“Doctor Strange was step into a different dimension for Marvel, and I had the opportunity to put something new and interesting up on the big screen,” recalls cinematographer Ben Davis BSC about his work on Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures’ magical thriller. Davis shot the $165m movie between November 2015 and April 2016, in Kathmandu, across large sets built at Longcross and Shepperton studios in the UK, and in Hell’s Kitchen in New York.
“There was a lot of new technology just coming on to the market back then, such as the ARRI ALEXA 65 large format digital camera, with its dedicated back-end workflow system by Codex, plus a bevvy of interactive LED lighting tools, and I wanted to see how I could get the best from them.”
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and directed by Scott Derrickson, Doctor Strange follows top neurosurgeon Dr Stephen Strange, whose life changes after a serious car smash deprives him of the use of his hands. After medical treatment proves ineffective, he sets off in search of healing and hope to a secluded retreat. But he soon discovers the place is the vanguard of hostilities against ominous forces determined to destroy reality, and he is compelled to defend the planet from a powerful warlock in a multi-dimensional battle.
“It was about magic more than anything else, and the challenge was to create visuals that had not been seen at the cinema before,” Davis exclaims. “It also had to be respectful to the original comics, which were quite trippy in places.”
Davis says that whilst he wanted to find new ways to take the spirit of the original artworks onto the big screen, his most important consideration revolved around the challenge of delivering the alternate dimensions-in-parallel, which feature in the story. Back then, the ALEXA 65 had just become available, and he had been yearning to get his hands on the new large format camera system.
“In digital cinematography, large sensor cameras are the way forward. The 35mm-size sensors can lack resolution, especially on wide shots. I was also interested to see how the ALEXA 65 would handle portraiture, as the human face is the thing you look at most of the time in a movie.”
Davis did extensive tests with the ALEXA 65, scrutinising five different lens sets to discover which would deliver the result he was searching for. In the end he went with Panavison Vintage lenses as his primary glass, supplemented by Panavision 70mm Primos. Doctor Strange would be framed 2.35:1, but protected for 1.85:1 and full-frame for IMAX.
Read more about Davis's Panavision lens choice.
“The resolution of the ALEXA 65, using my preferred lenses for wide shots and the IMAX deliverable, was beyond question and, to my pleasant surprise, the face became a landscape too. Additionally, I realised I could balance the on-set lighting and camera exposure to get gorgeous depth-of-field, do lovely focus pulls and ultimately have a lot of control over my shots.”
Davis deployed four ALEXA 65s on Doctor Strange – two on first unit, the others on second unit. He operated an ALEXA XT himself when an extra camera was required, or whenever the action needed to shoot above 60fps. The ALEXA 65s were rated at 1280 as part of Davis’ lighting/exposure equation, and proved a good aesthetic match with the ALEXA XT rated at 800.
“I ABSOLUTELY LOVED USING ALEXA 65, CODEX WORKFLOW AND LED LIGHTING TECHNOLOGIES. IT’S EXCITING SEEING WHAT THEY CAN DO”
Codex Vaults, which accompany the ALEXA 65s, were operated near-set by Davis’ DIT Tom Gough, of Flow Motion Picture Services, and were also sited at Pinewood Post, which was responsible for back-ups, QC and the deliverables for editorial and VFX. Read more about the Codex-enabled workflow on Doctor Strange.
In pre-production, Davis worked with colourist Steve Scott to establish an on-set display LUT, which was later re-applied at the start of the DI. “I use just one film-emulation display LUT. To my mind it is better to shoot the on-set lighting as it is, and pick-up from your original starting point when you do the final DI grade.”
After an initial stint in Kathmandu, Davis began a 90-day shoot on the huge sets at Longcross and Shepperton. This was followed by a week in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen area, shooting the opening scenes of Dr. Strange as neurosurgeon, and additional footage for the chase sequence at the end of the movie.
Davis harnessed the latest advances in LED lighting and interactive control systems for the production’s creative and expeditious advantage. The big stage at Longcross was to be used initially to shoot exterior day and night scenes of the Kathmandu temple courtyard. After this, the same stage had to be rapidly converted into a greenscreen stage to shoot the dynamic, dimensional New York chase scenes. The lighting requirement on these needed to accommodate rapid changes in light direction and colour in-shot.
“Along with the ALEXA 65, ARRI had just launched their SkyPanel range. The joy of these is that they are fully colour-controllable. At the push of a button I could go to sunny day, cloudy day and nightime, as well as light for the greenscreen, with the appropriate interactive crossfades to match the light to the action – all without having to remove or reposition the fixtures – which made things very efficient.”
Davis completed the DI with Steve Scott at Technicolor in Burbank. “Because of the workflow the VFX shots tracked very well into our sessions, and the on-set lighting translated just as I wanted it,” he says, concluding, “I absolutely loved using ALEXA 65, Codex workflow and LED lighting technologies. It’s exciting seeing what they can do.”
Images courtesy their respective owners.