Palisades Resident Gives Movies Life

Don Burgess was the cinematographer on the film ‘Aquaman.’

Burgess Describes Creating ‘Aquaman’ Scenes


Contributing Writer

For “Aquaman” cinematographer Don Burgess, a new script is a puzzle to solve.

“At first, we don’t know how we’re going to do it,” said Burgess, a lifelong resident of Pacific Palisades. “We have to work through all of these concepts starting from ground zero and then getting to the movie you saw in the theaters.”

For “Aquaman,” one particularly puzzling aspect involved scenes that were supposed to have occurred underwater. While shooting “day for night” is a common filmmaking technique, with “Aquaman,” the filmmakers had to shoot “dry for wet.” Basically, the actors would perform on dry land, but the scenes would “create the illusion of being underwater with the light and visual effects and a lot of stunt work,” Burgess said.

The actors would rehearse to create movement that resembled floating through water, and the visual effects team would move their hair to enhance the illusion. While shooting these scenes, Burgess often used trays of water with light shining through them to give the effect of light shifting through flowing water.

To control the nature of the light, both the water and the lights could be moved. Special lights allowed Burgess and his team to shape the beams and rotate the heads during a scene, while a pulley system allowed them to move blocks of wood inside the trays of water to create movement.

“We could literally create slow movement at times or pick up the pace and make the frequency a little higher, depending on what we’re trying to do in the scene and how much energy you really wanted,” Burgess said.

“Aquaman,” which was Burgess’ second movie directed by James Wan, also featured many complicated scenes outside of the water. For example, one section involved a battle with characters leaping across and through rooftops in Sicily.

To create this intricate sequence, the filmmakers first scouted the location, and then created both a computer graphics version of the village and also a full-size replica town square in Australia. On this set, the stunt crew strung numerous cables, and then flew stunt people and actors on the cables. The cameras also had to move, so they were flown via remote control and had features that allowed them to both record and repeat the maneuvers.

“Sometimes you’d do it slowly to make it safe and figure out all of the positions, and then you’d go faster and faster and faster,” Burgess said. “It’s a great combination of the ability to create the move, but also to record it and repeat it.”

Burgess’ favorite scene used water effects but also allowed the actors to work in a dry space. The characters met in a pocket of airspace inside a sunken galleon, so the backgrounds included fish swimming past, and they used smoke to create highlights and shadows.

“We got to do a little bit of everything in that—camera movement, camera lens changes, and light movement,” Burgess said. “I thought that scene turned out great.”

The cast and crew spent nine months in Australia shooting the movie, he said. Both the stunt people and some of the actors spent extensive hours during the 122 shoot days in a gym rehearsing the sequences.

The actors, including Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Nicole Kidman, Willem Defoe, Amber Heard and Patrick Wilson, “all got involved in a big way in training and learning,” Burgess said. “They worked out every day to perfect these techniques. I loved their attitude of getting in there and making it part of their performances. They did a lot of hard work.”

Don Burgess
Photo: Courtesy Lionsgate Dale-Robinette

Burgess and his wife, Bonnie, who have three children, Lindsay, 39, a nurse, Michael, 35, a cinematographer, and Brittany, 31, a producer for “Survivor,” and seven grandchildren, have now headed to London for his next movie.

Burgess will be teaming up with director Robert Zemeckis for “The Witches,” based on Roald Dahl’s book. Zemeckis and Burgess have worked together about ten times, including on “Forrest Gump” (for which Burgess received an Academy Award nomination), “Cast Away” with Tom Hanks and “Contact,” and Burgess looks forward to again collaborating with him.

“It’s been a great relationship. It’s one that I treasure. I think he’s one of the finest filmmakers of our time. He makes us all better filmmakers in his leadership and ability to tell stories. He loves to move the camera, which is challenging for the cinematographer, and I enjoy those challenges.”

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One Response to Palisades Resident Gives Movies Life

  1. Sally says:

    I doubt there are few who don’t love his work !

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