Video & Filmmaking

Frames Per Second: Telling a Boxer’s Comeback Story

December 16, 2013

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Tom Cwenar

Photographer/director Tom Cwenar was hired by managers for Paul Spadafora to create stills and video for the boxer's website as part of an effort to raise his profile among both boxing promoters and fans. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

In creating a video for professional boxer Paul Spadafora, photographer and director Tom Cwenar could have captured the clichés of boxing movies: lots of action, quick cuts and jabs, or menacing stares. Instead, “Paul Spadafora: The Pittsburgh Kid” captures the boxer’s fierce determination. Its emotion is underscored by the atmospheric lighting and the soundtrack: Spadafora’s own words, set to a simple melody played on the piano.

Cwenar, a Pittsburgh-based photographer who has shot video for such commercial clients as the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, Millennium Partners, Seacoast National Bank and the University of Miami, says he knew little about boxing before he worked with Spadafora. “I’m now a fan,” he says, after “seeing how dedicated Paul is to his craft. He lives and breathes what he does.”

A professional boxer since 1995, Spadafora held the title of IBF lightweight champion from 1999 to 2003. Then he was arrested multiple times, had trouble with alcohol and served time in prison. Since 2006, he has rebuilt his career and gone undefeated in 48 bouts. His managers, Unrico Abbondanza and Brandon Cercone, were eager to get him fights with higher profile fighters, but to do that they needed to raise Spadafora’s visibility both with fans and with fight promoters.

Abbondanza, an occasional model who had worked with Cwenar on ad campaigns, asked him to shoot both stills and video to capture Spadafora’s redemptive story. Although the budget was small, Cwenar says the assignment intrigued him, and he was given carte blanche to tell the story however he wished.

“My goal was to show how hard he works,” Cwenar says. “He’s made mistakes, and he wants to take advantage of the second chance he’s been given.”

The shoot took place in a gritty gym in Pittsburgh that Cwenar found with help from Spadafora’s managers, who brought in props, including old-school punching bags and Spadafora’s gloves and headgear. Cwenar says his preproduction planning paid off. He spent a day at the gym scouting shots, trying different lenses, looking for window light he could mix with HMI lights and watching how the sunlight might move throughout the day. Having gathered information about the location, he says, “It’s helpful to sleep on it,” before coming up with a storyboard of shots. Storyboarding he explains, “gives you a good idea of what gear you need to bring for print and video,” though he notes, “things can change quickly when you have the real model or subject in front of you.”

He brought three ARRI D5 HMI 575W lights, two ARRI D12 HMI 1200W lights, and stands to use in both the video and still shoots. “I wanted to keep the light simple but somewhat dramatic,” he says. “I didn’t want a lot of power because I was shooting so wide open. I also didn’t want to get into a situation where I couldn’t blend light” from the HMIs and windows. He also masked off part of the lights, so they mimicked the shape of the windows.

One of the first shots in the video shows Spadafora running up the metal staircase of the gym. Cwenar considered directing lights upward, but decided instead to shoot at 11 AM when morning light was streaming in from the windows, to capture the boxer in silhouette. In other shots, he used the HMIs, moving them closer or further away from the subject depending on how much window light he had available. His goal was to keep the lighting looking consistent throughout the day. “You don’t want to be shooting in direct light in one shot and then bounced light in another,” he says. At one point when he was shooting Spadafora, Cwenar recalls, “The sun changed and we had these huge streaks of light coming and I thought: That’s not going to match.” He stopped shooting, and moved to a less sun-lit section of the gym.

With only a day to capture still photos and all the motion footage for the project, Cwenar shared shooting with his director of photography, Cory Morton. At times, while Cwenar was shooting stills, Morton would shoot video. Cwenar shot stills using the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III; for video, he and Morton used Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera bodies and several prime lenses. “The widest was a 35mm prime f/1.4 and the longest lens was a 200mm prime f/2.” Because he was filming so much movement—including Spadafora jumping rope, running and sparring—Cwenar wanted to keep camera movement to a minimum, and chose to use a tripod and a three-foot-long slider to steady the shots.

To edit the video, Cwenar first picked out the footage he liked, then Morton edited it and adjusted color. The editing went smoothly, Cwenar says, thanks in part to the creative control his clients gave him. “It turned out exactly like I had it in my head,” he says.

During the shoot, he and Morton had recorded ambient sounds, such as Spadafora’s breathing, footsteps, taping his hands and punches hitting the punching bag. Cwenar had expected to work those audio recordings into the soundtrack, along with a high-energy score, but the emotion the sounds and music evoked didn’t feel right.

He called on composer Jay Green at Big Science Music, a post-production house and audio studio in Pittsburgh that has won a Cannes Lion award for its work on commercials. Green says, “Tom sent me the video. I said, ‘I love it. Let me play with it for a few days.’”

Green composed a simple tune he played on the piano. Relying on notes Cwenar had made after several conversations with Spadafora, Green wrote a script for the minute-and-a-half-long video. The voiceover begins about 20 seconds into the video with the words: “I’m a fighter. That’s what I do. That’s who I am.” Green recorded himself reading the script. “Then I had Tom come over, and he loved it.”

Next, Spadafora had to read it, and he approved. In the recording studio at Big Science, Green read each line of the script, then Spadafora would repeat it until he had recorded the entire script. Says Cwenar, “Jay has such great sense of timing in getting the pacing of the words down.” The soundtrack was simple but effective, accomplishing Cwenar’s goal of delivering an authentic and emotional story. He says, “A lot of work went into creating the imagery, and then the icing on the cake was to get the right sound. When I heard it, I knew that was it.”

Watch the video below:

Paul Spadafora: The Pittsburgh Kid from Cwenar on Vimeo.

Related Articles:

Tom Cwenar Photo Gallery
Frames Per Second: Depicting Speed in Slow Motion
Frames Per Second: A Corporate Story, Told By a Journalist