The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Avengers
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“When we went to night mode, we used about six space lights gelled with ¼ CTB and ¼ Plus Green,” the gaffer continues. “Inside the set was a lot of practical lighting with LEDs. James built some channels up in the ceiling, and we [fitted] those with 300-watt RFL globes on batten strips with 216 diffusion for a bit of accent. We also put Source Four Pars inside 10-inch recessed cans with some diffusion.” 

A hallmark of the Iron Man films that continues in The Avengers is the inside-the-helmet view, which shows Stark in close-up with superimposed pop-ups that represent his armor’s heads-up display. “We wanted to feel like we were within the helmet, so the lens had to be quite close to Robert,” says McGarvey, who used Panavision’s Frazier Lens System with a 50mm lens. “At the same time, because there were going to be CG graphics going around the head, we didn’t want the focus to fall off.”  

To enable a deep shooting stop of T8, McGarvey mounted a daylight-balanced LED ring light around the lens. Dubbed “the Big Softie,” the light was approximately 2' wide. “It was made by Nick Shapley, whose company, LCA, is based in the U.K.,” says McGarvey. “The Big Softie was inches from Robert’s face, and it produced a very flattering light. I didn’t want the complete circle, so I masked off part of it with black wrap, and you just see two little triangles in his eyes.” 

Back in Cleveland, Whedon and McGarvey retreat to EFilm’s mobile-dailies trailer during their lunch break. Equipped with a grading suite and 12' projection screen, the trailer was on hand throughout principal photography. EFilm also provided the production with a profile look that matched the monitors in the trailer with the HP DreamColor monitors used on set and at digital-imaging technician Daniel Hernandez’s station.  

“I used Technoprops’ four-channel color system, called Ccolor, which was developed by Alex Arango,” notes Hernandez, who sourced most of his gear from Videohawks. “It allowed me to color-correct four cameras in real time using one laptop, instantly copy looks from camera to camera, and adjust the image on each camera.”  

The filmmakers recorded in ArriRaw to Codex digital recorders that Hernandez linked with his station’s IP address so that each time the cameras rolled, the recorders would pull the corresponding camera’s CDL metadata from Ccolor. “I also created a CDL log with the scene, take, roll number and time-code stamp that could be ingested into EFilm’s color system, and I recorded reference video to a CompactFlash card that I handed off to EFilm at the end of every day,” adds Hernandez. 

After lunch, the crew continues shooting the sequence involving the burning Acura. The alien in the scene is portrayed on set by a performer wearing a gray bodysuit dotted with motion-capture markers. “All of the production-based motion capture was done live in-camera primarily because it involved digital characters interacting with live-action characters,” notes Sirrs. “Character performances for entirely digital shots were captured with dedicated motion-capture sessions during post, and several sessions were done with Mark Ruffalo so that the idiosyncrasies of his performance could be incorporated into the [all-CG] Hulk.” 

The footage shot in downtown Cleveland is all part of the battle that dominates The Avengers’ third act, when the heroes must stand united against the onslaught of Loki’s alien hordes. East 9th Street provided the backdrop for one of the sequence’s most explosive pieces, in which the aliens strafe the street, sending cars and trucks airborne amid pillars of flame and billowing smoke. “The hero angle looked straight down the street as the explosions came toward us,” McGarvey details. “It was a spectacular image, and it really was in-camera. Dan Sudick, the special-effects supervisor, is a genius at choreographing this kind of mayhem.” 

All of the production’s cameras, plus additional Alexas and 435s special-ordered for the day, were used to capture the effect. Most of the DSLRs were placed in crash housings and positioned in the midst of the action; one 5D was given to a stunt performer who filmed as he ran through the chaos, providing what McGarvey calls “wonderful, immersive footage.” 

The crux of the battle occurs in front of Grand Central Station, “sort of the crossroads of New York City,” says Chinlund. “Because of the viaduct that reaches over 42nd Street and the tunnels that surround Grand Central, it’s a super-exciting setting for the final battle.” Although principal photography included a few days of location work in Manhattan, most of the battle action was shot in New Mexico, where the production re-created the viaduct and established a day-exterior look inside a 400'-long former railroad facility.  

“When we found that space, I urged the producers to shoot inside, and I assured them we could make it look like daylight,” says McGarvey. “Initially, it seemed the cost would be prohibitive, but shooting inside actually saved us numerous days because we could keep shooting in really bad weather. It was a good investment.” 

“Normally, I plead with anyone who will listen to never shoot an outdoor sequence on a composite stage,” says Sirrs, “but the viaduct exterior was a special case. The location is supposed to be in shadow for 90 percent of the day, and matching diffuse lighting conditions is much more achievable than simulating direct light.” 

Rigging key grip John Beran and his crew hung greenbeds for access to all of the lamps in the space, and 1,300' of greenscreen was positioned around the perimeter of the set, stretching from the floor to 50' high. Janusek adds, “We also hung UltraBounce. If we were close to the wall and didn’t want green spill, we could pull back the greenscreen and use the UltraBounce for fill.” 

Working from the greenbeds, the electricians bounced 22 18K ArriMax Pars into 40'x40' UltraBounces that ran the length of the ceiling to create the overall ambient level. Additionally, McGarvey says, “We wanted to create accents that would suggest light bouncing off glassy buildings, so we placed 8-by-8-foot mirrors [on the greenbeds] that we hit from the other side with spots. That created splashes of hard light that randomized the look and really made it feel like daylight.” 

To facilitate maximum freedom in the greenscreen space, Sirrs eschewed background plates in favor of building a completely virtual environment by “projecting photographic material onto building shapes,” he explains. “A dedicated stills unit from Industrial Light & Magic spent close to six weeks shooting panoramic spheres with Canon DSLRs from a variety of vantage points in and around our key locations. After the basic building façades and streets were created from the stills, the digital environments still needed to be fleshed out with everything required to add life to static imagery. We ended up creating a huge library of digital dressing that could be used to populate shots as needed.” 

At press time, McGarvey was nearing the end of a six-week digital grade at EFilm with colorist and ASC associate member Steven J. Scott. The first four weeks were devoted to the 2-D grade, and the last two weeks were spent grading the 3-D conversion, which was done by StereoD. McGarvey describes his work in the DI as “quite straightforward. We’re doing a lot of windows and some very sophisticated timing, but it’s not a strident look. The Avengers is quite sharp and crisp. We wanted to make it feel believable, like it’s really happening.”

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