Men of Action

June 1, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

Stephen Windon, ACS and his Local 600 crew become “real American heroes” for this summer’s mega-action flick, G.I. Joe: Retaliation. By Margot Carmichael Lester. Photos by Jaimie Trueblood/Paramount Pictures.

Come on, admit it. When you were a kid you fashioned a mountain range from couch cushions and staged a daring climb for your G.I. Joe figures. Maybe you dreamt up fantastical fight sequences and car chases, earning bonus points for any realistic explosions using caps and small fireworks. Today, of course, most kids do it all in video games. But no matter the medium, it’s still a fact of childhood that if you can dream it, your action hero can be it.

Director Jon Chu (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) is no exception. Getting to direct G.I. Joe: Retaliation was a childhood dream come true. (His favorite Joe was Roadblock [portrayed in the film by Dwayne Johnson], a big guy who was always rhyming and having fun.) “He was the glue that kept G.I. Joe together,” recalls Chu, who also was a fan of superhero movies – especially Batman. “I love a fantastical world grounded by human beings – that’s where I got a lot of inspiration. Joes are real human beings. No matter how extraordinary they are, they have the same issues my family or team has.”

That grounding set the stage for Chu’s telling of the action figure’s story in G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Or as the film’s director of photography, Stephen Windon, ACS, explains: “Though turning a toy into a film character in front of our cameras could be considered fantasy, Jon and the filmmakers agreed that we could really take a ride with the ‘Joes.’ Sweat, scratches and battle scars, scuff marks on a helmet or costume help us believe that these characters really exist.”

To nail the look and feel, Windon and Chu referenced old costume designs sent over by Hasbro, the toymakers who created the G.I. Joe action figure in 1964, and then later a team of “Joes” who do battle with the evil action figure, Cobra, bent on world domination through terrorism.

“There were such different worlds [in the film],” Chu continues. “Pakistan, a dojo in Japan, a run-down gym and Arlington cemetery – we needed a palette for each one. We also didn’t want it to be cartoon-y, so we planned texture-on-texture, pattern-on-pattern. The dirtier the better, because we were going to such fantastic extremes, and you have to ground that.”

The pair’s unique workflow included carpooling to the set each day. “I’ve never done that before,” Chu states. “You have to get up a little earlier, but it was the most helpful thing. Those were the moments when Stephen and I would go through cut lists or whatever and come up with new ideas. You’re putting yourself in a position to create. Nothing’s forced. That’s where the magic happens.”

Windon was equally inclusive with his camera department, running through most days’ events at crew call. “How I see the shots, mud maps of camera positions with lenses and frame rates, whether on a crane or dolly, handheld, et cetera,” the DP explains. “My key first assistant, Greg Irwin, and I have worked on many films together, and we applied this strategy to our bigger action days.”

In fact, Windon relied on Irwin from the early stages of prep, whether it was helping to apply the conceptual style in a practical way or accompanying him on a location scout to better understand logistical challenges. “It’s great to be included this much in pre-production, and Steve is the only DP that has done that for me,” Irwin says. “[The knowledge] allows me to convey these challenges to my entire crew so we have a better understanding of our goals. Interdepartmental communication is paramount, and having a camera crew that is at the top of their craft is crucial. I had both.”

Of course a cohesive approach was also key in creating authentic on-screen action, achieved through a mix of live action and CGI. “I like to spend a lot of time with the director before we even build a set,” Windon describes. “Marking up on the stage floor or going to locations and simply taking in the space and environment. Quite often Jon and I would use models and miniatures to stage the action sequences. Once sets are close to being finished, I like to spend more time there with the director prior to shooting.”

One such sequence involved high- and low-tech planning. In it, Ninja Joes and their foes tangle on a craggy mountainside. The action included climbing and zip-lining on a near-vertical rock face.

“We had to do previs to get everyone on the same page,” Chu says. “I worked with a great mountain climber [and stunt coordinator] Paul Borne. We grabbed a bunch of G.I. Joes and used the couch to make a set [to determine] the timing and physics of how it would work. We had to block how the ninjas and bad guys would fall, how they’d zip-line. It was hilarious.”

Background plates for the scene were shot on location at Butte Mountain, near Whistler, British Columbia. The second unit crew, led by director George Marshall Ruge and DP Patrick Loungway, included an aerial team, stunt people, a crane and handhelds used by mountaineers suspended on platforms along the cliff. “We worked out every detail that we could through two months prep and one month scouting,” says Borne. “Filming at over 9,000 feet on a remote snow-covered mountain with our only access via helicopter is serious.”

“Steve [Windon] was very clear what he was going for,” Loungway adds. But Fred North, the pilot, assessed the original location and realized there was very little room to get in there. “It was really limited in what we could achieve practically and safely,” Loungway says.

Despite the logistical challenges, North, and aerial DP David B. Nowell, ASC, who have worked together on demanding action sequences for the Pirates of the Caribbean series and Terminator Salvation, were confident they could exceed expectations. “Some things in the previs are impossible,” Nowell explains. “You see what they want, but the person designing it has no idea of what the terrain or local conditions really are. Often, the look from the ground is spectacular, but the helicopter can’t get that close. I always say we try to get them what they want, then give them what they need.”

Nowell relied on North’s expert flying skills. He used an Eclipse with an ARRI 435 – modified with a high-def video tap because he couldn’t actually look through the viewfinder. Framing was anamorphic using KODAK VISION2 50D Color Negative Film 5201. “We exploited the capabilities of the camera system so we could look down and still roll and pan,” Nowell explains. “We got shots looking straight down on the people on the zip-lines going through pillars of rock. Lots of quick cuts.”

Next they shot at an 11,000-foot sheer granite cliff. Previs showed two of the Ninja Joes, Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Yung) hiking to a vantage point to get to a monastery where a fight would later take place.

“We went in for beauty shots at first, but when they saw what we could do, they wanted more,” Nowell notes. “We had the stunt doubles walk on the ridge line. I was using a 250-millimeter lens so I could get tight waist-to-figures with the background whirling around. We opened it up to the vistas, the terrain, snow, ridgelines and cliffs. It just kept evolving. That’s how it works with aerial. The visual effects supervisor James Madigan, VES said [opening it up] made the sequence.”

Adds Loungway, “It’s nice for CG to have something to start with so they’re not creating [imagery] that has no basis in reality. And [the platework] set the tone for what we recreated on the giant green screen at NASA. That exterior work set a high standard for veracity.”

Ah, yes. The green screen. Windon says he would have preferred to shoot daytime scenes requiring chroma screen photography in an exterior environment. “I can shoot in mostly natural light, using sun control and large overheads from boom lifts and cranes,” he states. “But the schedule determined that we had to shoot interior green screen on a stage.” Not just any soundstage – the set was constructed inside a shuttered NASA Michoud Assembly Facility outside of New Orleans. The building, where the Space Shuttle fuel tanks were manufactured, provided a 200-foot ceiling that was perfect for recreating the mountainside and many other sequences. “It took three weeks to pre-rig, all lights and fixtures set up through dimmers for shooting day and night sequences,” says Windon.

To aid in matching the green screen capture, Windon asked Loungway and Nowell to shoot as much as they could on the shaded side of the mountain range. “This would help a lot as I believe you cannot shoot wide green screen ‘environmental’ shots on a sound stage and recreate sunlight,” Windon says. “Perhaps on a stylized fantasy movie, but not G.I. Joe.”

The sequence required an enormous amount of lighting. “Gaffer Andy Ryan set up 8 hybrid helium balloons, a mix of tungsten globes and HMI [from Sourcemaker],” Windon continues. “I wanted the slightly cooler color temperature from above as this matched the crisp blue skies from the plate photography in B.C. and reflected nicely in the ninja costumes and provided natural skin tones. This was supplemented with 15 x 20Ks bounced off 40-foot by 40-foot ultra bounce.”

Loungway says the cavernous structure enabled the crew to act as if they were really shooting on the side of a cliff. “We imagined how we’d shoot it if we where there – using a helicopter or a mountain climber in position,” he relates. “We had as much freedom of movement as possible. Those shots were fanciful – you could never shoot in that real environment because you could never rig it.”

The final result delighted the director. “I love the sequence because I’ve never seen climbing like that – it was almost like anti-gravity Jedis!” Chu relates.

The NASA location also was used to film a scene in which the Joes raid a villain’s nuclear weapons facility. “For this sequence, we had up to eight cameras working on all levels of this building everyday, top to bottom,” Irwin recalls. “It was great fun to shoot but it was a logistic nightmare. It was a military raid, so we fired thousands of rounds of ammunition that left all of us a bit shell shocked. It takes all of my concentration to not jump, keep my eyes open and perform my job.”

Michoud wasn’t the only draw for shooting in Louisiana. The City of New Orleans and Louisiana both offer tax incentives ranging from money spent with Louisiana-based companies to rebates for hiring local employees. “The reason for filming as many practical locations in the New Orleans and surrounding areas is because of the many iconic locations,” explains Elston James Howard, the film’s location manager. “One of the more unique examples is when we filmed for several weeks at Fort Pike, which is a national historical Civil War fort that is still in pristine condition.” Another key location was an old gravel pit in St. Francisville, northwest of New Orleans. “Once a gravel pit has been stripped of all the existing gravel it becomes a landscape of white sand,” Howard says. “We needed a desert-like environment for one of our ambush scenes, making this the obvious choice.”

Cool, right? Not so much. “The daytime temperature of the sand was measured at over 140 degrees Fahrenheit! The air temp was close to 100 degrees with intense humidity and we were all humping loads of camera gear over and through the sand dunes,” Irwin recalls. “At night there was little relief since the humidity would increase leaving everyone and everything hot and wet. That was brutal.”

But it wasn’t all bad, says second unit A-camera and steadicam operator Colin Hudson. “This is my ninth job in Louisiana, most of them in New Orleans,” he says. “It’s filled with good people, good crew, good drinks and good food. I have no problem shooting there. If they closed their bars earlier we’d probably get more sleep.”

Everyone on the Joe camera team needed a good night’s sleep for the super-charged fight scene between Snake Eyes and Jinx on a dojo rooftop (also shot at the NASA facility).

“We used extensive Steadicam,” Hudson describes, “to keep the camera wide for the full visual of the swordplay, quick wrap-arounds and push-ins to see the details of the characters’ expressions, or even a cut on Snake Eyes’ hand. I got to fly the Arri 235, which allowed me to really use whip pans and aggressive operating.”

The sequence was broken into several parts.

“Starting in the dojo, jumping out onto trees, through swinging bells, into a hallway and ending up back outside knee-deep in a koi pond,” Hudson recounts. “[It was] incredibly fun – but made our 1st AC, Jimmy Jensen, hate me because of all the changing focal distances. But because Jimmy was so good, he got it right.”

“Everything’s a bigger deal on action films,” adds Chu. “That can draw your focus away from telling the story with the actors and the cameras. But on this film, everybody was on point and that allowed me to make sure we got the shots.”

Windon’s trick on big-budget action flicks (his résumé includes two films in the Fast and the Furious franchise and the upcoming Fast and Furious 6) is to keep a small checklist attached to the back set security ID. “Camera movement, camera speed, shutter and story, just words that apply to that production,” he explains. “You may not use them all or any of them for that matter; it just gets you thinking about what what’s important [to an action film’s success]. Even for a one- or two-second shot, there is always added energy when the camera can move.”

As for Chu, he says he can’t wait for the film to hit theatres. “When you’re dealing with G.I. Joe and multiple companies, it can be overwhelming,” he admits. “But G.I. Joe inspired me as a kid to create. I’m convinced I learned storytelling from playing with my toys. To pass that on and spark kids’ imaginations is really great. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most.”

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