A cinematographer’s role is never the same from one job to the next. Sometimes a cinematographer will write a complete shot list, sometimes they’ll make every lighting plan; other times they’ll leave it up to their director or gaffer to take care of those things. These things are kind of the everyday give and take of a cinematographer, but on a huge action film loaded with CG effects, the rules change a bit. Someone once remarked to me that often when you look at those effects films, you’ll see that they aren’t shot by renowned Hollywood cinematographers. You won’t see Roger Deakins behind the camera of the next “Avengers” film because they require such a distinct technical skill set that many of the Oscar regulars don’t have. Being able to shoot a scene that is mostly a green wall and know that it will come together is a whole new game. One instance that comes to mind was when cinematographer Daniel Mindel insisted that the Times Square set be constructed outdoors for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014), even though it would mostly have green screen additions in post. To most crew members it seemed like an unnecessary and costly step, but once it came time to composite in the backgrounds, the VFX team found that the scene was given extra dimension by the outdoor set. That’s just one way a skilled cinematographer can have a hand in crafting an effects film.
Of course you would expect great visuals from a film that includes space travel or one out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; fortunately “Guardians of the Galaxy” has both going for it. The point has come up, however, that the inclusion of so many great visual effects really puts into question who is responsible for the aesthetic. Since “Life of Pi” (2012) won the Oscar for cinematography, many people really take complaint with giving a cinematographer credit for what amounts to the VFX artists’ work. For that film, all they shot was a boy in a small water tank, and in post it became a boy and a TIGER in a vast ocean. I can see why that might rub people the wrong way, but at the same time, the visual effects don’t necessarily detract from the cinematography.
Why can’t VFX be a part of cinematography? Take a look at the photo world. If someone retouches a picture in Photoshop, does it suddenly stop being a photograph, can it no longer be called “good photography?” I don’t think so. Even when Peter Jackson made the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), they tried to get the Academy to consider Andy Serkis for an acting Oscar, because it was clear to them that even though Gollum was a computer generated character, there was still an organic, real world performance being delivered by Serkis. I think the best example of how VFX can interplay with cinematography was in “Gravity” (2013) in which almost the entire film is computer generated, but still very intricate lighting was done solely for the actors’ faces. Then when the film went into post, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had a huge role in lighting the animations, not missing a beat between his real world lighting and virtual lighting. Even Roger Deakins has worked as a consultant on purely animated films like “Wall-E” (2008) to improve the quality of the photography (If I can use that term here). Essentially, I’m saying that the cinematographer’s work still comes into play after the animations begin and yet, that’s still not even the whole point.
You’ll see if you pay attention that the Academy constantly makes subtle changes to the names of their awards. For example, in 2004 they offered an award of “Best Director.” In 2005 they offered “Best Achievement in Directing.” And there’s a very clear distinction there. One says it’s an award for a specific individual, the other is an award for a job well done that is being presented to a specific individual regardless of who is actually responsible for doing it well. I think the same sentiment is passed over to the “Best Achievement in Cinematography” Oscar. They’re not saying that Lubezki was the best cinematographer of 2013, they’re saying that by whatever means it happened to come together, Gravity ended up with the best cinematography. That means there was input from the director, the gaffer, and the visual effects team that all came together to make great cinematography and the award for that is given to the person who was at the helm: the cinematographer.
Anyway, most of my GotG post is solely to illustrate why the cinematography in Guardians is legitimate. Now that that’s been settled we can talk about what actually makes it awesome.
The real success of the cinematography in the film is in the composition. For those who have never tried it, trust me when I say that composing for a raccoon a couple feet off the ground and a tree taller than a fully grown man in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio is no picnic. And yet, it never felt like either Rocket or Groot was being overlooked in frame. I don’t know who this Ben Davis fellow is, but he sure knows what he’s doing! I love when they go on to make actual comedy with their camera placement, like the shot when Rocket is explaining the tools he’ll need to break out of the prison, while Groot is in the background actively retrieving the battery that everyone thinks is impossible to attain. That’s a moment that is only funny because of the camera. In other places the camera provides drama, it heightens the action, it’s always doing exactly what we need to be fully in the moment with the narrative.
There’s one shot of Rocket that seems to have become somewhat iconic, in which he says “Oh yeah” just before firing off a bunch of rounds. But imagine if that were done simply in a wide shot, it would have been a throw away, just another shot of a guy pulling a trigger. The camera move in on Rocket’s face told us so much about him, how this was comfort zone. He’s used to fighting his way through life so much that things just feel right when he gets himself caught in a pickle. That kind of moment is what separates great cinematography from merely good.
If I have one complaint about the choices on the camera end of things, it’s that GotG was shot spherically with Zeiss Master Primes and Angenieux Optimo Zooms, but in post they added all these anamorphic type lens flares, particularly in heavily computer generated shots, which just feel cheap and out of place to me. If they wanted that look, why not just shoot on some Panavision anamorphics and do it right?
I think in general there are two types of movies (I could be oversimplifying, but bear with me). A) Movies that everyone just gets. And B) movies that you have to think about a bunch to understand. There’s a place in the world for both types, but the summer blockbuster tends to lean toward the former. Davis tries to make everything very clear for the audience with the lighting. “Knowhere” has a green wash; Ronan’s ship, “The Dark Aster” is teal or blue in just about every scene; the prison leans toward the yellows; and of course Xander brings on the familiarity of an Earthly day scene. Each location keeps you firmly grounded at a glance because of the bold color choices that come along with it. In a film that moves among so many different backdrops, it becomes almost necessary to have these visual cues, and Davis pulls them off really well. You never have to wonder where they are or what’s going on because the lighting clues you in on a subconscious level. That’s how the photography can work in ensuring that it’s a Type-A film, which of course is the goal when the filmmakers are charged with recouping a $170 million dollar investment at the box office.
I don’t know if I’ve heard a bad review of this film yet, because it’s so accessible to a wide audience. Of course it’s a team effort that comes from contributions from all departments, but a major player there is how the cinematography can reveal the characters, endearing us to them, while taking us smoothly through the narrative. All of these elements are firing on all cylinders with Guardians of the Galaxy.