“It Was More Akin to Shooting Dance than Shooting a Live Sporting Event”: DP Zak Mulligan on Hustle
In Hustle, a burned out Philadelphia 76ers scout (Adam Sandler) discovers a raw talent (pro hooper Juancho Hernangómez) in a Spanish pick-up game and attempts to put him on the NBA’s draft radar. It’s got the familiar structural bones of the underdog sports drama—complete with epic training montage—but Hustle is like a perfectly run play. Even if you know what’s coming, you’re defenseless when it’s executed properly.
The plot mechanics may be recognizable, but the approach to shooting the basketball scenes is novel. As Hustle cinematographer Zak Mulligan points out, televised presentations of the sport—and most basketball movies—offer the action from the long-lens perspective of the courtside observer. Inspired by Raging Bull, Mulligan inserts his lens into the fray, using unique camera platforms like the Tero (a small remote control vehicle outfitted with a gimbal) and the “Charlie Bar,” a six-foot piece of speed rail connecting player to camera that allows for perfectly framed, in-focus close-ups as the players dart around the court.
With Hustle now on Netflix, Mulligan spoke to Filmmaker about crafting the movie.
Filmmaker: You shot Hustle in two sections, with a break in between. Was that always the plan?
Mulligan: The plan was always for it to be shot in two sections. We were one of the first productions for Netflix to start up after [the initial COVID shutdowns in 2020]. We shot the first section from October through November of 2020, and the idea was that we would shoot things that were more contained on stage, where we could build sets and try to keep the amount of crew and actors in front of the lens as small as possible. In preproduction, that meant rotating the different departments. A construction crew and the art department would go in separately and work on the stage, then they would all clear out and the grip and electric team would go in and pre-rig some lighting, then they would clear out. Then, on our shooting days, we would keep the staffing as small as possible. We had air recycling through filters and all kinds of precautions taken for COVID.
Then, the plan was to shut down for a little bit, because we had all these scenes with arenas full of people and bigger crowds and lots of extras, and that was something that at the time we just weren’t able to do logistically. So, the idea was to shut down, take a hiatus. Add in prep time, and it was about six or seven months between the two shoots. We came back in August of 2021 to do all of the stuff that required more travel, more extras and all that. We started [our second round of shooting] by going to Spain, then came back to Philly and did a lot more location work this time around. We did a lot more in the arenas where, even though we were shooting plates and duplicating extras [in post], we’d still have several hundred extras all sitting next to each other. It was after the vaccines came, so we were able to do that a little more safely. We were still doing the masking and distancing and all that stuff, but it didn’t feel as dire.
Filmmaker: Your lead actor, Juancho Hernangómez, is an active NBA player. The film is peppered with real players and media members. Was it difficult to work around their schedules?
Mulligan: That’s a question more for production and the AD department, but from my end there were definitely some challenges involved with that. We had a hard out. We had to finish the shoot by a certain time so the players could all go play [their NBA season]. There was only so much that we could do without all the NBA players. I think we did maybe a couple days of work after we lost them, but not a lot. We were shooting between seasons for the most part, so it wasn’t that bad, but, like I said, we had a hard out, which was challenging because we maybe would’ve added a day or two if it was an option but we had to wrap it up and get it done.
Filmmaker: Your main camera was the Sony VENICE?
Mulligan: Yeah, for scene work, we were pretty much always on the Sony VENICE. For basketball work, that’s where we would start expanding the cameras that we’d use, though we were still primarily Sony VENICE and Rialto. I would always try to make the shot work with that camera system, but if the camera needed to move or be placed in a way that needed something different, then we’d use another camera. We used the Red Komodo a lot for the basketball scenes. It had just come out and Red sent me a very early production model. We also had a Freefly Tero, which is a small remote control vehicle [rigged with a MōVI gimbal]. It has a fixed height of about 16 inches—you’d get these really low angle shots at about knee level for an NBA player, which is a fascinating perspective. We would tend to play that with a really wide lens, often a 19mm Leica R, to keep it all very small. That thing could really fly around the action. It could follow people, lead people and zip around the periphery of the gameplay.
One thing we wanted, stylistically, was to shoot the games a bit differently than we’d traditionally seen. Most NBA games are photographed using really long zoom lenses from far back. So, you’re outside of the action, zoomed in. That’s how a lot of other basketball movies have been shot as well. We were looking for something that gave us a more emotionally present feeling. Hustle essentially has two perspectives. We have Adam Sandler as Stanley and his perspective as a scout from outside the court. For Stanley, we had what we called Stanley Vision, which was a really long vintage Cooke Varotal zoom lens with a doubler on it that would give you that perspective that a scout would have. He’s seeing things from the stands, but he’s zooming in and looking at very specific details that a normal spectator wouldn’t see.
Then, we had the on-court perspective of Bo Cruz [Hernangómez] and for that we wanted the lens to be physically close to the action and the players. One rig we built for that was designed by Charlie Marroquin, our key grip, called the Charlie Bar. Essentially, it’s a belt [worn by the actor] attached to a piece of six-foot-long speed rail [with the other end attached to the camera rigged on a Ronin]. There’s a cross bar that two grips would hold. We used the Rialto for that, which is the VENICE with the sensor block taken off the camera and an umbilical that leads to the body itself, which was in a backpack held by one of the grips. Normally, if somebody is running down the court and you want a tight perspective, you’d never be able to hold the framing and keep it in focus. The Charlie Bar allowed the player to be pretty free to move around while keeping relatively the same frame and distance [from camera to subject]. The inspiration for that perspective came from Raging Bull. [Director] Jeremiah Zagar and I looked at a lot of basketball movies but actually found that boxing movies were more interesting to us. I think it’s because most of the time the camera is inside the ring and you’re getting a more intimate examination of the sport. You’re more connected to what’s going on inside the characters in those moments. We really wanted to figure out a way to do that with basketball and that led to a lot of testing, designing and playing around with rigs.
Filmmaker: For the games, would you shoot a series of plays back-to-back that you’d run through regardless of whether one play got busted? Or would you shoot single plays over and over until you get them right?
Mulligan: Both. We had pretty extensive shot lists, and and we had storyboards for some things. We also had video of the choreography as well. Everything was choreographed and it was more akin to shooting dance than a live sporting event. Typically, we’d shoot the basketball over multiple days. The first day we would normally shoot our Stanley Vision portions, which were a little easier to choreograph with the cameras outside the court on longer lenses. Those dailies would be edited overnight and we would review that edit, see how the game was playing and from there we could tell what moments we needed to emphasize more when we got into shooting our on-court perspective. From there, we could break it down into, “Let’s just do this single play or get this single angle.”
Filmmaker: Your main lenses were the Hawk Class-X anamorphics. I haven’t personally watched that many things shot on those lenses, but they have a very distinct vibe with a lot of vintage anamorphic characteristics in terms of the barrel distortion and certain parts of the lenses being a little soft.
Mulligan: To me, they kind of sit between the Hawk V-Lites and the Hawk ’74 lenses in terms of contrast and look. On the wider end, there’s a little less barrel distortion than you might see on the V-Lites or the ’74s. I think they’re a really nice mix of the vintage elements that you want to see, all the funkiness you want out of a vintage anamorphic, while maintaining some of the elements you might want out of a modern lens set. The distortion is very pleasing, it doesn’t go overboard. They’re pretty good size, pretty good close focus—it’s a nice set of lenses. We did do a little bit in the DI where colorist Seth Ricart and I would add little extra layers of distortion leaning into what the lenses were already doing. For example, some of the wider lenses do have that bit of softness on the bottom. Sometimes, I would add that [effect in post] to the bottom of a lens just to push the viewer’s eye up a little bit if we wanted to direct it there. We also used the Leica Leitz Prime lenses in a very specific way. When you see Bo Cruz playing with NBA players, we wanted a lens set that would create a psychological contrast for Bo’s character when he’s overwhelmed or in over his head and nervous. When that happens, there’s this adrenaline-fueled sharpness that comes into play to contrast with the anamorphic lenses, and that came from the Leica Leitz set, at times paired with a skinny shutter.
Filmmaker: I just talked to Larkin Seiple for Everything Everywhere All at Once and he used the Laowa Probe lens for a shot in that film. What shot did you use it for? Was it the training montage drill where Juancho dribbles alongside a rolling tire and has to pass the ball through it?
Mulligan: Yeah, it was the tire shot. That’s a really small, lightweight probe lens that’s very easy to work with. We pulled that thing right through the moving tire.
Filmmaker: Tell me about this 21mm Voigtlander Ultron lens. I had never heard of it before. I looked it up and it’s a still lens that goes for around $800.
Mulligan: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite still lenses. It’s an M-mount lens made for a rangefinder camera. Leica has their own version of the 21mm that’s very similar, but I actually think this Voigtlander is more beautiful. It has a really nice roundness and nice edge fall-off. It’s a lens I’ve had for a long time. It’s also an F1.8, which is nice for a 21mm. The main thing about it is that it’s tiny. It weighs nothing so I could put the M-mount on the Komodo, use that lens and have a tiny little package. We only used it on the Komodo.
Filmmaker: Stephen Andrich, who worked for years for NFL Films, is credited as “basketball camera operator.” What was his role during the game scenes?
Mulligan: He was somebody that [Hustle production company] Happy Madison had worked with before and recommended. His background is working with really long zoom lenses, following a small ball far away flying through the air and moving around in very chaotic, unpredictable ways. It was great to have different operators with different skill sets.
Filmmaker: What was the hardest shot to get basketball-wise?
Mulligan: I don’t know if I can think of one off the top of my head. Is there a certain shot that you had in mind?
Filmmaker: Well, you never know what seemingly simple thing is going to end up causing problems, but one shot that comes to mine for me is one that I think was done on the Tero. It starts with one of Bo’s teammates throwing a bounce pass that goes directly over the camera as it tracks backward. The camera looks like it almost goes in between Bo’s legs as it continues to pull back into a wide shot. Then Bo hits a three-pointer from the top of the key with a hand in his face. That shot has a lot of moving parts: the pass has to be right, the camera has to navigate around Bo’s legs, then he’s got to hit the shot.
Mulligan: For that, you’d have to talk to our second unit director of photography Tim Sessler. He did that one. He was the one that brought the Tero to set and let us have fun playing with it. I’m sure that shot took him more than a couple tries. We would shoot each game for two or three days, then we would usually have second unit go in after, clean up the game and focus on specialty shots or some inserts.
Filmmaker: You have about a dozen indoor and outdoor basketball courts to deal with in the movie. Tell me about lighting the outdoor court in Spain where Sandler’s scout first sees Bo Cruz play during a night pick-up game.
Mulligan: For the Spain game, we scouted that location and loved the way there were all these sodium vapor globes everywhere. The concept I had was to contrast that sodium vapor warmth with a mercury vapor cyan look. So, you’ve got this really beautiful blue/green on the court, then the deep background is all these really warm washes. On either side of the court we had a couple units on dimmers behind the hoops and those were made to look like practicals. Depending on which way we were looking, I could just dim one side up and the other side down and keep the ratios pretty good with a little more backlight in there. Gaffer Bill Almeida also had some lifts with maxis far away washing buildings as needed to control contrast.
Filmmaker: Was there an interior court that was particularly challenging or interesting?
Mulligan: The interior we used in Spain, for the local team in Majorca, had a bunch of pressbox offices across the top of the arena in one row. So, up there I was able to put some 18K HMIs to create a nice hard push. On the opposite side there were all these porthole windows and we actually went up on the roof and covered those to block out the sun. That scene was short enough that we were able to keep it all looking in one direction.
For the game at the combine, I was essentially using all available light. I would sometimes have a unit on the floor to create an edge or to fill in, but for the most part we were just turning on or off different sections of the overhead lights. The main section of lights above the court, then each audience area on either side of the court, had their own bank of units. So, if I was looking one direction I would try to turn off the bank of units [overtop of the stands] in that direction to create a sense of depth and so that we were a little more glowy on the court.
Filmmaker: You mentioned the mercury vapor look for that outdoor court in Spain. You also have a beautifully done night driving scene in Philly with Juancho and Sandler that’s lit by that same cyan light. Those streetlights flare the lens and dynamically interact with the actors in a way that you couldn’t get on stage with LED panels.
Mulligan: I’ve used LED panels on stage and you’re right, there’s just something you lose. When I do live driving I always like to use a tow rig so that the camera is low. The cameras usually aren’t operated, they’re just rigged to the vehicle. Then we spend a lot of time scouting our driving grids, making sure that the lighting is consistent and there’s not any bright or dark pockets and the color of the world makes sense. My approach to that scene was to basically let the outside world be available light and curate the best stretches of street I could find. Using the Sony VENICE with its low light capability, I could shoot those scenes at a 1600 or a 2000 ISO and bring in my own light to augment the subjects inside the vehicle. Key grip Charlie Marroquin and gaffer Bill Almeida are fantastic. They built a speed rail and suction cup rig on top of the vehicles to hold Astera tubes. Bill would program light chases to help augment the available street light.
Filmmaker: Was it hard to find a stretch of road with that many mercury vapor streetlights still in service?
Mulligan: It was hard to find, and it’s sad. Sometimes we’d scout a stretch of road and it’d have these beautiful sodium lights, then all of a sudden the road turned into a completely different color LED unit. Obviously that makes a lot of sense for power usage for the city, but it’s unfortunate that there’s no thought given to color matching them and making them at least look similar. So, there were stretches of road that we’d just have to not use. We’d have to say, “Okay, we’ll shoot up to here, then we’ll stop because the color changes and it looks terrible.”
Filmmaker: You do have a shot during the training montage with Bo when he’s running up Manayunk Wall in Philly where we see those mixed sources. It’s a wide, high-angle shot and one block of lights is neutral LEDs and then the next block is warm sodium vapor. But I guess you had to have that hill regardless of the streetlights.
Mulligan: Yeah, we had to have that hill. That’s an interesting shot. That was another one we used a high ISO for. I had a Canon 50-1000mm zoom with a doubler on and we were perhaps half a mile away up on this bridge that aligned with that street. We were able to get these really amazing shots. With the doubler on that lens it’s like a T16. So, it was super slow and at those light levels, which was essentially available light, we had to shoot at 6400 or 8000 ISO. It’s pretty amazing to be able to even do that and have it turn out well.
Filmmaker: During the combine game there’s a shot on the free throw blocks where Juancho is in tight close-up in the foreground and Anthony Edwards, who plays his on-court nemesis, is in a looser close-up in the background. It’s a unique perspective for a two shot. Is that a split diopter?
Mulligan: Yeah, that’s a “double diopter.” We had put on a diopter for that shot—I use diopters pretty often—and we had Juancho in focus but we couldn’t get them both in focus. Our first assistant cameraperson, Troy Dobbertin, came up with the idea of putting a split diopter on top of the other diopter. It gave us this really interesting effect. It’s a really cool shot.
Filmmaker: Let’s finish up with the final scene of the movie, which takes place at a Sixers game. Was that shot at an actual game where you were able to steal some shots?
Mulligan: It’s a mix. The stuff with Adam was staged during a non-game day where production owned the entire Wells Fargo Center and VFX [filled out the stands to supplement the extras we had]. Then we did some live stuff during an actual NBA game. For the live footage where Juancho was actually playing in the game, we went in with a very small, stripped-down camera team and were able to shoot him in slow motion.
Filmmaker: So, that slow motion shot of Juancho driving baseline and dunking during the credits was from a real game and he just happened to throw one down right in front of your camera?
Mulligan: Yeah. We had two cameras, one under each hoop. We used the Red Raptor for that. We wanted to shoot some pretty extreme slow motion, but we weren’t allowed to have the staffing that we would need for a Phantom camera because we would’ve needed a couple techs on either side of the court and a little more equipment. It just would’ve been a few people too many. The Raptor had just come out and it does a pretty high frame rate at a pretty high resolution.
Filmmaker: Was it hard to have enough light during an actual NBA game to shoot at frame rates that high?
Mulligan: There were a few issues. One was the light level itself. Another problem was that when you get into shooting those high frame rates, you can have different phases of light flicker, which is exactly what we had. It came down to extensive testing. We looked at the latest version of DaVinci Resolve and it has really good de-flicker settings. So, you can actually process the footage to remove the flicker. There are moments where, if you really look hard, you might be able to see a little bit here and there, but it removed almost all of the major issues. We were also using LiveGrain, which is fantastic. It’s the most realistic film look outside of shooting on film that I’ve seen. What that affords us is the ability to more heavily denoise, then either sharpen or unsharpen footage because when the LiveGrain is added on top, that grain really cleans up anything that you would do denoise-wise. That really helped us push that footage a little further than we might have been able to otherwise.