Cinematographer David McFarland’s latest work 12 Mighty Orphans premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival today, June 14. Directed by Ty Roberts, the film tells the historic story of the Mighty Mites, a team of the Fort Worth orphans who were trained by Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson). A legendary high school football coach, he shocked his colleagues by giving up a high-profile position to teach and coach at an orphanage.
For 12 Mighty Orphans, McFarland rose to the challenge too, capturing the mood, emotion, and football action. To create the look, he used a Panavision Dallas Arri Alexa Mini camera with Vintage Anamorphic Panavision XTAL Express, Cooke, Elite, and Cineovision lenses, plus Tiffen and Scheider filters supplied by Damien Van Der Cruysen from The Mill in NYC.
PH: Hi David. How are you doing? How has your work changed over the past year?
David McFarland: Thank you so much- it’s great to be here! 2021 is off to a great start. I’ve been shooting a lot of commercials during the pandemic but things seem to be ramping back up again for features- which I’m quite excited for. I would say the biggest change in work since the pandemic has been the implementation of the covid safety protocol. I can certainly say that wearing a mask and face shield at work has made things much more challenging in regards to communication.
PH: Can you talk about your journey in this industry? What are some of the projects you’ve worked on?
David McFarland: I was lucky enough to study anthropology and film while at University. It was amazing to learn so much about different cultures at the same time I was being introduced to the work of brilliant cinematographers like Vittorio Storaro and Sven Nykvist. Because of this shared passion of film and anthropology, I have always gravitated towards scripts about struggle and perseverance. This is why I have shot so many international films and ultimately how I became involved in 12 Mighty Orphans. In 2017 I shot the Tibetan film THE SWEET REQUIEM in India and MAFAK (SCREWDRIVER) in the West Bank, Palestine. MAFAK (which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2018) is the story of a Palestinian man recently released from 15 years in an Israeli prison.
PH: How did your latest work, 12 Mighty Orphans, come about? How did you get involved?
David McFarland: It was my work on MAFAK (Screwdriver) which ultimately caught Ty Robert’s attention. The story centers around the theme of PTSD – which was very applicable to 12 Mighty Orphans. My colorist, Damien Van Der Crussen had worked with Ty on his previous film- the gorgeously photographed IRON ORCHARD- and made the introduction.
PH: What was the pre-production process like?
David McFarland: Even though this was our first film together, Ty and I had a strong sense collaboration out of the gate. I was shooting another film in LA when this project came my way and flew to Texas the day after we wrapped to begin working on 12 Mighty Orphans. I had six weeks of prep, which- for a movie of this scope- went by too quickly. In that time Ty and I decided to shotlist the more technical scenes involving big blocking and all football sequences. For the other half of the film, the more intimate side, we focused more on discussing the emotional intent as it applied to the camerawork and lighting, somewhat leaving the blocking and coverage to be discovered on the day. This mix of methods was absolutely the way to make this film.
PH: Can you talk about some of the equipment you used to achieve the look of the film?
David McFarland: We shot open gate with anamorphic lenses with ARRI Alexa mini’s. Through the help of my longtime collaborators James Finn and Guy McVicker at Panavision (Dallas and Hollywood), we assembled a uniquely punk rock anamorphic lens package. We did extensive tests – looking at the full range of Panavision Anamorphic glass (of which there are many!) ultimately piecing together a quiver consisting of Xtal Express, the more painterly CineoVisions, the longer Elite primes, as well as a Frankenstein’d 152mm (made of a few different elements from various manufacturers). This lens quickly became the go to for close ups (I’ve been told this is a favorite of Darius Khondji’s).
PH: What were some of your favorite shots? How did you create them?
David McFarland: One of my favorite scenes in the film takes place in the middle of the night on a desolate practice field in the Texas countryside. Excited to share his innovative and groundbreaking new strategy, (coach) Rusty Russell assembles his less enthusiastic team on the cold field. Ty and I wanted to give B camera/ steadicam operator Josh Pickering the most flexibility to follow the action as the team assumes the new formations dreamed up by Russell.
With this in mind, my gaffer – Juan Romero – and I decided to use an overhead soft box mounted to a condor and outfitted with an array of Arri Sky Panel s60’s. To add a little shape, we had a couple of other condors with Arrimax 18k’s deep in the background. This simple approach worked really well and helped us capture the dynamic rhythm of the scene which ultimately ends in a rousing speech by Russell.
PH: Let’s talk about some of the challenges you faced during production on this film. What were they and how did you address them?
David McFarland: Our two biggest challenges on this film were the ambitious production schedule and shooting a period film in the modern world. We had 36 days to shoot this film but no true 2nd Unit. While this is a dramatic film grounded in one man’s journey through PTSD and his search for identity, it is also a very technical film. On any given shoot day, we would have a combination of very intense / dramatic scenes mixed with extremely technical stunt driven football sequences. That said, there was a lot of switching gears mentally.
Shooting a period film of this scope required a lot of locations. This meant countless hours scouting around Fort Worth and Weatherford, Texas. Luckily we had an amazing production designer – Drew Boughton- who worked magic to bring the late 1930’s dustbowl period (of the Great depression) to life.
PH: What do you hope people take away from this film?
David McFarland: This is the film of Rusty Russell’s journey from orphan, to soldier, to coach. It was always our intent to create a cinematic language which would help the viewer identify with Russell (who is so brilliantly played by Luke Wilson). The themes represented in this film are really universal and I am hoping that audiences can find some inspiration in it. Much like the Great Depression, we in similar times (globally) today. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic and the United States ends its longest war, I hope that we can take some inspiration from Rusty Russell’s story. PTSD is a largely ignored cost of war and I think it is important to address this as the US ends its involvement in Afghanistan.
View the full trailer: