Behind the Scenes with Cinematographer Boyd Estus

Cinematographer Boyd Estus talks about filming the Pioneer Zephyr exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and the joys of shooting historical documentaries.

Transcript from interview with Boyd Estus:
Well, the streamline train in particular was a sort of major shift in train technology, and it also has all these sort of things that spin off it -- the whole design movement, the streamline design movement. And it was a great leap forward in technology. It speeded things up, it cost much less money and at that point it saved, coming out of the depression, it saved the train industry.

There are two different streamliners that were the original two. There's the Union Pacific one, and then the Zephyr, which started in that area in Chicago. And there are not many of either of those still in any shape at all to be seen, so we had to be able to tell the story through archival footage which is fairly good, and through places that either -- or objects that somehow reflect off of that. And so in Omaha for instance, there's a train station that was a major stop on one of the streamline runs, and it's now a museum. And we were able to do moves and camera moves and overlays in there that sort of evoked that period, what it was like to ride those trains. In Chicago, at the Museum of Science and Industry, we were trying to look closely at one of these trains and see exactly what the textures were, and the surfaces, and so on.

We wanted the train, first of all, to look good, to look luscious, you know, it is in fact the very first shot in the film. So it had to sell the idea of the train as a very special thing, and we were basically treating the train more as an object than a piece of transportation on a track.

Any shiny surface like that tends not to show up very much in the image unless you have an illuminated surface that it's reflecting because at one level it's not there. It's only reflecting what's around it. A mirror is the ultimate example of that. And what that means in practice is you have to have very large illuminated surfaces around the object to bounce back so that when you look at the object you're seeing that illuminated surface behind.

Well, the issue in Chicago was scale. The train's very large and the space that it's in is extremely constricted, and the only main space was off the front end of the train. The alleyway to the side where the parking garage was had glass walls, and we were able to put frosted material on those walls and backlight so we could extend our light sources down the side of the train.

There are two joys in this job. One is the craft or art that you're doing. And the other is you get to learn about things and be places you'd never have the opportunity to do. And especially in a show like AMERICAN EXPERIENCE where the things that you -- there's no way to meet these people and often to see things without being there on a film shoot.

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The Railroad revolutionized American travel. What trains have you been on? Do you have any memories of Streamliners? Have you been in a Pullman car? Share your most memorable train ride.