Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy brought the superhero studio’s universe into the cosmic realm in 2014 with a critically and commercially successful adventure that made household names of a ragtag team of C-list characters.
This week, the galaxy’s eccentric saviors return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which promises another spectacular story from director James Gunn set in the colorful corners of Marvel’s cinematic universe. In order to make it more than just spectacle, however, Gunn and Marvel Studios recruited veteran cinematographer Henry Braham as the film’s director of photography.
“It’s really designed for the big screen, but you can take this story and set it in an apartment in New York and it would work just as well.”
A Primetime Emmy Award winner and BAFTA Award nominee for his work on the 2002 BBC miniseries Shackleton, Braham also brought his cinematic eye to 2016’s The Legend of Tarzan and 2007’s The Golden Compass. Over the course of his career, he’s established himself as a cinematographer with a keen handle on the precarious balance between style and substance with extensive — and widely praised — work in commercials, music videos, and the fashion industry.
Digital Trends spoke to Braham about his approach to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and the experience of making his first foray into Marvel Studios’ blockbuster movie-verse.
Digital Trends: When you first joined the team on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, was there a particular theme or visual tone that you and Gunn decided on that would guide your approach?
Henry Braham: In terms of the visual style the intent was to make a very rich, colorful, adventurous looking movie that’s really designed for the big screen — a movie that’s big-screen for IMAX and for wide-screen projection. It’s intended to be a theatrical event.
The story of Guardians is really about humanity, though, and it’s about family. It’s a very intensely human story which is why I think it’s so appealing. You can take this story and set it in an apartment in New York and it would work just as well. It’s an intensely human story set in this fantastical world.
What became clear early on in talking to James is all of that humanity in his script. It’s really beautifully written — the humor is in his script. We discussed early on how he liked to explore that script with the actors and go on a journey with them. And what he was interested in was taking the camera on a journey too — and by that I mean, as we shoot a scene he wants to capture the spontaneity of the performances.
Those feel like two very different ways of approaching the film, as both a grand spectacle and a sort of personal journey for the cast.
The camera’s stabilization head was designed by a guy who used to work on torpedo guidance systems.
They really are two completely opposing ideas. On the one hand it’s a big-screen, large-format event and on the other we want to shoot it like a documentary and capture the spontaneity of the performance. Those are completely opposite ideas and that’s where we had to think about the best way to do this in a new and different way.
What’s exciting in filmmaking right now is that technology allows you to do that. It really conserves the idea. If you think about the way we did movies ten years ago, the technology was big and dictated the way movies could be made.
Those older, large camera rigs weren’t exactly easy to move around.
That’s exactly it. You can hand-hold a camera and that’s great, but on a big screen for long periods of time, that’s quite disturbing for an audience. It’s a fantastic tool for certain things and really does have a place, and obviously there’s also a Steadicam and that has a very particular voice to it. It has a flow to it and you can feel it, and it’s a wonderful tool and has its own voice. And then there’s the more traditional way, where you put the camera on a dolly or a crane, and they have a physical inertia to them.
But really, none of those things were really suitable for the idea of Guardians — which was to get this big screen look and yet also capture the spontaneity in a documentary fashion. So you’re right: Big cameras and heavy equipment makes that more difficult. So that was our starting point.
And where did you go from there?
The solution was kind of unique. There was interest in shooting the movie on 65mm because of the richness of the image and the intensity of the image, and the fact that so much of it would work well on an IMAX screen. With that amount of detail and color and richness to the image, you really see the quality of it. With the existing technology for 65mm there are some beautiful cameras out there but they’re very big, so one of the things that worried me about that was the physicality of the camera.
Again, I was looking for something that could handle the large format but still be very intimate and physically small. That’s why I went to see Jarred Land at the Red Camera Company. I was talking to him about it and he kind of reached out and put a black box on the table and said, “Well, how about looking at this?” This was their new high-resolution 8K camera, which is a VistaVision camera and it was in a prototype form, but the idea of it seemed perfect for Guardians Vol. 2.
It provided this very high-resolution image to start with, but in a camera body that was pretty much the size of [the famed hand-held camera] a Hasselblad. What it enabled me to do was to mount the camera on a new form of stabilization head that could be handheld and was designed by a guy who used to work on torpedo guidance systems.
That’s quite a pedigree.
Yeah, it’s remarkable. It’s almost like a handheld dolly. What it does is enable the camera to flow and explore scenes as the actors explored scenes with James, and the camera could just be there with them. And quite often, we wouldn’t even rehearse scenes. We’d just go straight into filming them, because we knew they’d develop. I think that shows in the movie. In the movie, there’s a lot of spontaneity in the performances. That’s a credit to James and the cast working together, and to the ability to get the camera in there with them with a small footprint and capture those moments.
In talking with other cinematographers, I’m often told there are a few films they draw inspiration from as they’re working on certain projects. Were there films that informed the way you approached Guardians?
“If you’re constantly looking back, you’re not being creative
If I’m truthful, and I think James feels similarly, you tend to respond to the idea in the hand. I respond to the script and talking to the director. And in James’ case, he’s very visually articulate … We were both kind of coming at it from a cross between a [second-wave Hong Kong filmmaker] Wong Kar-wai movie and Once Upon A Time In The West.
Fundamentally, it had sort of a science-pulp-fiction feel to it.
When you take on a sequel, there are some expectations as far as consistency with the tone and look and feel. What are some of the elements you need to contend with when you’re working on a sequel, as opposed to the first film in a series or a standalone project?
I loved the first movie and I think everyone did an amazing job, but the reality is you work with the script you have and you work in the present — so it’s very clear with the writing in this script what the direction of the movie will be. It is its own movie. I think James was looking to be bold and take risks and we’re both very lucky to work with a really wonderful studio who are prepared to do both of those things and collaborate on finding a voice for this movie.
I think in some ways you could say the benefits of doing Guardians Vol. 2 from a character point of view is that the characters are already set up. In some ways, it’s a dream, because you can be bolder and you can be more adventurous,because you don’t have to wonder if there’s an audience for this movie. You know there’s an audience for it, because the first film was so successful. If you’re constantly looking back, it’s easy to fail. Because if you’re looking back, you’re not being creative — you’re just saying, “That worked, so let’s do that again.” Audiences will get bored of that quickly.
Without saying too much about the plot of the movie, is there a particular scene or sequence that you’re particularly proud of in Guardians? Is there a scene that really encapsulates the experience of making this film for you?
I’m really proud of the whole movie, of course. The idea of the whole movie holds together visually, and they’re very complex to make, these films, and require the collaboration of a lot of people … But I think there are a few scenes that really show the gestation of an idea in Guardians.
Ego, the character played Kurt Russell, embodies a planet. The idea behind his spaceship was that it was made of a kind of cartilage. It’s intended to be embryonic. It was very interesting to see how that idea evolved. The ship was an entirely practical set, and was a very difficult idea to evolve over months and months. [Production designer] Scott Chambliss had been coming up with lots of ideas, and the process combined light and set design and photography, and obviously the original context as described in the script by James. Scott built some very beautiful shapes to represent the cartilage and we wrapped this entire set in video screens. It was a very a big set, and it was an “egg” of video screens. There was video imagery lighting the set and constantly moving, and I think it works really well.
It’s particularly interesting to me because it’s the culmination of months of development of an idea. We can look at where we all started with the idea and where we ended up, and all the times we thought, “This is never going to work,” and then you finally get to the point where it feels right and it does work.
What’s next for you after Guardians?
I’m in the middle of a virtual reality project, and it’s a technology and entertainment medium that is very nascent and fascinating … and mind-expanding at the same time. It’s in very early stages, but it’s interesting to get one’s head around what the possibilities are and what the language is going to be.
Without a doubt, I think virtual reality is going to be a very very big entertainment medium, but nobody can put their finger on how they’re going to use it. It’s a potentially wonderfully immersive experience, but on the other hand, we’re really in the very, very early days of discovering how to make it genuinely immersive.
I shot one of the early digital movies back in 2005, and they were all prototype digital cameras at that time. I thought digital filmmaking would take ten years to catch on, and I was amazed at how quickly that revolution happened. Maybe my experience with that has convinced me that the virtual reality revolution could happen quickly now. But it’s just so much fun. It’s all storytelling, but it’s a different type of storytelling.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 hits theaters May 5, 2017.