The American Society of Cinematographers

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Cinematographer Larry Fong and director Zack Snyder reteam to bring the epic graphic novel Watchmen to the big screen.

Unit photography by Clay Enos
The year is 1985, and the 37th president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, continues to occupy the Oval Office, leading a nation on the brink of war with the Soviet Union. The Watchmen, self-made vigilantes who emerged in the 1930s, have recently been outlawed, but some of them continue to operate as either criminals or secret government operatives. Their ranks include Ozymandias, The Comedian, Night Owl, Rorschach, Silk Spectre and Dr. Manhattan. 

The new film Watchmen is based on a 12-part comic-book miniseries written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons and colored by John Higgins. Director Zack Snyder says the project “made me realize comics can be so much more than I ever dreamed. I thought I knew what was possible as far as superhero mythology and how it’s experienced in pop culture, but Watchmen showed me I had no idea what was possible — my mind got blown.” 

Embracing the prospects of a live-action rendition of the labyrinthine story, Snyder gathered a team that included cinematographer Larry Fong, a collaborator on 300 (AC April ’06), and production designer Alex McDowell and visual-effects supervisor John “D.J.” DesJardin. “A director of photography has to be someone who’s going to raise the bar for me and care about the project as much as I do, and Larry totally does,” says Snyder, whose friendship and collaboration with Fong dates back to their student days at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. 

Fong was given a bit more than two months of prep for the roughly 100-day shoot, and he recalls filling the time with “a lot of testing. We tested the costumes [designed by Michael Wilkinson] and how they would photograph, we did a lot of makeup testing, and we even tested the colors of sets — we’d just shoot walls to see how they’d come out on film, especially when manipulated in the DI. We also shot film for props, lighting tests and physical-effects tests that included flames, explosions and rain.” 

Moore’s graphic novel is rich in detail, constantly sewing visual clues into the background, and bringing the layered visuals to the screen involved a great deal of still photography. “So many locations had some kind of poster, photo or newspaper clipping in the background,” notes Fong. “I started to shoot that material, but it became a massive undertaking, so our set photographer, Clay Enos, ended up shooting most of it.” 

“We had more graphic designers and more graphic-design time on this movie than I’ve ever had before,” notes McDowell (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Minority Report). “I think a lot of why Watchmen is such a great graphic novel and has been so recognized is that Alan Moore’s narrative instructions to Dave Gibbons are all about how much story you can put in the pictures, and Zack wanted to be true to that.” Fong adds, “Before anything was built, my crew and I would study the conceptual drawings, paintings and blueprints, and Alex was really thoughtful about getting my input on any lighting that would be built into the sets.” 

All told, the production called for the construction of some 150 sets. The largest by far was the New York City exterior, built from the ground up near Canadian Motion Picture Park Studios outside of Vancouver. The filmmakers had flirted with shooting on location in downtown Los Angeles or the Big Apple, or using the New York Street set on Warner Bros.’ backlot, but they opted to build the three city blocks from scratch so they could faithfully render the comic’s stylized cityscape. “It was really nice to be able to completely design our own world,” says McDowell. “We literally poured the street. We were able to get really broken-up sidewalk and broken-up asphalt — the sorts of things you’re compromised with on backlots — and we were able to build the streets at a decent scale. The set was 30-35 feet high, which allowed us to contain close-ups and mid shots, but we knew there were going to be set extensions in almost every scene; we put greenscreen at the end of every street so we could extend streets to the horizon.” 

Fong’s lighting objective for the outdoor set was the clash of fixtures typical in real urban settings. “We tried to make as much of the city light itself as possible,” he says, noting that Snyder suggested Taxi Driver (1976) as a reference. “When you’re shooting at night in a real city, you’re usually trying to take away all the weird colors and the multiple shadows to make your shots look beautiful and controlled. In order to make this look real, I decided to keep it raw.” 

To build the raw feel into the set, Fong, gaffer Denis Brock and rigging gaffer Jarrod Tiffin supervised the efforts of 24 set wiremen before the lamp operators could even bring in any fixtures. “It became a real, wired place,” says Tiffin. “We had the equivalent of 36 1,200-amp generators, but we did it all on hydroelectric power. We brought in an electrical company and re-transformed everything around the area, and we dropped portable substations in four corners [of the set]. Instead of running cables all over the place, we were selectively picking zones based on the city’s layout.” 

Once the lamp operators came in to rig the lighting fixtures, “we mixed fluorescents, tungsten, neon, gelled lights — everything,” says Fong. “We treated the days like you would in any city, with big rags and bounces, but night is when it got tricky. Because of budget restraints, we had to be specific with the lights we put in windows. We put 5K globes in our streetlights so they would do a bit of lighting, and we had Condors with simulated moonlight.” Positioned at the end of the city streets, the Condors were fitted with Bardwell and McAlister Mac Tech HPL fixtures, which were also used to light the exterior greenscreens. According to Tiffin, each Mac Tech uses 12 575-watt HPL globes, but the reflector inside creates an output of 1K per bulb. “We had 42 Mac Techs, all wired to the dimmer board,” he adds. In fact, all lighting in the city set — including traffic signals and TV-set effects visible through windows — was run off dimmer boards employing a wireless DMX system Tiffin had used on Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (AC June ’07); the wireless transmitters were blended into the buildings to look like antennas. 

“In comic-book terms, Watchmen is a very realistic graphic novel, so we didn’t want to stylize the sets to the extent that they would feel fake,” says McDowell. “We wanted the audience to believe these superheroes exist in a real world with real texture and grit. But the color gave us a layer where we could make the ‘real world’ stylized enough to believe that someone who looks like Nite Owl could be standing in these streets. We basically said gray is purple. In the street, we used a really extreme palette in the secondary range — purple, a warm yellow and a warm green — and aged it as you would a realistic, conventional set. It had an underglow of a strong color that Larry could bring out in the timing, but for the purpose of believability, it had texture and aging.” 

Respecting the source material’s richness of detail often called for an increased depth of field. “We wanted more focus so we could feel everything, and we wanted to be right in there with the characters,” says Fong. “We shot a lot with 27mm and 35mm lenses.” Generally maintaining a stop of T2.8 1/2, Fong shot Watchmen on two Kodak Vision2 stocks, 100T 5212 (day exteriors) and 500T 5218 (all other material). He and Snyder opted to shoot in 4-perf Super 35mm for a 2.40:1 release. “The ideas in this movie are big, and I wanted that feeling to come across in the motion picture,” says Snyder.

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