The American Society of Cinematographers

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Iron Man 2
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Iron Man 2 2nd Unit
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, ASC and director Jon Favreau shoot to thrill with the action-packed Iron Man 2.

Unit photography by François Duhamel, SMPSP and Merrick Morton, SMPSP. Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment. Lighting plot courtesy of Michael Bauman.
A few weeks before the end of principal photography on Iron Man 2, AC is on location with the filmmakers at Los Angeles’ Sepulveda Dam, where the production has erected and illuminated a massive greenscreen that emanates a nighttime glow visible for miles. The set represents only part of the exterior of Stark Expo, a showcase for the technological wizardry of Stark Industries and its head honcho, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who has recently revealed to the world that he is the armor-clad superhero Iron Man. The rest of the expo exterior was a combination of location work at a Los Angeles high school and CG extensions. “The trick is to fulfill what people liked about the first film, but do it in a different way and on a larger scale,” says director Jon Favreau. Judging by the scope of this particular set, the production will succeed on both counts.   

Creating the greenscreen at the dam required hundreds of shipping containers to be stacked, covered in plywood and a thin coat of plaster, and painted chroma green. The screen lines three sides of a courtyard measuring roughly 600'x200'; the elaborate setup includes working fountains fitted with waterproof LiteGear LiteRibbon LEDs, as well as a portion of a bridge supported by four cylindrical columns, each topped with two T8 Technologies Lumapanel Pro 44s, two Clay Paky Alpha Profile 1,200-watt moving fixtures, and two Martin Mac 2000 Washes. Installed in the columns are Barco Versa Tubes, which create pulsing LED-lighting effects. Additional ambience is provided by Condor-supported Sourcemaker lighting balloons.  

During a break between setups, Matthew Libatique, ASC points to the top of the greenscreen, which is lined with 20Ks and PRG Bad Boys, “the punchiest mover we could get,” he says. Gaffer Mike Bauman notes, “They have a ton of throw, an incredible zoom range and a lot of speed, so we can highlight sections of the set really quickly with them.” With four cameras set to roll, Libatique is soon called back to video village, where Favreau commiserates with Downey and co-star Gwyneth Paltrow, who is reprising her role as Pepper Potts.  

Although the expo seems to signify a high-water mark for Stark, he actually finds himself at a troubling crossroads. To the chagrin of the U.S. government, he has given up weapons manufacturing and refuses to hand over the technology behind his Iron Man armor, putting him at odds with his longtime friend, Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and forcing the government to back Stark Industries’ rival, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). Meanwhile, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Engagement and Logistics Division (better known as SHIELD) has infiltrated Stark Industries with a beautiful operative code-named Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Worse still, Russian scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) has decided the time is ripe to act on a personal vendetta against Stark and his family legacy. Tying the plot’s threads together, Libatique observes, “It’s really a portrait of someone who’s become too famous. Tony’s dealing with fame, his ego and his conscience all at the same time.”  

The film reunites Favreau with Libatique, who also shot Iron Man (AC May ’08). When Favreau asked Libatique to return for the sequel, “I didn’t have any reservations,” says Libatique. “I’d learned so much from the first film, and I wanted an opportunity to know what I’d learned from beginning to end. I like to think that when you stack these two films together, they have the same visual language.”  

Also returning for the sequel were Bauman, key grip Tana Dubbe and camera operator Colin Anderson. Libatique notes, “My focus puller on the first film, Peter Berglund, became the B-camera operator, and Mark Santoni was the A-camera first AC. The continuity between the two films made it a lot easier and very enjoyable for me. We could work more quickly as a collective because we understood the dynamics of the franchise.” Those dynamics include a predilection for improvisation that emphasizes performance over camerawork. “Jon’s approach is so dissimilar to that of other directors I’ve worked with,” says Libatique. “Because he’s also an actor, he’s ‘performance first.’ It’s about keeping the equipment distant and keeping the light as naturalistic as possible. We wanted to provide a culture of freedom and let the actors work the space.”  

This time around, Libatique didn’t do his own operating. He explains, “Jon is at the monitor, and he makes decisions very quickly. To maximize my collaboration with him, I had to be right next to him, and on this film I felt a partnership with him that I didn’t feel on the first one because I was engulfed in my operating responsibility. In the scheme of things, I can’t let the film get away from me, and on a movie of this scale, what I do is largely management.”  

Although dialogue-heavy scenes were infused with improvisation, Favreau did hew closely to storyboards and previs for action sequences. “There are certain parts of the movie that are untouchable, but there are also parts where I want complete freedom,” he notes. “The combination we’ve arrived upon is to keep the connective tissue very spontaneous and loose so the action elements, which we’ve been planning for two years, don’t feel stale.”  

To help define the action sequences, visual-effects supervisor Janek Sirrs tapped previs company The Third Floor. The company’s approach included motion-capture work of stunt performers running through the paces of particular sequences. Libatique then came into an office fitted with camera-tracking equipment and was handed a tablet monitor that served as a virtual camera, allowing him to frame shots, execute moves and even scale his own size, all using the motion-capture data. Sirrs explains, “We laid down a little dance floor, and Matty could roll around on a wheeled stool and pretend to be on a dolly. We put the tablet on a handheld camera mount and weighted it so it felt like a real camera on his shoulder.” The rudimentary shots Libatique composed were then refined under the supervision of animation director Genndy Tartakovsky.   

Sirrs describes the methodology as “sort of a James Cameron approach to previs,” referring to the director’s use of similar virtual-camera technology on Avatar (AC Jan. ’10). “That technology has become so available that it’s changing the nature of previs. This is the fastest way to do it and the most naturalistic; it’s wrong to suppose that someone who may be good at building a 3-D model will know how you would follow action as the camera operator would on set. This is a way of injecting that talent back into the equation.” Libatique confirms, “It was a much better way for people to get a sense of how the film was going to be shot.”  

The production was based in Los Angeles, mostly at Raleigh Studios Manhattan Beach. “I try to keep the work in L.A. when I can,” says Favreau. “You have access to a tremendous talent pool, and as a director I find it’s much easier to work here, especially if you’re going to be changing things on the fly, because the infrastructure is here. I love shooting other places, too, if the script calls for it, but it was clear that L.A. would serve this material the best.”  

One of the biggest challenges for Libatique was underscoring Stark’s position at the vanguard of technology with the practical fixtures the production employed. “This is one of the richest men in the world, so we can’t buy our practicals from Home Depot,” he notes. “Everything had to be intelligent technology, and it had to look classic enough to have some shelf life — we didn’t want it to look embarrassingly dated 10 years from now. That made it challenging but fun as well.” Fortunately, he adds, “Mike Bauman is really good at staying up on technology, and our lighting-fixtures foreman, Al DeMayo, made phenomenal contributions. Al also worked on the first film, but this time he had to reinvent a lot of what we were doing.” 

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