Among the long history of boxing films, the “Creed” films have stood apart from their predecessors in the genre in how they shoot the action in the ring. In fact, as the new “Creed III” demonstrates, they even stand apart from each other.
“Creed III” sees series star Michael B. Jordan make his directorial debut with a threequel in which Adonis comes face-to-face with his childhood friend Damian (Jonathan Majors), a Golden Gloves-winning amateur boxer who went to jail for reasons not immediately revealed. Feeling that the success and opportunity Creed enjoys was taken from him, Dame’s initially warm reunion with the now-retired champion turns south, culminating in a deeply personal fight before a sold-out crowd at Dodger Stadium.
But after an initial exchange of haymakers between Creed and Dame, the fight abruptly transforms, plunging the two fighters and the audience into a surreal dream world. The thousands of roaring fans in Chavez Ravine disappear, the stadium lights replaced by a hazy glow. It is a world that “Creed III” cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau said Jordan had always envisioned for the film’s climax from the moment the film was greenlit.
“That sequence, which we called ‘The Void,’ was always in MBJ’s vision exactly as how we executed it,” Morgenthau, who also served as the DP for “Creed II,” told TheWrap. “He described it as these two men, who are halves of a greater whole, finally working through years and years of trauma in a poetic space where everything else drops out. It’s some of the most exciting work I’ve ever been involved in as a cinematographer.”
Even veteran referee Tony Weeks disappears as the two men throw hands at each other with each blow echoing in this silent world. Every punch is a desperate attempt to unload the pain and regret of the past. A sweeping right hand by Creed knocks Dame not into the ring ropes, but into the bars of his jail cell. He deals out a counterattack that sends Creed into a corner where the turnbuckle pads are replaced with a mattress from the group home where he and Dame lived, far away from the glamorous world of a boxing legacy his father built for himself.
It’s an artistic choice that is unlike any fight seen in a boxing series that has found new cinematic spins on the sweet science. Adonis’ gripping debut fight in director Ryan Coogler’s 2015 film takes place in a single take, showing the natural ability Adonis has in the ring and his chemistry with his famous trainer, Rocky Balboa. That chemistry turns into a surrogate father-son relationship in Coogler’s climax, as the blood and violence of a championship fight in Everton is secondary to the passionate exchanges between rounds with Rocky and the son of his dearest friend.
That too feels a world away from the pair of violent duels Adonis gets in with Viktor Drago in Steven Caple Jr.’s “Creed II,” where the camera regularly enters slow-motion and lingers on the broken ribs and anguished faces of Jordan and co-star Florian Munteau. The rage burning through both men, handed down from the past generation, leads to brutal, physical consequences captured by Morgenthau’s lens.
“We always wanted to differentiate the fight with Dame from ‘Creed II,’ but we really didn’t have to come up with any tricks with that specifically in mind,” Morgenthau said. “We weren’t even thinking about the last film. Michael just had such a strong vision of what this fight was going to look like, and that vision allowed everything to organically grow into something unique.”
In “Creed III,” the transformation of emotional pain into physical pain happens once again as Dame seeks to injure the friend he believes betrayed him, but the focus during the fight is more on connecting the present to the past. Morgenthau explains that as they shot the dream world sequences of the fight, he, Jordan and the film’s lighting team took extra care to match the lights used in each shot to those used during different flashbacks to Creed and Dame’s troubled childhoods.
“We used a 12mm wide lens to delineate the transition from the stadium into The Void, and the lighting switches to a swirling … almost like a tornado around them,” he said. “There’s some shots where the color temperature of the light in the void matches the light of the liquor store where Creed and Dame had that traumatic moment that split them apart. Then it switches to the orange lighting of the group home they lived in and there’s some police lights that come in. It almost became experimental theater as we shot it.”
Still, Jordan and Morgenthau never forgot that this is still a boxing match and Creed is a champion on a mission. But even there, Jordan had ideas for new ways to visually present Adonis’ excellent boxing IQ. Drawing inspiration from the fight-filled shounen anime shows he watched growing up, like “Dragon Ball Z,” he worked with Morgenthau to create a style the DP called “hypervision.”
“In both the opening and final fight we used a motion-control camera to slow everything down so we could show the process of how Creed sees an opening and is able to get through Damian’s guard and start to connect with the punches,” he said.
As a six-time Emmy nominee, Morgenthau’s body of work includes episodes of “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire,” as well as Marvel films like “Thor: The Dark World” and the upcoming “Captain America: New World Order.” But he says that working on the “Creed” sequels has been a unique chapter in his career.
And indeed, “Creed” has become a rather unique blockbuster franchise in today’s Hollywood, given how much it is driven by down-to-earth human drama. While ideas like “The Void” and “hypervision” help give “Creed III” its big-screen spectacle, Morgenthau also cherished shooting the film’s quieter moments, such as Creed and Dame’s first meeting in decades in a cozy diner, or the tender family moments Adonis has with his wife Bianca, played by Tessa Thompson, both in their happier moments and during times of mourning.
“Jordan recognizes that ‘Creed’ and ‘Rocky’ use boxing as a vehicle for humanity,” he said. “This is an intense story about two men with the same dream and one has to watch the other fulfill those dreams from jail. It’s the kind of story you don’t see in major studio pictures often these days, and it’s a dream to be able to shoot one of them.”