Monday, September 10, 2012

American Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey brings the Earth’s mightiest heroes to the big screen for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers

Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC brings the Earth’s mightiest heroes to the big screen for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.
by Jon D. Witmer
American Cinematographer

Dirt and soot blanket six lanes of smoldering rubble that run the length of a city block, and burned husks of cars and trucks lie atop slabs of concrete jutting skyward in front of shattered storefronts. The street signs indicate this is what’s left of Manhattan’s 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue intersection, but in actuality it’s East 9th Street in Cleveland, Ohio, on the 79th day of principal photography on The Avengers.

In a nearby alleyway, Captain America (Chris Evans) stands near a row of cameras amid the bustling crew, and not far away, director Joss Whedon is consulting with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC in video village. When both filmmakers come over to greet AC, Whedon says of his director of photography, “Seamus is very fast, which I love, and his style is very particular. It’s not over-thought, but it’s just hyperbolic enough for this kind of movie, which is insanity grounded in reality.”

The Avengers builds on the foundation laid by the Marvel Studios features Iron Man (AC May ’08), Iron Man 2 (AC May ’10), The Incredible Hulk, Thor (AC June ’11) and Captain America: The First Avenger (AC Aug. ’11), and takes its cues from the long-running Avengers comic-book series, which first hit newsstands in 1963. In the film, Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assembles Captain America, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to face the global menace posed by Thor’s nefarious brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who unleashes an extraterrestrial army in a bid to rule the world.

Principal photography began in April 2011 in New Mexico, and McGarvey says his three months of preproduction were “vital in terms of getting to grips with the scale of the project, and planning how we’d achieve certain sequences.” Shooting digitally was a given because of the extensive digital effects and the producers’ original plan to capture in 3-D. But when the crew tested a 3-D workflow by shooting the “tag” that followed the end titles of Thor with Red Epic cameras and Panavision Primo lenses in an Element Technica rig, “it was not a successful day of shooting,” says McGarvey.

“Although the native 3-D looked great, each setup took too long,” he explains. “I love when a crew picks up speed and creates its own inner dynamic. Joss, too, likes to keep the momentum up on the set. Shooting 3-D is like throwing treacle bombs into that beautiful élan. It wasn’t going to afford us the impetus and dynamism we needed.”

Marvel subsequently decided to capture in 2-D and convert to 3-D in post, and McGarvey abandoned the Epic for the Arri Alexa. “I preferred the look of the Alexa in terms of its range and its ‘roundness,’” he says. “I recognize [its image] as more akin to a film look.”

In fact, McGarvey was so impressed with the Alexa’s performance in his tests that he bought his own; christened “Schatzi de Bayer,” it served as the production’s A camera. The main unit also carried three Alexas (rented from Panavision Woodland Hills), one of which “was always rigged in Steadicam mode, and the other two were in studio mode and could easily be switched for handheld,” says the cinematographer.

“We shot with Primos, predominantly primes, but we also used 19-90mm and 24-270mm zooms, and occasionally we got a 3:1 long zoom,” he continues. “[With the zooms,] we tended to stay around 21mm and 27mm, or at the longer end, like 100mm.”

McGarvey typically maintained a T4 or T5.6 for day exteriors, and T2.8½ in other situations. “I shot everything at [the Alexa’s base ISO of] 800. When I tried to rate it lower, like at 400, it seemed to build up in the shadows, and I didn’t feel it had the same range. So I simply used IR neutral-density filters to bring down the stop for exteriors.”

The production also carried 10 Canon DSLR cameras, eight EOS 5D Mark IIs and two EOS 7Ds, all fitted with Canon EF lenses. Their footage was recorded to SanDisk Extreme Pro memory cards. “I prefer the 5D to the 7D,” McGarvey notes. “I like its larger sensor and the way the depth of field falls off quicker. But we used the 7Ds for any slow-motion work [that involved DSLRs].”

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