Cinematically Recreating the Life of Mike Tyson — DP Brendan Uegama, CSC
Finding the Frame welcomes back its first guest, director of photography Brendan Kuroki Uegama, CSC, to talk about his nominations in three different categories by the Canadian Society of Cinematographers. His nominations are for Half Hour Drama on Hulu’s unauthorized Mike Tyson biopic miniseries, Mike, Music Video Cinematography on Drake’s “Falling Back”, and Dramatic Series Cinematography on CW’s hit drama series Riverdale.
In the interview, Brendan Uegama discusses his collaboration with Director X, what inspired their approach, the technical choices they made, and how they recreated the world where one of the world’s most dangerous and notorious boxers became a legend.
The series is like a vignette leaping from one time period and event to the next. The way it’s structured, a fight might take place for two or three minutes in an episode, then Tyson breaks the fourth wall or the free-flowing narration moves the plot along.
Brendan Uegama and the filmmakers faced many challenges to an otherwise straightforward production. Filming was at the height of COVID which complicated the workflow and limited the resources available. Uegama chalks their success up to the production team and how they kept the ball rolling with the logistics.
Keep reading to learn about Brendan Uegama, CSC, and his approach to the cinematography of Mike. Or, watch the segment from the full interview below!
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For their two episodes, Brendan Uegama and Director X’s approach began with shotlisting everything in both scripts. Then, in production, they would walk around with their phones and previz all the angles before committing to them. Uegama typically prefers to use a real viewfinder with the lens, but with a tight schedule, their phones were the ultimate device to keep them on the same page.
Mike Tyson may not be the largest fighter but he’s an enormous presence and personality packed into a squat 5 feet 11 inches. Uegama conveyed that large presence by keeping the camera low on Trevante Rhodes.
“One of the main things that I wanted to make sure we carried through from the beginning was the way that the camera moved,” explains Uegama. “The camera was very kinetic…. A scene with two people sitting here can often be just covered from 50/50 overs and overs. But in Mike, it probably would have started out in the hall and come rushing in and found us and come around. And so we wanted to make sure we can maintain that kind of energy and keep it going forward, and just find these new elements and new ways that we could do it for our episodes.”
Uegama lensed fighting and boxing sequences at other times in his career so he was no flyweight when it came to rebuilding Tyson’s most iconic fight.
When approaching fights with stunt coordinators, Uegama does the following:
- Find what strengths they can bring to the sequence
- Discuss the angles and how they can tweak the camera to work for them
- Listens to what the coordinators need to sell the hits and contributes to it
The whole show was primarily shot on the ALEXA Mini LF with Cooke Full Frame Anamorphics. While they had Canon K35s for a little bit, 95% of what Uegama captured was on the Cookes.
In fact, it was his first time working with the lenses and Uegama loved the experience so much that he decided to use them again with the Mini LF on the Amazon Original Series, Them.
LIGHTING FOR DEPTH AND DIMENSION
When it came to lighting such a historical event, Uegama wasn’t trying to recreate the exact look, which he describes as generally bright and flat. This miniseries is an adaptation after all. And the visual language was centered on projecting the theatrical perspective of their version of Iron Mike. Ultimately, Uegama used a large soft box light overhead with PAR can lights on trusses. Then, he could choose which ones to switch on and off.
“I kept trying to keep the contrast where I could,” explains Uegama, “but I definitely just try to make it nice and soft with stadium feeling but I didn’t try to keep it historical. And I think that was kind of the way that the first few episodes were, as well.”
Overall, Uegama’s lighting approach for the show centered on soft top light. They used lots of light mats that they would secure to the ceiling above the actors and hide them where they could. These created pools of light that they could walk into when needed. Other times they would augment light coming from outside the window.
“I really tried to keep it contained that way rather than [shining] lights right in their eyes,” says Uegama. “I wanted to make sure that their eyes caused a little bit of shadows and kept it a little moody that way.”
MIKE TYSON SERIES VFX
The filmmakers used VFX to help sell the scale of the fights and the enormous crowds, using set extensions. At the time of shooting, they were subject to heavy COVID restrictions. “I think we could only have 120 people or something like that for background at a time,” recalls Uegama. “So we would place them where we needed when we would do close-ups of like Don King and the crowd… But otherwise, we relied on CG elements back there.”
As the cinematographer going into the prep, Uegama was an open book with the VFX team as far as communicating the tasks, what they needed, articulating the ultimate goal, and what the shot will look like at the end. It’s all about conveying the details. Generally regarding VFX, Uegama tries to ensure they have what they need while ensuring that he also describes his own needs. To ensure the process is seamless, for instance, he will share important details down to the color palette.
“I can see it sometimes where it feels like there’s one idea being done on the day, and then in post, six months later, another idea comes out. And it never fully integrates properly. And so the more that we can all be together on the same page, then that just makes everyone’s final job better. So, I don’t want to be the person that’s saying something strict on the day like, ‘No, I’m not gonna do it that way. You gotta figure it out.’ And then they can’t and the shot looks bad.”
SCENARIO: WHAT IF THE VFX ISN’T WORKING OUT?
According to Brendan Uegama, you have to first define what you’re pinpointing and know what the solution looks like. If you approach a VFX challenge only recognizing the problem with no idea of how it can work or what you want the final image to look like, it means you didn’t do your due diligence as a cinematographer.
“And that’s anything in film, right?” Uegama explains. “Like, if you go up to someone, a director, or anyone with an idea or with a comment like, ‘Oh, this shot is not quite working. I don’t know, I think we could do this better.’ And like, well, what is it? ‘I don’t know’ is not gonna help. So anything like that, just know what it is. Visualize it. You gotta be able to visualize everything. That’s what I try to do. Like, if I’m feeling something’s not right, take a moment for yourself. Think about what it is that’s bugging you. And then think about how you can make it look better, and then translate that to people. And the more people can understand the way you’re saying it, then the better.”
Uegama goes on to explain how you should also get your director and other decison-makers on board. Because if your director doesn’t see it your way, then chances are it won’t come out the way you intended six months later. So, whether you’re looking for solutions to a problem or are concerned about how your imagery will turn out after post, your best tool is your mouth and how you articulate what you want.
FILMING THE ICONIC TYSON-HOLYFIELD FIGHT
Brendan Uegama was up against recreating one of the most palpable moments in pop culture. For any Zoomers out there, it was that legendary time when Mike Tyson took a chomp out of Evander Holyfield’s ear. To build that level of intensity, Uegama extensively prepped with Director X in pre-production.
“The good thing with Tyson is that his whole life is on YouTube,” explains Uegama. “I mean, we watched just hundreds of videos, interviews, recaps of fights, full fights, everything is all there.”
All the historic footage they watched informed their cinematic language, provided much-needed context to get inside the mind of Tyson, and how to thoughtfully follow up each beat and shape the visual storytelling.
The show highlights key moments of the fights that build upon the drama. For the Tyson-Holyfield fight in particular, Director X and Uegama wanted to reveal what was going on in Tyson’s head that led to the ear bites. “We wanted to kind of translate what was going on in his head at the time,” says Uegama, just as the script attempts to deliver Tyson’s perspective on the event.
Holyfield was head-butting Tyson which Iron Mike felt was unfair and provoked his ire. To convey such details, Uegama considered where to place the camera. Since they shot on the Phantom camera, they could slow down moments as a way to allow entry into Tyson’s internal world.
The art of boxing is very visual with every little action leading to a reaction. In this vein, Uegama explains “the headbutt coming in and the frustration that would happen in retaliation, and then the second headbutt and how he retaliated again…. We just broke it down into piece by piece.”
VFX THE EAR-BITING SCENE
They shot the intimate moments inside the ring leading up to the ear-biting beat handheld on the Phantom. They shotlisted every action leading up to the headbutt, so they could “capture all those moments” so “that shot tells that story.”
How that translates to the day of production: They would set up the shot for every little look and headbutt then bring the actors in to do it. From there, they made sure it was working and then go for the take. They would watch it on playback to ensure it was working, and if it wasn’t, they would tweak and take it again.
Their approach inside the ring was to take it shot by shot as opposed to running the entire fight. Since the Phantom camera only rolls for about 15 seconds, they would shoot the sequence in bursts, figuring out one angle before moving to the next.
“That was actually a great way to get it to really feel as put together as it did. I feel like if we shot it on, say, the Mini and we were just rolling, it wouldn’t have had the same effect.” —Brendan Uegama, CSC
The inspiration was to get inside Tyson’s head and understand his perspective. Because in the end, you hear his frustrations about how the event went down. Tyson was headbutted twice by Holyfield and he felt like the ref wasn’t putting a stop to it. Uegama explains, “We wanted to make sure that what we were capturing was really personal to [Tyson], not to Holyfield.”
ADVICE FOR CINEMATOGRAPHERS
The advice Brendan Uegama, CSC, has for cinematographers is two-fold. First, take the initiative to understand the idea. Watch what everyone is doing around you and take the time to go through stills and the edits. Then, approach the other filmmakers and have conversations with everyone from the showrunner to the DP who may have started the job.
In fact, that’s what Uegama did when he came on to the Mike Hulu series. He reached out to Isiah Donté Lee and they talked about everything from the lenses he used to working with the cast, so he could understand as much as he could before entering production.
Depending on the show, whether it’s ongoing or alternating, you may have more contact with other DPs. That wasn’t the case for this one, however. But the script supervisor is also a helpful resource for answering questions about how past episodes were shot.
WATCH THE FULL INTERVIEW
This is only a segment from our interview with cinematographer Brendan Uegama, CSC. To see the full picture of his experience on Mike and Drake’s music video Falling Back, you can listen to the full interview on these podcast platforms:
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