“The Chaos of the Race Track Was a Constant Challenge”: DP Gregory Kershaw on The Last Race
By Scott Macaulay
The documentary debut from fine art photographer Michael Dweck, The Last Race screens five times in competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The film tells the story of Riverhead Raceway, a decades-old race track on Long Island. At one time Long Island hosted roughly 40 such tracks; today, Riverhead is the only one that remains. Filmmaker Gregory Kershaw served as both cinematographer and co-producer on the film. Below, he spoke with Filmmaker about the physical toll of filming at a loud and fume-filled race track, the influence of Errol Morris’ early films and the logistical madness of having “10 cameras mounted on different cars during a single race.”
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and had attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Kershaw: The director, Michael Dweck, is a fine art photographer, and we had been talking about collaborating on a project together for some time. He came to me with the idea of creating a film about a small stock car race track that was the last vestige of the Long Island racing culture that he experienced as a child. Over the years he had been creating a body of photographic work around the track, and I was intrigued by the idea of exploring that same place with him in a film. I came onto the project early on as a producer to help push it forward. Most of my experience as a cinematographer prior to The Last Race had been in narrative film, and I was eager to work on a documentary project that could have a defined cinematic style while telling an emotional human story.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals in this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Kershaw: I wanted to create a documentary that was cinematic. For me, that meant finding images that were not merely aesthetically pleasing, but that would actively contribute to telling the story and have a narrative impact. The track where we filmed was a rough, chaotic and considered an eyesore by many, yet there was also a poetic beauty in the spectacle of the race and the lives of people that were a part of the community. When shooting, my goal was to go beyond passively observing with the camera and actively search for moments that would express the unique identity of the place and people to create evocative images that would be the building blocks of the story.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Kershaw: Errol Morris’s early films such as Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida inspired the wide interview frames that provided a platform for candid interviews with our distinctive characters. Louis Malle and René Vautier’s film, A Human Condition, was screened for the way it captured a location that was simultaneously intimate and alien. Koyaanisqatsi was a model for filming movement and the symphonic merging of music and images. Classic racing films like Grand Prix, Le Mans, Days of Thunder, as well as contemporary NASCAR broadcasts, were also viewed as a context for how auto racing has been mythologized in popular culture and provided insight into how that mythology was reflected in the culture of the racetrack.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Kershaw: The chaos of the race track was a constant challenge to the deliberate and composed approach we wanted to bring to the images. It was loud. So loud, that verbal communication was often impossible, and we had to resort to a makeshift sign language to communicate amid the cacophony. On the long summer that we shot most of the film, racing happened once a week on Saturdays, and during that time we needed to get as much footage as possible. As we navigated around the pits of the track, cars would be coming at us from every direction, rarely willing to slow down or swerve to avoid the camera set up. Setting up a shot and seeing it through to completion, often became a game of chicken between the drivers and us. It usually took many loses before we got the shot we needed, which was fair; after all, it was their turf. After a day of shooting at the track, our ears would be ringing, and we would be coughing up all the exhaust we sucked down until we came back the following week and did it all over again.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Kershaw: The main camera was Canon’s C300. It produced a beautiful image that had a great compression for a manageable post-production workflow. It was compact and just all around fun to use. The Sony F5 was also used with excellent results in some scenes. Canon L Series glass, zooms and primes, were our primary lens choice. They are compact, have a nice image and most importantly for this shoot budget-friendly. Vintage Arri and Zeiss cinema lenses were also used on a few occasions. For the cameras that we mounted on the car, we used Canon 5D mark 3S and GoPros in the positions that were most at risk of impact. These smaller cameras allowed us to get right into the bashing, banging and crashes of the racing.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Kershaw: For this film, I was looking to do as much as I could with natural light, while still giving the film a distinct look. For our exteriors, this often meant waiting to shoot until the late afternoon and early evening for the warm glow of late day summer sunlight. Weather is unpredictable of course, and on the days that brought us clouds, I kept the camera rolling for a very different look that ended up giving some of our scenes a darker and moodier feel. For the interiors, I tried to use window light as the main source. Once I had a chance to see how the natural light was working a particular room, I would often bring in a heavily diffused Kino Flo, primarily to fill faces or other parts of the image that needed a little more light, and perhaps shape the natural light with a little grip equipment.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Kershaw: Filming the racing scenes with cameras mounted on the cars was a big challenge. The pits before a race are pure bedlam, and the drivers are all incredibly focused on the competition ahead. During the races, we never knew where the action would be, or on what car it would happen, so we would sometimes have as many as 10 cameras mounted on different cars during a single race to give us the best chance of capturing the exciting and emotional moments that we were after. We had no control over the cars, the drivers or when the race started. Our team had to mount the cameras with angry drivers screaming at them to get out of the way, and then get all the cameras recording with focus dialed in the moments before the start of the race. To get the cameras in the right place, we asked drivers to weld mounting points onto their car frames, cut holes in the car bodies to hide cameras over bumpers, and used super clamps to attach cameras all over the interior of the cars. We had no way of monitoring the cameras during the races, so reviewing the footage at the end of the day was always filled with surprises.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Kershaw: We went into filming knowing that we wanted a warm sunlight look that was reminiscent of iconic auto racing films like Days of Thunder and the golden glow of ’70s surf photography. We did our best to shoot our exteriors in the late day sun with the goal of achieving this look. On days when the weather didn’t give us sun, we still rolled the camera knowing that it would have a very different look. For the color grade, we wanted the colors and light to reflect our visual experience as we were shooting, and we used the grade as an opportunity to bring out the best of what we got in camera. Our colorist, John Dowdell at Goldcrest, brought lots of experience to the work and helped us find the right balance between our naturalistic approach and expressing the vibrant colors that emerge in the hot summer sun.