The Wolverine character made his big-screen debut almost 17 years ago, in the 2000 Marvel flick, X-Men. Back then, the wave of comic-book-inspired, visual-effects-heavy feature films was just gaining momentum. Since then, no fewer than 40 feature films have been produced with Marvel characters, and comic book-themed movies are a mainstay of the industry.
For that reason among others, director James Mangold and director of photography John Mathieson BSC avoided a formulaic approach to the visuals on Logan, the latest entry in Wolverine’s cinematic adventures. Rather than a perfectly designed world where a slightly campy superhero clad in tights and a mask emerges from earth-shattering explosions with nary a mote of dust, Logan takes place in a recognisably grungy and gritty world.
“It wasn’t as though I'd made a conscious decision to make it look grubby,” says Mathieson, (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., X-Men: First Class, Gladiator). “That’s the way the characters were written on the page. Our heroes live in a disused factory surrounded by toxic, rusting things. One character is sickly and anaemic and can't go outside. Charles is a bumbling, cantankerous old man who lives with a terribly obnoxious drunk – the washed-up Logan. Rather than boldly looking for a global crisis to fight through, they are in hiding. It's not a glamorous film. It's rough and real, and you feel the dirt and grit.
With that in mind, the production ventured out to actual locations for major parts of the shoot, keeping with the real-world aesthetic. Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico served as backdrops. The story unfolds mainly in exterior situations, which meant that Mathieson could depend on natural light in many cases. He often pushed exposure to create photography that communicated a sense of the heat and dust.
“I was really trying to shove it somewhere so that when we went out in the desert, you felt how it was to be in the sun,” says Mathieson. “James wanted to feel the searing heat of the desert. We didn't want the lovely, soft golden colours of Lawrence of Arabia, but rather hot, hard, horrible sun, to convey that these people live somewhere they don’t want to. This film does have plenty of texture. You feel you’re on the road. These characters are running.”
Mathieson says that Mangold’s instincts in terms of framing harkened back to classic road movies of 1970s American cinema, like Two-Lane Blacktop, and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
“The American landscapes were great for me, he says. I've never really lit exteriors, but that's true for this film in particular. I did have some matching, and the skies were always changing in New Mexico. But setting up a nice, big 40x40 silk with a crane, making it nicely soft underneath, and then relighting – I'm so fed up with that. And it wasn't right for this film. If someone was in shadow and they stepped out into the sun, let them. That's it - because James made them real people and they are in a real situation, and that’s what it’s like. Your eyes wince and you can’t see a damn thing. You have that high desert contrast and spectacular light. That’s not something we see in Scotland!”
Hugh Jackman on set
There were some visual effects, but most of the fights were done traditionally, in camera. Mangold prefers to use a single camera whenever possible, often in the middle range of focal lengths. The cameras were ARRI ALEXA XTs in 4:3 and Open Gate mode, with internal Codex Digital Recorders set to ARRIRAW format. An ALEXA Mini was also on hand, and the lenses were Panavision E-Series anamorphic as well as two Panavision anamorphic zooms. Some spherical lenses were used for visual effects elements. Footage designed to represent cell phone video was captured with smaller Canon and Blackmagic cameras.
"THIS FILM HAS PLENTY OF TEXTURE. YOU FEEL YOU'RE ON THE ROAD WITH THE CHARACTERS RUNNING"
Mathieson worked with Technicolor for the post portion of the job, as is his custom. On set, the digital imaging technician was Daniele Colombera. Regarding colour, Mathieson says, it's certainly a colourful film, but I don't want to introduce colour from the box or the DI. It has to be in the design, something you can get a hold of. I don't even like to enhance things. I want people to feel like this is a real place with real people. If you start to enhance something, people stop believing it. You push people outside the story. I wanted to give James images he liked, without fiddling too much on the set or later. You want the director and editor to like and feel the mood of the images."
The washed-up Logan nevertheless elicits empathy. Through its first three months of release, the film is the third-highest gross at the 2017 box office, having multiplied its reported $97 million budget by six.
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