On the set of 'The Legend Of Tarzan'
I was afforded the opportunity to speak with Henry Braham, who is the man who helped make Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 look as gorgeous as it did. The cinematographer spoke with me for around 30 minutes about working with director James Gunn, working within the Marvel system and how he and Gunn tried to balance a big-budget blockbuster sequel with an intimate character drama. The conversation is edited for brevity. Without any further ado, here we go...
Scott Mendelson: How did you get involved with this particular project?
Henry Braham: I'd worked with one of the producers on a Warner Bros movie, The Legend of Tarzan, directed by David Yates. I was recommended to James Gunn and Marvel really as a result of that.
Mendelson: What choices did you make, or you and James Gunn together, to differentiate this particular film from the first picture visually, stylistically, overall, so it's a sequel, but it's also its own creative offering?
Braham: First, the benefit James had of the first movie is he got a really good understanding of who the characters. I loved how different that movie was to everything around. James's script for (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) is pure James Gunn. It's entirely his personality and the person he is. What's brilliant about it is it's a very personal film and it's full of humanity, and wit and humor, and all the rest of it.
From a cinematographer's point of view, what you respond to is you respond to the script and you respond to the director. What I'm particularly interested in is putting the director's personality onto the screen. It's a really fascinating and exciting time in filmmaking now because I think the technology has moved on significantly in the last few years to allow you to think there are no rules and to really focus on, firstly, what the idea for a movie is, and, secondly, to focus on how you want to make the movie.
In James's case, in very early conversations with him, what I learned was that he really likes to go on a journey with the actors exploring the script. It struck me that what he was interested in was capturing that spontaneity as we shot the movie.
On the one hand, this is a very large-scale theatrical event, really designed for the big screen. It's a movie that you want to see in the theater. On the other hand, in some ways, you want to shoot it like a documentary and just capture those moments as James and the cast explore the script and go on the journey in developing their performance, and so on.
Also, James likes the camera and the way we shoot it to develop through the takes. That's an interesting conundrum if you like. You've got two very opposing visual ideas.
In our case, we responded to that by developing a camera with one of the most brilliant camera manufacturers, the guys at Red. I think you can look back through history and say technology, like so many things, defines the way you tell stories. In James's case, because he loves to be fluid and he loves the process of discovery, that informed how we designed the technology to shoot the movie.
The movie is shot on a brand-new format. It's very, very high-resolution AK camera, but it's tiny, and that is the brilliance of it. Because it's so small, you can be very intimate and flexible and fluid with the actors. It is completely counterintuitive.
Mendelson: Are there any rules that either yourself or Mr. Gunn set for the film to keep this so it didn't go too far out the cinematic realm? In terms of, perhaps, keeping it as a big, mega-budget blockbuster that is also an intimate character story?
Braham: It is character driven, and the strength of the story is in the truth about character. What does that mean from a photographic point of view? It means that the camera needs to be very connected to the characters, and physically connected. What's the alternative to that? The alternative is to stand back and observe something, but that is a very different emotional feeling, being absolutely in and totally connected to the characters.
Mendelson: You worked on The Legend of Tarzan. You did The Golden Compass awhile back. Comparatively speaking, was this as much of a practical location shoot, or was there more green screen, blue screen, studio set work? Compared to your previous quote-unquote "blockbuster" experience, how did this one differ?
Braham: It’s kind of a progression, really. You're right. The Legend of Tarzan, the vast majority of that was shot on a soundstage, and all the jungles were painted backings. I know that is surprising to hear that, but we looked at doing green screen or blue screen in the backgrounds, but actually we found that painted backdrops, and they were very, very large jungle sets and very big sound stages, but it gave more flexibility and it enabled me to create more atmosphere, if you like, or different atmospheres out of the same set pieces.
I spent two months in Africa shooting all the backgrounds and shooting landscape and so on, but I did that after doing the main movie. Guardians, actually, apart from I think four days out on location, the entire rest of the movie is shot on sound stages, and there are some very, very big set builds as part of that.
I think movie making now is so entwined with visual effects, whether it is a small movie or a big movie. I don't think there are any movies that don't have some visual effect element in them. But that, in reality, is no different from filmmaking in the past. The Renaissance painters were the first visual effects artists because they really defined the principles of representing different backgrounds and representing reality in pictures.
When I first started in this business, we were still doing glass paintings and model photography to extend sets and create fantasy worlds. Visual effects and computers now are an extension of that. Yes, it gives you yet more freedom really. You have more freedom and yet more complexity in the process of making a movie, because it's way more complex to communicate with everybody what one's idea is, if you like, and what the visual idea for a particular shot is. There is a decision behind every single element and every single shot.
Mendelson: What role, if any, did the higher ups at Marvel play in terms of the work that you did, either on the day to day set work, or notes, or whatever, as opposed to just letting James Gunn do whatever he wanted to do? Did they have any input?
Braham: It's a completely collaborative process, and what it's about is making everybody go one step better than they would otherwise do. I started very early on because the process of making this movie. James wanted to be bold and take risks, and sometimes in a studio environment, there is concerns about taking risks, but Marvel was not concerned at all.
It's all very well to invent a new camera and invent a new camera system, but if you're spending many hundreds of millions of dollars on your movie, you want to be pretty sure that that works. That's my responsibility, is to draw with due diligence. There is a big collaborative process.
I had a conversation very early on with them. They said, "What is it that you want to do? We want to support you in doing that." I think that is how they work with everybody. It is certainly how they worked with James. Especially in the editing process, it's very much a process of collaboration and pushing each other further than you think you can go.
That is my own personal experience with them. When we were setting the movie up and looking at "Should we make it this way, or this way?" "Does this technology work?" I was amazed how engaged they were and intelligent they were about it, actually.
Mendelson: I've been told that the film was specially framed for IMAX, for those to see it in that format. Are those choices that you made on set, or is that something that was done in the editing room?
Braham: Most of this movie is conceived before we even step onto the sound stage to shoot. James has a very clear idea of where he wants the frame to open out to IMAX and where it wanted to be standard widescreen. Interestingly now, I think generally for movies, on one hand, one is framing for IMAX, and on the other hand, one is framing for an iPhone. The reality is people enjoy movies in so many, so many different ways. You've just got to be mindful of everything.
Mendelson: Do you know what is next for you?
Braham: I've got a number of things. Right now, I'm just working on a virtual reality project that is a fascinating, fascinating thing. I love innovation. I love innovation. Because it's a dramatic piece, it has completely opened my mind to the possibilities. But because these are very early days in an entirely new medium, what I love doing is thinking different about what we do, and thinking originally about it. It's a great opportunity to do that. It's the complete blank sheet of paper scenario, if you like.
Mendelson: I have sampled a few virtual reality things. I'd love to know the process of how you shoot and construct something like that. I have no knowledge of whatsoever in terms of how you make that.
Braham: The truthful answer is we're all trying to figure it out. There is a big difference. A lot of the stuff I've seen, you look around a bit, and you think, okay, that's interesting. Then you end up just looking forward. It's very much how it is constructed that makes it an amazing experience versus something that just looks like looking at a movie with a headset.
Mendelson: Are you happy with the progress you're making so far on that one?
Braham: Yes. Some days I think my head is going to explode with the possibilities. I can absolutely see the possibilities, and you've just got to figure out actually how to do it. I'm sure you have those days when you think I can sort of see it, but I can't quite figure it out. But we're getting there. No, it's good.
Mendelson: From a point of view of a cinematographer, what are you happiest with in terms of how Guardians came out?
Braham: The amount of color in Guardians is surprisingly complex. If you think generally about movies, generally what we do is we reduce the color palette and we use lightened shades to tell a visual story. Effectively, we use black and white photographic technique still. The visual idea for Guardians is very colorful. There is a real complexity to photographing that and to designing that. I've experienced this once before in a film called Nanny McPhee, which was a very, very colorful movie.
I went into this with my eyes wide open, understanding the difficulties and complexity of it. I'm really proud the way it all fits together. It's a real combination of production design, James's vision, photography ... Everything really. The beauty of filmmaking is, when it works, it's a really good collaborative process. When I look at the movie, I think what most pleases me about it, it is very clearly a James Gunn movie. It is very clearly his personality, and it is definitely not a homogenous movie.
Mendelson: It really has stood out as not just a popular and enjoyable comic book superhero whatever, but it's its own individual franchise, somewhat disconnected from the MCU in general for now.
Braham: Part of the reason for wanting to use a brand new format to make the movie on was because of the depth of color in the movie. Almost you needed a format big enough to hold that amount of color.
Scott Mendelson: Is there anything you'd like to add? Is there anything you wished I'd asked you but didn't?
Henry Braham: It is an exciting time in filmmaking that you can go out and think I'm going to make my movie the way that this particular movie demands it, so that the energy from the performances, the energy in the movie, the energy and the spontaneity in the movie…
I think that is different to the way we all made films ten years ago because technology ten years ago dictated there were only certain ways you could do it. In that Kubrick on Barry Lyndon found lenses that could film with real candlelight. Nowadays, we can find the camera technology and the way of doing things to, in this case, to capture spontaneity ...
Have you seen the movie?
Braham: It's very tight and it's kind of sharp, and that sharpness comes from capturing all those moments and being in the right place to capture those moments. That is how I think with this large format time camera that moved in a very different way, and just our general approach, enabled that kind of sharpness and spontaneity.
Mendelson: Visually, as you've mentioned, it is a balance between a very expensive action picture with fantasy elements and a very, as you had said, tight and very skillfully structured character piece. I think if it does well, and I'm assuming it will, that will be one of the reasons why.