The American Society of Cinematographers

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Elysium, shot by Trent Opaloch in Canada and Mexico, dramatizes a sci-fi future of haves and have-nots.

Photos by Kimberly French and Stephanie Blomkamp, courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Trent Opaloch waited two years to shoot the sci-fi film Elysium, his second feature collaboration with director Neill Blomkamp. The pair made their feature debut together on District 9 (AC Sept. ’09), and following its success, which included an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, Opaloch was offered “all kinds of terrible alien exploitation films,” he says. “Every time I’d get a potential project, I’d run it by Neill, and he always said Elysium was right around the corner.

“Making a feature is a big deal for me, especially at this stage in my career,” he continues. “As I considered all those offers, I was hyper-aware of the question, ‘Is this the second movie I want to do?’ None of them grabbed my attention like Elysium.” So, while Blomkamp continued to develop the project, Opaloch waited, and in the meantime he shot commercials around the world for such clients as Nike, Adidas and Gatorade, as well as a 35mm anamorphic long-form promo for the video game Ghost Recon: Future Soldier.

Opaloch grew up along the coast of Lake Superior in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and one might assume that loading 16mm mags for his stepfather, a nature photographer, sparked his interest in cinematography, but that wasn’t the case. “I didn’t enjoy it because there was nothing cinematic about it,” he remarks during a day off from shooting his third feature, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. “It was just chasing animals around in the wild. I’d be out in the woods for days, and I just wanted to hang out with my friends and play in bands.”

Filmmaking did interest him, though, and he attended a two-year filmmaking program at Confederation College in his hometown, setting his sights on editing. Gradually, though, he became a go-to cinematographer for student films. “I moved to Vancouver after I graduated and tried to get into postproduction, but there were just no opportunities, so I bummed around as an AC and shot casting sessions for eight mind-numbing months — anything to pay the bills,” he says.

An after-school practicum at Clairmont Camera in Vancouver led to a job there, and Denny and Terry Clairmont allowed Opaloch to use gear to shoot shorts, music videos and fake commercials. They started out lending him Eyemos and Arri 2-Cs, and when those came back in one piece, they provided Arri 35-3s. “Monday through Friday I’d be on the floor with professional camera crews and getting advice from them, and then I’d shoot on Saturdays and Sundays,” Opaloch recalls. “That was a neat way for me to find my legs.”

Blomkamp had moved to Vancouver from Johannesburg, South Africa, and was working as an animator and 3-D modeler at Rainmaker Studios. He and Opaloch met on Blomkamp’s first music video, and the two immediately hit it off, leading to many other collaborations. Impressed by one of their short films, Peter Jackson handed Blomkamp the directorial reins to the big-budget feature Halo, and the fresh director brought Opaloch aboard to shoot it. “It was such a leap from everything we had done,” Opaloch remarks.

Blomkamp moved to New Zealand to begin prep, but before Opaloch could follow, Halo came crashing to a halt for budgetary reasons. Jackson’s wife and producing partner, Fran Walsh, suggested revisiting one of Blomkamp’s short films, Alive in Joburg, which became District 9. “I didn’t know how to wrap my head around the $180 million Halo,” recalls Opaloch, “but when it turned into a $30 million film, I figured, ‘Okay, this is like shooting a big short.’ It was such a relief!”

Making District 9 was so enjoyable that Opaloch didn’t mind waiting for Elysium, which finally went into production in 2011. In the film, which is set in the year 2154, Elysium is the name of an enormous space station orbiting Earth that houses a resort-like, tropical utopia where the elite are served by robots and have their ailments cured by exclusive technological innovations. The working classes live on Earth, which has devolved into a worldwide shantytown. One of the unfortunates slaving away on an assembly line is Max De Costa (Matt Damon), and when he learns he has a terminal illness, he decides he will do anything to gain access to Elysium, where a cure exists. A burgeoning resistance movement embraces Max, seeing in him an opportunity to tip the balance of equality, and provides him with a bionic exoskeleton of immense power. But Elysium’s anti-immigration enforcer, Rhodes (Jodie Foster), will stop at nothing to prevent an unauthorized intrusion into paradise.

All of the production’s stage work was shot in Vancouver, and the majority of the earthbound location work was shot in Mexico City, in one of the world’s largest landfills. Principal photography lasted 78 days, with an additional five days of reduced-unit shooting.

The filmmakers chose to shoot with Red Epics in 5K anamorphic mode (3296x2700 pixels), recording to 128GB SSD Redmags. The image was unsqueezed 2:1 for on-set monitoring. (A couple of bullet-time shots were achieved with a rig comprising two Epics and 23 Canon EOS 5D MKIIs; these were used at 23.98 fps 1920x1080.) The Epics were fitted with a mix of Panavision C Series, E Series and G Series anamorphic lenses. A small set of C Series Flare anamorphics, which have been stripped of the lens-element coatings, were used to shoot some flashback sequences.

Opaloch shoots with anamorphic lenses whenever possible, even on commercials and other projects destined for television. “For cinematic storytelling, I’m really drawn to that anamorphic look,” he says. “It’s the glass, the optics. It is such a subtle effect in the out-of-focus highlights or the shift in focusing.

“My approach to filmmaking is to drop a viewer into the middle of an environment and try to convey what that feels like,” he continues. “It’s not a perfect look that feels coordinated or presentational. On this film, it came down to a strong handheld feel on Earth, a very active, dynamic camera using C Series lenses for their old-school contrast and flare characteristics; and more controlled camerawork, including Steadicam and Technocrane, on Elysium, which we shot entirely with the E Series for the higher contrast and better blacks.”

Opaloch did resort to spherical lenses at times, mainly when dropping the Epic to 2K resolution, which was necessary for the highest frame rates, and for aerial photography and plate work shot in 4K. At that time, the maximum frame rate for 5K capture was 96 fps; therefore, any shot filmed below that frame rate was through an anamorphic lens, and any shot above, up to 300 fps, was through a spherical Primo prime. “We used spherical Panavision Primo 11:1 and 3:1 zooms and Nikkor 200mm and 300mm lenses for long-lens work because their rear-anamorphic equivalents did not deliver the sharpness and resolution required by digital capture,” Opaloch adds. For aerials, he adjusted the camera pixel count to the largest possible before lens vignetting appeared.

Opaloch’s crew included his regular commercial team, key grip Finn King and gaffer Chris Rumak. “On commercials you are thrown different challenges every day, whereas on a feature you can be on a set for days or weeks at a time at a more relaxed pace,” notes Opaloch. “We had a great time, and Chris and Finn just knocked it out of the park.” Additional crew included A-camera/Steadicam operator Dean Heselden, A-camera 1st AC Taylor Matheson, B-camera operator Steve Maier and B-camera 1st AC Mark Cohen.


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