The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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X-Men Origins: Wolverine, photographed by Don McAlpine, ASC, ACS, presents a mutant’s turbulent history.

Unit photography by James Fisher
Introduced to movie audiences in Bryan Singer’s X-Men (AC July ’00), the mutant Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) possesses extraordinary capabilities that include rapid healing powers, razor-sharp claws and a virtually indestructible Adamantium skeleton. Over the course of X-Men and its two sequels, X2 (AC April ’03) and X-Men: The Last Stand, he became a fan favorite, and he takes center stage in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The film’s director of photography, Don McAlpine, ASC, ACS, recalls with amusement the way he came aboard the production, directed by Academy Award winner Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, AC March ’06): “It was one of the funniest interviews I’ve ever had. 20th Century Fox called to ask if I was willing to meet with Gavin Hood to discuss an X-Men prequel, and they flew me over to Los Angeles. Our first meeting immediately started to feel like a production conference, and after half an hour, I asked Gavin if it was still a job interview. He said, ‘Oh, you got the job!’”

Wolverine had to not only maintain continuity with the previous X-Men films, but also respect the established mythology of the comics. “We had ‘comic-book police’ all over the place, people who were obsessed with the way someone’s hair was parted and so forth,” notes McAlpine. “We conformed wherever we could because these devotees can be quite fanatical once they start blogging to support or condemn your show.”

The production was filmed primarily on location in Australia and New Zealand; stage work was shot at Fox Studios Australia. After principal photography wrapped, the crew regrouped for a final round of exterior and studio work in Vancouver. McAlpine’s crew was a mix of Americans and Australians and included several of his regular collaborators, including gaffer Steve Mathis. Camera operator Peter Rosenfeld, 1st AC Tov Belling, 2nd AC Helen Ward, key grip Pat Nash and dolly grip Brett McDowell rounded out the main-unit crew.

McAlpine shot Wolverine in Super 35mm using cameras and lenses supplied by Panavision’s Sydney office. “Our A and B cameras were both Millennium XLs,” says Belling. “We used the second camera every day, but Don likes to stage and light for a single camera as much as possible. We used some Arri 435s for second-unit and stunt work.” The production carried a full set of Primo primes and several Primo zooms, including a 4:1 (17.5mm-75mm), an 11:1 (24mm-275mm) and a 3:1 (135mm-420mm). An Angenieux Optimo 15mm-40mm was used mostly for Steadicam work. “Don’s very disciplined and would typically light to a T2.8 or T2.8/T4 split,” recalls Belling. “Early on, he and Gavin discovered they were really enjoying a long-lens feel, and we ended up shooting a lot on the 3:1 zoom. I’ve never done so much close-up work at 400mm, but everyone rose to the occasion.”

With an eye toward the eventual digital intermediate, McAlpine limited lens filtration to 85s, 81EFs and polarizers. “Gradation and diffusion can both be picked up in the DI, and then you don’t burn ships,” he notes. “If you’ve built those factors into the negative, they’re very hard to get out, if not impossible.” He shot most of the picture on Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, using Vision2 200T 5217 for day exteriors only. “Nowadays, I expose to get virtually the widest range of information I can onto the film,” he says. “For dark scenes, I’ll expose a bit closer to the darker end of the latitude, and for a scene of highlights, I do the reverse. I expose very much toward the center so as not to create any strong effect on the negative; I know we can do infinitely better effects in the DI.”

To check lighting setups and communicate his dailies-timing intentions to the lab, McAlpine shot stills of every scene with his Canon EOS-1Ds and manipulated them on set using Adobe Photoshop and an Apple Cinema Display, a method he has employed on several recent features. “I use high-quality f2.8 zoom lenses that I’ve calibrated to the film lenses for stop,” the cinematographer explains. “I expose with the digital camera at the same stop I intend to use on the film camera, which produces a full-range RAW image file. After I correct it in Photoshop, I’ll call the director over to the monitor and say, ‘This is what you’re going to have in the movie. Do you like it?’ If he has a comment, we make a quick adjustment. There’s an eventual realization that because I’ve exposed in the mid-range, he can get whatever look he wants in the dailies. With this preview system, the whole ballgame has really changed.”

As Wolverine begins, Logan (a.k.a. Wolverine) is happily living a secluded life in a hilltop cabin with his girlfriend, Kayla (Lynn Collins). The sequence was captured in The Remarkables, a mountain range near Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island. “It helped set a nice, idyllic situation for the love theme of the film,” notes McAlpine. The initial plan was to capture wide views of the remote location and supplement those with cabin interiors on stage in Sydney, but the filmmakers decided on the spot to capture closer shots with the principal actors. “We didn’t bring our lighting truck up there because we hadn’t planned to light the scene originally,” explains Mathis. “Don asked us to improvise with some bed sheets found on the grip truck, and we bounced some fill in for a close-up of Kayla and Logan getting out of Logan’s car. We made it all work with available light. On stage, we matched the exterior lighting for the interior of the cabin with a 100K SoftSun set all the way at the end of the stage on a scissor lift.”

Logan ruminates on his past, including his military service in several wars and his childhood on a 19th-century plantation. In one of the latter scenes, the youngster runs from an accidental fight through a forest at night. The sequence was shot in Sydney’s Centennial Parklands and was lit with two 100K SoftSuns on Condors set in the deep background. Mathis recalls, “That gave a nice, single sidelight with no fill. The uneven layout of the terrain was ideal because we didn’t have to worry about cutting the light off the ground. It created a nice moonlight effect coming through the trees.”

Back in the story’s present, Wolverine endures a brutal attack from Victor Creed, a.k.a. Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), and later tracks his nemesis to a roadhouse bar. The night interior/exterior was staged at an abandoned lumberyard in Dunedin, New Zealand. The interior was lit with Par cans hung on pipes installed in the roof.  “Wolverine and Sabretooth’s fight quickly spills outside,” says Mathis. “It was about 1,000 feet from the fight in the foreground to the deep background. We shot the fight sequences at up to 96 fps, so we had to light to the equivalent of around a T5.6, which is pretty difficult at night in a small town on New Zealand’s South Island. We used Maxi-Brutes with Very Narrow Spot Pars, 20Ks and lots of Condors we’d shipped down from Auckland. In the deep background, we ran out of tungsten lights and substituted HMIs gelled with Half CTO.”

After he is nearly defeated in the brawl, Wolverine reluctantly re-ups with Stryker (Danny Huston), a former military colleague. Their plan is to gather a band of fellow mutants to counter the threat posed by Sabretooth. As they coax mutants from their various hideouts, Wolverine encounters Wraith (Will i Am), who possesses the ability to teleport. The filmmakers used motion-control to achieve the effect. “We brought in motorized tracks and a robotic crane for the teleportation scenes,” says Belling. “Every adjustment I made on the camera was recorded into the motion-control computer. I’d pull focus for a certain pass with the actors, and then they’d repeat that pass as needed along with the operator’s moves.”


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