Interview: Director of Photography Steven Lindsay on Bonecrusher
Steven Lindsay has been working in the entertainment industry for more than 34 years now. During that time, he has served as director of photography (DP) on a huge number of projects, including the Food Network program, You Gotta Eat Here!, which has received multiple Canadian Screen Awards (Best Lifestyle or Talk Program or Series, 2014 and 2017).
In recent years, Lindsay has brought his talents to the world of narrative filmmaking, with the award-winning results just adding to his fine body of work.
We recently got to interview Lindsay about his work on an award-winning short film shot back in 2020: Bonecrusher.
Even the title on its own is captivating, but the film itself and the historic boxer it's based around are even more so.
Bonecrusher earned the award for Best Narrative Short Film at the Kansas City Film Festival, and Lindsay took home the Best Cinematography award at the Hamilton Film Festival for his work on the short.
At the center of Bonecrusher is boxer Sam Langford, a favorite of the film's director, Jim Morrison.
Set in the early 1920s, Bonecrusher tells the almost mythical story of Langford's fight against Jim "The Fireman" Flynn, who was far outside of Langford's weight class.
The individual elements of the short, from the period setting to the disparity between the fighters to the fight itself, all gave Lindsay some fantastic opportunities to craft some stunning visuals, and that's precisely what he was able to accomplish.
Bonecrusher is a beautiful short, and our conversation with Lindsay gave us the chance to ask some in-depth questions about the color, camera movement, and lensing of the film, as well as the crew's shared excitement about Langford and this match in particular.
So you worked as DP on the short film Bonecrusher. When exactly were you contacted to work on the film? Were you enthusiastic about the concept?
Lindsay: In January 2014, my good friend, director Jim Morrison, shared an early draft of the script for Bonecrusher with me. I was immediately enthusiastic about the concept. It was my first introduction to Sam Langford, and I was intrigued right away. Over the following years, we would discuss the style and design of the film. In 2019, Jim was awarded some funds from the Directors Guild of Canada, which gave him the opportunity to make the film.
Production started in March of 2020. The story of Sam Langford has been a passion of Jim’s since childhood. Jim grew up in Nova Scotia, not far from where Sam grew up. He has spent many years doing research and interviews to understand the world that Sam came from. There was a lot riding on this project for Jim. The short film is a calling card for a feature film about Sam. It had to be a standout piece.
I was thrilled and honored when Jim asked me to take on the key role of director of photography to help tell this story that means so much to him. Sam’s life is so epic: the fight records are geographically scattered, but with 600 bouts on three continents and a dozen countries in the early 1900s, there’s a huge landscape to choose from over the course of his career.
This short film depicts a night in the life of Sam, during a 1923 bout against Jim “The Fireman” Flynn. We learn that, until now, Sam has never won a championship. We also learn that Sam has secretly been dealing with failing eyesight.
A brief synopsis of Sam: he was born in Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia in 1883. His mother died when he was 12 years of age, and a physically abusive father drove him to leave home. He set out for Boston, Massachusetts, finding work at brick and lumberyards along the way. In Boston, he found a job in a boxing gym in the Lenox Athletic Club. By 1901, at the age of 15, Sam won the amateur featherweight championship of Boston. The following year, he made his professional debut. Sam went on to become one of the greatest boxers of all time.
Have you worked on period films before? Did the time period of this film influence your creative decisions in any way?
Lindsay: This was my first opportunity to shoot a period piece. The period and location definitely influenced my creative decisions. When creating a style for Bonecrusher, Jim and I looked at several visual references, ranging from boxing and fight movies to photographs of Sam and boxing matches from his era.
We found film footage of one of Sam’s fights. It was fascinating to watch Sam’s swagger and incredible power. We studied images of 1920s Mexico and bullfighting arenas, as the story takes place in a bullfighting arena in 1923 Juarez, Mexico. The films and photographs were not used as literal interpretations, but as inspiration to help us realize the world of our short film.
Had you worked with Morrison prior to this project?
Lindsay: Over the past ten years, Jim and I have worked together on many projects. During this time, we have developed a shorthand. We share a similar taste and manner in the way a story is designed and executed. It’s a wonderfully collaborative and creative relationship.
Jim is an award-winning director. He's also an accomplished photographer and DP. When we discuss the design of a project, Jim’s thoughts are not only expressed in story structure, they are also expressed in focal lengths and camera movement. We end up with this fabulous intertwining of directing and cinematography.
Can you speak just a little bit about your lensing choices for this film?
Lindsay: We shot this film with three RED Weapon Monstro VV 8K camera packages. My lenses of choice were the Cooke TLS Speed Panchro lenses.
These are vintage lenses that have been rehoused by TLS. Originally these lenses were popular between the 1930s and 1950s. They have a unique bokeh and a slightly warm tone. No other lens looks like the Cooke Speed Panchros. They were the perfect fit for the look of Bonecrusher. In addition to the two Cooke TLS Speed Panchro lens kits, we had an Angenieux Optimo 45-120mm zoom.
We shot Bonecrusher in two days over a weekend. All the fight scenes were shot on Saturday, and the remainder of the film on Sunday. In order to get the most out of our time in the ring and get the most out of our setups, all three cameras were in play at the same time, each one shooting a unique angle. We were even cross-shooting when we could.
Jim and I had been working towards this multi-camera idea. We drew up the camera positions scene by scene in the days prior to the shoot. I had designed the lighting to accommodate the idea of being able to shoot in any direction. There were very few lighting adjustments during the fight scenes.
We had one handheld camera in the ring with the actors and a second handheld camera outside the ropes at the edge of the ring. The third camera was on sticks outside the ring. Both handheld cameras used the Cooke lenses, and the third camera had the 45-120mm zoom. We mostly rotated through the 32mm, 50mm, and 75mm primes on the handheld cameras.
In the opening scene, we see Sam and Fireman Flynn together in the ring. We wanted to emphasize the fact that Flynn was much taller than Sam. To achieve this, we lined up Flynn’s shots from the floor outside the ring. This had us looking way up at Flynn which made him look like he was towering over Sam. The idea was not to diminish Sam’s strength or courage but to show Sam’s toughness and his confidence to take on fighters outside of his weight class.
We chose to shoot Sam’s angle low as well to give him that power. For Sam’s shots, the camera was in the ring, at about waist height. As the fight progresses and Sam begins to dominate Flynn, the camera takes a higher position for Flynn’s shots. This reduces his towering presence. As he gets knocked down by Sam, we reposition the camera to the floor outside the ring for Sam’s shots. This increases Sam’s height and power. These are subtle differences, but they add to the emotion of the moment in a not-so-subtle way.
Did you have a color palette in mind when shooting, or do you typically leave that to a colorist? Is there a discussion early on about color?
Lindsay: We had determined a palette before we shot. The palette was considered for our set and wardrobe as well. For the most part, we wanted to stay with warm browns, greens, and yellow/orange. We knew that in the color grade, we wanted the colors to be somewhat muted, desaturated.
Early in the design of the film, Jim and I discussed creating a look that would emulate the feeling of Sam’s dimming vision. We wanted to make use of shadow and have the light quickly fall off. In the scene in Sam’s dressing room, for example, Sam is sitting in the shadows. There is a light close by, but he is sitting just outside of it.
During the fight scenes, the light drops off at the ropes, as if Sam’s vision has dropped off. Heavy backlights and moderate atmosphere give a shrouded view of the crowd. There is only the feel of a crowd watching the fight. The audience does not know about Sam’s failing vision until it is revealed at the end of the film. These lighting designs are subtle hints of what is to come.
Is there a specific scene in 'Bonecrusher' that you feel perfectly captures the tone of the entire short?
Lindsay: One of my favorite scenes is the opening scene, showing the pre-fight banter. It’s a tense moment. Sam is calm and cool, though. His confidence is larger than Flynn's. To me that’s Sam.
I also like the scene when the doctor meets Sam in the dressing room for the first time. The exchange between the characters is wonderful.
Have you enjoyed the positive reception to the release of 'Bonecrusher'?
Lindsay: The positive reception the film has been getting has been wonderful for everyone involved. We had such a great crew. Everyone was so generous with their time and creativity. They brought a positive spirit to the project.
I recently had the opportunity to screen Bonecrusher in a theater with an audience at the 16th Annual Hamilton Short Film Festival. It was a fantastic experience to hear the reaction of the crowd.
I'd like to end with one of Jim’s quotes about making the film; “From a producing standpoint, this film punches way outside its weight division, just like Sam did.”
A seasoned entertainment industry professional, Addison Prentice brings over two decades of diverse experience to Hollywood Dynamics.
Prentice has spent over six years as a creative professional in Los Angeles, including as a professional content writer for Meta. His deep understanding of the entertainment industry's intricacies makes him a reliable source for insights and trends.