GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

One of the most critically and commercially successful films of 2014, Marvel Studios' GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY relays the adventures of a disparate group of intergalactic misfits, on the run from space cowboys and blue-skinned aliens. Directed and co-written by James Gunn, the film was shot by British cinematographer Ben Davis, BSC, who spoke with ARRI News about working with ALEXA XT on GUARDIANS, as well as on his subsequent film with Marvel Studios, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, which he shot in the ARRIRAW Open Gate format. The ALEXA XT camera packages for both films were supplied by Panavision, along with Primo lenses.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY trailer

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY relays the adventures of a disparate group of intergalactic misfits, on the run from space cowboys and blue-skinned aliens. Directed and co-written by James Gunn, the film was shot with ALEXA XT cameras by British cinematographer Ben Davis, BSC.

Was there a testing process to decide what cameras to use on GUARDIANS? What led you to ALEXA XT?

 

We tested several camera platforms, including film, and the way I view the different digital cameras available out there is like different film stocks. It's a question of which film stock is the best one for a particular shoot.

 

One of the reasons I like the ALEXA XT is because it's user-friendly. I like the way the camera is set up and I understand the thinking behind it; ARRI has been making cameras for professional filmmakers for many years, so they have a much better idea of what's required than the newer camera manufacturers.

 

I knew we were going to have a lot of hot practical sources in frame and on all the tests I saw, the ALEXA had the best dynamic range; the highlights seemed to hold a lot better and the highlights retained more color than other cameras. 

It's a very colorful film -- was color always going to be an important element of the look?

Yes, absolutely. In all the concept work it was clear that the world we were building wanted to be colorful, while also having a veneer of grit and grime. We had green, blue and pink characters, so there was a lot of color and there's no point having characters that are made up of vibrant colors and then going for a desaturated look. 

One of the reasons I like the ALEXA XT is because it's user-friendly. I like the way the camera is set up and I understand the thinking behind it.

Everybody's used to space being portrayed as a very black and dark place, but we delved into imagery from the Hubble telescope and there are these beautiful, colorful images of cosmic dust clouds, so that was an important reference for us. In general the ALEXA is very true to color; the colors were represented by the camera in the same way as they appeared to my eye.

 

Color, especially skin tone, is a priority for ARRI sensor technology and you had a lot of different skin tones.

 

Yes, I think we were pushing the colorimetry of the camera to the limit, especially as one of our characters was green. In terms of how the human eye sees color you can have quite large variations in the blue or yellow channels, between warm and cold, but as soon as you start playing with green or magenta, the human eye is much more sensitive and therefore the camera has to be very sensitive, too. Tiny changes in that color range can be difficult and so having a green character was quite challenging, but the ALEXA delivered everything we wanted. We did a lot of pre-testing with the makeup of our colored characters and the ALEXA handled all of that very well.

Did you make adjustments to the camera's color temperature setting from setup to setup?

Not setup to setup; I tried to keep it slightly more disciplined than that because otherwise you're spending all your time on set being a colorist instead of a DP. We had one fairly basic LUT for the show, but then on top of that we had CDLs for individual sets. The first port of call for images coming off the camera was the DI tent and then everything branched out from there onto monitors calibrated with the LUT and the CDLs. We also programmed an ARRI Lookup File into the camera that replicated our LUT, for situations where we were untethered and wanted a decent picture on the on-board monitor.

I've shot four or five movies with the ALEXA but I'm still finding the right balance of where to be on set, whether it's by the cameras or looking at a monitor. On GUARDIANS we mostly worked with two cameras and I had operators on both of them, so I spent a lot of time looking at a monitor in a black tent with the director and discussing each shot, running between there and the set. On my next film I'm going to be operating the A-camera, so that will be different; it changes depending on the film.

Was it liberating being able to record ARRIRAW in-camera with the ALEXA XT?

Well there was a lot of action and for that you need your camera to be as portable as possible, so it's nice to be freed from an external recording device. It's also a more robust setup because you're not relying on a cable connection. The XT is a far better configuration and sped the whole process up.

On all the tests I saw, the ALEXA had the best dynamic range; the highlights seemed to hold a lot better and the highlights retained more color.

We were framing for a 2.40:1 image but we kept the full ARRIRAW 4:3 area as clean as we could. For the IMAX version they changed the aspect ratio for some visual effects-heavy sequences, going to the taller IMAX frame, so having that extra image information available was obviously very helpful.

 

And you shot with ALEXA XT cameras again on AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON?

 

Yes, and we used the new Open Gate format. In fact we shot Open Gate for the whole movie and created our own frame size within that, leaving about a 5% protection area around the edges for any sort of visual effects adjustment in post. Out of that frame size we were extracting a 2.40:1 image, but generally speaking we tried to keep the full Open Gate area clear so that visual effects had as much information to work with as possible and also to help build the offset second image for the 3D post conversion. The Open Gate worked very well and it was reassuring to know that we were recording the largest area we could for a better image when projected on a large screen.