JOHN BAILEY, ASC TAKES A WALK IN THE WOODS

In February of 2015, John Bailey, ASC was honored by the American Society of Cinematographers with their Lifetime Achievement Award, joining the rarified ranks of some of the industry’s most iconic directors of photography. But Bailey isn’t ready to be put on the shelf and admired solely for his past accomplishments, which include more than 70 narrative films. In the past year and a half he has added three films to his legacy, including The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, The Forger and A Walk in the Woods, and he’s currently preparing for his next assignment.

A Walk in the Woods is based on the autobiographical book by Bill Bryson in which Bryson reconnects with a close friend from his younger days to hike the Appalachian Trail. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte star, and the director is Ken Kwapis, whose friendship and collaboration with Bailey goes back to 1986.

Much of the film unfolds in forests and mountain meadows along nature trails, but the locations also included some interiors. The majority of the scenes were filmed within an hour or so of Atlanta, Georgia. A few scenic highlights were photographed in other states. Because the story is built around the hike, the light is often natural and the cameras are almost always moving. When it came to assembling the right camera and lens package for the shoot, Bailey looked to his longtime allies at Panavision.

I don’t spend a lot of time testing. I don’t need to look elsewhere. What I love about Panavision is that it is, and always has been, a system. No matter what you’re using, they make everything ‘Panavised'

Bailey is wary of letting the imagery of any film overwhelm the story and the characters. In this case, that meant an honest depiction of the natural world. “I didn’t want to reach into the bag of tricks and try to make the trail look overly beautiful -- the ‘splendor of nature’ thing -- because that’s not what it’s about,” he says. “It’s about men going out and having one last adventure. It’s not like they are walking through some metaphysical landscape. It’s about their experience on the trail, getting reacquainted with each other, and pitting themselves against the challenges of the hike. We wanted the trail to look real.”

The approach that Bailey and Kwapis have developed over the course of six films together is not previsualized or over-planned. That was especially true in this case, a film little in the way of action or visual effects. There is one green screen sequence. “I didn’t write out a game plan this time, because it came together very quickly, and a certain visual continuity was required all the way through,” says Bailey. “It was so immediate and direct.”

These considerations all played into Bailey’s decisions regarding format and equipment. Usually, one of three modes of shooting was used depending on the situation. For scenes deep in the woods, he chose daylight-balanced 35mm film stock in 3-perf, 2.40:1 format. Scenes in interiors or closer to basecamp were done using ARRI ALEXA digital cameras. And sweeping, wide aerial shots, sometimes in remote locations, were done with small Panasonic cameras mounted on remote-controlled drones.

“On film, we’re a lot more portable,” Bailey explains. “We’re not relying on any kind of a video village or umbilical cords. We can easily shoot Steadicam, and most importantly, in high-contrast situations, I can expose for the shadow detail and let the highlights burn out, knowing that I have good, rich density in the film negative, which enables me to balance it out in the DI.”

The ALEXA captured ARRIRAW files, which Bailey says delivered a film-like image that intercuts well with the 35mm footage. “I feel very good about mixing these media,” he relates. “We’ve come a long way in the last few years, and I think we’re seeing a lot of films now that freely choose multiple formats.”

On A Walk in the Woods, Bailey used Panavision Primo glass. His longstanding loyalty to Panavision lenses is well known in the cinematography community.

“I’ve always been happy with the Primo lenses,” he adds. “I don’t spend a lot of time testing. I don’t need to look elsewhere. What I love about Panavision is that it is, and always has been, a system. No matter what you’re using, they make everything ‘Panavised.’ You can move the same lens from the Panaflex to the ALEXA without any concern at all. You use accessories that are familiar and work on a lot of different cameras. That’s important. You’re not dealing with a trunk full of equipment that doesn’t interoperate well. The bottom line is that I’m a huge fan of Panavision as a camera and lens system.”

Summing up, Bailey describes A Walk in the Woods as “the best kind of buddy movie, incorporating a journey of self-discovery; A road movie without the cars. I’m very happy with the film.”

A Walk in the Woods is premiering at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.