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Road to Oscars. The Cinematography of "The Trial of the Chicago 7"

Let's end our series today while we wait for the magical Night of the Academy Awards.

Today we're talking about The Trial of the Chicago 7.


The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a 2020 historical legal drama. It revolves around the so-called Chicago 7, a group of anti-Vietnam War activists charged with conspiracy and causing riots in 1968 in Chicago.


Its Director of Photography is Phedon Papamichael who started out in photojournalism; a skill that most certainly helped to set the mood of the movie.


The biggest challenge for Papamichael was to keep the viewer's attention alive even though the film takes place for 60% of its length in a courtroom.

The answer is: a well played lighting and a fast editing.


It was really important to maintain a constant stream of lighting during the whole movie, so DoP created a big timeline spreadsheet to decide which scene would be warmer or cooler and which should have a higher or lower contrast. This way we have the mood that best suits that specific sequence.


Since the film is set in 1968-1969, the crew wanted to apply the classic 60's vignetting and an accentuated grainy look.

Phedon Papamichael
Phedon Papamichael

The movie was shot in already existing locations in Chicago on a very tight schedule. They had a relatively small budget for a "mainstream" film.


The story takes place in about six months, so Papamichael had the chance to play around with different moods for different months and different scenes.


For example, when the trial started (in the month of September) everybody was kind of enthusiast and passionate about their commitment to the protest they fought for.

The spirit was high and so was hope.

It goes without saying that mostly all scenes had to be light and airy and the sets had to be bright.

The end of the trial takes place around February and at this point all scenes are slightly darker, edgier, moodier.


The main element on which the film is set is dialogues, so the editing must be tight, the scenes must be short and effective. Long shots wouldn't have worked well, the movie has rhythm and that's one of its key points.

Papamichael really wanted to portray on camera whoever was speaking at the moment. What was best for him was to get close to the character, even physically, without isolating him. This is a great way to connect with the viewers.


There are basically two major sets for this flick: the courtroom and the park where the riot took place.

It's hard to say which one was the most challenging. I'll let you be the judge (pun intended).


Courtroom scenes are the most frequent and are set on a spanning of months. It was necessary to recreate the passage of time. For this reason, Papamichael and his crew built a huge box right outside the big windows of the courtroom and he got to control it recreating seasons, hours of the day and different kinds of lighting which best suited the mood of the scene. Furthermore, to have as much footage material as possibile, he decided to shoot with three cameras at the same time.


Spoiler Alert! If you haven't watched the movie yet, please do not continue to read the following paragraph.


One of the most crucial sequence lightingwise is the very ending. Tom Hayden stands up and reads all the names of the Vietnam soldiers. Here, actor Eddie Redmayne who plays Hayden was pervaded with a glowing, angelic light to symbolise the personal victory of those soldiers. Very poetic.


End of spoilers.


The other difficult scene to shoot was the park riot. The sequence was filmed on the real location (Grant Park in Chicago) for three days straight. Everything was basically improvised, nothing was storyboarded and the crew used handheld cameras to give a more documentary look to the scene.

The riot took place during a sunny summer day but the filming was actually done in October, so to avoid showing brown leaves and autumn background, Papamicheal relied on the use of smoke and tear gas and really captured the conceiling haze.

Real talent is on display with the performances of: Rylance, Redmayne, Sharp, Carroll Lynch, Strong and Baron Cohen
Real talent is on display with the performances of: Rylance, Redmayne, Sharp, Carroll Lynch, Strong and Baron Cohen

Another tricky topic was extras. With a limited budget, extras were not always available, so courtroom scenes had to be filmed from various angles to obtain the most material possible.

For the riot scene, at the actual event partecipated 10,000 people but extras were only 200. Close-ups really helped this time.


Well, that's it for this series. Can't wait for tomorrow! Shall we guess which movie is going to win?

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