The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Avengers
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Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC brings the Earth’s mightiest heroes to the big screen for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.

Unit photography by Zade Rosenthal, SMPSP. Photos and frame grabs ©2011 MVLFFLLC.™ & ©2011 Marvel. All rights reserved. Images 7–10 courtesy of The Third Floor, Inc. and Marvel.
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].”  

Typically, when the filmmakers wanted to heighten an action moment with high-speed footage, they rolled a Panavised Arri 435 loaded with Kodak Vision3 500T 5219. “We mostly used slow motion for explosions at night, and film really holds the detail in both the flames and the low-key night exteriors,” says McGarvey. “I pushed [the 5219] one stop on a number of occasions, and though it looks grainy next to Alexa footage, generally speaking, the 35mm material intercuts really well. Shooting some film also meant we could carry that camera the whole time, and it was nice to have that flexibility.” 

The filmmakers chose to frame for 1.85:1. McGarvey recalls, “I was keen to shoot 2.40:1 because I felt it would have offered more scope, but Joss was worried about the height of the cityscape, and he wanted to be able to create both vertical and horizontal movement in the frame. Also, we had to leave space for the Hulk. He’s scraping the ceiling of our frame, and in 2.40:1 the poor guy would have been beheaded!” 

On the set, as McGarvey leads AC through the rubble, he pauses to introduce production designer James Chinlund, who says his biggest challenge was “to create a world that would allow these [disparate characters] to coexist without seeming dissonant. Of course, the comics were the foundation for my work, because they’ve been problem-solving that for decades; the [Marvel] series The Ultimates was an especially key source.” 

Equally integral to building a believable world was visual-effects supervisor and Iron Man 2 veteran Janek Sirrs, who worked with 12 vendors to complete about 2,200 visual-effects shots for The Avengers. “As a cinematographer on this sort of movie, you have to collaborate unequivocally with visual effects — they’re part of the cinematography, and vice-versa,” says McGarvey. “Janek has been incredible; he understands light, and he has great taste and vision.” 

The Third Floor provided previs and postvis services, which were supervised by Nick Markel and Gerardo Ramirez, respectively. Like previs, postvis generates preliminary versions of CG shots or elements, but combines those pieces with production photography in order to validate footage, provide placeholders for editorial and generally refine the effects. “Previs is invaluable to get everybody on the same page,” says Whedon. “But, at the same time, you need to be able to change on the day. There’s a very strong element of making this up as I go, and shooting what was in my head when I wrote [the screenplay] but then forgot to tell anybody — which, I’m happy to say, Seamus rolls with.” 

Down the alley in Cleveland, the crew prepares a stunt in which Captain America will jump over a speeding Acura that’s on fire, retrieve his shield, and throw it at an alien that’s climbed onto the car. McGarvey muses, “This is an action movie, so you have to make it dynamic, and it has to have an impact. As the action ramps up, you want to feel the change, and moving the camera allows for that.” As if on cue, key grip John Janusek appears for a confab with McGarvey. “We always have Chapman dollies and 50-foot and 30-foot Technocranes [on hand],” he says. “We often put the 30-foot Techno on a Chapman Titan to reach some of the elevated sets.” McGarvey adds, “Steve Welch is our Technocrane operator, Mitch Dubin is the A-camera operator, and George Billinger is the Steadicam/B-camera operator, and they’re all unsurpassed masters at [creating] momentum and dynamic movement. I also have the great support of A-camera 1st AC Bill Coe and B-camera 1st AC Harry Zimmerman.” 

The production’s work in Ohio also included filming in NASA’s Space Power Facility in Sandusky. The heart of the facility is a 100'-wide, 122'-high aluminum vacuum chamber that Chinlund dressed to appear as an active SHIELD laboratory. Prof. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) has been using the lab in an effort to tap the energy of the tesseract, a cosmic cube that promises near-unlimited power to those who can harness it. Unfortunately for SHIELD, the tesseract opens a portal through which Loki appears, and the cube’s growing energy output causes the entire facility to collapse.

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