WWI: The Cinematography of ‘Straight Outta Compton’

Straight Outta Compton is a fresh, vivacious insight into the rap sensation NWA. The winding narrative and immersion into different thought camps of the time is accompanied by some gripping, disciplined, precise and intense from beginning to end. To match the style of music the framing and lighting varies from fresh and authentic to dull and realistic as we are drawn out and pulled in by the narrative and the visual dialogue on a regular basis. The confident direction Gray is only made better by DP Libatique whose usually reserved yet appropriate visual style seen in Iron Man and Black Swan flowers into a more bombastic and intensely gritty as it seeks to draw viewers into the black community perspective in this era in America. Despite not breaking much new ground this striking performance as cinematographer is well earned as his collaborative approach with the scriptwriters and cast show their colours in their synthesis alongside one another.

Libatique opted to shoot Straight Outta Compton on RED DRAGON, using re-housed vintage Kowa 4.5K anamorphic lenses  while occasionally swapping with spherical Zeiss Super Speeds to compensate for close-focus issues inside the recording-studio scenes. The rest of the film was shot in 6K with a spherical capture and full aperture of the dragon mask. The top and bottom were cropped for a 240 delivery with a low-red-code delivery. The film was also shot with 2x KOWA anamorphic lenses to dirty up the image and make it feel more real. This lens is also perfect for flares and as a transition technique. The rest was shot with Zeiss Superspeed 213 for the perfect flare. a lot of handheld camerawork was done using the matt-box and rails to give it the raw, organic look by keeping it off axis and so that you can feel every step. Ths especially effective during the intense police arrest scene in which the actions of the group become a point of contention with the manager. The cinosail used indoors for a similar effect for added durability.

For more dynamic height changes the Easy rig with a COWA grip to support this approach was a perfect addition. When the scene shifted to a more diverse outdoor environment during the day an inverse handle-grip operating was mimicked to achieve the lower angles. Moving up the food chain in terms of camera movement we see the use of a lot of gimble work with a Steady-cam combo as a preference for shooting faces. It is a better tool to get closer to people.

During one of the pursuit scenes Libatique uses an alternative to the steadicam and keygrip to follow the talent. Then the camera is exchanged onto the roof as he climbs up onto another operator which is a clever use of the MoVI. This shot is dynamic and does not break from the action. The same camera is used in a group shot alongside a speedrow with a clamp on it as the camera pushes in. Then the two camera operators push up over the car for a crowd shot in the field of a technocrane until a third operator detaches it and then turns into a steadicam shot. Libatique highlights this scene as being core to the group’s progression and adds anticipation through the innovative nature of the shot. The priority in this scene was to adapt to the actor’s movement and not the other way around. The MoVI allowed them to move around easily and over objects that would otherwise be impossible to go over.

Once inside the gig the camera shot changes to using a sectional CAD gib with a MoVI  swinging into the scene in a sweeping smooth motion. Then the camera transitions back into a steadicam wrap-around shot so as to move amongst the crowd so as to sync with the feel of each part of the room as it moves from the passive to the subjective.  This cinematic approach to filmmaking in which two camera shots are melded into one is innovative and reflects Libatique’s approach to underlining a change in mood and tone throughout a sequence. The mix of handheld, easyrig, steadicam and more is fresh and exciting alongside the comprehensive use of gimble work.

One of my favourite sequences was the pool party sequence. A technocrane type rig telescopes out with a Leonard Chapman Hydroscope. The purpose of this was to create an extensive long shot to swoop under water. The reveal moves from underwater to reveal the scene so that it moves from the unknown to the unexpected graphically and with an intelligent composition of elements. The shot comes out of the water and telescopes up over the pool and into the entrance of the modern mansion.

Then during one of their later shows NWA are filmed at a concert using a Spidercam. This replaces a drone because it is a lot more repeatable and a lot safer when getting so close to so many people. This is on a cable cam which goes in one straight line. This is supported by four 100m towers which is in and of itself a feat of movie making engineering. The cables holding the camera mean that the camera can be at any place within a volume throughout giving Libatique the necessary flexibility to judge the vibe and work from there.  This is done on a computer alongside the ever helpful pre-vis. This is held by the circular Lieberhead. This is a classic and reliable combo, especially for commercials. Therefore it is perfect to give the economic concise burst of energy to each aerial shot. The camera swoops in quickly, around the talent on stage as he puts up the bird and then moves around his head returning back to the opposite side and then moves further back to a wide shot. They used a three-quarter profile in the brief pauses to create contrast and depth. To achieve this exact shot the team was able to assign plates to each stage as directed by Libatique so that it was easier to hit the fast, remote-head operated camera moves. The lighting in this shot is perfect with a strong red back light and appropriately diffused spotlight from 10 degrees above.

Libatique recognises that shooting anamorphic period is all about pulling back from that digital edge. The beginning of these characters stories needed to remain as gritty as possible and this was achieved using smoke and existing LED streetlights at night back to their original state. The combination of the smoke, a dirty colour palette and the anamorphic lenses introduces the first third of the story. They used snapshots of the group NWA from people at the time who had a camera because they were completely naturalistic. They put you right in the recording studio or at the venue or in the streets. He used a keylight under the caps of the actors to undercut the reality of the time and place and minimised this approach when he could to see the imperfections fully.

To achieve the extended shot in which Eazy-E grabs his gun and opens two separate doors and then rallies the rest of the group the MoVI was handed off between a hudson and dolly grip with total commitment. The tight corners and low space with 25 extras and sensitive lighting meant that the planning stage of this particular shot was essential and resulted in the magic appearing on screen. Libatique views the RED Dragon to be a good fit for the show. When the RED Dragon is stripped down, it’s as big as a Hasseblad, and can be customised exactly as needed. The crew came up with a way to couple cables together so that there was a single umbilical cord with full remote focus called the ‘Mini Me’. For example, during a night exterior night party scene on Crenshaw Boulevard, Libatique was stuffed into the back of a low-rider and was able to pan freely around with what was, basically, a box and a Kowa anamorphic lens.

A lot of handheld camera was used on stage to keep the feel naturalistic. They replicated the lighting from images of the period which had to be cheated on using LEDs rather than period-correct elements. They needed red and blue in the film and the ability to switch to other colours to maintain the palette. The performance aspect of the film obviously was crucial. To achieve this they used RGB Solaris Flares instead of the period-correct Dataflash so that the LED’s wouldn’t split the shutter on a digital camera. When the police rush the stage they were fortunate enough to have existing fluorescents behind the stage that allowed the light to fall in a more dramatic way. The lighting was used to distinguish from one venue to the next very cleverly and was clearly prioritised by Libatique.

This essay has covered Sodium and Mercury vapour, easy and steadicam, MoVI, hydroscope and spidercam to get a feel for the type of camerawork used by Libatique in achieving such a new and exciting look. This film almost unwittingly describes new camera and lighting approaches to the cinematographic field by mastering the hand-off into two shots as well as operating lighting in a practical and resourceful manner. Moreover the authenticity of this photography in the time period in which it is set is balanced alongside practicalities thoughtfully and intelligently by Libatique and his crew. One can really see how passionate this project was and how the music spoke to his visual and technical approach and helped to show the NWA as they truly were and where they truly came from.

WRITING WITH IMAGES: THE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF ‘STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON’

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