When Deadpool hit theatre screens in early 2016, it quickly became the highest grossing R-rated film ever, pulling in more than a dozen times its production budget in a matter of months – $58 million returning a return of $760million. The movie stretched release season and changed the idea of what a superhero film can be. And it was made for roughly one-third of the budget for a typical Marvel production.
Long before production began, first-time feature director Tim Miller and cinematographer Ken Seng made choices that would help lead to Deadpool’s smashing success. Perhaps the most important was to conceive the film as something completely apart from other superhero movies.
“We wanted imagery to feel grittier and less clean and glossy than most of the superhero films out there, without being overly affected in terms of the look,” says Seng. “We approached the shoot knowing that we were going to add film grain later in the process. Texture is something I’m always striving for, whether it’s from a lens flare, slight over exposure, fogging up the blacks by backlighting the lens, or shooting with older lenses. The advanced digital cameras we use now can look too perfect. It was incredibly important that everything felt very real.”
That aesthetic was in tune with the main character, who is a less-than-charming mercenary in some chapters of the tale. The filmmakers planned to use a range of visual stamps to distinguish various times and places, helping the audience follow a nonlinear story structure. The basic breakdown was Super Baltar lenses and older Cooke zooms, often shot wide open, for the character’s sketchy past, and Panavision Primos lending more clarity but leavened by the added grain in the later, more heroic scenes.
Miller’s extensive background in visual effects (co-founder of Blur Studios) meant that he placed great importance on the seamless integration of CG elements and live action, which is accomplished in part with interactive lighting on the set. One bravura scene shows an epic car chase in and out of tunnels. To achieve the scene effectively and efficiently, Seng used carefully timed, multicamera-array plates shot by second unit in Detroit and projected on 4 x 4ft WinVision LED panels on a green-screen stage - similar to the back projection in Oblivion. Seng controlled the brightness of the LED panels so they would throw the right reflections onto the vehicle and the actors as they passed through the tunnels, which would be composited into the backgrounds later. The panels threw enough light into the vehicle that he could shoot at a 2.8/4 in most cases without supplemental lighting.
“The car was a black SUV with an all-leather interior, so it was very reflective,” says Seng. “Everyone I talked to, even experienced filmmakers that I work with on commercials, think it’s real. When I tell them it was shot on a stage, they’re blown away, so that makes me feel like ‘mission accomplished.’”
Further reading - Deadpool lVFX Breakdown, a wake up call for cinematography?
Seng says that one key to the scene was using Codex’s ARRIRAW open gate recording capability, which is built in to the ALEXA XT cameras. “I like the operating to get a bit frenetic at times, and I’ve had directors who wanted to pull that back with image stabilisation,” says Seng. “Shooting with Codex in open gate gave us the ability to use 4K plates. It also allowed for image stabilisation after the fact, and some subtle framing adjustments, which often came in handy due to our 7.5ft tall CG character, Colossus. We didn’t have the budget for extensive pre-vis, so it was important to have the flexibility to blow things up. That’s why it was so important to be on the XT, and not worrying about external recorders. It allowed us to be a little more run-and-gun with the action sequences. It was a beautiful marriage of new technology and practical, old school filmmaking.”
Seng says that this approach saved the production significant time and money. “The alternative is to have grips and electricians up on ladders, waving flags in front of lights, trying to emulate the tunnels,” he says. “Then there’s the big fight in the car, and dimmer board cues, and syncing up with what the second unit shot. It would have taken forever, and it wouldn’t have looked as good.”
Instead, Seng and DIT Mitchell Bax were able to review the plates from Detroit and match them with a moody, overcast atmosphere, designing simple LUTs specifically for the plate footage that would be reflected in the SUV’s glass and metal. That desaturation, combined with on-set adjustments to contrast and brightness on the LED panels, helped sell the illusion.
The shoot also included five weeks of exterior locations, all of which had to match. Seng chose an overcast look and often used massive amounts of negative fill, flying 40 x 60ft blacks on construction cranes that doubled as sun shade or rain fly when the notoriously fickle Vancouver skies changed. The production had control of a big elevated bridge on a major thoroughfare, but only from 5.00am to 2:30pm.
“We just had to keep shooting, rain or shine, because once our permit expired on the bridge, we were never going to get it back,” he says. “When it was cloudy, I had to light with as much contrast as I could possibly get by bringing in negative fill and cranking up the edge lights. And when it was sunny, we had to back everything off and shoot. Also, there’s a CG character walking around in this scene that’s basically a giant piece of reflective chrome. So it was important that all the plates and the whole scene were consistent shot to shot.
“As soon as we got into the cut, we started pre-grading all the selects to match,” he says. “One of the great things about Codex and ARRIRAW was that we had big files with a lot of latitude and room. With Tim Stipan at EFILM as our colourist, we were able to take those sunny shots and pull contrast out, while still maintaining our look. Then we were able to take the overcast, cloudy footage, punch up the contrast, and get as much as I could out of the edge lights. We were astonished that we were able to get the scene as close to matching as we did, and it meant we didn’t have to do any reshoots or additional photography, on a location that would almost be impossible to permit again.”
The production generally carried four cameras – three Alexa XTs, one of which was usually on Steadicam, and an ALEXA M (ARRI's smallest camera which predated the Mini). They were usually tethered with BNC HD-SDI cable. Bax processed the Log-C signal with Blackmagic HD Link boxes, and sent a LUT’d signal to two 23” SONY PVM-A 250 OLED monitors for on-set viewing.
Seng had created a base look during pre-shoot tests, but the camera team often designed a specific LUT on the shoot day. “Our base LUT was a starting point, but I would tweak it to match cameras or change the tone to suit Ken’s taste,” says Bax. “I was using LiveGrade by Pomfort to build the LUTs in real-time, and sometimes Ken would even do the building, as I also carried a Tangent wave panel. He would ask for the wheels, and I would flip control over to his side of the cart so he could instantly re-adjust. Sometimes it was just a small luminance tweak, and other times he’d completely rebuild based on his lighting.”
When shooting open gate, images were recorded at 3414 x 2198 resolution, with the frame lines set to a 2.39:1 aspect ratio with an 8% crop and 30% offset. For high speed work, the camera was switched to 16:9. Bax would download from the Codex Capture Drives to his onset RAID using Pomfort Silverstack, software that allowed him to catalogue the entire movie in one programme.
“By the end of the show, I had a large library of LUTs,” says Bax. “A pre-built LUT is valuable, and referencing a library of good ones can save a lot of time on-set. We were always referencing previous scenes to match color temperature, ASA, shutter angle, frame rate, et cetera. It’s such a helpful tool, and saves the camera department from having to flip through stacks of handwritten camera reports, usually stained with coffee and raindrops.”
Bax used a Codex Capture Drive Dock (SAS) as the main interface into his laptop, which fed a TB2 Pegasus Promise 8 TB RAID 5-disk array. AC Carrie Wilson then passed the footage to Deluxe Encore in Vancouver.
Good LUTs can also save time in post, says the DIT. “Ken was adamant that on-set our image always look its best,” says Bax. “When I finally saw the movie, I was thoroughly impressed by how similar it looked to what we had done on the day. I know some scenes needed more work in the DI than others to match together and really pop, but it was rewarding to watch it in the theatre and see that the colourist had either referenced our work on-set or started with those exact LUTs and made a final pass off of them. In my mind, that’s a huge time saver. By constantly managing my small world of on-set looks, I feel like I provided a lot of help for the post production process.”