How Wonder Woman Brought Color Back to the DC Universe

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Still from Wonder Woman. Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Pictures

When cinematographer Matthew Jensen first met with director Patty Jenkins to talk about the visual influence that was at the top of her mind for Wonder Woman, he was taken aback. The film was to be set during World War I, but she didn’t show him a battlefield photo. It was going to continue the mythology of the so-called DC Extended Universe, but she didn’t cite one of its previous entries, such as Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Instead, she led off with the work of a man not generally brought up in high-level conversations about cinematic aesthetics – singer-songwriter James Blunt.

“She showed me this still photo of James Blunt,” Jensen recalls, “and it had this colored smoke in the background and him walking in this dark trench coat through the smoke. And she said, ‘I really like this colored-smoke thing.’” He laughs. “And I thought, Huh, I wonder what that means.” It quickly became clear to him that it meant looking radically different from recent DC Comics–based films, which have been dominated by the desaturated, almost chiaroscuro tones of director Zack Snyder. As Jensen puts it, “She was really interested in color in this movie.”

Jensen was game for that, and the finished product reflects their shared interest in using a diverse palette to paint their globetrotting tale of superhero fiction’s most famous and iconic woman. Her native, utopian island of Themyscira is all azure skies, verdant fields, and crystal waters. The London she visits is one filled with burgundy wood, striking costumes, and myriad skin tones. There’s even color in No Man’s Land when we see the title character race across the battlefield in her gold-red-blue costume. It’s a great leap forward for the DCEU.

Much of that leap began with Jenkins’s desire to bring the past into the present. “She was really concerned, because it was a period movie, that she didn’t want it to look like what we associate with period movies, which is a lot of desaturated colors and a soft, gauzy romanticization of the past,” Jensen says. “The period would come from production design and costumes and setting, but we wouldn’t be doing anything with the lensing that would say that it’s a period movie, essentially.”

That said, they did use century-old reference points for inspiration — just not black-and-white photos. Of particular interest was the vibrant work of Edwardian painter John Singer Sargent, particularly the portraits he was crafting around 1918, the year in which the film is set. But they also looked to more recent artwork in the form of Wonder Woman comics. Jenkins was enthusiastic about the groundbreaking late-’80s run by penciler George Pérez, inker Bruce Patterson, and colorist Tatjana Wood; Jensen was fascinated by the early-aughts work of penciler Cliff Chiang and colorist Matthew Wilson.

But although DC comics were an inspiration, Jensen adds that, surprisingly, DC Entertainment and parent company Warner Bros. didn’t interfere much with his and Jenkins’s vision. Studios these days are concerned with building brand consistency for their franchises (e.g. the eye-popping primary colors of virtually every Marvel Studios movie and the metallic sheens of the Fast and the Furious saga), but DC used a light touch when it came to the visuals for Wonder Woman. Perhaps that was owing to DC Films co-chief Geoff Johns’s efforts to inject more “hope and optimism” into the movies he oversees, or perhaps it was just owing to him wanting less strict oversight, in general.

“They really left us alone,” Jensen says. “There was never any direct conversation about other DC films. I think we were very free to make our own movie. Wonder Woman’s just a different char than both Batman and Superman, and we felt that, since this was her origin story, we could do our own thing.”

Their own thing included what is perhaps the most visually stunning sequence in any DCEU flick: a massive beachside battle between Wonder Woman’s fellow Amazons and a landing team of German soldiers. It features masses of combatants swarming toward one another and engaging in combat that includes everything from bullet-time slo-mo to trick horse riding. As you might expect, it was arguably the hardest portion for Jensen and Jenkins to film — though not for the reason you might expect.

More challenging than anything else, Jensen says, was a shot within the sequence that merely lasts for a few seconds, one in which the camera moves downward from a high vantage point to the beach. “We wanted to see that in profile in a big, high, wide shot, but then have the camera travel down close to the sands and get in front of the action — and we also wanted this to all be in slow motion,” he recalls with a laugh.

Plus, they didn’t want to do it as pure CGI. “So we built this huge rig — almost a roller-coaster of pipe and tracks — and suspended it up in the air with all these cranes, the camera on a remote head, programmed to start high and wide and travel down and make an S-turn in front of the action.” One problem, though: “It’s on sand. So the rig would start sinking halfway through the shot, so you’re just hoping all the elements will line up perfectly.” In defiance of the odds and the elements, they got the shot.

In stark contrast to the halcyon colors of that scene and the others on Themyscira were the shades of London. Though still colorful, Jensen felt it should have more “blues, grays, and blacks and cyans, instead of the lush full-color spectrum you get in Themyscira.” That was largely the result of a single line in the screenplay. “There’s a line in script where, upon first seeing London, Diana says, ‘It’s hideous,’ so that was really the guide for me.”

Thus came a vision of England’s great city that was devoid of nostalgia. “A lot of reference paintings we looked at from London at the time, showed that it’s polluted, it’s gray, it’s dark,” Jensen says. Nevertheless, James Blunt wouldn’t have been happy with them if they’d gone full-on desaturated, so Jensen compromised: “We still wanted color, so luckily, we were shooting in London in winter, so we got a lot of overcast light, which put a soft patina over everything.”

The key to all of this creative energy throughout the film, Jensen says, was a fundamental fact of the movie that the average viewer might not notice. “The movie, essentially, was a road movie,” he says. “So we never settled into one set for a great period of time. We were never comfortable the whole movie — just as you’re figuring out what angles work in one set, we were off to the next one.”

The end result is a new kind of DCEU movie, though Jensen hastens to add that he thinks it shares some DNA with the prior adventures of Batsy and Supes. “I wanted to make sure we fit into the DC universe,” he says. “Certainly we used some techniques that [Batman v Superman director] Zack [Snyder] and [Batman v Superman cinematographer] Larry Fong used in other movies.” However, Wonder Woman is still self-contained and unique within the DCEU, and the fact that it’s the best-reviewed of its kin is due in no small part to Jensen’s instincts and rapport with Jenkins. Perhaps that’s a result of one simple maxim that the two of them lived by: “We weren’t comparing ourselves to other movies, at all.”

How Wonder Woman Brought Color Back to the DC Universe