Ben Davis, BSC, helps debut a pre-Avengers super-heroine as Captain Marvel takes flight
Early press for Captain Marvel included a remark from Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige indicating that the film’s titular character (played by Brie Larson) is the most powerful hero in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. But when rating a superhero’s success, it’s often as much about character as it is special powers (which may explain Batman’s long-term popularity, and why that dark knight often works better on-screen than his man-of-steel counterpart, Superman).
Fortunately for audiences, the Captain, aka Carol Danvers, is invested with plenty of complexity. In her back story, Danvers was an injured test pilot saved by extraterrestrial intervention, and over the course of the film, as she finds her way home to earth, the limits of her powers are tested. That begins another path of discovery and one that will lead into how she factors into the upcoming Avengers: Endgame.
Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, brought aboard for their fresh indie-minded perspectives, chose Ben Davis, BSC, as their cinematographer. Davis is no stranger to the MCU, having shot Avengers: Age of Ultron and Doctor Strange, as well as dramas like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He says Captain Marvel straddled the differing sensibilities of these contrasting projects.
“It’s very character-centric and all about Danvers’ emotional journey,” Davis relates. “Much of the work is very intimate, and the choice of lens was key because the camera is either following her or leading her into these new environments. When Brie’s character arrives on Earth, it can’t be that you’re already there and watch her arrive; you have to go along with her in order to feel the emotional arc she travels.”
While the action spans worlds, Davis found the most welcome challenge in its setting of Earth in the recent past. “I liked getting the chance to shoot this portrayal of an extraordinary character against a realistic environment, which helped ground the movie,” he elaborates. “Setting it in the 1990s meant there was a visual language in place, one that provided ideas for how we’d move the camera.”
Davis says he, Boden and Fleck wanted the technological side of camera movement minimized, so there wasn’t much in the way of CableCam rigs or expansive crane shots. “But we did use zooms and quite a bit of handheld,” he adds. “There was a lot we took from 1970s films, which is my favorite period owing to all those great Gordon Willis films and The French Connection [shot by Owen Roizman, ASC]. That approach kept things real because we didn’t want the camera flying around in all directions.”
The large-format ARRI ALEXA 65 was the primary capture device, though some scenes utilized Panavision DXL2s, which cut well with RED WEAPON VV Monstro units used in tight spaces.
“Ben liked the Alexa 65 for how it rendered the fabric,” 1stAC Bill Coe recalls. “With all the different costumes featured, that was pretty important.” Coe recalls that early camera tests went significantly beyond shooting lens charts. “We shot actors in costume and prosthetic make-ups from Legacy Effects, which was a real plus, letting Ben make serious decisions about looks up front.”
For a flashback to Danvers as a young girl, four BlackMagic Micros were mounted to a go-cart. “It used to be that the quality drop was significant with small units, but these GoPro-sized systems are very high quality,” he declares. “You can put really good lenses on them and set shutter and iris appropriately.”
Davis favored a series of rehoused Canon K35s for much of the film. “Panavision’s Dan Sasaki tailor-made some beautiful glass for us,” he continues. “For the period sequences, we wanted a softer look that was essentially like film. Then, for space scenes, we usually went cleaner, using Panavision Spheros, which was another way to build contrast between the environments. But Dan’s tailor-made lenses were so beautiful, I couldn’t help myself; I wound up sneaking them on closer views during the alien stuff too.”
His past Marvel experience made clear for Davis the need for understanding how live-action would integrate with VFX up front. “You always need to have a clear, even vivid idea of what that set extension is going to look and feel like,” he declares, “so you can create a light source that will work for what is being added later as well as what you have on-set. I work very closely with the VFX supervisor and production designer on this kind of conceptualization; if you don’t get things fully decided, it wastes your prep, and if that happens, you wind up creating light on set that is non-committal; a compromise you need to avoid.”
Production designer Andy Nicholson’s challenges were two-fold: depicting the 1995 period, and introducing the Kree and Skrull races to the MCU. “We’re going to be seeing more of these aliens going forward,” Nicholson shares, “so we had to come up with visual material that supported the idea that these cultures have been at war for millennia. A city that covers an entire planet is an old science fiction concept, but we tried to show it in an everyday fashion – the social structure of people within the city as well as the unique architecture.”
Nicholson studied the comic book source material and then filtered that through the script’s specific needs. “Something I picked up working on Gravity is creating 3D looks in the art department before building anything. That way we can find out early if it’s impractical, or if the directors want to suggest an alteration that we can quickly accommodate. The feedback loop is such that set designers and concept artists are working hand-in-glove, showing a set, even offering them a chance to walk around it using virtual reality.”
For Visual Effects Supervisor Christopher Townsend, the film’s naturalism was a major draw. “The directors come from a strong indie background, and bring an organic outlook that’s centered on character,” he explains. “For space, they wanted us to steer away from Guardians, with the super colorful nebula. We create fantastically unique worlds but take pains to ground them in some kind of reality. There’s an aesthetic language that all Marvel films adhere to, so it is a bit of a mix-and-match between the old and the new.”
Speaking of old and new, Captain Marvel features much more youthful versions of S.H.I.E.L.D. team members Coulson [Clark Gregg] and Nick Fury [Samuel L. Jackson], which required a larger amount of de-aging work than previous MCU outings.
“[De-aging is] a painstaking, frame-by-frame manipulation of the image,” Townsend explains. “And since I’ve used them many times previously, Lola Visual Effects was our main go-to for that work. We spent a huge amount of time in preproduction determining how the younger Sam Jackson would look. That included what we could do practically that could help their effort, like with hair and makeup, plus we had reference of him in other movies from that era. Supervisor of additional VFX Janelle Croshaw looked after that whole body of work, which requires a light touch to avoid stepping on his performance. Photographing people with different lenses and in different lighting conditions can alter their apparent age rather drastically; in reality, we accept that. But with digital manipulation, those situations come off like red flags, so we have to be especially careful not to go too far afield.”
Gaffer Ross Dunkerley had worked with Davis on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but Marvel was his first MCU project. “When they told me I had two months of prep, my first thought was, ‘What am I going to do with all this time?’” Dunkerley admits. “But as it turned out, we could have actually used another couple weeks! Usually on features there is one production meeting, and then we’re all off and running. But on Marvel, there were sequence meetings almost weekly.”
Dunkerley found these meetings to be absolutely crucial.
“We might find that the stunt team needed to use half of the real estate we thought was reserved for our lighting units,” he describes. “After doing seventeen Clint Eastwood films, this was the polar opposite. When Clint shoots the white script and the white schedule, it’s very cut-and-dried. But these films are constantly evolving. They plan for weeks of additional photography so they can reshape after seeing a cut. On all those Eastwood movies, I’ve only been involved in one reshoot – and that was an insert shot of a cigarette lighter!”
Taking advantage of a lucrative tax incentive, Marvel shot in Los Angeles, which Davis says was something of a treat. “I love having to bend and flow with the restrictions that arise out of being on location,” he states. “The bar is so high with visual and technical matters now that there’s a tendency to always want to leap beyond what has been done. But truthfully, it can often be better to simply be real and in the moment. There’s a certain amount of naturalism that, if you can capture it, is just wonderful. A casual viewer might not recognize the tremendous amount of work, because you don’t ever just get it handed to you.”
To recapture the streetlight look of period Los Angeles, Luminys supplied sodium-vapor and metal-halide fixtures. A vacant local mall offered empty storefronts that could be redressed appropriately. “A lot of the street stuff was just a matter of changing graphics to bring the period look,” Nicholson explains. “We had a lot of fun with the Blockbuster video store set dressing, ordering videotapes from all over the country and buying blank Blockbuster boxes off eBay for three months.Doing research for that era is odd because it predates all that Internet imagery; we didn’t even find a lot of photographic reference for the stores. There was also the matter of creating the standees and promotional artwork for the films of the era.”
Captain Marvel first appears in a Sanja Milkovic Hays creation, a green costume verging on teal. “It was actually impossible to capture that hue properly in the camera,” Davis admits. “So we had to manipulate the palette so the digital sensor could see it as the human eye would, very green, but our capture contained some element of blue, and, depending on color temperature of lighting and the camera setting, that fluctuated.”
Although Davis calls the DIT tent a “lure of sorts,” he makes a conscious effort to avoid spending all his time there. “It gives you the chance to make minute adjustments, but I try to resist because there’s a relationship between those in front of the camera and those behind it, and that can’t be conducted properly when you’re forty feet away behind a black curtain. On-set, it’s not just a matter of looking through the camera, but also seeing what is happening outside of the frame.”
Davis says he chooses to not create CDLs on-set and usually employs a film-emulation LUT. “I’ve gone back to an approach like shooting on film; if I want something to look dark, I’ll underexpose, and if I want a warmer palette, that’s what the lights do on the set for me. We’ve got a complex workflow with multiple VFX vendors for our large post effort, and that has the potential for complicating matters in ways that can compromise the imagery. Keeping the parameters going out with our material to vendors as simple as possible is a benefit. Image transformations get sidestepped, which keeps things from getting missed, so you don’t wind up facing additional issues in the DI.”
Captain Marvel showcases two new alien planets, which Davis says required two distinctive atmospheres. “My rationale is that the atmospheric conditions might bend the light from a sun in a way that makes it appear quite different from Earth,” he explains. “Part of that thinking was that it would let the colors pop.”
Davis and Dunkerley concurred on the use of Mole-Richardson tungsten PARs. “I’ve been a fan for years, but, to my knowledge, Dumbo was the first film Ben used them on,” the gaffer shares. “I was delighted to find that Ben equally appreciated their unique attributes. The quality of light works as a single point source and creates a nice lens flare. I embrace the advances in LED, but by nature, it is a soft source. When you create a source for space, you need the hardest light imaginable. We were actually photographing the lights; when you see a sun source in frame, nine times out of ten it will be one of our tungsten Pars.”
For the spaceship interiors, Dunkerley relied on RGB LEDs, but he also reintroduced older technology. “For one sequence, we used a concert lighting unit like a Vari-Lite, but on steroids – Syncholite’s 6400-watt Xenon,” he recounts. “It’s antiquated technology, so there aren’t many people who know how to service them, but they gave a distinct, organic feel. Xenons have a breathing quality that sets them apart; a light that gives off an energy that doesn’t seem too perfect.”
Each race’s ship had its own palette, with vessel lighting via built-in practicals. “Even with the most fantastic alien environment, you need something genuine that hints at the advanced technology,” says Davis. “Oftentimes we had fixtures specially designed by the art department, and then I’d place LEDs behind them and use RGB to create distinctive color patterns.”
Acknowledging the impact of CG on sci-fi art direction, Nicholson says user interfaces can often fall to VFX. “I tried to establish different motifs and styles for the Kree and the Skrull,” he notes. “The latter possess shape-changing abilities, which led me to an organic look and feel in showing how their ships function. The Kree vessels also have distinctive silhouettes, which I carried through on the interiors.”
One alien exterior, on Torfa, was shot in a quarry outside L.A.
“We had originally planned to shoot days, but I didn’t have the necessary controls to create a distinctive look in this sand pit at midday during a bright L.A. summer,” Davis relates. “Going to nights gave me a blank canvas on which to build. Obviously, it cost more to have big lights for that set, and I wound up using three Bebee [Night Light] units and a lot of cranes with LED four-by-four panels [Cineo LBK1K’s].” Bebee provided three 9×6K HMI trucks in support of the nocturnal shoot.
Having worked with Davis on the second Avengers, Townsend knew the DP to be open to collaboration regarding VFX embellishment. “Ben might say he wants an environment to be foggy,” Townsend describes. “I’d ask, ‘Can you shoot without it and let us add it in later?’ That kind of give-and-take is always going on, as is the issue of interactive lighting on-set. When interactives work, they are brilliant; but when the timing is off, it’s a nightmare. We tried to make intelligent calls, like whether adding one more moving element would be worthwhile.”
Regarding an HDR finish, Davis is on the fence.
“Sometimes it helps, but other times it most definitely does not,” he smiles. “Say you’re keying off a practical while shooting two characters. In HDR, that source gets incredibly bright, distracts from the characters and makes the rest of the image look dark. In order not to damage what already works, you have to either bring up the shadow areas or knock down the brightness of the source. I strive to finish my best standard version, and then use that as a reference for the HDR. Cinematographers can’t rely on a straight image transform, and we need to be vocal about representing our needs throughout the grading process.”
By Kevin H. Martin
Lead Web Image of Larson as fighter pilot by Chuck Zlotnick
Local 600 Crew List:
Director of Photography: Ben Davis, BSC
A-Camera Operator: Geoff Haley
A-Camera 1st AC: Bill Coe
A-Camera 2nd AC: Bobby McMahan
B-Camera Operator: Sarah Levy
B-Camera 1st AC: Steve Wong
B-Camera 2nd AC: Trevor Carroll-Coe
Additional 2nd AC: Ryan Creasy
Splinter Unit DP/C-Camera Operator: Chris Duskin
C-Camera 1st AC: Chuck Whelan
C-Camera 2nd AC: Eric Amundsen
Maxima Operator: Brice Reid
DIT: Daniel Hernandez
Digital Loader: Colleen Mlezvia
Digital Utility: Luis Hernandez
Still Photographer: Chuck Zlotnick
Publicist: John Pisani