2nd-Unit Ace Bleibtreu on the State of the Art

Josh Bleibtreu, ASC (foreground), and 2nd-unit director Jack Gill on location in Taiwan for Pi Zi Ying Xiong 2 (a.k.a. Black & White: The Dawn of Justice).
Josh Bleibtreu, ASC (foreground), and 2nd-unit director Jack Gill on location in Taiwan for Pi Zi Ying Xiong 2 (a.k.a. Black & White: The Dawn of Justice).

I reached Josh Bleibtreu, ASC, in a rare relaxed moment at his off-the-grid cabin in the mountains above Big Sur. Josh and his wife both grew up nearby and attended a one-room schoolhouse. Over the past few years, he’s been improving the property whenever he isn’t crisscrossing the globe on assignment.

Josh had just returned from Toronto, where he had been shooting second unit on Suicide Squad since March. The format was 35mm anamorphic, and the director of photography was Roman Vasyanov. “It’s a beautiful-looking film,” says Josh. “It’s one of the prettier films I’ve been involved with, and we did a lot of work on it — mostly nights, with night exteriors, stage interiors and a lot of underwater.”

Prior to that, he shot for Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC, on The Accountant, another 35mm anamorphic project.

Josh is known in the business as a first-call second-unit cinematographer. He has collaborated with an amazing list of ASC luminaries, and making his work part of a harmonious whole with their images is his specialty. He is also a master of designing and executing complex action scenes.

Bleibtreu works on a sequence for Knight & Day in Spain with 2nd-unit director Brian Smrz (right) and key grip Alex Klabukov.
On location in Spain for Knight & Day, Bleibtreu works on a sequence with 2nd-unit director Brian Smrz (right) as key grip Alex Klabukov listens in.

One recent sequence was for a pilot titled Scorpion, shot by Gyula Pados, HSC, in which terrorists knock out the control tower at LAX. Planes are circling and running out of fuel, unable to land. The hero has figured out a hack that will enable planes to land safely. Driving a T-top Ferrari at 150 mph, he hands a USB cable to a copilot who is hanging from the landing gear of a low-flying 757. The sequence was filmed over three days at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. There were high-speed insert cars, Edge arms, Ritter fans, greenscreen and controlled slides.

“You have to crawl inside the director of photography’s head and make the tone seamless,” Josh says of his work. “Naturally, that involves a lot of talking, and I watch dailies religiously. I cull a lot of clips, and I try to have production bring in a lighting liaison to make very detailed notes on every lighting setup the first unit does, with lamp placement, gel colors and other details.”

I asked Josh how the job had changed in the 20 years he has been doing it, and he noted the advent of digital cameras, OLED monitors and stabilized heads. “You’re seeing what you’re getting, and it’s not a grainy black-and-white video tap anymore. Also, previsualization has become extremely helpful for complex action sequences. We’ve always had storyboards, but not a computer-generated cartoon, which helps when we’re trying to combine elements shot by multiple units on location, onstage and against greenscreen. Cutting in the field is also a big change; editors are starting to assemble things on a laptop on set, and that can be a big help.”

Digital cameras are now preferred for nighttime aerials, but film is still the go-to medium for day exteriors, he adds.

Bleibtreu takes to the skies to film a sequence in Taiwan.
Bleibtreu takes to the skies to film a sequence in Taiwan.

It isn’t just the tools that have evolved. “The entire process has changed, but I don’t view change negatively — I embrace it,” says Josh. “The studio system has changed, and many of the studios are more involved in corporate and product tie-ins. There’s a focus on demographics, and often you wind up with directors who may not have a clear vision; there are still many out there who are very strong, but the studio sometimes brings in a director who isn’t experienced. Maybe it’s because that person does good meetings, or because the studio thinks he or she might appeal to a certain age group. They surround this director with people who have a good track record, and then everyone tries to bring the film together. It can become a committee, almost like a commercial. Back in the day, it was a little more about one voice.”

Josh is seldom micromanaged, however. “Most of the time I get free rein,” he says. “Of course, I make sure to keep an open line of communication, because issues always come up. You also have to know when to put your foot down and insist on waiting for the proper time of day for the best light for the shot. It’s critical to know the previous cut and the following cut, so you know where and how much of the shot you’re doing fits into the cut and the movie. You either get hold of the footage that has been shot, or try figure out what the intention will be when it’s shot.”

When our conversation ended, Josh started working on negotiations for his next job.

Bleibtreu and friend on location for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.
Bleibtreu on location for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

 

 

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