Rapturous Action

Article by Simon Gray reprinted from ASC Magazine

Ross Emery, ACS travels to Japan for The Wolverine, which reveals the inner strength of a reluctant hero.

Spitting, snarling and sporting metal claws, Wolverine first leapt onto the front page of Marvel Comics almost 40 years ago. Since then, the creature, known as Logan in his calmer moments, has become one of the most enduring Marvel creations. The events portrayed in The Wolverine, his sixth big-screen outing, take place almost a year after those of X-Men: The Last Stand. With the X-Men disbanded and love interest Jean Grey dead, an emotionally devastated Logan (Hugh Jackman) has withdrawn from contact with humans and mutants alike.

The Wolverine director James Mangold is “a classical filmmaker who prizes story and character over spectacle,” says Ross Emery, ACS, who teamed with Mangold to make the picture. “Consequently, I would call this ‘the thinking persons Marvel movie.’” For his part, Mangold says he wanted the film’s almost nonstop action “to become a further investigation of the drama and character. There is so much depth to Wolverine: He is haunted by a troubled past; he is deeply flawed but maintains a strict code of conduct and even a sense of humor, albeit a dark one; and, let’s face it, he also has some anger-management issues.”

Despite having been an integral member of the X-Men, Wolverine is the perpetual outsider, reluctant to become close to others. Eager to explore this theme, Mangold and Emery spent some prep time viewing such diverse references as The Outlaw Josey Wales, The French Connection, and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy, Musashi Miyamoto, Duel at Ichijoji Temple and Duel at Ganryu Island. With a robust color palette as a goal, they also watched Chungking Express and Black Narcissus. “Color needs to mean something, and both of those films are great references for the use of color in storytelling,” notes Emery. “The first X-Men, shot by Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC, is also a favorite of mine — it’s a great-looking Marvel film [AC July ‘00]. The combined aesthetics of the Marvel universe, 1970s Westerns and action movies, and Japanese cinema of the 1950s gives The Wolverine its own feel.”

Elaborating on the use of color as a storytelling device, Emery continues, “Color drives the underlying emotions of the film. Part of Wolverine’s rage comes from the fact that he is a product of technology. For scenes showing him enveloped by the almost miasmic technology of Tokyo, we used overlapping combinations of Rosco 101 Yellow, Liberty Green, Easy White, Full Plus Green and Full Minus Green gels to create an unnatural-looking spectrum. When he is able to distance himself from the technological world, such as in the Yukon, where the story starts, or in the Japanese countryside, the color range is reduced to earthy tones: browns, faded yellows and washed-out blues and greens.”

Most of the action takes place in Japan, prompting production designer François Audouy to jokingly describe The Wolverine as “a kind of architectural thesis. There’s a very traditional Zöjö-ji Temple in Tokyo, an Osaka Love Hotel inspired by the postwar Metabolism architectural movement, a fishing village and traditional rural cottage, are production of an Edo-period mountain village, and, finally, the Yashida Laboratory, which is built into the side of a mountain.”

The Wolverine was shot in anamorphic 2.40:1 with Arri Alexa Studio and Alexa M cameras rated at ISO 800 and capturing in Arri Raw (to Codex recorders). The filmmakers chose Panavision’s C Series prime lenses, and according to Emery, more than half of the picture was shot with a 60mm Close Focus Anamorphic. “There we were, surrounded by the latest in image-creation technology, and it was all piped through a piece of glass made in about 1973,” he notes wryly. “To my mind, the older anamorphic lenses return some of the texture and analog feel to the digital image, smoothing out the ‘edges’ of the digital sensor and making the image feel less manufactured.”

A-camera operator Marc Spicer, ACS adds, “The 60mm provided a great close-up with a wide field-of-view, losing none of our great sets or locations. At T2.8-T4, the actor was sharp and the backgrounds only lightly softened.”

In keeping with Mangold s preference for using wide lenses close to the action, Emery employed a fairly narrow band of focal lengths, mainly 35mm to 75 mm, “to create a strong visual consistency. Jim is a performance-based director, but when it comes to composition, camera moves and lens choices, he is very specific. He wanted each character to have a distinct presence within his or her surroundings, so we rarely used anything over 75mm.”

“I like to feel that I’m inviting the audience inside the arena,” explains Mangold. “I give the camera assistants fits because the actors always tend to be on minimum focus, and I make it very hard to shoot multiple cameras because the camera is so profoundly close to the action, but that’s what gives the viewer a sense of intimacy.

“Ross and I paid a lot of attention to camera choreography,” he continues. “With live-action stunts, the results are never identical from take-to-take, which means the framing isn’t always perfect. I wanted to retain this non-anticipatory aesthetic when an actor is interacting with something that will be created as a visual effect, such as Wolverine’s fight with the Silver Samurai near the end of the film. I’m after that wonderful organic sloppiness that helps communicate reality.”

Once in Tokyo, Wolverine takes a trip on a technological icon of Japan, the bullet train, and quickly finds himself in a no-claws-barred fight with Yakuza assassins. The fight starts inside one of the carriages and, in the best cinematic tradition, soon moves to the top of the hurtling train. To create this sequence, two sets, one for the carriage interior and one for the roof, were constructed in Sydney’s Fox Studios.

Sky ambience for the interior of the train carriage was provided by two rows of space lights gelled with Va CTB and positioned above the carriage’s windows on either side. Festooned halogen domestic-style globes positioned just under the windows were used to simulate the train traveling at a variety of speeds. Down one side of the set, several 12K Maxi-Brutes softened by 20x12’ frames of Half Grid provided semi-directional light, while on the other side, Arri Tl2s focused into rotating mirror drums with reflective silvers gave harder, rapid flashes of light.

Inside the set, 3,200°K Kino Flo tubes gelled with Va CTO were used as in-ceiling practicals, and gaffer Paul Johnstone brought in lxl bi-color Lite panels and tungsten shallow banks as modeling light when required. To emulate direct sun coming in the windows, Emery used a rig Johnstone dubbed “The Beast”: three 30K Maxi-Brute panels mounted on a large scissor lift and covered with Va art silk to help blend the lamps. “All the globes were run through dimmers with a continual subde left-to-right chase or, if the train was going into a tunnel, a full blackout,” says Johnstone.

The compact Alexa M proved its worth in the tight confines of the train set and elsewhere, notes Spicer. “It proved to be a terrific addition to our camera package. I could easily poke it into parts of the set to achieve angles and proximity between actors and stunt performers that would have been exceedingly difficult with a larger camera. Additionally, being able to suddenly move the camera from ground level to above eye height and then run helter-skelter through the crowded streets of Tokyo with the actors kept everything visually exciting.”

For the rooftop part of the fight, a 260-degree green screen was erected around the set, and in the ceiling, Johnstone rigged 120 space lights further softened by two 100’x30’ sails suspended below the space lights on either side of the roof set as sky ambience. This had the added benefit of also lighting the green screen. “For the direct sun source, we used two20Ks, each on an 80-foot Condor, for coverage,” says Emery. “In front of one of the 20Ks was a rotating propeller blade to simulate [the effect of going under bridges.” A track system allowed for black curtains to be brought in as negative fill or white curtains to provide bounce fill from several 20Ks.

Spicer used 23’ and 37’ Super Scorpio Technocranes to capture fast, sweeping shots on wide lenses alongside and over the top of the mostly prone cast. “I also wiggled the wheels for the duration of each shot to add some roughness, and occasionally Ritter fans would be aimed at our cameras and at the actors and Stuntmen,” he adds.

One of the film’s largest and most complex fight sequences pits Wolverine against dozens of motorcycle-riding, sword-wielding ninjas. Shooting took place on an exterior set called the Ice Village, ostensibly a snow-covered mountain village. The set was constructed on a 107,000-square-foot parking lot at Homebush in Western Sydney, and these scenes were captured during the short nights of the Southern Hemispheres summer.

The filmmakers eschewed frantic, erratic camerawork, concentrating instead on showing stunts, martial-arts action and weapons play in the best light. “The poise and movement of the fighting and swordplay throughout The Wolverine is quite beautiful,” says Mangold.” So many of the classic martial-arts sword pictures are more than 25 years old, which means they were made before people became obsessed with hyperactive camerawork and editing. In many films today, physical action is rendered so piecemeal that it almost becomes a cacophony of images that prevent us from seeing the beauty of this kind of fighting.”

While conducting research for the design of the Ice Village, Audouy was surprised to learn of the existence of several well-preserved Edo-period villages deep in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture on Honshu Island. He recalls, “When I visited the village of Narai-Juku, I was delighted to be loaned a one-of-a-kind architectural survey by the mayor of that village, and that became our rulebook for the Ice Village set.”

To create moonlight ambience, a 40x80’ truss supporting 96 Kino Flo Image 80s in “night mode” (5,600°K tubes, some clean and some wrapped with Vi CTB) was suspended 100’ above the set by a crane. The moon ambience usually sat around a T2, 2 stops under Emery’s shooting stop. Given the exposed location, the rig was designed to be able to handle inclement weather, with gaps between the Kino heads allowing rain and wind to pass through. To define the shape of the set and act as a general backlight, eight 18 Ks covered with a combination of Brushed Silk and Vi CTB were placed on two 120’ crane rigs, one at each end of the street.

The large set presented Emery with an inherently strong contrast. “The buildings were quite dark, but the roofs were white with fake snow, and the ninjas running across the roofs were black set against the black night sky,” he says. However, the special-effects team’s constant spraying of snow mist provided an opportunity to hide six 80’ Condors, each supporting a mix of Par cans, slightly below roof level to rim light the ninjas. “The Parcans were gelled Vi Blue to save burnouts and keep a slightly warmer edge, as if the light was coming from streetlights or other practicals,” adds Johnstone.

The village was punctuated with color by practical streetlights using multiple DWE650-watt bulbs designed by rigging gaffer Mark Jefferies. Audouy added some lit street signs and also dressed in Chouchin lamps, basic bamboo frames wrapped in paper. “The dimmable practicals enhanced the depth of the street and gave the set the great mix of color temperatures Ross wanted, as well as the justification to bring light from a range of directions as needed,” Johnstone observes.

The productions second unit, led by director David Leitch and cinematographer Brad Shield, ACS, covered a lot of the stunt action in the Ice Village. “Key grip Toby Copping supplied us with all manner of equipment for capturing the action,” recalls Shield. “We used rickshaws for traveling shots, motorbike hard-mount rigs and even cameras mounted on a snow plow. The SuperTechno 50 got a good run, especially for shots of the bikes jumping across roofs. There was a lot of handheld work with the Alexa M. Every shot in this sequence moves in some way, shape or form.”

One of the few brief respites in the film occurs when Logan and his love interest, Mariko Yashida (Tao Okamoto), seek refuge in a disused Yashida cottage. Both Emery and Audouy were taken with the beauty of the location and set. “The cottage was quite small and intimate, and it was one of my favorite sets to light,” says the cinematographer Audouy adds, “The location was remarkable, built on a promontory overlooking the beautiful harbor village of Tomonoura. It was actually a vacation home for director Hayao Miyazaki.” ^

The lighting for this set needed to accommodate day scenes, night scenes, dawn scenes, and night scenes with rain. “I wanted to be able to change from a night setting to a day setting very quickly, and the rig Paul put into place gave us that,” says Emery. Overhead ambience was provided by a bank of 50 Kino Flo Image 80s, each containing a mix of color temperatures. Two tubes were gelled with Full CTB, two tubes were gelled with ViCTB, two were 5,600°K, and the remaining two were 3,200°K. “We could adjust both the intensity and color temperature of the ambience easily,” says Emery. Direct sunlight was created with Maxi-Brute panels on scissor lifts gelled alternately with Full CTB and ViCTB, and Vz CTO and Full CTO, allowing Emery to trim to the desired color temperature as required.

When constructing the set, Audouy took care to re-create traditional finishes, such as the timber-frame construction, traditional Wara Juraku plaster walls (made of sand, clay and rice stalks) and Fusuma sliding panels. “It was important to imbue the set with a sense of history,” he says. “This was a place the Yashida family visited regularly when the children were young, but was then forgotten. Our set decorator, Rebecca Cohen, designed traditional Tsuridourou hanging lanterns for the hallway. The cottage also had Banbori lamps, six-sided floor lamps made of paper and wood.”

When it came to on-set monitoring, Emery was very specific. “It’s important that the director is always seeing the best picture possible on that monitor,” he says. Mangold used HP Dreamcolors, which “provided great color reproduction and a great black level when viewing the Alexa’s Ree 709 output,” says Emery. The productions DIT tent contained another HP Dreamcolor, an Apple Mac tower using Blackmagic Scope software for viewing the waveform and color analysis, and a Da Vinci Resolve for any desired adjustments. The main reference monitor was a 42” Dolby PRM-4200. “This was the final word on picture quality,” says Emery. “It has fantastic detail in dark areas and very accurate color representation for lighting and exposure decisions.

Dailies were handled by Deluxe Laboratories in Sydney, where the ArriRaw files were graded to specs supplied by Emery and then transferred to HDSR tape for dailies viewing. Pro Res files with the grade applied were delivered to editorial. Emery recalls, “Our DIT, Christopher Reig, and I would have a little meeting at the end of each day, and then he would e-mail stills generated from the camera output to the dailies colorist, Jamie Hediger, along with any necessary notes. Viewing projected dailies is the only way to go. Knowing where I sit with the color and exposure allows me to be braver the next day, and a good set of dailies always energizes the crew.”

The filmmakers conducted the final grade with colorist Stephen Nakamura at Company 3in Santa Monica. Emery notes that he was determined to create a “close-to-final” look during principal photography. “I probably used more lighting gel on this film than I have for a while, and the images everyone saw right through the editing process were quite close to final. You have to be diligent in protecting that look, and I was very pleased to see that the images in our first trailer were pretty much what we’d seen on our onset monitors and in dailies. What we all strove for during the shoot had paid off.”

TECHNICAL SPECS

2.40:1

Digital Capture

Arri Alexa Studio, M

Panavision C Series