WWI: The Cinematography of ‘Mad Max’

With exhilarating action and a surprising amount of narrative heft, Mad Max: Fury Road brings George Miller’s post-apocalyptic franchise roaring vigorously back to life.Even after two viewings, the viewer feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface of Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller’s action fantasy is astonishingly dense for a big-budget spectacle, not only in its imagery and ideas but in the complex interplay between them. DP John Seale has developed a wonderfully intricate, logistically masterful and visually explosive cinematography in this epic. The use of colour, framing, wide-shots and composition is remarkable. Miller and his brilliant cinematographer, John Seales, shoot with multiple cameras from wildly different angles so that fighting breaks out in every corner of the screen and it still makes lunatic sense. Every character and act becomes even crazier in this film’s great arid outdoors, but they all remain comprehensible. Instead of a regimental band, the War Boys have a hard-rock guitarist whose axe shoots fire, backed by a phalanx of taiko drummers

Miller used a Nikon D-SLR 800 as a viewfinder to map out most of the scenes. This would be wireless recorded elsewhere so that the crew could use it as reference. The whole team benefits from seeing what Seale has advised Miller to use to show what he is thinking about.  To film most of the sequences an Alexa M was used for it’s manoeuvrability and compact form when shooting in small spaces or during the high speed chases. To steady this image shape handles were used which act like memory foam in that they adapt with an internal stabiliser. To complement this Seale used an easy rig with a robust double latch system to compensate for any bumps in the road attached to a monitor above the device.

To light the driver of a vehicle at any given time a Cineo-matchstick was used to add more glare from the sun. During the chase sequences DP Seale would use about ten Black Magic cameras filming simultaneously so that the crew could attempt the sequence once or twice instead of repeating the process until a limited few cameras could capture it. The edit in the film was quick so that the switch between the Alexa and Black Magic was unnoticeable.

The desert conditions for the lighting meant that the set couldn’t be lit. As a practicality it is impossible to light miles of desert on a wide-angle lens. The most that Seale could do is add solids so as to bring down the light over people such as with a 12×12 bounce or in this case a 4×4 to fill in very close to the subject. It was crucial that Seale recognised his lack of power under these conditions and did not seek to counteract lighting conditions that were not suited or ideal. Often this approach can undermine the composition. this helps to fill in the lighting for the steady cameras to capture.

For the lower angles such as a brawl the bounce would be placed on the floor to add a little bit of passive to the talent to reflect the light. Sometimes, to get these low shots, a little trench was dug and boarded up for the full low angle of Charlize Theron. Very little HMI power was used in the lighting for these sequences. Another method used by Seale was to bounce the sunlight back up. One of the only sues of HMI was during the first pursuit sequence in which HMI PAR 90 was adopted to pound hard light right into the car without diffusion for a hard sunlight effect. To make the light warmer and more sun like a CTO 1/2 was used.

When shooting under these conditions the sun shades on the camera become more important than the lens. The Pannavision Alexa ST shooting Aery-raw with a premo-zoom recorded to a codex to capture as much dynamic range as possible. The combination of these two elements meant that, despite the conditions, Seale was able to shoot the scene and get a clear idea of the outcome of each new take. To continue the low shots an AR revolution head pitched like a gimble was used to ensure that the horizon is level and any tilt is auto corrected. This device means that one can start with a very low shot and swoop up to a 10 foot shot steadily and on a level horizon. In this scene the truck is broken down and the protagonists are confronted for the first time by Max.

Many of the shots of Immortam Joe were steadier and required less manoeuvrability resulting in the use of Seale’s steady-cam setup with a codex on the back. This codex is not used regularly anymore but for the longer record times in an isolated location it would make perfect sense.  For the film’s climax many cameras were used simultaneously at different angles. For example, as Furiosa gets kicked off the edge of Immortam Joe’s vehicle up to four cameras were used for complete coverage: a wide-shot of Max and Furiosa on the side of the vehicle, a low shot looking directly up at the struggle, a wide high shot capturing the whole scene from behind and another camera mounted to the pursuing vehicle.

The EDGE arm and head on an F150 Raptor adapted to a flight head strapped to the Russian-arm was the saviour of this movie’s chase scene’s visually. The stabilised head, points of rotation and live extension modification gave every sequence the exact fluidity and precision needed to work perfectly with the choreography and blocking. The absorption of movement under heavy stresses helped to capture smooth shots with less perceivable bumps relative to the scene’s violently volatile context.  The gimble was attached by two heads to the camera so that it auto-rotated in the opposite direction to the natural tilt.

When shooting the scenes with Max strapped to the front of a moving car a flight-head was used on an almost sailboat rig type arm on the Land Rovers so as to maintain speed and height relative to his moving frame of reference. Alternatively, when shooting the scenes on top of the tanker a stabilised head was used but more interestingly, during the pursuit scenes the EDGE arm proved more useful. This was able to swoop over cars while moving into low shots that added perspective and made them more dynamic. At times, to heighten this result two EDGE heads were used simultaneously in and camera A camera B setup that gave editor Margaret Sixel, the ability to flesh out the scene with alternatives while creating equally impressive footage points. At times when spacing became an issue Seale adopted a Spider head to fly down the canyon of cars with a stabilisation system on a Lieberhead with the aid of a cable pulley system. Although this is industry standard, I believe that the framing for such shots and unflinching disregard for alternatives was gutsy and practical.

This movie was one of the first where the colourist was doing the sky replacements. A lot of adjustment curves were used to make a selection and then to Node place deposit the sky’s composite image. The colour correction for the sky and sand was considerable but made practical sense for the visual look and practicalities of location scouting. The sand was made more orange and the sky was replaced or enhanced. Many would say that this is a hindrance to the end result however the reality is that this approach is the most rational and practical approach in light of the mutability of lighting and location. Much of the time an over-saturated orange sand contrasts against a turquoise to light grey gradient to create a picturesque and visually engaging image to match the palette of the rest of the scene. By embellishing the CG canyons they could shoot the scenes without concern for angles because many of the geographic and terrain features were added in post.

Seale pushed for the camera capturing the action. There is something about a real-world lens, camera movement and objects that make it feel real as a result of CGI’s underdevelopment. This makes it more real, believable and less fake so that the audience remain engaged throughout the sequence. When the audience subconsciously stops recognising the image as real  their attention changes. It is the consensus of DPs such as Seale that the purpose is to augment what is readily available and not completely generated. The colour correct used in this movie is phenomenal, usually focusing on characters over surroundings and engaging the audience with the brightness of their colours alongside the brashness of the content in such a way that acknowledges colour correlations and adds hints of fantasy in their neon or artificial inconspicuous undertone. About 80% of the film was shot based off clear pre-vis and storyboards for logistical structure and this meant that the artistic look and lighting could read as a painting with the composition of an artist’s eye.

In Conclusion, Seale is an extraordinarily well accomplished DP whose expert proficiency in adapting to external sets in terms of lighting, blocking and camera movement is second to none. This film is a cinematographer’s innovation as new challenges unforeseen in previous or typical Hollywood movies are mastered and controlled by Seale’s expert knowledge and full comprehension of techniques, rigs and set ups in delivering artistic, realistic and engaging imagery from start to finish. One other quality that I admire is his ability to avoid over-complication in the way that he is able to switch from extreme inventiveness to conventionality without practical hindrances. Visually he understands his role as a cog in the visual machine and steps back in terms of colour and lighting appropriately and humbly.

WRITING WITH IMAGES: THE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF ‘MAD MAX’

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