When future BSC member Haris Zambarloukos landed his first film-industry job at Panavision’s rental facility at Shepperton Studios, he often took runs to the stages to watch cinematographers in action on the set. “That was always the perk of the day, to get to go to the set,” he recalls. One of the productions he visited was Frankenstein, directed by Kenneth Branagh and shot by Roger Pratt, BSC.
Several years later, Zambarloukos shot Sleuth (2006) for Branagh, and they recently teamed for a second time on Thor. “I think working with a director a second time really makes a difference — you work better,” he observes. “There’s definitely something productive and useful in the history and experience you already share that helps to refine the second working experience.”
Thor “is a comic-book movie, but it’s very different from what we’re used to seeing in such movies,” continues Zambarloukos. “Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a hero that was based almost entirely on Nordic mythology, which is relatively unknown, especially compared to Latin and Greek mythology. Also, Thor doesn’t just interact with the gods; he also interacts with people in the modern-day world. We get to see Asgard, the Norse gods’ home, a place full of advanced technology. It’s a new world to explore.”
The filmmakers considered capturing the movie in 3-D or 15-perf 65mm Imax to render that world in an exciting way, but they eventually decided shooting anamorphic 35mm was the way to go. (Stereo-D converted the picture to 3-D in post.) “We decided the versatility of anamorphic 35mm was our best option,” says Zambarloukos. “I wanted to go with anamorphic mainly because I was interested more in portraiture than landscapes. If you’ve got an adventure film where the ‘wow’ factor of action sequences and visual effects is going to have a really high impact, you need to pay special attention to the portraiture work to really engage your audience. You need those moments to be exquisite, and the bokeh of anamorphic lenses is perfect for portraiture.”
Zambarloukos says he is comfortable shooting at around a T4, so the speed of anamorphic lenses was not a concern, “especially when focus was in the hands of such gifted camera assistants as Bill Coe and Patrick McArdle.
“I like to shoot close-ups on wider lenses, which can make minimum focus a challenge with some anamorphic lenses, but [senior technical adviser] Dan Sasaki at Panavision was able to tweak a set of G-Series lenses to give us better close focus,” he continues. “Dan also prepared a 20mm and 25mm, which gave us some really great moments, especially in terms of adding volume to what would become a 3-D shot. In those really wide shots, you really feel the 3-D; it’s quite impressive.
“The other lenses we used a lot were the 40-80mm and 70-200mm zooms, which are both really clean and fantastic,” he adds.
Zambarloukos used three Kodak negatives for Thor: Vision3 500T 5219 for stage and night work, Vision2 50D 5201 for most day-exterior work, and Vision3 250D 5207 for dimmer daylight conditions. “In anamorphic, 5201 is so sharp that it’s pretty damn close to 65mm,” he attests. “With today’s film stocks and the power of the digital-intermediate process, it’s astounding how much we can see into the highlights and shadows. I find it a bit unfortunate that digital origination is starting to take over just as the combination of motion-picture film and digital post is achieving such incredible things. When we were shooting exteriors in New Mexico on Thor, we had actors inside buildings and wanted to see the depths of the desert behind them; those highlights were at least 7 to 8 stops brighter, and we got all that detail. That would never happen with a digital format.”
Thor was shot entirely with dual-camera coverage, a technique that both Branagh and Zambarloukos prefer. “A-camera operator Peter Cavaciuti and B-camera operator Denis Moran were totally in sync about how to perform creatively in such conditions,” says the cinematographer. “Of course, for large action sequences we’ll bring in more than two cameras, but we’re always working with at least two.
“I know a lot of directors like to cross-shoot, but that is always a compromise photographically. The best way to work with two cameras, I believe, is to have them as close together as possible; you put the close-up camera as close to the eyeline as you can, and the wider shot just off of that. Another benefit to shooting anamorphic, even with two-camera coverage, is that you give your sound team and your boom operators a fighting chance to get in there when you’re shooting both wide and close at the same time.”
Another interesting use of two-camera coverage was placing the A and B cameras perpendicular to one another. “Ken and I both love profiles, so we used them a lot,” Zambarloukos says. “I think the profile is a very interesting shape. It’s a very decisive angle, more so than a three-quarter position. I like being right on the axis of the eyeline or in profile, just like I like very wide shots and really close shots. I feel the more you can be on the extreme end of things, the more you’re adding something to the story with your composition.
“We also made very liberal use of Dutch angles throughout Thor,” he continues. “The wider camera would be Dutched one way, the close would be Dutched the opposite, and we’d flip that for the reverse shots. It was a kind of interpretation of the comic-book style.”
One benefit of shooting a movie for a comic-book company, he notes, is having continual access to great illustrators. “You pretty much have a team of illustrators available at all times, and that’s a wonderful resource,” says Zambarloukos. “We’d discuss how we’d like to cover a scene, and then they’d come back a day later with an amazing storyboard for it.”
Those storyboards became the basis for animatics. Then, after incorporating AutoCad drawings from the art department, the visual-effects team would previsualize the more elaborate sequences. In addition, visual-effects supervisor Wesley Sewell would create “tech vis” (technical visualizations) for the department heads, 3-D previs videos from an objective witness camera that would include set walls, greenscreen areas, lighting, camera equipment, stunt equipment, the soundstage parameters and more. “With the tech vis, we could immediately see where our problems might be,” says Zambarloukos. “For instance, we could see that a certain shot would be pointed up at the ceiling where there wasn’t any set or greenscreen, and we could figure out how to solve that problem before we reached the set. It was also very easy to see which shots should be crane shots and which should be Steadicam shots, and so forth. We didn’t do tech vis for every scene, but Wesley made them available to me for any scene we thought might be an issue.”
The production shot on location in Galisteo, New Mexico, at a production ranch that was previously used for such films as 3:10 to Yuma (AC Oct. ’07) and Silverado (AC July ’85). Production designer Bo Welch retooled the Western backlot set to make it look like Middle America in the 1950s. “Kenneth and I talked a lot about the feeling of Edward Hopper’s paintings,” says Zambarloukos. “We wanted to evoke that kind of feeling as a backdrop for this war of the gods that comes to Earth.