me doing the camera. I would be loading all of my own mags and all that. Sometimes I had a camera assistant, those were luxurious days. But most times I would have to figure out how to portion the stuff I had to carry. So, for instance, if I was going on a military offensive with soldiers, maybe I could get one of them to carry a few rolls of film and another to carry a few more. I’m very jealous of documentary filmmakers today and how much easier it is in the digital world than it was back in the days of film.
Filmmaker: One of your early narrative feature jobs was shooting second unit on Platoon (1986), which, like Da 5 Bloods, is set in Vietnam. What are some of your strongest memories of that job?
Sigel: Oh my god, I have so many memories of Platoon. It was just an amazing experience to see somebody as passionate and involved as Oliver Stone, and to watch Bob Richardson work.
The first feature film that I did was called Latino, shot in Nicaragua and directed by Haskell Wexler, but I think I got hired on Platoon less because of that film and more because of the documentaries that I did. I think both Oliver and Bob were impressed with them as well as my experience shooting in war zones.
Second unit is a very broad label—it can mean a week or two of work, or it can mean a huge contribution to the film, and my experience doing second unit at the beginning of my career was indeed quite varied. For Platoon, I was able to make a big contribution. I remember on my first day I had a situation where I was doing a bunch of lighting, caught myself and realized, “I’m actually lighting it too much. I’m here because of the work I did on my documentaries, not to show off that I can be a great lighting person. I’ve got to stick to my roots.”
Filmmaker: You shot two movies for Netflix that were released this year—Extraction and Da 5 Bloods. It sounds like an exhausting stretch, shooting back-to-back features in India, Thailand and Vietnam, often in rough conditions.
Sigel: I literally finished Extraction one day and started prep on Da Five Bloods the next. It was a very abbreviated prep, much less than I would’ve liked. It was intense, but I loved it. I live to be on set. I love shooting and I love making movies. Yes, you work long hours sometimes, but for me it’s energizing.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about building action scenes. How do you start to create a sequence, since the description in the script might be minimal? For Da 5 Bloods, it might just say, “the helicopter crashes and the soldiers take fire.”
Sigel: Scripts definitely vary greatly in terms of the amount of description for the action. There’s the famous “Atlanta burns” [from Gone With the Wind]. Even in my very first movie Latino, in the script there was a line that said something to the effect of “…and then the Contras raided the village” and that was two weeks of shooting. So, it varies from script to script and then you have the variance in director. Sam Hargrave, who directed Extraction, is somebody who comes out of the stunt world and is very familiar with shooting and choreographing action. With Spike, the story points of the action are critical, but the physical execution of the action is more up for grabs. So, those are two films I shot back-to-back with two very different directors who each have their own very distinct style.
So much action has been shot and so much of it tries for one-upmanship over what was done just before that. It becomes a real challenge to keep it new and fresh and something that an audience hasn’t seen before. I think Sam Hargrave was particularly interested in that. Sam is very good at building in not just the kinetic moments of the action but the quiet moments or lulls in the action. When you think about the reality of a fight scene, people get tired or hurt. He’s a master choreographer and brought a real A-list fight team and stunt team to India, Thailand and Bangladesh where we [filmed Extraction].
But it always has to start from story. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. You really have to think about what story you’re trying to tell with the action because otherwise you’re just throwing it in to theoretically make it more exciting. You want to use action to bring complexity and nuance to a story as opposed to just saying, “They’ve been talking for a while. Let’s have them start hitting each other.”
Filmmaker: Da 5 Bloods plays out in multiple time periods—the contemporary story of the friends returning to Vietnam, then flashbacks to their tour of duty together. You shot the different periods with different tools?
Sigel: In the beginning of Da 5 Bloods when the Bloods arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, they come back to Vietnam to discover a really vibrant, modern, bustling city. For that I used the Alexa LF with Angenieux Optimo Zooms. When they hit the jungle to search for the remains of Boseman…and the gold, I switched to the Alexa Mini with Arri DNA lenses. Then the flashbacks are all shot on 16mm reversal and done in a 4×3 aspect ratio, which is inherent to the 16mm format.
Filmmaker: There are sets of the DNAs that are optimized for the Alexa 65 and the LF, but I haven’t read about a set put together specifically for the Mini.
Sigel: We used the lenses that were optimized for the LF [on our Minis]. The lenses had more of a feeling of the lenses of the 70s and 80s, which at the time if you were Panavision you were shooting Ultra Speeds or the early days of the Primos. If you were shooting Arri, it would be the Zeiss Distagon or the Cooke Speed Panchros—lenses that were not so flat all the way across, but a little funkier toward the edges.
Filmmaker: The DNAs are rehoused vintage optics, but when I look at the Arri Rental site it doesn’t really talk about which glass is in those rehousings. For your set, do you know what the original lenses were, or is each set sort of a mishmash of different glass?
Sigel: I hate to use the word mishmash, but I think to a certain sense it is. It wasn’t like a reimagining of any individual set of lenses, but rather putting together a set of lenses from a variety of different glass. And, to be honest, you can’t always get a straight story about what glass is in what lens. You kind of have to do your tests, look at it and go from there. Because I had so little prep time on Da 5 Bloods, I inherited the set of lenses, which came out of London and were prepped by the camera assistant.
Filmmaker: What 16mm stock did you use for the flashbacks?
Sigel: It’s a 100 ASA stock that I believe is probably quite similar to the Ektachrome that Kodak used to make. I, along with other people, have been on Kodak’s case over the past few years to keep making reversal film, because they discontinued it quite a while ago. It’s just a great tool to have in your toolbox. So, I think all of the clamor has gotten them interested in starting to make some reversal film available again, but it’s such a small market that I had to really push them hard to manufacture the 16 reversal we used on Da 5 Bloods. They were able to produce just enough for us to do those flashbacks, but barely. We barely had any film when we came back.
Filmmaker: Were you able to run multiple cameras for the flashbacks or did you have to be extremely judicious with how you partitioned out the film?
Sigel: The bulk of the 16 was done as single camera. But yeah, we had to be careful about film, which I like, actually. It means you’re a little more careful about what you shoot and how. We couldn’t call Kodak and say, “Hey, send two more rolls.” We made an agreement to buy a certain amount and that’s what they made for us.
Filmmaker: Most of the 16mm scenes are exteriors, but there is a scene inside a crashed helicopter where there’s not much sunlight. How was shooting 100 ASA after years of working with Alexas rated at 800?
Sigel: Shooting slower stocks in situations where you have to light is nothing new. As a matter of fact, it’s more of the history of cinema than the other way around. But, yes, nowadays we’ve become so accustomed to these digital cameras that need virtually no light that you have to kind of dust yourself off and remember your roots. Shooting on reversal also means you don’t have room for error [with your exposure]. So, whereas in the digital world you might even go with natural light and say, “I can always push it a little bit in post,” with reversal you have to be spot on. You have to know where you want your highlights to be, where you want your shadows to be and expose for that.
Filmmaker: Can you push process reversal stock or does it fall apart?
Sigel: You can push it, but in this day and age the more you do that, the more you’re flirting with danger, because the skill levels of the labs are evaporating. Skilled lab technicians are retiring and reversal really needs to be handled very carefully.
Filmmaker: Did you have to bring in a film loader just for the 16mm portion of the shoot?
Sigel: I was very fortunate that the camera crew I was working with was very skilled and had experience in film, but it is a big deal finding crews, especially young crews, that are film knowledgeable. There’s still enough people shooting film that I think we’re okay for now, but it does seem like every day there’s less people who really know how to handle film and do focus for film, because that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Now, everybody pulls focus off monitors with remote focus and the fact of the matter is if you’re shooting film and trying to pull focus off of a video tap, you’re in trouble. If you’re dealing with a focus puller that is not used to pulling off of the barrel and shooting film, you definitely are at a disadvantage.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.