Oscar-nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC, is known for an elegantly naturalistic approach to films that include ATONEMENT and NOWHERE BOY. His latest effort, THE AVENGERS, is a superhero summer blockbuster that represents a departure from his previous work. Directed by Joss Whedon, AVENGERS unites the revered Marvel comic book characters Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye. Although character-driven, the film is a spectacular showdown of heroic egos, adrenaline-pumping fight sequences, visual effects and slick sets.
Oscar-nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC, used the ARRI ALEXA digital camera system to shoot Marvel's THE AVENGERS, directed by Joss Whedon. McGarvey was impressed by ALEXA's low light performance and suitability for blue and greenscreen work.
Says the Irish native, "I was quite excited by the prospect of doing a film that would expand my horizons in terms of learning about visual effects on such a grand scale. I knew I would be employing a different cinematographic approach to a film like this."
THE AVENGERS also marks McGarvey's first venture into digital capture - a step he took with the ARRI ALEXA camera system. He says, "I had never tried to shoot or test a digital camera before, so for me it was a leap into the dark." It was in darkness where McGarvey first undertook comparison tests with ALEXA. "We shot under candlelight, bracketing the exposures," continues the cinematographer. "It was incredible how far we could go with the ALEXA before the image would start to break up."
ALEXA's base sensitivity of EI 800 and latitude of 14 stops were useful in low light and for night shooting. "The camera came into its own in those conditions, working in sets that were low key and shooting in large areas of night photography or just on the cusp of daylight and into night, where I was dependent on ambient lighting as well as conventional lighting," notes McGarvey. Shooting in ARRIRAW to Codex ARRIRAW recorders also allowed greater flexibility in post with uncompressed 12 bit logarithmic files.
Because of the high number of both interior and exterior visual effects shots, McGarvey undertook extensive testing. "We were going to shoot sometimes on a very large scale in situations where I couldn't control the ambient spill of daylight," he says. "I would have greenscreen lit with hard sun and shade at the same time, within the same shot. One of the first tests I did was to see the tolerance of various camera systems in terms of latitude and ability to extract a key from blue and greenscreen in those ambient lighting conditions. The ALEXA had more range and produced a cleaner key in all conditions."
McGarvey was convinced the camera would render the images he wanted, so much so that he purchased one of the first ALEXA Plus models in time for production and named it Schatzi de Bayer. He notes, "She's doing really well, I recently upgraded her to do slow motion. I love the camera." In all, the camera package on AVENGERS consisted of four ALEXAS and an ARRIFLEX 435 for high speed shooting (higher frame rates were not available on ALEXA at the time of the shoot).
The director and DP defined a unique visual approach together. "Joss and I were keen on having a very visceral and naturalistic quality to the image," says McGarvey. "We wanted this to feel immersive and did not want a 'comic book look' that might distance an audience with the engagement of the film. We moved the camera a lot on Steadicam, cranes and on dollies to create kinetic images; and we chose angles that were dramatic, like low angles for heroic imagery."
The frame was composed for the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, a concept that was spearheaded by Whedon early on. Explains McGarvey, "Shooting 1.85:1 is kind of unusual for an epic film like this, but we needed the height in the screen to be able to frame in all the characters like Hulk, Captain America and Black Widow, who is much smaller. We had to give them all precedence and width within the frame. Also, Joss knew the final battle sequence was going to be this extravaganza in Manhattan, so the height and vertical scale of the buildings was going to be really important."
The film originated in 2D and was then converted to 3D in postproduction, utilizing the Stereo D process. "I've shot a little 3D, but never really worked in it," says McGarvey. "I've always approached it with a very highly raised eyebrow and now I must say I'm a convert with a movie like this. It's really striking to see how well the 3D works."
For the climactic battle sequence that takes place on the streets of Manhattan, the film actually shot inside an abandoned factory located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where an enormous set was painstakingly created with a greenscreen backdrop. These scenes were later composited with shots of Grand Central Station in the background. "It really feels like an exterior daylight scenario but it was all done indoors," continues the cinematographer. "We bounced about 40 ARRI 18Ks [ARRIMAXes] up into white UltraBounces in the ceiling to produce our ambient light. I used 8'x8' Mylar mirrors with 18Ks spotted up into them to produce hard light kicking off glass buildings. It allowed us to work uninterrupted while it rained or blew a gale outside. For the amount of action that takes place in the movie, it produced amazing consistency in lighting terms."
Color timing took place at EFILM in Los Angeles, with colorist Steve Scott. Says McGarvey, "There is so much information we have to work with and it's really great how clean the image looks when it comes in. I'm looking forward to doing another film with ALEXA."
As one of the most anticipated movies of the year, THE AVENGERS promises to wow audiences with stunts and explosions. However, the production was always conscious that the audience had to feel for the main characters within this surreal world. "There's so much energy in this film," says McGarvey. "There's an imperative to create an excitement and to have very fast-cut sequences. But one of my favorite scenes was with actors Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson. It is quite low key; there's nothing flashy or experimental, but it's a classical bit of drama and mise-en-scène before we go back to our roller coaster ride."
THE AVENGERS opens in theaters internationally beginning April 25 and in the US on May 4.
-- An Tran
A basic explanation of the XT Fan that is available as an upgrade for all ALEXA Classic cameras and how to distinguish it from the ALEXA Classic fan.