The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents September 2014 Return to Table of Contents
Guardians of the Galaxy
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Emmy Awards
Presidents Desk
ASC Close-Up

Ben Davis, BSC, blasts off for the space adventure Guardians of the Galaxy.

Unit photography by Jay Maidment, SMPSP. Images courtesy of Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures.

Despite having first appeared on pulp in 1969, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy comic books were unfamiliar to cinematographer Ben Davis, BSC, before he signed on to shoot the big-screen incarnation. He was quickly brought up to speed with the concept, though, when director James Gunn took him for a stroll through the art department early in preproduction. “The design work was flabbergasting,” Davis says, still with a sense of awe. “It blew me away. Concept work that is only limited by imagination can set a very high bar, and my job was to bring it to life. That challenge, for me, was the most enjoyable aspect.”

Unlike Marvel’s usual fare, which hangs Earth in the balance as superheroes square off against equally powered villains, Guardians is at its core a space adventure, set in the distant cosmos and populated by humans, humanoids and all manner of strange aliens. In the film, crafty space pilot Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) — whose chosen moniker of “Star-Lord” does not precede him as far as he thinks — daringly swipes a powerful orb only to find himself the subject of an all-out bounty hunt led by the evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). With the fate of the galaxy threatened by Ronan’s plans, the intergalactic police force known as the Nova Corps pressures Quill into an alliance with his rivals: the green-skinned Gamora (Zoë Saldana); a tree-being of limited vocabulary called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel); a weapons-wielding raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and a tattooed and scarred mass of muscle known as Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). And thus, the titular team is born.

Guardians marks the first collaboration between Gunn and Davis, as well as their first foray into what Marvel has dubbed its “cinematic universe.” (At press time, Davis was hard at work on his second Marvel movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, with director Joss Whedon.) Davis began his career at the Samuelson Group’s camera house in the U.K. and rose through the ranks to photograph such features as Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Wrath of the Titans and Seven Psychopaths (AC Nov. ’12).

For the U.K.-based Guardians shoot, Davis opted to work with Arri Alexa XT cameras rented from Panavision London. He framed for a 2.40:1 release and recorded in the ArriRaw format off of the 4:3 2.8K sensor to the cameras’ Codex recorders. “I’m traditionally a photochemical fan,” he says, “but going with the digital format was the right way for this movie. Technically, all the digital cameras are good. I just felt the Alexa [provided] the right look for this particular film.”

Before launching into space, the film opens with an earthbound sequence that features a young Quill. For these scenes, Davis employed JDC Cooke Xtal (Crystal) Express anamorphic prime lenses, which began their lives in the 1930s and ’40s as Cooke S2 and S3 spherical lenses but were rehoused and modified with anamorphic elements in the 1980s by Joe Dunton Cameras. “I picked the lenses that didn’t go off the shelf much,” the cinematographer notes, adding that the Xtal Express lenses “had more anamorphic artifacts and aberrations, which I felt added something. We had a 50mm that said T2.8 on it, but it was more like a T4 and had a lot of edge distortion. I liked the look of it.”

For the rest of the picture, Davis switched to spherical Panavision Primos. Davis notes, “Marvel likes to have a bit of room for visual effects [to reposition the frame in post]. When we shoot anamorphic, there is not a lot of frame height to play with, whereas if we extract 2.40:1 from a 4:3 image, there is a lot of room to maneuver. Shooting spherical was the right decision.”

The filmmakers favored wider lenses to take in the characters and surroundings. “James wanted Guardians to be an intimate film, so we stayed close to the actors on, say, a 24mm as opposed to being 10 feet away on a 50mm,” Davis says. “We worked a lot in the range of 17.5mm to 27mm in order to show off the sets, which were very large. The film was mostly shot in the T2.8 to T4 range, and if there were parts of a set we wanted to see more of, I would float more light there.”

Two Alexas were employed the majority of the time, with a third and fourth added on occasion. “I don’t mind working with two cameras at 90 degrees from each other,” Davis says. “If it’s three, I’ll work a wide and a tight down one axis and the third camera at 90 degrees. Over the years I’ve become much more adept at lighting for multiple cameras.”

Davis emphasizes that Guardians was largely filmed on highly detailed, practically built sets as opposed to expanses of greenscreen and bluescreen — although both frequently served as trim for set extensions in post. To realize the extraterrestrial environments, Davis worked closely with production designer Charles Wood. The cinematographer enthuses, “That was the exciting thing for me, getting these crazy concepts of mad worlds and figuring out how we would [realize them in front of the camera]. Fortunately, we had the time in prep to work out how.”

The cinematographer was particularly struck by the number of practical lighting sources that were evidenced in the concept drawings. To carry this idea into the sets, the crew wired upwards of 15,000 DMX dimmer channels to control the built-in fixtures. “I made a creative decision to not use any traditional lighting fixtures — your typical Fresnels or HMIs — on this film,” the cinematographer explains, wryly adding, “In prep, that sounded like a great idea. For a space movie, any fixture that is in shot has to feel like it’s futuristic. At the same time, I didn’t want to go with what you so often see in space movies: bits of white Perspex with lights behind them. We spent a lot of time trying to source fixtures that looked like they could be part of a world set in the future, and a lot of those were predominantly LED or tube fixtures. We visit worlds that are so disparate that I felt having a unified lighting strategy would bring them together with a continuity of look so that the film felt as one piece.”

One of these worlds houses the Kyln, an intergalactic prison where Quill and his future teammates are held after being captured by the Nova Corps. The set was built in the 300'-long stage at Longcross Film Studios, a former Ministry of Defense construction and testing facility for tanks, located in Surrey. (The production also worked out of Shepperton Studios.) The Kyln set comprised a multi-level system of tunnels lined with prison cells that led to a main yard anchored in the center by a four-story watchtower. “I was very adamant that [all of the lights] come back to a central dimmer desk because we had different scenarios to play within that space,” Davis says. “We had a day look and a nighttime lockdown setting [with the practicals at a low level or off completely], and we wanted to see that transition. When the Guardians break out of prison, there is also a red emergency-light/alarm setting.”

For a base ambience over the yard, Davis and his longtime gaffer, David Smith, sought to create the feel of light emanating from space. To achieve this, they devised a series of overhead soft boxes filled with Panalux FloBank tungsten fluorescents gelled with ½ CTB and aimed through Full Grid textiles that had been dyed with Lee Filters 728 Steel Green. (Davis and Smith decided that Steel Green would be the de facto color for all space-originating light in the movie.) The ambient light was about a stop and a half below the rest of the set lighting.


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