Spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 below.
What, exactly, does a cinematographer do on a movie as CGI-heavy as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2? Much more than you might think. Sure, lots of scenes look more like cartoons or video games than traditional movies — all surreal backgrounds and special-effects monsters — so you could be forgiven for assuming that the “camera” in certain scenes is more or less hypothetical, just referring to the chosen perspective of someone working behind a computer.
But as it turns out, actual, physical cameras and the light and set elements they capture play a huge role in setting the scene for the latest Marvel blockbuster. According to the film’s cinematographer, Henry Braham, a Marvel DP has a great deal of input on what the CGI teams do throughout the process, meaning the difference between a movie like Guardians 2 and a less effects-heavy picture is “that a cinematographer has to communicate the visual intent and the visual idea to a lot of people, and they might be, in this case, literally over the world.”
In order to get a sense of what that means, we caught up with Braham to talk about three of the hardest-to-shoot scenes in Guardians 2.
Baby Groot’s dance party
The opening credits provide one of the film’s most charming aspects: Baby Groot’s “Mr. Sunshine” dance. The powerful wood-being has been reduced to a twig of his former self and is seemingly useless in a fight, so while his fellow Guardians do battle with a giant space monster, he dances around to some music he’s started playing for the occasion. The fight goes on out of focus in the background, while we focus on the tree-tot. Even though Groot himself is just a computer image and the whole thing looks like a Final Fantasy melee, Braham reminds us that there was, indeed, a set and a camera — and that the logistics of that went through a fair amount of change and negotiation:
At one point, we were going to film it all as one shot on one camera. And that would have been entirely feasible, particularly because of this gyro-stabilized camera that we developed for the movie. You then break it down into the elements that are 100 percent live-action, the elements that we need to fit in with animation. I forget, but there’s a lot of live-action footage within that. And it may be me saying, “The animation starts here, but then it gets taken over by the camera at this point, and then we hand it back over to the animators at this point.” But in almost every part of that scene, there’ll be live-action footage. That’s why you build a set for everybody to be on, which is a very big set, actually.
You’re allowing space for the animated characters within the frame. So, for instance, if you imagine right at the beginning, we were pulling back with Baby Groot. And then Drax falls into frame behind. That Drax falling into frame behind is Dave [Bautista] doing a real stunt. He’s being thrown onto the ground. But the camera is doing what the camera is doing on the movie and it’s on the set. And we know exactly where Baby Groot is in the frame, and we know where the focus needs to be, and we know the timing of how Dave has got to be thrown to the floor.
The space chase
Early on in the movie, the titular heroes run afoul of a highfalutin’ race known as the Sovereign and have to escape from an armada of their attack drones. Though the drones themselves were mostly CGI (and there was no shooting in outer space), the shots inside the Guardians’ cockpit were largely traditional in their filming. Like much of the picture, it was shot on a RED camera that’s small enough to be unobtrusive for the action but powerful enough to shoot in 8K resolution. The key challenge was the lighting, says Braham:
When we’re photographing the actors inside the spaceship, their movement and what’s going on, the interactive light that’s lighting them needs to reflect what’s happening on the outside. We need to have decided what’s happening on the outside before we film on the inside, so that the interaction of all the lights makes the shot believable. For instance, I would use a lot of very large-scale video-projection screens, a little bit like what you would use in a rock concert or a big football game. But I would have very large blankets of them with animated light going across them, which provides a very believable light source for all the interactive light that might be going on around the spaceship at that time. If the spaceship is rolling, then the light needs to roll too on the actors.
When you ask Braham what the hardest scene to shoot was, his answer is surprising. It’s not a space battle or a balletic fight scene: It’s a solemn speech. At the end of the flick, a major character dies and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) delivers a eulogy over their body. Apparently, some last-minute changes from director James Gunn necessitated a complex dance of cinematography. New footage of Pratt had to be carefully shot so it could be seamlessly inserted into the existing footage digitally:
Often the toughest things are the things that, if they’re done well, you don’t notice at all. We shot the scene in the set, and we’d all moved back into a completely different studio. We made a big move. And Chris and James came in the next morning and said, “You know what, we’ve had a better idea how to do this.” And James and Chris wanted to play that scene with a different tone to it. That’s the beauty of filmmaking, that you can have a better idea overnight or you can learn something. What we had to do was take him as a single element and match him into that scene absolutely perfectly.
Thankfully, you would never know when you looked in the movie, but actually it’s incredibly difficult to do. Because you obviously need to match up the lighting exactly, you need to match the way the camera moves, you need to match the timing of the camera moves to the speech. It’s very intricate, and at the same time you need to give Chris, the actor, space to act. And it’s a very difficult scene to act. On one hand it’s very intricate and technical, and on the other hand the last thing you want is the actors to know that’s the case. Because you don’t want to distract from what they’re doing. So that’s a good example of something that you wouldn’t think is anything other than just a normal shot, but actually it’s very, very complicated to do.
Braham hasn’t yet signed on for Guardians 3, but if he does, you’ll know that, at the very least, the challenge of lighting Teenage Groot’s bark will be in capable hands.