01-09-2024 - Case Study
Shot on VENICE: DP Kramer Morgenthau Brings a Fresh Look to ‘Creed III’
By: Oakley Anderson-Moore
When the original Rocky came out in 1976, an underdog story of a blue-collar boxer from Philly was something that you didn't see much in Hollywood movies. It played on a popular theme of rags to riches, Horatio Alger’s struggle, and was wildly successful - the American Dream.
Over 40 years later, the Rocky franchise is firmly entrenched in popular culture. How do new branches of the story stay fresh? For Creed III, which is already garnering some Oscar nods, it means finding new underdogs to throw in the ring.
Creed III is about the matchup between Adonis Creed, now the boxing heavyweight champion celebrity icon living in Beverly Hills, against Diamond Dame, his childhood friend who came from Crenshaw to incarceration for two decades of his life.
Director of Photography Kramer Morgenthau, ASC sat down with SonyCine to talk about how these themes were at the forefront of the visual conversation between himself and actor-producer-director Michael B. Jordan.
How Morgenthau and Michael B. Jordan bonded over the camera
Morgenthau and Jordan first met on the set of Fahrenheit 451, followed by Creed II.
“We became good friends over that series of collaborations, as he had always come by the camera wanting to learn more about cinematography,” explains Morgenthau. “So, when Michael B. had an opportunity to direct this one, it seemed like a natural fit.”
Why Morgenthau wanted to shoot with the Sony VENICE
“I got introduced to the VENICE and was really thrilled with the look of the picture that comes out of the camera and the camera’s versatility,” he begins.
Morgenthau knew that for Creed III, he’d need a camera that was IMAX certified, as this would be the first sports film shot on IMAX. He also needed it to create incredibly diverse looks.
“The boxing was one look. The walkouts as well when they walk out to the ring, is a whole performance art in itself with a lot of extreme saturated colors and moving lights. The camera responded very well to all those extreme colors.”
Morgenthau also wanted to contrast the success of Creed’s family life with Diamond Dame's world.
“[Dame’s world] is literally in the margins of society, living in a single room occupancy hotel,” describes Morgenthau. “If you need to shoot a night exterior at 3,200 ISO or 2,500 ISO, no problem. If you want it super clean for the fights in IMAX, where we change the aspect ratio for the fights from 1.90:1 from the 2.40:1, it can do that. You really just don't have to worry about anything with that camera. I mean, the VENICE is the ultimate flexible tool that can stretch between all these different looks.”
Creating a new larger-than-life look inside the ring
While the Rockyverse fights are always memorable, there was something special happening in Creed III.
“We wanted to be able to shoot the fights in a hyper-real, visceral way. Using the VENICE with spherical lenses and a tall aspect ratio of 1.90:1 for IMAX gave it a huge look,” says Morgenthau.
Michael B. Jordan also wanted to borrow inspiration from Anime and bring the stylized graphic of that genre into Creed III..
“We were very immersed with the boxing choreography team and used a lot of Steadicam,” says Morgenthau. “But we also incorporate subjective Anime elements using hyper close-ups for Adonis Creed’s visions. And that also required some incredibly high-speed moments. It was so advantageous that the VENICE could easily switch and go to 120 frames. Or swap to subjective lenses and lens attachments that we used for the surreal moments in the second to last round we called ‘the void.’”
Some of the most spectacular, surreal moments in the film are in the very last round.
“The sound drops out, and the audience drops out, and we switch to an extremely wide-angle 12mm lens. The handheld cameras and the lighting takes on a poetic approach. That's one of the boxing sequences I'm probably most proud of. With Michael's vision and the execution, it was thrilling to shoot – there's no words, it's just images. It's just two characters opposing each other in what we called the Battle of Los Angeles.”
Living up to the hallowed Rocky montage
Is there any other training montage quite as famous as in the Rocky canon? No pressure! For Morgenthau, this ended up being his favorite sequence to shoot.
“We shot all over LA and to get these moments of each character training,” he describes.
“We shot on the new Sixth Street Bridge, night exterior with basically just the lights from the bridge...we shot in the harsh sunlight on Muscle Beach. There were so many different environments and qualities of light, it created so much energy around the rivalry. And the Sony VENICE performed beautifully.”
Working with Michael B. Jordan in his first role as director
Morgenthau has worked with actor-directors, like for example, Jon Favreau on Chef. But this went even farther.
“In the case of Michael B. Jordan, he’s directing, producing, he was involved with the script, and he’s starring,” explains Morgenthau. “As a cinematographer, you adjust your modus operandi to whatever the director needs. We worked very carefully together in prep, so that by the time he was shooting, he didn't have to think about too many things. As a DP supporting an actor-director, in some ways you have to work twice as hard. But as hard as you think you're working, you're doing nothing compared to the energy MBJ is expending on a single day!”
Morgenthau’s secret to success: you’re only as good as your crew
“I think my approach to this project, and probably to most projects, and possibly to life is, stay flexible,” concludes Morgenthau.
“Don't try to force a square peg into a round hole. Allow the process to unfold organically. Surround yourself with incredibly talented people. I had an amazing team, and you really are only as good as the crew. Like my camera operators Mike Heathcote, and B-camera operator Brigman Foster-Owens, gaffer Josh Davis, my key grip, Chuck Criviere, focus pullers Craig Presscove and Dwight Campbell, and the people who supported me at Panavision, my colorist, Peter Doyle, the great producers I was working with like Liz Raposo, the production designer, Jahmin Assa. You're only as good as the people that you surround yourself with.”
If you haven’t already seen Creed III, you can stream it now on Prime Video.