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America's First Freedom Fighter

By Bob Fisher

From Kees Can Oostrum's 'We Fight to Be Free' (Greystone Communications, prod.)

We Fight to Be Free could have been sub-titled The Man Who Could Have Been King. The documentary uses images, words and music to paint a portrait of George Washington before he became the first US President. It provides insights into his character and transports audiences to another time and place where they witness history in the making.

“I felt it was important for this film to be as cinematic as possible to help the audience make an intimate connection with Washington,” says director/cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum, ASC. “The places where things happened are like characters in the story. We want audiences to feel the warmth when Washington meets his future wife and the suffering of his soldiers in their winter camp before they cross the Delaware.”

The 22-minute film premiered last fall in two theaters on the Mount Vernon, Virginia estate that Washington called home. The theaters are part of the new 70,000-square-foot Ford Orientation Center and Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center operated by the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, which funded the film. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to keeping memories and the spirit of Washington alive.

We Fight to Be Free was produced by Greystone Communications, which brought veteran screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd on board to author the script.

This was Van Oostrum’s second film for Greystone, following Fields of Freedom, about the Civil War battle at Gettysburg, which is screening at the Gettysburg National Military Park. The pairing of documentary makers with nonprofits, national parks and museums has a storied history. One of the most celebrated filmmakers to work this partnership was the late Charles Guggenheim, whose 1984 film Yorktown, about the last decisive battle of the Revolutionary War, screens at the Colonial National Historical Park. He also produced a trio of films—A Time for Justice (1994), The Shadow of Hate (1995) and The Klan: A Legacy of Hate in America (1982)—for the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Island of Hope, Island of Tears for Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

Van Oostrum brought a different perspective to We Fight To Be Free. He was born and raised in Amsterdam, Holland, where the life and times of George Washington was foreign history. Van Oostrum came to the US to study at AFI. He began his career shooting 16mm documentaries, and has compiled some 40 narrative credits and earned several Emmy nominations for cinematography since the early 1980s.

“Most people think of George Washington as the old man on the dollar bill who was the first president,” Van Oostrum says. “I saw this film as an opportunity to paint a more complete picture of him as a human being. He was also a heroic soldier, a man who fell in love at first sight with his future wife Martha, a brilliant general and a statesman who served his country and then willingly gave up power.” 

Van Oostrum made a significant contribution to the project before the first frame of film was exposed. The two Mount Vernon theaters are designed to accommodate a combined audience of 450 people, with images projected on 40-foot wide screens. The plan called for the installation of 1K resolution digital projectors. After conversations with Van Oostrum, a decision was made to upgrade to Christie 2K resolution projectors.

“The IMAX format comes closest to recreating the heightened sense of reality that we perceive with our eyes, but that format wasn’t a feasible option on this project,” he says. “I felt at least 2K resolution was needed to transport the audience to the time and place where history was being made, so they meet Washington on an intimate level.”

We Fight to Be Free was filmed at practical locations in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland, including the Mount Vernon estate and on the banks of the James River. The shooting schedule was three weeks in summer and one week in winter.

Van Oostrum shot five re-enactment scenes that spanned some 30 years of Washington’s life. In one epic sequence, Washington and his war council decide that the Continental Army will cross the Delaware River in the dead of winter and attack the British and Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey. There is a flashback to Washington at age 27 serving as a colonel in the French and Indian War. In one of the few interior scenes, the camera eavesdrops on Washington when he is introduced to his future wife at a social gathering. In another sequence, the camera follows him to Annapolis, where he resigns his commission at the end of the war. The final scene documents Washington returning to Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve in 1783.

Van Oostrum took an unorthodox approach to shooting We Fight to Be Free. All medium and closer-in shots were filmed in 35mm format, and big exterior sequences, including backgrounds for dialogue scenes, were shot in 65mm format. Van Oostrum feels the larger format film was necessary to capture the scope of the settings.

“There are scenes at the camp in Trenton, New Jersey, just before Washington and his army cross the Delaware River, where we want the audience to feel the cold of  winter,” he says. “They were staged at night and in the early morning hours. We wanted real mountains and trees in the backgrounds, because it is a much more organic feeling, but it was impractical to light the landscapes, so we shot day for night.” 

In that sequence and others, Van Oostrum used state-of-the art visual effects and digital intermediate (DI) technologies to turn summer into winter and daylight into night. 

He collaborated with visual effects supervisor Joe Grossberg on various shots, including integrating both computer-generated snowflakes and actors into scenes. Van Oostrum explains that some actors weren’t available when he was shooting at exterior locations. He filmed them in front of a green screen, and after the negative was transferred to digital format, the actors were composited into foregrounds of the location shots.

There were about 100 re-enacters available to participate in the project. Van Oostrum used a motion control device on the camera—the RevolveR Motion Control System, developed by Jackson Woodburn Controls—to multiply them into an army of some 400 troops. “It allows you to repeat the same panning-and-tilting camera moves, and zooming and focusing of the lens in different takes,” he explains.

Van Oostrum frequently covered battles and other big exteriors scenes with five or six cameras strategically placed to record images from different perspectives. One camera was usually operated at a high-speed frame rate, with that footage used for dramatic, slow-motion effects. Several remote control cameras were placed on the ground, looking up at troops advancing or retreating toward them.

About 90 percent of the 16 hours of film were recorded in Super 35 format because Van Oostrum wanted the speed and flexibility inherent in Zeiss Ultra-Speed spherical lenses. He notes that he needed a film stock with “extraordinary latitude” for the big daylight exterior scenes. He chose the new Kodak Vision 2 5201 color negative, a 50-speed film that is balanced for exposure in daylight. Interior and night scenes were recorded on Kodak Vision 2 5217 color negative, which has an exposure index of 200.

“We tried to be as true to the period as possible by using candles, fires and sunlight,” Van Oostrum explains. “We were burning real candles and augmenting them with small Chimeras soft box lights, when necessary. I occasionally used HMI lights angled to emulate sunlight coming through windows and also in some exterior scenes, but we tried to shoot as much as possible in natural light.”

The 35mm and 65mm negatives were processed by DeLuxe Labs. After offline editing was completed, the negatives were then scanned and converted to digital files. Los Angeles-based EFilm scanned the 35mm negative at 4K resolution, and DPK 70 MM, in Santa Monica, scanned the 65mm footage at 6K resolution. Van Oostrum explains that the labs scanned at higher resolutions than are needed for 2K projection in order to transfer as many nuances in details, colors and contrast as possible—and to provide an option for upgrading to 4K projection in the future. He put finishing touches on the look during digital intermediate (DI) timing with colorist Steve Scott at EFilm. 

Van Oostrum and Scott referenced paintings from and of the period before they began timing. The digital file was “rezzed down” to a 2K file in order to expedite interactive timing in the DI suite. The digital images were projected on a cinema-sized screen similar to the ones at Mount Vernon. DI technology enabled Van Oostrum and Scott to isolate and manipulate elements of shots, such as darkening the sky for day-for-night shots. In other shots, the filmmaker and colorist “slightly” desaturated colors, because it looked and felt right for the period, making the glow of candlelight, firelight and the candelabra in the war council scene warmer and the shadows darker.  

About 10 percent of We Fight to Be Free was produced in 65mm format, which, according to Van Oostrum, actually made a minimal impact on the budget, given that the state-of-the-art Panavision 65 camera package is amortized, so it rents for less than the best 35mm equipment.

“Look at it this way: Millions of people will see this film,” he says. “It costs less than one penny extra per person to ensure that they have a memorable experience and come away with a better understanding of this extraordinary human being.”


Bob Fisher has been writing about film preservation and cinematography for over 25 years.