Michael Mann’s new film contrasts the frenetic action of racing sports cars with the more formal staging of Enzo Ferrari’s interpersonal rivalries and driving ambition, writes Adrian Pennington.
Just as the template for Days of Thunder was Top Gun so Ferrari borrows camerawork straight out of Top Gun: Maverick though these two films are worlds apart in all other respects.
Michael Mann’s new film is a period drama about motorsport mastermind Enzo Ferrari’s determination to win the automotive business race while pushing his test drivers to the limit.
“We were going to be driving these cars extremely fast over kilometres of country so we needed cameras that would be lightweight and robust enough,” explained Director of Photography Erik Messerschmidt ASC of the film’s signature racing scenes which included restaging the 1,500km motorsport endurance race Mille Miglia.
Behind the Scenes: Ferrari – Camera Choices
“DoP Carmen Miranda is a great friend of mine and he had used the Sony Venice very successfully on Top Gun: Maverick. We weren’t going to use green screen either. Micheal wanted the cars to approximate the speeds that the drivers used to drive them.”
As on Top Gun: Maverick, Messerschmidt used the Venice in Rialto mode where the lens block is separated from the camera. The cars had mounts built-in to the tubular chassis so that they could quickly fit 6-9 cameras on board variously on the hood, wheel rims, bumpers and passenger seat.
“These cameras weren’t suctioned to the car they were bolted rigid to the frame. Even with that in mind a 25lb camera outside a body panel would significantly change the handling of the car for the stunt team, or we wanted to get the cars really close to each while cameras hanging off the side, so weight and space was a huge issue.”
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That wasn’t the only reason to choose the Venice. He also wanted a camera with internal ND filters. “That with something I desperately felt I needed because we were going to have situations shooting multiple cameras simultaneously day or night as these cars raced and I didn’t want to slow Michael down with filtration changes. I could keep the iris where I wanted it without disturbing the actors. That was the initial reason why Venice was chosen.”
As the cars sped around the countryside in Northern Italy, Messerschmidt was able to monitor the feeds live via long range transmission from antennas to a video village arranged by engineers from US firm RF Films.
For the racing sequences he deployed a number of zooms “compressing the space” to accentuate the feeling of speed and the tight geography of the cockpit and corners.
“What was important to Michael in the race scene was to get across what it felt like to be in these machines. He wanted the smell of gasoline, the grease from the engine and dust from the road, the extreme rattling of the metal. He wasn’t interested in capturing the smooth running of the cars from aerials or camera-cars running alongside. It was intended to capture the experience of being that driver.”
Behind the Scenes: Ferrari - Seeing Red
Ferrari the brand is synonymous with the colour red but Mann stipulated that the only time the audience see red in his film is when they the race cars are on screen.
“There is a little bit of ox-blood wallpaper in one of the apartments but there is no red at all other than the cars, a deliberate choice that Michael wanted,” said Messerschmidt.
Away from the track action and the film’s colour palette recalls summertime in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna and especially Modena, famous for being the base of sports car makers like De Tomaso, Lamborghini, Maserati and Ferrari.
“To me it has this hay, honey yellow to it,” observed Messerschmidt who spent time in the region on recce. “The buildings are painted with yellow plaster and oranges and brighter earth tones so the sun will hit the buildings and reflect off all this colourful natural light.”
Inspiration also came from study of Italian Renaissance painters like Titian, Caravaggio and Tintoretto, though as Messerschmidt acknowledges a 20th Century master was influential too.
“[Director of photography] Gordon Willis ASC is a hero of mine and it would be hard for me as an American to make a movie set in the countryside of Italy without thinking about The Godfather.”
“There is a kind of simplicity in terms of how Willis lit The Godfather that was attractive to me,” he added. “I like the idea of distilling the environment down to just a couple of light fixtures, asking, what is the least we can do in this room? And that also supports Michael’s shooting style. He wants the freedom to move the camera a lot and he doesn’t want to let lighting rigs get in the way of that. So, there’s a practical consideration too to the support the director.”
Mann, creator of Miami Vice and director of films such as Heat and Collateral, had spent three decades working on this movie, during which time he made a number of research trips to Modena.
“Michael is a photographer and he has a photographic brain,” said Messerschmidt. “He is an image maker. He took dozens of photos, he has files and files of historical records and newsreel footage and stills of Enzo Ferrari. It was an incredible assortment of media. I would go into his office and he’d show me what he wanted the movie to be. He had a very clear idea.”
Behind the Scenes: Ferrari – Probing Deep
One of those ideas was to use a probe lens called the Skater Scope in order to get extreme close-ups of his actors. Unlike most probe lens systems which have an integrated lens optic the Skater is essentially a periscope-like extension onto which the DP can mount their own lens.
Messerschmidt explained: “This pulls the lens away from the camera body about 25cm and it changes the optics to give you quite a bit of macro close focus. Michael likes to put the lens very close to the actor. We put it on Steadicam occasionally and it meant you could put the lens to someone’s eyeball but the operator is at arm’s length away. We could fly around Adam [Driver] or get the lens right behind someone’s ear or into someone’s face. It’s a very unique, specific look.”
It complicated work for the DP because the lens is slow (losing two stops) and required lighting the sets with additional light to compensate. “To get any resolution out of it you have to shoot around a 6.5K and you need a relatively high speed camera,” he added.
Most of the film is lensed using Panavision Panaspeeds, the same set that the DP had used to shoot the period war film Devotion in 2022.
“I love modern lenses because I like them to be consistent. I am not someone who is necessarily attracted to the idea of vintage lenses. It is hard when you change lenses and it requires a different f-stop or one lens exhibits a pink hue and the next is green. Even though you can fix it, it drives me nuts. I am definitely in the camp which appreciates modern lenses. Sometimes sharpness is an issue, but it’s nice to start at that point.
Behind the Scenes: Ferrari – Favourite Shot
On Devotion, Dan Sasaki [Panavision’s lens scientist] had detuned the Panaspeeds so they exhibited “aggressive spherical aberration with halation in the highlights,” he recalled. “I really loved it and so we did the same on Ferrari.”
Red cameras, the Komodo and V-Raptor are also used for sequences shot in actual vintage cars, such as the open wheel car shots in the film’s beginning, where even the Rialto was too big to fit.
The DP’s favourite shot is not though from the track but a quieter moment in which Ferrari’s wife Laura (Penelope Cruz) holds him accountable for his actions.
“She is stately and centred and starts the scene sitting. Then Enzo comes in and orbits her and walks away. She is very strong in the scene, static. We lit her with a very simple top light. The way that Michael staged that scene with Penelope’s performance and Adam moving in and out of the light is my favourite shot.”