Thor: Ragnarok, in which the mythical Norse deity-turned-superhero teams up with The Hulk, is the latest from Marvel Studios’ extraordinarily successful operation. The film was directed by Taika Waititi,
who called it the most “out there” of all Marvel films. The majority of the film was shot on massive stages at Village Roadshow Studios near Brisbane in Australia. A few scenes that take place in modern-day New York
City were filmed in Atlanta.
When the producers approached Javier Aguirresarobe, ASC, AIC about taking on the assignment, the cinematographer took it as a challenge. With more than 60 narrative projects under his belt, Aguirresarobe brings a depth of experience in every type of film, from character-based drama (Talk to Her, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Goya’s Ghosts) to effects-heavy action and genre pictures (Goosebumps, The Road, The Finest Hours).
“From my first film to my most recent, what’s important is the grammar of light,” he says. “On any film, lighting is what gives the image personality. I saw Thor: Ragnarok as an opportunity to take on classical mythology, and to apply the latest technical innovations. And on a personal level, it was a chance to reunite with Cate Blanchett, with whom I’d worked on Blue Jasmine.”
In collaboration with Marvel, Aguirresarobe shot tests in London that led to the choice of ARRI ALEXA 65 and a blend of ARRI Prime 65 and Vintage 765 lenses. He also made extensive use of the latest in LED fixtures, which facilitated his precise and imaginative approach to colour on the project, and was inspired by the work of artist James Turrell, whose métier often immerses the viewer in light and space.
“We were able to control colour to an extent previously unattainable,” says the cinematographer. “LED lighting, the ALEXA 65 camera, and post-production meant that everything was possible. With its uncompressed RAW capture, the camera is able to acquire a tremendous range of colour with consistency and accuracy. With other digital cameras, I might call for some slight diffusion, but here I got fantastic faces and never missed the filtration. Sometimes when the image is technically perfect, it can be boring. Instead, this combination gave the picture a natural sweetness and smoothness.”
Aguirresarobe says that the look was similar in spirit to the previous films, but not slavishly so. Key to his approach was the careful choice of colour. To communicate his intentions to the team, he sent a collection of carefully coloured images. Digital Imaging Technician Peter Harrow was crucial to successfully achieving the DP’s intent for the project.
“Javier knows exactly what he wants,” says Harrow. “It’s very easy to work with someone who already has such a vision. Ultimately, it becomes a matter of making sure that vision happens.”
Harrow’s previous experience includes work in dailies and in final colour correction, valuable knowledge in his current role. “I’ve seen the way dailies used to work, where you see a couple of images from the DP and try to match them. Now I treat everything shot-by-shot before it passes to dailies colour. The DIT and the DP really work together in making new looks. We’ve certainly gone through a number of iterations. With the ALEXA 65 and the Codex Vault, we’re starting to see more defined roles. Production is more streamlined. The DIT makes sure that the right feel is being realised right away, on the set, and the dailies colourist can look after colour and communicate with editorial and visual effects.”
Images from the ALEXA 65 are recorded with the integral Codex Recorder and processed using the Codex Vault Lab 65 to maintain every bit of the richness in each frame. Harrow worked with Pomfort LiveGrade software and an ACES pipeline, subtly tweaking colours and contrast. Aguirresarobe values accuracy and intention in the initial image capture and on-set viewing, especially important given the more than 2500 visual effect shots the project eventually required.
With the consultation of dailies producer Stephen Ceci, SHED sent a Codex Vault to the near-set to handle the camera mags and backups. Especially during the first week or two of the shoot, Aguirresarobe would sit with dailies colourist Fergus Hally and make sure things were on track.
“The SHED people were very easy to work with,” says Harrow. “They are moving from strength to strength, and we had a great working relationship in which we talked about how things might change going forward.”
“WITH THE ALEXA 65 AND THE CODEX VAULT, WE’RE STARTING TO SEE MORE DEFINED ROLES. PRODUCTION IS MORE STREAMLINED”
Visual Effects Supervisor Jake Morrison agrees: “SHED makes it a seamless process for us,” he says. “They are a highly technical bunch, and they understand how we work. It’s a very complicated process that requires everyone to get it right. The SHED process is extremely strong, and it’s helped by the fact that they are fun, collaborative and smart people to work with.”
Visual effects mostly fell into two categories – creature creation and backgrounds.
“If there’s an opportunity to get scope and scale in any given shot, the production will always request it,” says Morrison. “Even if the production has built a perfectly functional set that looks great, we’ll punch holes in it, and put the rest of the world in.”
The VFX-DP collaboration has to be tight on such a complex undertaking. Morrison found mutual respect and trust with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe.
“Javier’s style is grounded in creating realistic scenes, but making them beautiful,” Morrison says. “His images often feature very soft cross-light, and they focus you on colour and tone. It was very exciting to work with him, especially on shots where so much of the frame isn’t actually there yet – sometimes it’s literally just the actor against the blue screen, and everything else is just theatre of the mind – imagination. Our task is to ensure that Javier’s intent in terms of the mood and colour is reflected in the final images.”
Aguirresarobe worked extensively with ARRI Sky Panel LED fixtures, which allow him to precisely calibrate the colour of the light. “Javier concentrates his energy on lighting the subjects, making sure that it was flattering to them,” says Morrison. “But he knew we had to run a long way with this stuff. My request to Javier was to light more neutral and then to show me in the CDLs where he would like it to go. In visual effects, we work better with a larger range and a more natural negative. Often the elements that we shoot are 100% neutral. Once we have everything holding together and looking like a finished photographic image, at that point we can apply an overall cooler colour cast, for example.”
That approach puts extra importance on the on-set colour, which communicates the DP’s intent without affecting the raw image file. Morrison adds stills to a colour bible that he uses to ensure that everyone stays on the same page. It’s essential information for the dailies team at SHED.
From Morrison’s perspective, the ALEXA 65 and the 6.5K image it captures is a game-changer. “Until they come up with something better, I’ll be requesting this camera for the rest of my days,” he says. “In the Marvel Universe, there’s always an element of restlessness – a sense that if there’s a better way, we should find it. They keep pushing it forward and making it better. We can’t pass up any opportunity to make it better.”
Marvel specifies clear preferences regarding the workflow of its projects. But the creatives generally don’t mind, because the standard practices and equipment that Marvel chooses are the best. The ALEXA 65-Codex Vault 65 is part of this solid, proven pipeline, which brings advantages in every aspect of production and post.
“So much of a movie like this comes together in post,” says Morrison. “Because Javier shot at a 5.6 or an 8, the depth of field was deep. Because you have the 6K latitude, and everything is beautifully lit, you can create a beautiful close-up or medium shot if need be. That flexibility means that the ALEXA 65 has huge appeal for the director. It also gives you flexibility on the set, with the number of setups you need. It’s a powerful creative tool.”
Efforts in dailies colour are less about bringing things in line, and more about nuance and creativity, according to Morrison. Everyone who works on the film down the line sees images that at least approximate the final look, which also has far-reaching benefits. SHED ensures that the entire process is smooth, in spite of the technical challenges.
“It all comes back to trust, and to the desire to maintain quality every single step of the way,” says Morrison. “There are good ways of doing things, and there are better ways of doing things. We’ve come to the point where we can do 48 frames per second in 6.5K mode. At that data rate, I just can’t wrap my head around how Marc Dando and his gang at SHED actually do it. And the flashy numbers are nothing compared to dependability. SHED has is right – it’s the preeminent solution.”
Codex related product and workflows
Images courtesy of their respective owners.