Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC re-teams with director Bryan Singer for X-MEN, a tale of superheroes at odds with humanity.

IIn the sci-fi-themed feature X-Men, based on the long-running and wildly popular Marvel Comics title of the same name, humankind is challenged by the sudden appearance of children born with an added DNA twist—an "X Factor" that endows them with extraordinary powers such as exceptional strength, flight and telekinesis. Categorized as Homo Sapiens Superior, these gifted "mutants" soon become a new minority group that earns the paranoid contempt of all "normals."

The situation compels one of the mutants, the super-psychic Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), to gather these misunderstood souls—including Cyclops (James Marsden), Rogue (Anna Paquin), Jean Gray (Famke Janssen), Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)—in a safe place where he can teach them to use their abilities for the common good. Meanwhile, a powerful mutant named Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen), vowing revenge on all humanity, recruits a villainous team, the Evil Brotherhood, to push aside anyone who gets in his way—including Xavier’s group, which is known as the X-Men.

"I think of the story as a parable of the philisophical differences between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X," reasons X-Men’s director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC. "Xavier and Magneto have opposing ideologies about the same issue: helping their people. Each has a certain degree of credibility, and they are struggling with each other. That’s what made the script interesting."

The picture marks the third feature collaboration between Sigel and director Bryan Singer. Their first, the uniquely plotted crime film The Usual Suspects, earned the cameraman a 1996 Independent Spirit Award nomination. The duo followed that up with the dramatic thriller Apt Pupil. Sigel recently earned kudos for his inventive use of cross-processed reveral stock in the Desert Storm drama Three Kings (see New Products & Services, AC Nov. ’99), and his other features include Brokedown Palace, Fallen, Blood and Wine, The Trigger Effect and Foxfire.

Seeking to continue their working relationship, Singer approached Sigel with the X-Men script, but it would go through a series of its own mutations, deaths and rebirths as budgetary issues arose. "Somewhere along the way, [20th Century Fox] decided they were going to spend $75 million and not a penny more," Sigel reports. "Before we had a final script, the decision was made that the [New York-based] film was going to be shot in Toronto. At one point they told us to stop trying to make Toronto fit our script, and that we should just adapt our script to Toronto," he adds with a wry chuckle. "I had about seven weeks of prep, and it wasn’t as efficient as it could have been," Sigel recalls. "You want to spend all your time focusing on the creative aspects but unfortunately a lot of time and energy goes into budgeting and logistics."

The strong genre angle of X-Men prompted Sigel to consider how other films of this type have been photographed. "The ’comic-book movie’ has become its own genre," he notes, citing the Batman films, Dick Tracy, Spawn and Superman as prime examples. "My first concern was coming up with a fresh visual approach, one appropriate for this particular story. I knew Bryan wasn’t doing this film because he necessarily wanted to make a comic-book movie. He is very much a character-driven, reality-based director, so I knew he wouldn’t want the type of elaborate, stylized look that Vittorio Storaro [ASC, AIC] had created for Dick Tracy. Besides, Storaro did such an amazing job on that picture, there was no reason to do another one [like it].

"I actually avoided using a lot of color," Sigel continues. "I instead wanted the colors to be balanced and fairly muted and subdued, to go against that primary-color, comic-book look. In fact, I pull-processed most of the film to desaturate everything." This sparing use of key hues subconsciously adds to the film’s drama. As Sigel explains, "Certain colors pertained to individual characters, and we’d occasionally put little pieces of those colors into the backgrounds. This was a subliminal evocation of what certain characters represented to me. For example, we sometimes had a particular shade of red that we used in the backgrounds behind Magneto, which helped represent the primacy of his passion. We didn’t do it very often, but those colors become more interesting because they stand out against the overall, muted palette."

Sigel says he sees the increasingly flashy visual pyrotechnics on display in contemporary action films as being "very much like a photographic arms race. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking, ’The Matrix got to use their bullet-time effect, so I want to do an even bigger or better bullet-time gimmick.’ While I admire what they did in that film, cinematography is not a competition to see how many revolutions you can make on the camera with a hothead. You can still do innovative things without becoming like a theme-park ride.

"The best solution [for X-Men] wasn’t to go either ’Las Vegas’ or old-school classical. Instead, it was to find an organic way to use the camera in relationship to the story. X-Men has a fairly classical look—it’s more [like] The Godfather than Batman."

One given was that X-Men would be composed in 2.35:1 widescreen. While Sigel and Singer had shot both The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil in Super 35, they chose Panavision anamorphic for their latest effort, primarily relying on close-focus Primo lenses. This choice impacted a recurring camera technique that the two filmmakers had heavily relied upon in those previous pictures. "On The Usual Suspects, Bryan and I developed a way of shooting dialogue scenes with a combination of slow, creeping zooms and dolly moves that ended in tight close-ups," Sigel says, explaining that this strategy added subtle energy to scenes despite cramped practical locations and short shooting schedules. "Bryan fell in love with that technique, and we used it often on Apt Pupil. But on X-Men, we had great sets that we wanted to show off, and I explained that I’d prefer to shoot in anamorphic however, it also that meant he’d have to give up the zooming. He agreed to that in part because he wanted to give this film a bigger presence and scope, but it wasn’t always easy to get him away from that technique once we started shooting."

The film’s visual-effects requirements also had a major impact on its overall look. Sigel notes, "We were trying to create things that are close to impossible, so I really had three primary collaborators on the look: Bryan, because everything started and stopped with him; our visual-effects supervisor, Mike Fink [see additional story on page 94], and production designer John Myhre. We went through every scene and shot, discussing where my work ended and Mike’s began, how our two worlds would interface, what John would build and what the computer would create.

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