The American Society of Cinematographers

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Iron Man
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Heavy-Metal Hero
Matthew Libatique, ASC turns a new page with the comic-book action adventure Iron Man.

Unit photography by Zade Rosenthal
fdMatthew Libatique, ASC has never shied away from bold strokes in his work, but his latest project, Iron Man, required him to restrain some of his more experimental inclinations. “Typically, I take an aggressive tack to visual language, but on Iron Man, [director] Jon Favreau’s intention was to have the actors do the majority of the work and the camera do less of it,” he says. “I had to view the camera as a facilitator of the actors, not solely of the cinematography. This film, more than any other, altered my way of thinking about my work.” 1           

Based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Don Heck that was introduced in 1962, Iron Man tells of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a weapons manufacturer and playboy who undergoes a change of heart and decides to use his engineering wizardry to battle the supervillains he has been arming, albeit indirectly. “I grew up with comics, so I was familiar with the character — I knew he was a cool-looking superhero,” says Libatique. “I also figured there wouldn’t be many opportunities to do the first movie in a superhero franchise, so I seized this one.”            

When Libatique and Favreau began discussing the project, they confronted the perennial challenge of filming comic-book material: “How do you articulate a comic book’s suspension of disbelief in a film?” muses Libatique. “You have to make it a little more sophisticated, but you still have to honor the comic. It’s a tough game.”            

In shaping the movie’s style, Favreau reteamed with production designer J. Michael Riva, one of his collaborators on Zathura (2005). Libatique describes Riva as “a fireball of experience. Iron Man was a very demanding job for Mike, but he’s been through it all before — the man was on Lethal Weapon!” The overall look Favreau had in mind was “very clean,” he adds. “Apart from that, I had a broad plan to [visually] separate the pre-transformation and post-transformation Tony Starks and play on the idea of a man becoming something else.”             

Most of Libatique’s prep time was devoted to previsualizing the picture’s visual-effects sequences. Speaking to the sheer scale of the production, he offers, “With films like this, I don’t know if there is a time when you’re completely prepped before you start shooting. You have to have two minds working at the same time, the preparation side and the execution side. That’s where it’s invaluable to have keys that really care.” Libatique employed two of his regular keys, gaffer Michael Bauman and key grip Tana Dubbe.            

Dubbe is particularly enthusiastic about one of the film’s early sequences, in which Stark presents his high-tech weapons systems to a gathering of military brass. The sequence was shot in Lone Pine, California. “If you ask any grip, you’ll hear that was our favorite portion,” says Dubbe. “The sequence involved a lot of day exteriors, and that’s when the cable and the lights sort of take second place and it’s all about gripping.”            

Large units, such as Arrimax 18K Pars with spot reflectors, were on hand for the exteriors, but they stayed on the truck unless “the lighting [from the sun] changed,” notes Libatique. “The only time we [used the lights] can be seen in the movie’s trailer, and I hate the way it looks; [Downey] looks like he was composited into the shot.             


“I hesitate to light exteriors, and I typically don’t have enough time to do that, even on a movie of this size,” he continues. “Unless it’s strictly maintenance, like fill light, you’re not going to get it right, or, if you do get it right, it takes so long the weather conditions change on you, anyway!”             

After the weapons demonstration, Stark settles into a Humvee for the ride out of the desert. Inside the vehicle, Bauman’s crew rigged an HMI Joker to boost the exposure; on the outside, the grips prepped numerous rigs for the camera. “Matty wanted the interior to feel rather natural, like we were basically moving around the Hummer handheld,” says Dubbe. To facilitate that look, Dubbe had the effects crew weld together a detachable veranda that could fit around the vehicle and be taken apart in sections. When this platform was in use, the camera was often supported with a bungee rig comprising elastic straps attached to the camera’s offset handle from a goalpost mounted on the Hummer. “It’s a very inexpensive way to alleviate some of the weight of the camera while [maintaining] a handheld feel,” explains Dubbe. “We loved it, and we used it a lot.”             

Libatique used a PanArri 235 to film in the Humvees’ small interiors, and the rest of his camera package, rented from Panavision Hollywood, comprised a Panaflex Millennium and a Millennium XL, Primo prime lenses, Angenieux Optimo 4:1 (17-80mm T2.2) and 12:1 (24-290mm T2.8) zooms, and a Cooke 15-40mm T2 zoom. Libatique often operated the A camera himself, assisted by 1st AC Peter Berglund and 2nd AC Matt Stenerson. As the shoot progressed, however, he increasingly ceded the single-camera setups to B-camera/Steadicam operator Colin Anderson, whose “skill slowly superceded my love for operating,” says Libatique.             

As the convoy of Humvees progresses across the desert, it’s attacked by the terrorist Raza (Faran Tahir) and his band of mercenaries, who kidnap Stark. To film the attack, Libatique employed an arsenal of tools that included an Ultimate Arm (with a Lev Head) and a Technocrane. When the first unit had to move on to the next location, 2nd-unit director of photography Jonathan Taylor, ASC (Spider-Man, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) swept in to finish the sequence. “I was very fortunate to have Jonathan shooting second unit,” says Libatique. “He and his crew did a lot of work. In addition to shooting what we had laid out in the previz and storyboards, they were able to improvise and create some really dynamic shots that make sense for the characters.”             

Libatique notes that much of his own work on the production was also improvisational. “Cinema-tography typically takes on the character of the lead performer, and Robert is so improvisational the photography became the same way. Working with [Favreau] was really about giving the actors the freedom to become their characters. We ended up doing a lot of rigging on a large scale so we could be ready for anything, and once we started shooting, I started improvising.”             

The first setting on the 96-day shooting schedule was the cave where Stark is held captive; there, he forges the first version of his Iron Man armor in order to escape the terrorists. Built onstage at Playa Vista Studios in Los Angeles, the “Styrofoam cave,” as it was called, proved a daunting place to start the show. “If you have any respect for comic books, the origins are everything,” stresses Libatique. “And on a movie of this size, there was no time to warm up. We just had to hit the ground running.”            

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