​Clubhouse Conversations — Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom​

Director of photography Tobias Schliessler, ASC and interviewer Lawrence Sher, ASC discuss the expert period cinematography in this dramatic story of artistic struggle.

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Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play of the same name and directed by George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in 1920s Chicago as tensions rise between “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), her ambitious horn player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), and the white management determined to profit from their work.

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Generally shooting with multiple units, Schliessler employed large-format Sony Venice cameras paired with Zeiss Supreme Prime lenses, which he felt best captured proper skin tones and heightened contrast. He also used Tiffen Bronze Glimmer glass filters to enhance his images, softening while also warming them.

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To keep the camera moving in concert with the cast during film’s many musical performances — often in very confined spaces —  Schliessler frequently relied on veteran Steadicam operator Kirk Gardner, as well as a telescoping Chapman Hydrascope crane, camera sliders, and even a CableCam rig for a dramatic pullback shot.

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In Baden-Baden, Germany, Schliessler grew up in a filmmaking family. His father made adventure documentaries and his mother was his editor. Tobias became fascinated by American film culture, idolizing  Steve McQueen and Paul Newman in such pictures as Le Mans, Bullitt, Cool Hand Lukeand The Sting. After discovering the work of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, German filmmaking became an equal obsession. After studying cinematography at Simon Fraser University in Canada, Schliessler started his career in documentaries, commercials and Canadian television before moving to Los Angeles. He has established close working relationships with directors including Bill Condon (shooting Dreamgirls, The Fifth Estate, Mr. Holmes, Beauty and the Beast, The Good Liar) and Peter Berg (The Rundown, Friday Night Lights, Hancock, Lone Survivor). Schliessler’s other feature credits include Bait, The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) and A Wrinkle in Time.

Born in New Jersey, interviewer Lawrence Sher, ASC served as a camera assistant and gaffer before working his way to director of photography. His credits include Kissing Jessica Stein; Garden State; I Love You, Man; Paul; The Dictator and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. His most recent feature, Joker marked the sixth collaboration between Sher and director Todd Phillips, following The Hangover trilogy, Due Date and War Dogs. For his camerawork on Joker, Sher earned the Golden Frog at Camerimage and Academy and ASC Award nominations.

Unit photography by David Lee, SMPSP


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You’ll find more episodes in this series here
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