Actor Alaqua Cox, as Maya Lopez, leans in with her real prosthetic leg — not a VFX element — for a fight scene at a roller rink. (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick)
Feature

Echo: Freedom and Realism

Kira Kelly, ASC and Magdalena Górka, ASC, PSC create a fresh visual style for a Marvel series that breaks from tradition.

Matt Mulcahey

All images courtesy of Marvel Studios


The Marvel Cinematic Universe now includes 10 streaming series and more than 30 feature films — but for the new series Echo, director of photography Kira Kelly, ASC says she never felt obligated to conform to that canon. “There was never a mandate from Marvel about how Echo should look,” she says. “We were given a lot of freedom to create a world that was unique.” Kelly shot four of the series’ five episodes: 1, 2, 4 and 5. Magdalena Górka, ASC, PSC shot Episode 3.


In some respects, Echo breaks new ground. It’s the first Disney/Marvel show with a TV-MA rating, as well as the first project under the Marvel Spotlight banner, which presents stories that place less of a priority on the audience’s comprehensive knowledge of the MCU. It’s also the first Marvel series to release all episodes simultaneously and the first to premiere on both Disney Plus and Hulu.

Marvel fans last saw antihero Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox) firing a bullet into her nefarious mentor, Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), in the finale of Hawkeye. Echo picks up in the aftermath and finds Maya taking refuge in Oklahoma among the Choctaw Nation, where she reunites with her estranged family and discovers her ancestral powers.


To shoot the series, Kelly returned to an old favorite for her glass: the Macro Auto Panatar 55mm (aka the MAP55), which was originally introduced in the early 1970s to emulate properties of the B Series with macro focus. Kelly previously used it on the FX series Y: The Last Man for the story’s post-apocalypse portions, and “I fell in love with it,” she says. “It’s a macro, but it looks beautiful in portraits. Panavision has a few of them, but I have my favorite serial number that I always ask for.”


She also asked ASC associate member Dan Sasaki of Panavision to infuse a set of T Series anamorphics with MAP55 characteristics, incorporating vintage lens elements and additional tuning to accentuate flares.


“Dan did some gorgeous magic like only he can,” the cinematographer says. “One of my favorite aspects of the MAP is that when you flare the lens, the flare takes on the same color as the light source. With a lot of other anamorphics, you get that blue horizontal flare, but Dan was able to get the MAP flare characteristics in the T Series.”


Kira Kelly, ASC behind the camera. (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick)

Sasaki crafted “A” and “B” sets of the T Series for the show, which Kelly shot on the Arri Alexa Mini LF. The A set possessed the MAP 55 flavor, whereas the B set was a less aggressive tuning and was reserved for VFX-heavy scenes.


No matter which lens was on the camera, particular attention was paid to framing lead actor Cox, who, like Maya, is deaf and communicates with ASL. “We really played a lot with the idea of what a close-up would mean,” says Kelly, who studied ASL with her crew before production began. “You take for granted that when someone is speaking, you can get as tight as you want with the shot, but with ASL, you really have to make sure you keep not only hands in frame, but also body movement. In prep, [director] Sydney Freeland and I did a whole day of testing with a stand-in who spoke ASL. [We determined that] while a character was speaking ASL, their close-up would be more like a medium close. However, when we were alone with Maya, in her headspace without dialogue, we definitely got closer.”


Kelly told A-camera operator Nick Müller that they “must not take away Alaqua’s voice by framing out her hands."


A young Maya, who is deaf, uses American Sign Language with her cousin in a tent during a family gathering. (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick)

Ancestral Powers
Each episode of Echo takes its name from one of Maya’s Choctaw ancestors and features a flashback to the moment that forebearer received their powers, which are embodied by a swirling, amber light.


For the flashback in Episode 2 (“Lowak”), Kelly used Panavision H Series spherical lenses and framed in 1.78:1 to capture a stickball game in 13th-century “Alabama.” The contest was shot mostly on 12mm and 16mm lenses, with moves accomplished via a Supertechno 50 on an offroad base and a Matrix head. “We wanted to get the camera as close as possible to the action, and that combination gave us these dynamic camera moves. We could start on a huge wide shot and then come in super close before pulling away from the game really quickly.”


Although each flashback in the series has its own look, Kelly used a single show LUT throughout the shoot. “I’m a one-LUT person; I like to make my changes through lighting, or I’ll change things at the [ASC] CDL level with the DIT.”


Magdalena Górka, ASC, PSC preps a dolly shot. (Photo by Nick Müller)

In Episode 3 (“Tuklo”), a 1.33:1 flashback to the late 1800s pays homage to early cinema. Górka recalls, “I started doing research into old photography, and I came across some vintage silver-gelatin prints. The reproduction of highlights was very bright and glowy — it had this otherworldly quality. I also found old Native American portrait photographs, along with the work of some modern photographers using old techniques. That blend led me to infrared cameras.”


After testing multiple options, including shooting black-and-white and mimicking the IR look in post, Górka chose to combine a Millennium DXL2 with Panavision Primo 70 lenses and a KipperTie IR Spectrum filter that allowed only infrared light to reach the sensor. After desaturating the footage, Górka had what she wanted: bright skies that turned black, trees that shifted to radiant white, and glowing, almost translucent skin. The approach also created some restrictions. “It was imperative that the actors wore concealer and smooth makeup on all exposed skin to effectively cover any ‘imperfections,’ including red dots and visible veins, as those became prominent in infrared light,” Górka says. “There was also a strict avoidance of red lipstick or any red color in general, including in the costumes.”


For this flashback scene shot in infrared, Górka experimented with HMIs, but they barely registered — so, for the final setup, the wide shots were lit mostly with natural light. (Photo courtesy of Magdalena Górka ASC, PSC)

Units that didn’t emit infrared light were invisible to the camera’s sensor with the IR Spectrum filter. Górka even tried blasting a trio of 18K HMIs into a shot during testing, but the light barely registered. So, for wide shots, she depended almost entirely on bright sunlight to achieve the desired infrared look. For close-ups, she tapped small infrared units.


“Shooting actors’ eyes in infrared was a learning experience,” recalls Müller. “Magdalena had handheld [infrared] units just outside our framelines for eyelights in order to see the whites in eyes. The lights were not visible to the human eye, but on camera you could see them. So, the electricians would point the light at the camera and ask if it was on.


Inaugural Oner
Though much of Echo takes place in Maya’s hometown of Tamaha, the first episode focuses on flashbacks to her upbringing in New York City. That includes her baptism-by-fire as one of Kingpin’s enforcers, an incident presented in a four-minute, stitched oner that was devised by director Freeland.


“From the beginning, Sydney loved the idea of doing a oner, and it was always story-driven,” says Kelly. “The sequence involves Maya’s first job and her first real experience with Kingpin’s world. By the middle of the shot, she’s killed her first person, and by the end, she’s fighting Daredevil [Charlie Cox]. A oner was a great visual way to show the character’s progression.”


Maya faces off against Daredevil (Charlie Cox) for the former’s baptism-by-fire initiation into the criminal underworld. (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick)

The hallway fight sequence from Daredevil’s first season (shot by Matthew J. Lloyd, ASC, CSC; AC May ’15) served as inspiration, as did the stairway fight in Atomic Blonde (shot by Jonathan Sela, ASC).


Stunt coordinator/2nd-unit director Marc Scizak began by creating stuntvis for the set piece in his rehearsal space. Once Kelly and Freeland finished their first block of shooting, they used the additional prep time to get the oner up on its feet. They spent several days doing run-throughs with Scizak and the 2nd-unit team at the shooting location, Collier Metals in Atlanta.


Ultimately, the main unit shot the pieces of the oner that featured Maya and Daredevil, and the rest were completed by the 2nd unit, led by Scizak and cinematographer Nico Aguilar, AMC. Second-unit camera operator Ryan Wood shot all of the oner, sometimes going handheld with a Klassen SlingShot and sometimes using Steadicam. A “B”-tuned T Series 30mm lens was on the camera, and the entire scene was shot at 48 fps to give Freeland the option for speed ramps; motion blur was added in post for shots that ultimately played at 24 fps.



The sequence takes place in two different spaces in the sprawling Collier Metals facility: the main warehouse area, which features multiple fenced cages, and a back office. The lighting plan called for tenting in the warehouse and juxtaposing cool fluorescent overheads with warm “sunlight” blasting through the windows. Astera tubes served as the overheads, and sunlight was provided by 16 Arri SkyPanels (12 S60s and four S360s) placed within the tent to push through the windows.


“I had to lean into lighting everything from above or from outside through these big glass-block windows from the ’80s,” Kelly says. “It was fun to play with the color contrast, a mix of dirty-orange and teal hue settings.”

Battle at the Rink
The production captured some other interiors onstage at Trilith Studios, but the shoot was primarily location-based. In addition to locations in Atlanta, the filmmakers traveled to small towns such as Griffin and Grantville, which stood in for downtown Tamaha. “Echo is a very grounded show,” Kelly says. “We weren’t going to space in this one! It’s also a very naturalistic show, so it made sense for us to shoot in as many practical locations as possible.”


The Griffin Skate Inn features prominently in several episodes, standing in for the roller rink owned by Maya’s uncle. A highlight there is an Episode 3 battle featuring Maya and Kingpin’s henchmen in the rink’s game area. Bodies fly into pinball machines and air-hockey tables while Skee-Balls serve as projectiles.


Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez, seen here during the 'Roller Rink Fight" sequence.

“[Episode 3 director] Catriona McKenzie wanted the camera to never stop moving during that episode,” Górka recalls. “She also wanted to be able to shoot 360 degrees and turn anywhere she wanted during every fight.” They achieved this with a combination of Steadicam and a MovieBird MB45 with a Matrix head.


Rigging gaffer Tom Fendley and his crew needed almost two full weeks to prep the rink with more than 100 units, including moving lights (Martin Mac Axiom Hybrid, GLP Impression X4 S and JDC1 strobe units, and SolaHyBeam 3000s), Astera Titan Tubes, ETC Source Four LEDs and more than 80 LED panels and Robe Pointe moving lights. Reams of neon-mimicking LED tape enclosed in translucent tubing were hung throughout the space.



Disco balls proved both a blessing and a curse. “They reflected tons of light, and the rink itself was also very reflective, but the balls were tricky because we couldn’t have the light that was bouncing off of them also hitting the actors’ faces,” Górka recalls. “So, we had to flag them or turn lights off and on during the shot if the camera was moving. I was always on the headsets with our gaffer, Bob Bates, making adjustments. There were just so many sources in there.”


When additional lighting was needed from the ground, Bates favored large, soft sources. “I was rolling around with three or four SkyPanel 360s with Snapbags on them that I’d push through what I call ‘lazy rags,’ which are just double or triple 12'x12' diffusion frames,” the gaffer says.


Powwow Showdown
The series’ climactic face-off between Maya and Kingpin’s forces unfolds at the Choctaw Nation Powwow. Six months before filming began, Freeland, who grew up in the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, took crewmembers to Oklahoma to attend a real powwow. “Sydney grew up in powwows, but she really wanted the department heads to be able to experience it as well,” says Kelly.


Echo’s powwow stretched over an area that was roughly 600'x250', with rows of vendors, and an outdoor arena for singing, dancing and drumming. In each corner of the sprawling set, an 80' condor was placed with a pair of SkyPanel S360s and two SolaFrame 3000 movers.


A frame capture and schematic for the season’s final showdown at the Choctaw Nation Powwow. (Click to enlarge)


“I love the SolaFrames just because they have shutters and great color rendering,” says Bates. “I try to use a lift without someone in there, so somebody doesn’t have to live up in that condor all night. I’ll focus the 360s and then use the movers to scrape trees or give our set a back edge.”


For general ambience, a 30'x30' moon box with 25 SkyPanel S60s was suspended from a construction crane over the center of the powwow Bates also placed Vortex4s on some lampposts and scattered Fiilex Q8s and Q10s around the property to edge the tents and people walking in the deep background.


The scene was captured over three nights, and the first was particularly memorable for Kelly.


“We wrapped as the sun started coming up, but the powwow kept going, and the crew was invited to join in and be a part of it,” she says. “It was such an emotional release after all the stresses that come with shooting. We got to create the space for this authentic powwow for the cast and for all the people out there who have never experienced one. It was an honor to shoot it.”


Working out another night lighting setup. (Photo courtesy of Magdalena Górka ASC, PSC)

Tech Specs

2.39:1, 1.78:1 (Ep. 2 flashback), 1.33:1 (Ep. 3 flashback)
Cameras | Arri Alexa Mini LF, Panavision Millennium DXL2 (Ep. 3 flashback)
Lenses | Panavision T Series, H Series, MAP55, Primo 70 (Ep. 3 flashback)



Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) with young Maya (Darnell Besaw) at the beginning of her mentorship.

Spotlight on Camera Movement | Motivation, Versatility, Ambition

Echo’s camera team used a variety of platforms to achieve moves, including handheld, Steadicam, telescopic cranes, wire-cams and descender rigs. But it was all governed by the same rules, says Kira Kelly, ASC. “I always like to figure out a way to have the characters motivate the camera movement,” she says. “I don’t like to push in just because someone is delivering a monologue.”


One tool that lived with production through the run of the show was a MovieBird MB45 crane with a Matrix head.


“Early on in prep, Kira and I discussed needing a tool that was versatile while still having a small footprint,” says key grip Rudy Covarrubias. “A 50-foot Technocrane was on the wish list but would not fit in some of the smaller locations. I’ve worked with MovieBird cranes for over 15 years, and my recommendation was to carry the MovieBird and day-play the 50-foot Techno when space allowed.”


Form factor was not the MovieBird’s only benefit, he adds. “I have always liked the belt drives on MovieBird cranes. They always seemed quieter than the cable drives some other cranes have.”


(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick)

However, even the compact MB45 wasn’t always easy to transport to a number of Echo’s locations. “Some of our locations were very remote, so we’d put our crane on an off-road Taurus base that could scale up muddy hills and travel over ruts and ravines in order to get the camera where we needed it,” says A-camera operator Nick Müller. “Other times, we’d mount our crane onto process trailers for scenes [of Maya on her motorcycle]. Our crane was able to extend past and around her to help create dynamism [for what was a] safe and fairly slow tow on the trailer.”


Müller operated the camera on the MovieBird’s Matrix head remotely on wheels, with dolly grip Ralph Scherer swinging the crane and Patrick Barnes on pickle. The Matrix head played on a variety of other platforms as well. “We used it on the dolly for dance-floor moves, with the Cineflip as an offset when needed,” says Müller. “Whether on dolly or Techno, pursuit arms or ascension rigs, the Matrix was used for a great majority of those configurations. It was a very efficient way of working and keeping everything stabilized and consistent.”



When on Steadicam, Müller’s setup included a Volt-powered gimbal by Tiffen and a GPI Pro Titan Arm and vest.


Two of the show’s more ambitious camera rigs played during the Episode 5 powwow. A Defy Dactylcam Pro cable rig with an Arri SRH-3 stabilized remote head was used for a soaring, aerial wide shot of the arena. “We hid a point behind the announcer’s tent and then put a second point from an offroad forklift 250 feet behind camera,” Covarrubias says.


In another memorable shot, the camera begins on a close-up of a large drum being played before ascending to a bird’s-eye view of the revelers adorned in full regalia. “As I knew that he had worked with some stunt winches before, I approached our wonderful stunt coordinator, Marc Scizak, to help me with that setup,” says Covarrubias. “We used a programmable stunt winch and rigged a Matrix head off a 110-ton construction crane with a more-than-200-foot reach to achieve that shot.”


— Matt Mulcahey





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