Despite being a critical flop and receiving heavy criticism from fans and critics alike I think the cinematographic style of Suicide Squad cannot be ignored. Roman Vasyanov’s work on this film as cinematographer might have been overshadowed by this poor reception however this does not mean it should be ignored. My personal opinion is that the visual style works on a number of levels so I have decided to break down and give some context to the technical approach I believe he took in approaching and creating this film.
During the cave scene where Moon becomes Enchantress Roman uses a film camera and a Lieber-head as rigging to produce the professional maneuverability seen in the film. The combination of these two components mean that the device can understand it’s geolocation judging from the middle horizon so as to micro-correct this movement. Every time the sensor registers a tilt it automatically responds by applying pressure on the other side so as to give this beginning shot it’s smoothness. As Moon zip lines down the cave shaft the scene moves smoothly. Similarly as we are introduced to the character of Harley Quinn a similar set up is used. I believe this would have been used to smooth over the narrative exposition. The key difference in this shot however is that the Lieber head is overslung so as to get it in the normal position probably due to crane restrictions. This film camera has added a cinotape to it’s lens. This device sends a sonar signal from somewhere on the camera to tell the focus pulley how far to pull focus or reference. In this case the Penovision XS2 is 10-12 inches from the character for a full character shot. Two cameras were used to achieve this shot with one on the Lieber dolly and the other on a crane with a Cartoni two axes head with a three foot extension so as to reflect Harley’s shift from smaller movements to a larger swing.
Following the pattern of introductory character snippets the shot on the rooftop with Deadshot on the phone follows the two camera set up with a B camera back-shot and an A camera medium shot. This two camera set up builds a simple dimension to the characters and unifies them. This introductory skit is elevated by Deadshot leaping off the roof zip wired to it’s surface. Here we see a more mobile shot using a techno crane shot and a Lieber head on the end. This effect can be achieved much more cheaply with other setups however as the shot moves with him it has the tilt effect for a slick visual appeal.
Although many of the Joker Quinn scenes were cut from the film some of the deleted footage took an interesting approach. In the therapy session scene a side light is used from a window diffused by a Hampshire frost which is lighter than a quarter-grid. The effect of this shot is to contrast with a follow up scene between the characters as the cold rigidity of the lighting within the insane asylum contrasts against the warm colours of nightclub scene. The approach of this scene was to use top lighting and a lot of mirrors and beads so as to reflect even more of the golden light. Instead of using pearl coloured beads as it might appear the more crisp appearance adapted by Roman was to back light see through beads. This gives the scene a Joseph Conquin’s ‘Stephani’ music video feel to the scene.
Once all the central characters have been introduced Waller’s character seeks the approval of her intelligence counterparts in a situation room-esque location. Filming in an average office or building without light adjustment can give the film a tinny stale look but Roman adopted a very professional technique. In situations such as these the blocking has already been decided before the set is built and many times a miniature version of the set can be built by the production designer. Then the Director of Photography can collaborate with the Production designer as in this case to implement Kino LED fluorescent lights above the scene and placed in a way that evenly lights the table. Ideally practicals such as these LEDs are used in the film for added realism and to add gravity to a scene such as this one.
One of my favorite first act shots captured Hernandez’s Diablo in his isolation chamber. In this scene a Chapman dolly is used with a 2 foot extension and a 3 foot offset underslung whit a motor head which gives the DP the flexibility of using it manually or automatically. From the perspective of a smaller film maker who wants to use a remote rig I would recommend 18 Alpha tools with panboys joysticks on wheels for a truly cinematic feel as established here. I believe that the movement of the shot was meant to reflect the movement of Diablo’s hands as he formed fire in a way that was visually engaging but not violent. When the fire and water elements are added to a followup shot for a shift towards a more violent shot the exposition is turned down so that the skin tone is turned down by two stops and the light catching the water is more natural. In the follow up shot we see the exterior of the flood tank as it opens up with a 20x overhead to dabble the light. The camera is a Super techno 50 with a Lieber so as to prevent water damage from the flood of water.
Interestingly for the injection sequence another Lieber head is used outslung so as to make use of the three point movement much like a gimble. The effect of this is for the B camera to be pushed under the A camera while they move in conjunction. The practical fluorescent lights overhead the shot allowed the shot to be placed anywhere without concern for hanging lights or looking at a grid. The flexibility of the light dimmer board would have given Roman the freedom to get full coverage.
Taking inspiration from the West Wing which pioneered the walk and talk shot, there are several of these around the military base throughout the first act. Using a steadicam and an electric car for this approach, to the left of a frame a 4x bounce is used with a Duvitine for an undefined purpose. I believe that this was used to compliment the outdoor lighting of the shot.Later in the outdoors scene a 75mm Peni-vision XL2 with an over the shoulder insert with a tilt as each character dresses themselves and is returned their gear. I think this has a nice give and take pull to the shot. For Boomerang they used a hammerhead dolly and 60 mm camera to fully capture the boomerang movement without the jarring lag not visible in the previously described shots.
Dotted throughout the film there are several snippets of conference calls with Amanda Waller a really light light-matt is used for the desk with actual practicals to create sconce patterns on the back wall. A dolly is used three times to pull in on the character so that the movement recalls the location and circumstances of the scene.
As the action escalates more on-sight locations are used such as those filmed in downtown manhattan with a lot of lighting and props to flesh the visuals out. To capture the scale they used a two camera dolly set up which I believe is a great way to work. One works on the profile while the other displays the three quarter front angle. A small HM40 is used to bounce the ultrabounds and to give the soft blue light and to contrast to the natural background exposure. LRXs are used for a fiery background and reflections to the scene on a JLJ crane.
To fully capture the mischievous interaction between captain Boomerang and Slipknot they use a 4×8 with another LRX in the background with a 12x bounce so that they achieve a cut-out and secretive feel to the characters. To film the short action the DP holds the camera on his shoulder using a Matt Box with a strong one to one feel.The less accessories the less specific the movement is to your body so this is the perfect approach. At the scenes resolution a 75 mm and another 75mm are used for the two camera setup. This is much better for a quick action scene and allows the actors to move in one fluid uninhibited motion. A LED light gear ribbon is used as a clever lightweight is used which can be remotely dimmed to modify the facial reflections.
Overall, Suicide Squad uses a great variety of cinematographic tools to achieve a very fine and well lit display of technique. Although I could not cover all of my favourite approaches and techniques I believe that those I have covered display a range of set ups and components necessary for a high production value feature film and hopefully this will help smaller film creators to achieve a more personal look. The Director of Photography worked symbiotically with his director counterpart in ensuring that the purpose of each scene was reflected in these approaches and therefore the result was an apt cinematographic description in each scene, if a little homogenous.
WRITING WITH IMAGES: THE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF ‘SUICIDE SQUAD’