Burnett Guffey: Photographing “Birdman of Alcatraz”

Cinematographer Burnett Guffey, ASC, is a strong advocate of “Keep the lighting simple.” His techniques are most effectively displayed in his photography of “Birdman of Alcatraz”

Cinematographer Burnett Guffey, ASC, is a strong advocate of “Keep the lighting simple.” His techniques are most effectively displayed in his photography of Birdman of Alcatraz

by Herb A. Lightman

Almost three-fourths of Birdman of Alcatraz was enacted within the confines of a single set barely 6 by 9 feet in size. Needless to say, this posed something of a photographic challenge for the man who directed the photography of the picture— Burnett Guffey, ASC. Not only was the basic area of the set unusually small, but it was crowded with such props as bird cages of numerous shapes and sizes and hundreds of birds, both caged and free. The initial problems, of course, were how to light such a set to attain the pictorial mood the story required, and how to shoot action within it in the variety of camera angles good cinematic continuity demands.

The Birdman of Alcatraz, as many readers will remember, is convict Robert Stroud who has earned world renown for his studies of birds, conducted entirely within his prison cell. Stroud reportedly earned his initial penitentiary stripes for gunning down a man in Juneau, Alaska, years ago for mistreating his girl friend. To date, he has spent 51 years of his life in solitary confinement. During the course of his incarceration he developed an uncommon interest in birds. During the transition from killer to scholar, he has become perhaps the world’s foremost scientific authority on birds and their diseases. Not infrequently the Birdman became involved in prison strife that resulted in extending the term of his sentence and ultimately made him a lifer. It is all this which is dramatically portrayed in this gripping United Artists’ production filmed in black-and-white.

On the sound stages of Columbia Studio in Hollywood a series of prison sets were erected, authentic down to the last detail. “No concessions were made for the camera or the lighting requirements,” says cinematographer Guffey. “The tiny cell set was constructed according to dimensions of the original. In most shots, three of the walls were visible, leaving but one wall ‘wild’ for removal to accommodate the camera or placement of lights.”

“Since many of the shots here were low angles,” Guffey continued, “the ceiling piece had to remain in place most of the time, further complicating our lighting problems. The desired illumination for this set was finally achieved by concealing Juniors, Baby Juniors, and tiny spotlights behind props, etc.”

Guffey also achieved a measure of effective camera movement for many of the shots on this set with the camera dolly-mounted and the scope of the camera movement held within strict limits.

Even the multitude of birds used on this set presented problems in the photography—particularly in the sequence where the Birdman, in a drunken rage of frustration, turns hundreds of the birds loose in his cell. It was necessary first to entirely surround the set, including the top, with a wire mesh enclosure to keep the birds confined.

Important to the picture are a number of screen-filling closeups of various birds. Very often such photography — too often considered secondary in importance —is turned over to a second-unit or insert camera crew. But in this case, all such shots were photographed by Guffey and his crew. These closeups required extreme patience to achieve as well as genuine technical know-how.

“Using four-and six-inch lenses on the camera,” said Guffey, “our chief problem was obtaining sufficient depth-of-field to keep the birds in focus as they moved about within the limited camera range. We managed it rather easily, however, by using Eastman Double-X film and increasing the set lighting level to 600 foot-candles, which enabled us to shoot at f/11.”

Because Director John Frankenheimer favors split-focus compositions, Guffey usually worked at a stop of f/5.6 within the body of the action, often using an 18mm wide-angle lens to gain greater depth and coverage within the small set. A zoom lens was frequently used with great effectiveness in making the bird shots, and in one instance achieved a screen-filling closeup of a tiny canary egg.

Moving to other and larger sets provided the camera crew with much needed respite from the restrictions the tiny Birdman’s cell imposed upon them. In sharp contrast was the huge prison mess hall set, which offered much greater photographic scope. The very walls of this set were erected flush against the sound stage walls and for one dramatic scene provided a stark background for the murder of a guard. Here, strong crosslights, as coming from the windows, pointed up the realism of the scene.

But it was in the prison riot scene that Guffey found opportunity to create a vivid pictorial representation of the hell that ensues when crazed prisoners revolt and take over a cell block. For this, Guffey employed harsh, low-key lighting and had the camera mounted on a Chapman boom. The camera was moved subjectively into the vortex of the riot and followed the key action as it erupted in different parts of the double-tiered cell block. Strong crosslighting was employed to accentuate explosions of tear gas bombs. For contrast, the camera was moved in to capture tight closeups of frenzied faces of prisoners as they reacted to the riot.

Closely tied with this action was that of U.S. Marines landing on “the rock” and taking up positions outside the prison walls. Key scenes for this sequence were shot—not at the actual prison site — but in rocky Bronson Canyon in the hills back of Hollywood, locale of countless movie exteriors.

A dramatic scene in which Stroud appears at a shattered window talking to prison officials below was shot on what was probably the simplest and least-costly set built for the entire picture. This consisted of a window section mounted on a high parallel in the canyon locale. The camera was mounted on the parallel to shoot past convict Stroud and include the prison officials on the ground in the distance—some forty feet below.

To shoot a sequence of scenes filmed on location in San Francisco Bay, which depicted the transfer of the Birdman from Alcatraz, Guffey employed the popular new Sun Gun Professional photo lamps, described in the May issue of American Cinematographer.

No Glamour Problems

In photographing “Birdman of Alcatraz” Guffey, who won an Academy Award in 1953 for black-and-white photography of From Here To Eternity, never was concerned with the usual problems of photographically glamorizing the women in the cast; there were but two, both middle-aged. In this aspect of the production, Guffey’s problem was to effectively enhance pictorially the aging of star Burt Lancaster, who plays the Bird-man, as he progresses from 20 years of age to more than 70 during the course of the story. Working closely with the make-up artist, Guffey pointed up the characterization with illumination that ranged from soft, flat lighting for the Birdman in his early twenties to sharp, contrasty lighting of the man in his seventies.

When asked about his concepts of effective set lighting, Guffey said: “I believe in keeping it simple. I have learned over a period of time and from some highly skilled cinematographers that the most striking results are attained by using as few lighting units as possible. I am not a strict advocate of source lighting. Very often when our problem is to glamorize a woman player, particularly if she is the star of the picture, it is necessary to place the lighting units where they will make her look her best—even though the established source light may be from another direction. But in general, I always aim to keep it simple.”

SOURCE: American Cinematographer, June 1962


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