The stunning images in Aquaman, currently leading at the box office, reveals an astonishing world of colour and depth. Director James Wan was brought in to create and shape this world – fresh, arresting and fantastical. Wan, one of the minds behind the moneymaking Saw franchise, also brought his producing skills to the undertaking. Behind the camera on Aquaman was Don Burgess, ASC, whose vast experience includes a number of technological milestones like Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, as well as memorable, effects-heavy Robert Zemeckis films like Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Spider-Man Flight and What Lies Beneath.
Wan, Burgess and their team reportedly had $160 million to create the unique worlds they envisioned for Aquaman, travelling to Morocco and Canada along the way. The main sets were built in Australia, where numerous locations where also found. Billed as an attempt to break the superhero mould and create something distinct, the film follows the watery DC Comics hero’s journey as he searches his past and discovers that he is worthy of becoming king.
“We had an open canvas to design the film, and James is a very visual guy,” says Burgess. “That was a great place to start. It’s a movie that takes place in situations from above the surface down to the bottom of the ocean, so we had to create those worlds from scratch. Until the movie was completed, it’s a world that only existed in artists’ renderings. To me, an important question was always ‘At what depth does this scene take place?’ That was my guide for how to approach a given scene in terms of light, colour palette and colour temperature. It gets colder and darker as you get deeper. You’ve got to keep reminding yourself of where you are and light accordingly. It brought a method to the madness. It’s fun to sit around a table and come up with reasons for light and what it should look like. And a good way is coming back to good and evil, and helping the audience feel the threat, and hopefully see it through the eyes of the hero.”
After testing a number of cameras and formats, and considering the wishes of the studio, Burgess settled on shooting ARRI ALEXA SXT cameras capturing ARRIRAW in OpenGate format direct to Codex XR and SXR Capture Drives. This was the setup used for about 80% of the film, with RED 6K Weapon and ALEXA Mini cameras used when a smaller, lighter profile was called for. The lenses were Panavision Primo 70, with some standard Primos in specialised situations.
The undersea setting also had major implications for visual effects and stunt work. An extensive prep period was taken up partly with finding convincing ways to depict underwater movement. The interactive motion of light was designed to help sell the illusion.
“We used some old techniques, like hard sources through water trays, which was fun,” says Burgess. “The light penetrates the moving water and falls on the actual set piece. Some of the other units that I used actually have patterns and movement to them, which works great in certain situations. We worked with a wide variety of colour temperatures to get the feel of any particular zone that we were in. Scenes closer to the surface should feel more movement, as though the sun is actually penetrating to that depth, and there’s actually a surface in motion above.”
Throughout, Burgess strove to provide his visual effects colleagues with maximum resolution.
“They’ve gotten so good at making things seamless,” he says. “Taking all these images and data and creating a unified source – it’s fantastic. They’re doing the heavy lifting, so you want to give them the best images possible. On a movie this size, with so many different visual effects companies involved, workflow is very important. Data management, and the way the data has to travel around the planet to actually get all of the shots made – it’s come a long way.
“Years ago, I developed my own workflow on The Book of Eli,” says Burgess. “But then every studio started developing their own ways, with their tech deals with various labs and post houses. For many reasons, the material never looked like I could make it look. I had to fight a lot of battles. We were always ahead of the technology because Bob [Zemeckis] could push us beyond. And if you look at those movies, the effects work is phenomenal. But workflows are much more comfortable now than they were.”
For Aquaman, Burgess and DIT Jason Bauer used FotoKem’s nextLAB dailies system on-site at the studios. Bauer did an initial backup and QC check before sending the Codex Capture Drives to post, where FotoKem used Codex Capture Drive Docks to ingest the RAW camera data and would generate materials for editorial and visual effects directly from the RAW captured images. The image pipeline maintained 4K resolution throughout.
WORKING AT HIGHER RESOLUTION CREATES AN EVEN MORE VISUALLY STUNNING FINAL PRODUCT, WHICH IS ESPECIALLY APPRECIATED IN AN IMAX THEATRE
“Working at higher resolution creates an even more visually stunning final product, which is especially appreciated in an IMAX theatre,” says Bauer. “Don’s approach was to do as much as possible in-camera, and to create a digital negative as close to the desired final product as possible. This is why RAW capture is key. His goal was to keep the manipulation of the image simple, since the camera media was going through so many different VFX vendors and stages. We had one LUT that was used as the base look. We would set the desired T-stops on the lenses and then work closely with the gaffer, Shaun Conway, to dial in the levels in regard to density and colour to achieve the look that Don was after for a given scene.”
Any additional colour on set was done using Pomfort LiveGrade. CDLs were exported from LiveGrade and given to FotoKem to be applied to the digital negative. Bauer also worked with First AC Donny Steinberg to monitor exposure, colour, flicker, frame rate and shutter angle.
“We also had a large second unit and several splinter units that shot simultaneously with main unit,” says Bauer. “I was the liaison for technical information, providing shooting specs and reference images for what they were shooting. On all jobs, I create a shared folder that contains relevant technical information for each scene, and every unit has access to it, which really helps streamline everything. I find that, on some jobs, the DIT becomes the point of contact for any technical camera/workflow questions. DITs should also be the liaison from post production to set, answering as many questions as possible to relieve the DP of that burden.”
Bauer also oversaw a strict protocol regarding framing and acquisition format. The ARRIRAW 3.4K OpenGate format, protecting for 95% of the frame, had a limit of 90 frames per second. When higher frames rates were called for, resolution was dropped to ARRIRAW 3.2K 16:9, protecting for 100%. That shift affected the field of view slightly, which could cause an issue for visual effect if not flagged.
“For every single shot, from every camera, the VFX data wrangler would get the focal distance information from the camera assistants, and the T-stops and shooting specifications from me,” says Bauer. “All this information would end up on the camera reports and was placed on the shared folder to help with the visual effects down the pipeline.”
Since Aquaman wrapped, Bauer has worked on several projects, including director Jaume Collet-Serra’s film Jungle Cruise, based on the Disney theme park ride and shot by Flavio Labiano. Burgess has since gone on to shoot Sextuplets, an effects-heavy comedy starring Marlon Wayans in multiple roles, and the Netflix project The Christmas Chronicles, which stars Kurt Russell.
Regarding Aquaman, Burgess says, “I’m very happy with the way the movie turned out and the way it looks.”
Given the box office numbers, it’s likely that DC Comics and Warner Bros. are also pleased. After its first week in release, Aquaman had generated more than $650 million in ticket sales.
Cameras: ARRI ALEXA SXT, ALEXA Mini, RED 6K Weapon
Lenses: Panavision Primo, Primo 70
DIT: Jason Bauer
Post Partner: Warner Brothers Motion Picture Imaging (MPI)
Camera Equipment Provided by: Panavision Sydney
Codex related product and workflows
Images courtesy of their respective owners.