The American Society of Cinematographers

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Superman Returns
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Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC and director Bryan Singer reunite on Superman Returns, the first major feature shot with Panavision’s digital Genesis camera.

Unit Photography by David James, SMPSP
Since his original incarnation in 1938 as a comic-book superhero, Superman has enthralled generations of fans in an array of media, including newspaper serials, novels, radio shows, television series and, of course, motion pictures. “Superman is an iconic character, almost a shared memory of an archetypal American folk hero,” says Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC, director of photography on Superman Returns. “There have been many permutations, some good and some perhaps corny, but the mythology has endured.”  

Directed by Bryan Singer, Superman Returns presents a fairly introspective superhero. Searching for his place in the universe, Superman (Brandon Routh) travels back to his home planet of Krypton, now a barren, lifeless husk. When our hero finally returns to Earth, several years have passed, and Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint) is thinking of selling the family farm. Meanwhile, back in Metropolis, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) appears to have moved on with her life. “I approached this film the same as I would any other character piece,” says Sigel. “This particular story just happens to feature a protagonist who wears his underwear on the outside and can fly.”  

In formulating his approach to the project, Sigel strove to combine the script’s thematic concerns with aesthetic flourishes from comic books. “The general look was determined by the themes and characters, as it would be on any film. However, a large part of the look also came from the translation of comic-book art into three-dimensional space and movement. Consequently, the picture features very graphic, elegant compositions, and there’s a vibrancy to the colors that pushes the envelope of what is real. I wanted to create a look that would be naturalistic but also have a painterly, illustrative quality that pays respect to the paint-and-ink drawing of the original comics. The color scheme is not as strong as the hues in some other films adapted from comics, such as Dick Tracy [see AC May ’91], but our overall use of color does provide a different type of image quality. Superman Returns creates a sense of nostalgia through the use of golds, yellows and bronzes in both the production design and lighting. I also bent this scheme a little in the grading to create a slightly more pastel, less photo-realistic look.”  

Singer also wanted the film’s visuals to pay homage to comic books of the 1940s. “They had a distinctly romantic quality, and that was a definite visual motif Tom and I discussed for the film,” says the director. This sense of romance is particularly evident in a rooftop encounter between Lois and Superman, during which the couple is bathed in a bright, soft glow from The Daily Planet’s iconic revolving globe.  

The interior of the Daily Planet building has much in common with its conceptualization in the original comic, which was inspired by the Art Deco-style Ohio Bell building in Cleveland. The main floor of the Planet is an open space that features a central area for the reporters’ desks, referred to as the “bullpen.” The overall color palette for this set comprised warm tones, and several design elements informed the lighting style. “One of the main features of the Daily Planet set was the skylights, and we had amber glass placed in each one to provide a warm daylight look,” says Sigel. A total of 50 skylights were fixed 15' from the floor at an angle of approximately 30 degrees, and ran down both sides of the set. Each had a 20K Fresnel positioned behind it. In keeping with the Art-Deco scheme, the set’s main windows were fitted with Venetian blinds, which also served to control the view of the TransLite beyond them. These windows were also lit with 20K Fresnels, as well as 10 additional 10Ks.  

The set’s practical fixtures provided ambient light. “We used long, 1940s-style practical lights, as well as amber-glass lights,” explains gaffer Shaun Conway. “We put incandescent bulbs in all the lights because Tom wanted to be able to dim them down to 15 percent. The longer practicals were essentially large softboxes containing space-light bulbs aimed through Perspex bottoms to provide a directionless source over most of the set. The other lights used thousands of bulbs in the 15- to 40-watt range.” To light the actors, Conway built units that were dubbed “Lois Lights,” which were 8'x4' 8K lightboxes. These contained eight space-light bulbs, each of which was dimmable, bounced into a backing of Ultra Bounce and then diffused through Half Grid. “They created a beautiful quality of warm light that was great for skin tones,” says Conway.  

The illumination in the Daily Planet set was designed to be flexible and easy to rearrange. Every lamp was cabled to a dimmer room, which allowed Sigel to control the key-to-fill ratio by altering the level of specific lights on either side of the set. “In preproduction, Tom asked for every lamp on every set to be cabled to the dimmers,” recalls Conway. “He likes a lot of moving light — not visible changes, but subtle shifts to keep the mood as the actors move through a space. On films this size, it’s essential to give the cinematographer and director all the time they need to work with the cast and camera.” Eight 500kVA generators were required to provide power for the Metropolis set alone.  

At the time of principal photography, Superman Returns was the first feature film to shoot with Panavision’s Super 35 Digital Cinematography Camera System, known as the Genesis. Singer had been investigating digital-acquisition formats for a few years, since he was invited to attend a summit organized by George Lucas. “It was around the time I was preparing X-Men 2, and I was in the company of Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Michael Mann and other directors,” says Singer. “For a whole weekend we watched all sorts of digital footage, and some of it was really astonishing. I’d already seen the tests Texas Instruments had done with its digital-projection systems, so I thought the exhibition side of things was there, but at the time I concluded that shooting on digital systems didn’t yield results as strong as film.”  

It wasn’t until Sigel brought the Genesis to Singer’s attention that the director considered digital acquisition a viable option for Superman Returns. The path to that final decision, however, was somewhat indirect. “I’d had this notion that because Superman is so iconic and grandiose, we should shoot in 65mm,” Sigel recalls with a smile. “When we did some screen tests for Brandon Routh, I turned up with a 65mm camera as well as a Super 35mm camera. I remember thinking recent films done in 65mm hadn’t seemed that radically different than 35mm, but it was still worth exploring. We shots tests with both cameras, and when we projected the results, Bryan and I were blown away by 65mm’s sense of scale, sheer clarity and lack of grain.”  

Sigel began investigating the possibility of shooting Superman Returns in 65mm, but soon realized that the difficulties outweighed the benefits. “There were many factors that made it near impossible, but the clincher was when it occurred to me that the reason 65mm had looked so good was because we’d projected it in 70mm, and I knew Superman Returns would probably never be projected in 70mm — today there are more digital cinemas than working 70mm projectors!” says the cinematographer. “Then I remembered seeing a test Allen Daviau [ASC] had shot on 35mm and with the prototype Genesis. It involved interior and exterior footage, and the results were very encouraging.“  

Using the only Genesis camera in existence at the time, Sigel shot test footage that remains, to date, the most comprehensive 35mm-Genesis comparison. “We spent several weeks shooting everything we could — interiors, exteriors, costumes, sets — in all kinds of situations and lighting conditions,” says Sigel. “The more we saw, the more excited Bryan and I became about shooting digitally. I was looking for something a bit different for Superman Returns, images that were on a different visual platform, and the Genesis is great for that.” The final decision rested with the cinematographer and director. “The years of trust I have with Tom are invaluable to me,” says Singer, who first teamed with Sigel on The Usual Suspects (1995). “I wanted just the two of us to make the call, so we sat in the cinema watching the comparison tests by ourselves.”

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