Hollywood loves to make big expensive visually dazzling spectacles busting through the seams with crazy VFX and out of this world characters placed in even more out of this world cinematic universes. And movie goes loves to see those, given the rising box office figures not just this year, but in years past.
We seem to be firmly anchored in the Marvel/DC cinematic comic book universe and ever since the X-Men franchise reinvented the super hero genre in the early 2000's, for the past five years, I have a feeling that's all that's been playing at my local cinema. Sure there's the odd independent drama here and there, and the mid-range “A cast” Oscar season hopeful by the Weinstein Co or equivalent, but in general the masses want “out-of-this-world” experience on the Big Screen. And Marvel Studios, Sony and the rest of the big Hollywood studios have delivered a constant barrage of Capped Crusaders, CGI Hulks and Scandinavian demigods fighting off arch nemesis' and saving our little Planet from annihilation once again.
If you take the huge budgets, manpower and expense aside, the making of a big budget, tent-pole Hollywood summer blockbuster in general is not that different than the making of a small, independent feature film. Just multiplied by a factor of 1,000. Everything single department is bigger, and with the bigger scope of the motion picture, the need for some extremely talented individuals is required to translate the written word into a stunning audio/visual experience on a 50 foot screen. Hollywood does have access to the brightest, biggest and the best talent out there both on the screen and off, but this doesn't mean that some of all of the tools they use on set are out of reach to enthusiasts or low-budget filmmakers.
Of course, most of us can't afford to rent an ARRI Alexa, but on Age of Ultron, the latest instalment in the Avengers franchise, DP Ben Davis used the tiny, affordable, but yet very powerful Blackmagic Pocket cinema camera and intercut footage with the mighty Alexa. The camera department actually ended up using multiple Pocket cinema cameras as crash cams, and for shots where the angles required very too tight for an Alexa to fit.
Ben Davis' credits include recognizable, but smaller budget pictures like “Kick Ass”, “Stardust”, and “Layer Cake” as well as the very successful bigger budget off-beat super hero flick “Guardians of the Galaxy”, which was quite a hit last year. He admits:
“"Moving from smaller to bigger budget films, and vice versa, is really not so difficult creatively... But on these big pictures, like Guardians and Avengers, everything is amplified and becomes much more challenging to manage. As a cinematographer, you want to maintain some sort of creative control over multiple units and crew. That's why a large part of our job these days is done during pre-production."
On Age of Ultron, he wasn't required to shoot on a specific camera, but ended up choosing the ARRI Alexa as the new Open-Gate mode allowed for a 3.4K ARRIRAW capture, providing the post-production team with the highest quality images to work with, as Avengers is quite a VFX heavy film. They weren't required to use ALEXA's per se, only to shoot on a digital cinema camera. Naturally, the high dynamic range and proven pedirgee of the ARRI workhorse was a no-brainer for Davis and his team, hence why it was their choice for A-camera. What was more interesting that the team decided to compliment the ARRIRAW images with the CinemaDNG raw of the little Blackmagic Pocket cinema camera, which in itself costs less than a single media cartridge for an ALEXA, which puts white a few things in perspective.
The Pocket cameras were used by both the main camera unit and the 2nd unit to capture various angles, mostly in scenes where big explosions and set pieces occurred, providing angles that would have been otherwise impossible to achieve with Alexas or other big cameras. The extremely high quality footage from the Blackmagic cameras allowed the DP to ensure they had enough data to work with not only in post-production, but also to ensure they captured images with lifelike and high dynamic range colour rendition.
In addition, the Micro Four Thirds mount on the Pocket cameras, thanks to its short flange distance. Allowed the production team to utilise a wide variety of lenses including 14mm pancake lenses as well as more traditional cinema glass like the Zeiss Primes in 8mm, 9.5mm, 12mm and 16mm focal lengths.
Two Pocket cameras were at the main shooting unit's disposal at all times for various fight sequences where a lot of coverage was required. The Blackmagic Pocket cinema camera was suggested to DP Ben Davis by a friend and DIT Peter Marsden, who previously worked on Skyfall and Argo, having recently purchased one and was quite impressed with its versatility and image quality.
It is quite liberating and fascinating to learn that a major Hollywood blockbuster, where usually no expenses are spared, has utilised quite an affordable camera like the Blackmagic Pocket, which at less than £600 excl. VAT can deliver Hollywood class images. See if you can spot the BMPCC shots in the trailer below.
To read more about the Avengers: Age of Ultron and the way it was shot, head over to Studio Daily.