10 Dec BEHIND THE LOOK: West Side Story
In a career that spans six decades, director Steven Spielberg has worked in nearly every genre of cinema but until now he never created a musical featuring dance performances. It is just that much more remarkable that his West Side Story has become another celebrated achievement in his illustrious career. Featuring a young cast of mostly unknown actors, from a gritty screenplay penned by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner, the film was unquestionably a very risky proposition for Mr. Spielberg and his team one that brought together seasoned veteran colleagues, including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, along with relatively new additions like Tony Award-winning costume designer Paul Tazewell, and Oscar-winning production designer Adam Stockhausen.
From his childhood, Mr. Spielberg revered the original Broadway cast album of West Side Story, as well as the 1961 film adaptation directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Anyone bold enough to produce a contemporary film playing off the pedigree of the original 1957 stage production would be faced with challenges that even the bravest filmmaker would find intimidating. From an original score by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a book Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Anyone bold enough to produce a contemporary film playing off the pedigree of the original 1957 stage production would be faced with challenges that even the bravest filmmaker would find intimidating. From an original score by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a book written by Arthur Laurent(derived in part from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), and conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, the original production (and subsequent 1961 film) are remembered as among the most celebrated in both American theatrical and cinema history.
Undaunted, Mr. Spielberg and his creative partners have produced a timeless film that both celebrates the original endeavors while redefining the underlying story for a whole new generation – addressing contemporary ethnic and racial themes while honoring its late-1950’s love story set against a more realistic era of drastic urban renewal on the West Side of New York City.
The new production was informed by Mr. Spielberg’s determination to imbue the film’s narrative with a starker realism. It became a delicate balancing act for the new production: creating a fresh take on the story while still celebrating the wonder of the original soundtrack and score. The original music of the Broadway production and the 1961 United Artists film remain among the most beloved score and soundtracks ever created. Spielberg and his team brought together fresh young actors with the singing and dancing chops equal to the task at hand. Honoring the legacy of the original was further underscored by the remarkable presence and new performance of actress-executive producer Rita Moreno. Aside from playing the role of Valentina in the new film, Ms. Moreno became a spiritual mentor for the entire enterprise.
The project also afforded Spielberg the opportunity to film at many locations around New York City creating an homage to the city whose singular personality held equal sway over the myriad of the creative choices his team made. Another key decision by the filmmakers was to shoot on film…celluloid 35mm. That choice not only advanced the sense of place and time the filmmakers sought to create but helped paint a color palette that would enhance an intimate love story while uniquely offsetting the physicality of the dance performances peppered through the film.
“Steven is always interested in telling a story with the camera,” Janusz Kaminski noted, “and he’s got such incredible ideas. Visuals are as important to him as the written word and the actor’s performances.” Kaminski’s collaboration with Spielberg dates to 1993 and the Academy Award-winning Schindler’s List – and he clearly brought his A-game to West Side Story. He was flanked by his and Spielberg’s longtime camera operator, Mitch Dubin, S.O.C. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, ASC shot the film’s opening aerial footage above the Manhattan skyline. The film’s color palette was structured around the production and costume design departments’ high-key values that were showcased by Kaminski’s lighting and camerawork. “The style was already established. Maintaining that style and putting our spin on it was the challenge,” stated Kaminski.
Towards the end of pre-production and throughout principal photography, Kaminski worked closely with his longtime colorist, Michael Hatzer who oversaw multiple teams handling dailies color grading through theatrical finishing of an extensive list of deliverables for theatrical release; in multiple digital projection specs; while also producing a full-suite of streaming, awards’ season, and home entertainment requirements.
Hatzer, Picture Shop’s VP of Creative Color Finishing and senior supervising colorist based in Los Angeles, further added texture to the look of the film. He noted that Kaminski had expressed a desire to invoke “a retro-Technicolor 3-strip dye-transfer color palette with a more contemporary bleach-bypass ENR process.” The film’s workflow moved from negative processing at Kodak’s New York lab, with digital transfer performed at Postworks NY, with New York-based dailies colorist John Vladic overseeing the film’s dailies with input from Kaminski and Hatzer. Once principal photography concluded the film’s negative, and dailies were shipped west – only to be greeted by the huge disruption Covid forced on the entire motion picture industry.
West Side Story was color-finished with Spielberg and Kaminski in 2021 by Hatzer and his team at Picture Shop’s facility on the Sunset-Gower lot in Hollywood. Hatzer and his team had earlier worked with Kaminski on Spielberg productions employing the same technical infrastructure and creative firepower. Those projects included Ready Player One; The Post; The BFG; Bridge of Spies; Schindler’s List 25th Anniversary remaster; and Lincoln.
Hatzer’s team at Picture Shop included his longtime digital intermediate 2nd colorist Chris Jensen; DI producer Julian McDougald; VP of Feature Film Sales at Picture Shop, Ladd Lanford; color assist Kevin Schneider; and conform editor Everett Webber. Picture Shop rescanned the original camera negative in 4K preliminary to final color grading.
SVP of Post • Mark Graziano
VP of Post (& Post Super) • Justin Ostensen
Supervising Digital Colorist • Michael Hatzer
Second Colorist • Chris Jensen
Assistant Colorist • Kevin Schneider
Digital Intermediate Editor • Everette Jbob Webber
Sr. Digital Intermediate Producers • Bob Peishel & Julian McDougald
VP of Feature Films • Ladd Lanford
Color science • Joshua Pines
Dailies by PostWorks NY
Dailies Colorist • John Vladic
Dailies Color Assistant • Sara Cintron-Schultz
Dailies Producer • Michelle Morris
Scanning Operators • Nate Davis, Anthony Correia, Jake Caffera, Patrick Rossi
Technical Operations Manager: Carlos Monfort
Data Managers • Scott Ettin & Sergey Zontak
Engineers • Eric Horwitz, Matt O’Shaughnessy, Jonathan Catt
SVP of Theatrical Services • Clark Henderson
Head of Operations • Ralph Costanza
Negative Processing by FilmLabNY
Todd Mitchell & Eric Chilpa