After serving as second-unit director of photography on Iron Man, Jonathan Taylor, ASC was asked to both shoot and direct Iron Man 2’s second-unit work. “I wanted a consistency between both units, and Jonathan did a wonderful job on our first film,” says director Jon Favreau. “He has a great eye, and he integrates well with the first unit. There was definitely a synergy between both units, which you don’t always have on these types of movies.” Director of photography Matthew Libatique, ASC agrees, noting, “Directing and shooting second unit on Iron Man 2 was a lot to handle, but Jonathan was up to the task. He’s such a seasoned veteran. He understands stunts, he has a great knack for knowing where to put the camera, and he’s great at getting the right tool for the job.”
Taylor gained his experience climbing the ranks of the camera department in the United Kingdom, where he started on the series Thunderbirds and transitioned into second-unit and visual-effects work on such features as Superman, Superman II and Batman, as well as main-unit work on Full Metal Jacket and other films. His first director of photography credit came on the model unit for Stargate in 1994. “Then I did Independence Day, and things took off,” he says. “I found a niche, and people started to recognize that’s what I did.”
In 2006, Taylor was invited to join the ASC, an acknowledgment from his peers of his collaborative spirit and skill. “I’m not going to go out and do some interesting shots that don’t fit the movie,” says Taylor. “The important thing to me is to make sure my work and the first unit’s work fit seamlessly. The danger is to concentrate on the stunt and forget that it should be integral to the story.
“When you do second unit, it’s all about trust and communication,” he continues. “It’s about talking to the director and the cinematographer, getting into their heads, understanding their vision and executing it.”
As principal photography got underway on Iron Man 2, Taylor recounts, “I’d go to the prelights with Matty, and we’d work out what second unit would do. Then, if I wasn’t shooting, I would always go to their set with my gaffer and my assistant director, Michael Moore. We had lighting diagrams from the main unit and photographic references as well, and we worked with Gamma & Density’s 3cP System, which is a good, simple way to share information when you have multiple units.”
While filming Iron Man 2’s action sequences, Taylor’s approach was to “shoot the previs almost to the letter,” he says. “But you also have to do extra coverage to create leeway in post. An action piece can fall apart very quickly unless it’s well covered, so you have to see opportunities and follow up on them.” It was not uncommon for the second unit to roll as many as 13 cameras at once to capture elaborate stunts.
Looking for opportunities to enhance the first unit’s work also meant suggesting tools and camera systems that weren’t originally on the table, including “using VistaVision for background plates,” says Taylor. “I thought that would be useful on this project. VistaVision gives you great leeway in post because you can recompose within the frame, you can zoom in, and, of course, the quality is superb.”
Taylor credits the many second-unit directors he’s worked with for preparing him for his own turn in the director’s chair. “There are all sorts of little tricks you learn just by observation and osmosis,” he says. He also emphasizes the contributions of his crew, including gaffer Dan Riffel, key grip Richard Mall, operators Joseph Cicio and Kent Harvey, 1st ACs Kevin Potter and Louie DeMarco, and 2nd ACs Scott Whitbread and Tony Muller. “All my crew have been with me for at least 10 years,” says Taylor. “I’m loyal to them, and they are loyal to me. One needs that support, especially when you’re both the second-unit cinematographer and second-unit director. You can only achieve that if you have a very strong crew.”