By Darek Kuźma
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s ambitious take on the unbelievable-yet-true story about the father of two of the most accomplished athletes in the history of sport was a welcome challenge for veteran cinematographer Robert Elswit ASC.
Even if you are not interested in tennis, or sport in general, the chances are you have heard about Venus and Serena Williams, the African-American sisters who rose from poverty to become record-breaking winners and role models. Needless to say, a project about their rise to professional stardom would be a sure-fire hit, yet although they play a prominent role in King Richard, the Warner Bros. film is more about their larger-then-life father, Richard, and his arduous journey to make them champions without them losing their identities.
We meet Richard, played by Will Smith, when he is actively fulfilling a plan he wrote even before Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) were born, working his butt off, alongside his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), to support the dream of giving the girls (and their three half-sisters) the life they deserve. He is a man whose relentless drive to push his daughters over their limit is equalled only by his urge to protect them from social unfairness and drug-fuelled celebrity abuse the tennis world offers to eager teenagers. The film is a serious contender during the 2022 awards season, and Smith has already picked-up the accolade for best actor in a motion picture/drama at the Golden Globes.
Part biopic, part sports movie, part family drama, King Richard was a project with a number of possible pitfalls. Elswit met Green at the Sundance Institute Lab where he developed his Sundance Jury Award-winning feature debut Monsters And Men (2018, DP Patrick Scola) and says he could not have imagined a better creative partner to make the Williams’ film.
“We wanted to be honest and real… and to focus on our characters”
“Rei’s stuff was above everyone else’s back at the Lab, and this project about Richard Williams looked interesting,” recounts Elswit. “Richard recognised that playing tennis competitively made young girls into automatons, and destroyed their childhoods. His ethos was about hard work, delayed gratification, believing in yourself and your dreams – and having fun.”
Alas, the project was challenging from the very beginning. With eight-week prep cut almost by half in early 2020 due to a change in Smith’s schedule, Elswit and Green had to improvise more than they had anticipated.
“This wasn’t a film where you’d have Will play his part off-camera to the script supervisor, he had to be there to interact with the other performers. Often the staging was about finding the simplest way of how to have seven or eight people in a room without endless pieces of coverage,” says the DP. “Which was difficult, plus California law is strict on how much time you can spend on-set with kids under age of 16.”
As there was no 4K mandate from the studio, Elswit chose to shoot with ARRI Alexas – an Alexa XT Plus as A-camera and an Alexa Mini as B-camera/Steadicam – equipped with Panavision spherical lenses.
“It was a set-up that provided the necessary elasticity to the shoot. We had Panavision PVintage Super Speeds, from 14mm to 100mm, but ended-up duplicating a few focal lengths using zooms a few times when we needed the same focal lengths on both A and B-cameras,” explains the DP.
The zooms were Panavision Primo 4:1 (17.5 to 75mm) and 11:1 (24 to 275mm). The camera crew also had a small lightweight 27 to 68mm zoom for some Steadicam and rare handheld shots.
Principal photography started in February 2020 with the idea of shooting as much as possible at real locations in Los Angeles County, including Compton where the Williams family lived until the early 1990s, and even scenes based in Florida.
“We visited their actual house, which was basically three boxes connected by a small kitchen, with almost no windows,” says Elswit. “Our production designer insisted on using a building with at least some architectural design, so we shot a mile further-on in a clearly middle-class house to make it interesting visually. The house’s exterior was shot on yet another street that was less nice and manicured.”
The idea was to show that Compton was a crime-ridden neighbourhood without overtly dealing with its troubled past. “In real life, there was a crack house across the street, but our film is like a memory of how Venus and Serena came to be who they are. We didn’t need or want to be graphic, and we knew the audience would fill in the rest.”
The same thing applied to colour palette. “The whites, reds and blues of 1990s tennis clothes and neutral colours of the Williams’ house contrasted with saturated greens of Florida. This doesn’t need explaining. You watch it and you get it.”
King Richard was shot in ARRIRAW in Open Gate mode on the 4:3 sensor, and composed for spherical 2.39:1 aspect ratio.
“I didn’t want the film to look overly stylised, but did want to keep away from any sort of clinical digital quality” Elswit says. “I tend not to use filters, but employed some here to reduce the highlights from very bright backgrounds and sort of blur them. So we had neutral density (ND) filters for exposure control and Schneider Black Softs for slight diffusion.”
Elswit had an eclectic lighting package, but relied heavily on LEDs. “Because we wanted to be as real and honest as possible to the emotions our characters feel in different surroundings, LEDs were the way to go,” he says.
Daylight interior/exterior sources included: Alpha 18Ks, ARRI s-360s, K5600 Jokers and miscellaneous Lightgear LED panels and softboxes. Night lighting was based on Condors with assemblages of 6K softboxes with half-blue/lightgrid GelFab diffusion, T-12s, 5K Pars, ARRI s-360s and s-60’s, 1200W VNSP Parcans, LightGear 4×8 and 2×8 LED softboxes, and lots of LiteGear, LitePanels and Litestix.
All of a sudden, after two weeks, in March 2020, the pandemic began and every film production came to a halt.
“We were shutdown for seven months, which was difficult for the project but allowed Rei and me to actually plan comprehensively the rest of the movie, while the actors stayed in touch and became close,” recalls Elswit.
Unfortunately, once they restarted in October 2020, the cast and crew were not allowed to go back to the house in which they shot the interior scenes, so these had to build on-stage. Again, not an easy decision, but one that provided Elswit with more control.
The staging of tennis practices and games were crucial to King Richard’s visual identity, but Elswit and Green wanted to try a different approach.
“We looked at every single modern tennis film, such as Wimbledon (2004, dir. Richard Loncraine, DP Darius Khondji AFC ASC), Battle Of The Sexes (2017, dirs. Valerie Faris/Jonathan Dayton, DP Linus Sandgren FSF ASC) and Borg vs McEnroe (2017, dir. Janus Metz Pedersen, DP Niels Thatsum), but didn’t want to walk up with Steadicam to a player when she’s about to serve,” reminisces Elswit. “We wanted to be honest and real, use long and wide lenses, stay behind the baseline, be where you could really be with a camera. We wanted to focus on our characters.”
The idea would not be particularly revolutionary if it was not for one aspect that made it resonate unlike any tennis film before.
“We found 16mm documentary footage shot during many editions of the French Open<’ says Elswit. “They had cameras on each player without ever indicating what happened on the other side. You weren’t following a match per se, you didn’t know the score, but you could understand where the player was emotionally. You would see the intensity and focus and other exciting stuff you don’t see when you watch a match on TV.”
This in turn chimed with Green’s dislike for on-screen tennis commentators telling the audience what was happening on the court.
“It’s all in their faces and body language,” says Elswit. “When Venus plays her first pro tournament, first against Shaun Stafford and then Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, we needed an actor, not a tennis player. Saniyya had never played tennis before this project, didn’t have to, her job was to look believable. There are digital balls, a digital audience, face replacements on photo-doubles of her opponents, but what happens on Saniyya’s face is real. This is Venus playing.”
“This was the closest I have felt to being in a movie family”
The project’s troubled shooting period made Elswit work hard during the DI. “I was shooting another film in Rome and was going to a nearby digital suite for a couple of hours each night, doing virtual sessions with Stefan Sonnefeld at Company 3 in LA. I basically had to fix all the things I screwed-up. I made the opening much more colourful and shaped the lighting in many places. But the most work I had to do was with interior costumes – I had to push down all the white T-shirts and things like Richard’s red shorts, because we would have otherwise ended up with his clothing being the brightest thing in scenes which would have destroyed the emotional quality.”
“The things I screwed-up with staging and lighting, they’ll all be in my diary one day, but that was nature of the movie – it was never going to be perfect. And I have to say it ended-up being much more than the sum of its parts, because of Rei and who he cast. I guess this was the closest I have felt to being in a movie family. After we wrapped, there were lot of handkerchiefs and Kleenexes. We knew it was special.”
It’s a very fitting end to the story about a film that uses a very special family to celebrate family values and believing in your dreams.