A Q&A with Dean Semler, ASC, about Disney's take on the great racehorse.
The new film Secretariat, about the 1973 Triple Crown winner, attempts to boldly go where no camera has gone before: smack in the middle of a thundering pack of thoroughbred horses. “We wanted to capture the excitement of the race and were willing to do it in ways that no one else had tried,” says director Randall Wallace. “We were skimming cameras an inch over the ground, so close to the hooves that you can see the light reflected in the horseshoes. The dirt is flying, and it’s all real.”
The cinematographer tasked with accomplishing this was Dean Semler, ASC, ACS, with whom Wallace had previously collaborated on We Were Soldiers (AC Feb. ’02). Semler has frequently worked with horses, most notably in Dances With Wolves (AC May ’91), for which he won an Academy Award. As he points out, though, “thoroughbreds are different beasts. They’re ultra-sensitive, and they’re born to race.”
Secretariat re-creates all of the famous horse’s astonishing accomplishments, including his 31-length victory at the Belmont, a grueling race known as “the graveyard of speed horses,” but the film’s focus is on the lesser-known background story.
Based on William Nack’s book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, the film follows Peggy Chenery (Diane Lane) after she takes over her father’s horse farm upon his death. It’s a woman-against-the-odds story, as Chenery struggles to succeed in the all-male world of thoroughbred racing. With her stable deep in debt, she literally bets the farm on her horse, a risky gamble given that his bloodline excelled in speed, not distance. In charting Secretariat’s rise, the film covers six races: his first; the first he won; a crucial one he lost; and the Triple Crown, comprising the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. Filmed over 42 days, Secretariat was shot mostly on location in Kentucky and Louisiana, including at the tracks Churchill Downs, Evangeline Downs and Keeneland Racetrack.
AC caught up with Semler just as he was heading off to the Australian Outback to prep another Mad Max film for George Miller. [...]
Published in the November 2010 issue of American Cinematographer