Join Date: Apr 2003
Location: The Netherlands
Re: Matthew Libatique confirmed as DP
Big article on Libatique's work on IM from the May edition of American Cinematographer Magazine
. The article also includes a gallery of new pics.
Matthew Libatique, ASC turns a new page with the comic-book action adventure Iron Man.
Jon D. Witmer
Unit photography by Zade Rosenthal
Matthew Libatique, ASC has never shied away from bold strokes in his work, but his latest project, Iron Man, required him to restrain some of his more experimental inclinations. “Typically, I take an aggressive tack to visual language, but on Iron Man, [director] Jon Favreau’s intention was to have the actors do the majority of the work and the camera do less of it,” he says. “I had to view the camera as a facilitator of the actors, not solely of the cinematography. This film, more than any other, altered my way of thinking about my work.”
Based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Don Heck that was introduced in 1962, Iron Man tells of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a weapons manufacturer and playboy who undergoes a change of heart and decides to use his engineering wizardry to battle the supervillains he has been arming, albeit indirectly. “I grew up with comics, so I was familiar with the character — I knew he was a cool-looking superhero,” says Libatique. “I also figured there wouldn’t be many opportunities to do the first movie in a superhero franchise, so I seized this one.”
When Libatique and Favreau began discussing the project, they confronted the perennial challenge of filming comic-book material: “How do you articulate a comic book’s suspension of disbelief in a film?” muses Libatique. “You have to make it a little more sophisticated, but you still have to honor the comic. It’s a tough game.”
In shaping the movie’s style, Favreau reteamed with production designer J. Michael Riva, one of his collaborators on Zathura (2005). Libatique describes Riva as “a fireball of experience. Iron Man was a very demanding job for Mike, but he’s been through it all before — the man was on Lethal Weapon!” The overall look Favreau had in mind was “very clean,” he adds. “Apart from that, I had a broad plan to [visually] separate the pre-transformation and post-transformation Tony Starks and play on the idea of a man becoming something else.”
Most of Libatique’s prep time was devoted to previsualizing the picture’s visual-effects sequences. Speaking to the sheer scale of the production, he offers, “With films like this, I don’t know if there is a time when you’re completely prepped before you start shooting. You have to have two minds working at the same time, the preparation side and the execution side. That’s where it’s invaluable to have keys that really care.” Libatique employed two of his regular keys, gaffer Michael Bauman and key grip Tana Dubbe.
Dubbe is particularly enthusiastic about one of the film’s early sequences, in which Stark presents his high-tech weapons systems to a gathering of military brass. The sequence was shot in Lone Pine, California. “If you ask any grip, you’ll hear that was our favorite portion,” says Dubbe. “The sequence involved a lot of day exteriors, and that’s when the cable and the lights sort of take second place and it’s all about gripping.”
Large units, such as Arrimax 18K Pars with spot reflectors, were on hand for the exteriors, but they stayed on the truck unless “the lighting [from the sun] changed,” notes Libatique. “The only time we [used the lights] can be seen in the movie’s trailer, and I hate the way it looks; [Downey] looks like he was composited into the shot.
“I hesitate to light exteriors, and I typically don’t have enough time to do that, even on a movie of this size,” he continues. “Unless it’s strictly maintenance, like fill light, you’re not going to get it right, or, if you do get it right, it takes so long the weather conditions change on you, anyway!”
After the weapons demonstration, Stark settles into a Humvee for the ride out of the desert. Inside the vehicle, Bauman’s crew rigged an HMI Joker to boost the exposure; on the outside, the grips prepped numerous rigs for the camera. “Matty wanted the interior to feel rather natural, like we were basically moving around the Hummer handheld,” says Dubbe. To facilitate that look, Dubbe had the effects crew weld together a detachable veranda that could fit around the vehicle and be taken apart in sections. When this platform was in use, the camera was often supported with a bungee rig comprising elastic straps attached to the camera’s offset handle from a goalpost mounted on the Hummer. “It’s a very inexpensive way to alleviate some of the weight of the camera while [maintaining] a handheld feel,” explains Dubbe. “We loved it, and we used it a lot.”
Libatique used a PanArri 235 to film in the Humvees’ small interiors, and the rest of his camera package, rented from Panavision Hollywood, comprised a Panaflex Millennium and a Millennium XL, Primo prime lenses, Angenieux Optimo 4:1 (17-80mm T2.2) and 12:1 (24-290mm T2.8) zooms, and a Cooke 15-40mm T2 zoom. Libatique often operated the A camera himself, assisted by 1st AC Peter Berglund and 2nd AC Matt Stenerson. As the shoot progressed, however, he increasingly ceded the single-camera setups to B-camera/Steadicam operator Colin Anderson, whose “skill slowly superceded my love for operating,” says Libatique.
As the convoy of Humvees progresses across the desert, it’s attacked by the terrorist Raza (Faran Tahir) and his band of mercenaries, who kidnap Stark. To film the attack, Libatique employed an arsenal of tools that included an Ultimate Arm (with a Lev Head) and a Technocrane. When the first unit had to move on to the next location, 2nd-unit director of photography Jonathan Taylor, ASC (Spider-Man, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) swept in to finish the sequence. “I was very fortunate to have Jonathan shooting second unit,” says Libatique. “He and his crew did a lot of work. In addition to shooting what we had laid out in the previz and storyboards, they were able to improvise and create some really dynamic shots that make sense for the characters.”
Libatique notes that much of his own work on the production was also improvisational. “Cinema-tography typically takes on the character of the lead performer, and Robert is so improvisational the photography became the same way. Working with [Favreau] was really about giving the actors the freedom to become their characters. We ended up doing a lot of rigging on a large scale so we could be ready for anything, and once we started shooting, I started improvising.”
The first setting on the 96-day shooting schedule was the cave where Stark is held captive; there, he forges the first version of his Iron Man armor in order to escape the terrorists. Built onstage at Playa Vista Studios in Los Angeles, the “Styrofoam cave,” as it was called, proved a daunting place to start the show. “If you have any respect for comic books, the origins are everything,” stresses Libatique. “And on a movie of this size, there was no time to warm up. We just had to hit the ground running.”
The biggest day in the cave involved a roving 360-degree Steadicam shot as Stark explains to his captors what he will need to build the weapons they want. “[Downey] was firing out various instructions in a very improvisational way,” says Libatique. “There was a flurry of activity around him, people literally carrying giant missiles through the set, giving him tools and setting up a workshop space for him.”
The challenges in the cave were manifold: the set was constructed before rigging key grip Charley Gilleran and rigging gaffer Charlie McIntyre were on hand to tackle the complex lighting, and once they arrived, their hands were somewhat tied by the facility, which prohibits productions from modifying the overarching structure. This means crews must rig their own trusses. To mitigate this limitation, “we used what we called ‘pig stickers,’ which were long spikes with baby pins on the end,” says Dubbe. “We jammed those into the walls for all sorts of lighting and cable support.” Bauman notes conditions on the set became even more challenging as shooting began: “For the first three days, the set was chilled to 35 or 40 degrees because they wanted to see breath. It was cold and wet, and everybody got sick. But it looked cool!”
When it was time to film the Steadicam move, Libatique and Bauman tapped the expertise of first-unit dimmer-board operators Joshua Thatcher and Scott Barnes. “As Robert walked around the space, we had 13 or 14 different cues in the shot,” says Bauman. “We had a lot of little practicals all over the place, small bulbs hidden behind things, bounces in the ceiling that turned on and off, and it all had to flow. With Matty, the guy on the board isn’t just setting the fader to 70 percent; he’s doing a lot of programming and fades.”
Libatique kept the camera active, frequently exploiting Anderson’s Steadicam abilities and often moving the camera with the dolly on dance floor. “I planned more handheld coverage, but we made some technical decisions based on the restrictions of the [Iron Man] suit,” he reveals. “Stan Winston built amazing suits, but because Stark is a man of iron, he can’t necessarily move like a superhero wants to. We decided to shoot Super 35mm to hide some of the imperfections, and that, in turn, showed some things in handheld mode that Jon didn’t like — with the horizontal frame, he became very conscious of things entering and exiting the shot from the bottom and top.”
Happy with the dolly and Steadicam work, the filmmakers regularly incorporated such moves to change axes within the shot. Libatique notes, “In every scene, I would try to devise a way to do a master that was moving from a medium shot to a close-up to a wide shot so I could get most of the scene in one take. That approach makes the performances flow, and it gives more importance to every master.”
After escaping his captors and returning home, Stark sets up shop in the garage beneath his oceanfront manse. Constructed onstage at Playa Vista, that set featured a wall of angled windows overlooking the ocean — a painted backdrop that was frontlit with 1Ks during day scenes. (LumaPanels were aimed for ambience, and 20Ks provided sun effects through the windows.) Stark’s extravagant collection of automobiles lines the wall, and across from them sits a bank of repair bays. One end of the garage opens to a ramp that leads up to the road outside; occupying the other end is Stark’s high-tech workstation, which is flanked by monitors that display the blueprints for his newer, streamlined armor. Bauman explains, “We shot in there for about three weeks, so we tried to build as much [lighting] into the set as possible. There were a lot of opportunities for slamming lights in places you could justify because of the high-tech equipment. We also used a lot of [Kino Flo] Image 80s in the ceiling to create an overall ambience and provide some reflectance off the stainless steel in the shop.” Libatique adds, “Our fluorescents would be one color temperature, and then we dimmed incandescents to create a warmer color temperature through holes in the ceiling that were seemingly practical. I find it very flat to go with a single color temperature, and I was trying to create contrast with these different hues.”
Several other sets also incorporated large windows, including the main floor of Stark’s home and the lobby of Stark Industries. To achieve a level of ambient daylight, Bauman used LumaPanels outside of the windows. “They’re roughly 4-by-7 feet and have about 28 T8 [fluorescent] tubes; they’re compact and super bright. We would stagger the bulbs, mixing daylight and tungsten, so we were around 4400°K or 4500°K with our color temperature. We’d hang about 30 of those outside a window, and that would give us a huge, soft, ambient source that was so broad it looked completely natural.”
Once he decides to get out of the weapons business, Stark plans to announce his intention during a gala at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. His less noble business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), isn’t so ready to walk away from the millions of dollars they stand to make, and he voices his concerns on the hall’s outdoor steps. “That scene was just massive,” says Libatique. “My first thought was to use a Technocrane, but when you have actors like Jeff and Robert, it’s important to see how they’re connecting. It was far more effective to stay with them and get the camera and operator in close to walk them up the stairs.”
Libatique’s crew had its hands full lighting the Frank Gehry-designed structure, whose exterior features a series of curved stainless-steel panels. “What saved us was this quarter-inch lip on each level of cladding along the side of the façade,” says Bauman. “We lined up a bunch of Pars along the base and raked them up the side of the building, which gave us really cool highlights along every level. We also had two or three Condors, and we had two LRX Singles and three Clay Paky Alpha Profile 1200s mounted on each one of them. The whole thing was run off a wireless DMX, so we could program a bunch of cues. Because of the building’s contours, we had to use some crazy angles to get the wash we wanted.”
With the exterior lit, the filmmakers still had to tackle the hall’s interior, where Bauman used 8K balloons for general ambience. “We used a lot of stuff on Max menace arms — China balls and things like that — and we had a perimeter run of Xflos around the entire façade to give us some underlight on the walls, which slope upwards.” The Xflos, Bauman explains, “are made by a newer company called Litegear. They’re dimmable fluorescents and they work off T8s, which are smaller-diameter tubes than standard T12s.”
The interior space also gave the team a chance to use moving fixtures, a favorite tactic of Libatique’s. He explains, “You can control them from the ground and bounce them into cards, and then there are no lights or flags on the set. There’s just a light on the ceiling pointed down to a card that’s offscreen.” Inside the hall, their moving fixture of choice was the Clay Paky Alpha Profile 1200. The fixtures are “fantastic, and they’re very acceptable to the sound department,” notes Bauman. “We could bring them in close and use them like traditional lighting instruments.”
Shooting on two Kodak Vision2 film stocks — 200T 5217 and 500T 5218 — Libatique was able to check his work with select print dailies throughout the shoot. “I was rating  at 400, and my printing lights were always in the 40s,” he details. “I rarely expose a key; I just take a reflective reading everywhere and then determine where I want the film to be. I was shocked at the sensitivity of 5218. Around the middle of the shoot, I started to rate it at 500 and brought my printer lights down a bit. The more I underexposed the film, the happier I was; printing in the 40s, the contrast was unbearable to me.”
The production’s dailies were handled at FotoKem by color timer Don Capoferri and production-services supervisor Mark Van Horne. “Mark was a champion for the film,” notes Libatique. “He’s got the eye of a timer and the knowledge of a lab technician, but at his core, he’s a filmmaker. He knows all the things that go on in the lab, and he went above and beyond to help me.” FotoKem also provided the production with hi-def video dailies; to help communicate his intent, Libatique used Gamma & Density’s 3cP color-management system. “3cP is pretty similar to Kodak’s Look Manager, but it has a few more isolations of color and gamma — it’s a bit more precise. Look Manager has worked great for me, but 3cP is Mac-oriented, and the learning curve is a bit simpler.”
Last edited by Retroman; 05-22-2008 at 02:56 PM.