Matthew Jensen weighs in on the mayhem that took place during weeks of shooting that big island sequence: “It requires all your focus.”
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Wonder Woman.]
Wonder Woman‘s action scenes are wowing around the world
Director Patty Jenkins’ film features ambitious battle sequences, including a battle early in the film seeing dozens of Amazons face off against German soldiers in a sequence that took months of prep and two weeks to shoot. Later, Diana (Gal Gadot) truly takes on the Wonder Woman mantle for the first time during a No Man’s Land battle that will likely go down as among the great moments in superhero movie history.
In a conversation with Heat Vision,cinematographer Matthew Jensen is breaking down the hard-fought path to getting those scenes right (“it is just mayhem”) and also reveals secrets to shooting Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) comical bath scene and his simple but powerful death: “A camera on an actor’s face is sometimes the greatest thing you achieve.”
The Themyscira battle scene was incredibly ambitious. How did you even approach preparing for it, and what were some of the challenges you faced while shooting?
The first step really is finding the beach. Patty really wanted some place exotic. She settled on this idea of having white cliffs being part of Themyscira, so we were on the hunt for white cliff beaches. We found one in Italy. It was beautiful, but it had so little beach in front of it that we didn’t think we could do all the shots we were talking about. When we went with a scouting party of 15, we started taking up the beach almost entirely. What’s going to happen when we get cameras there and devices and horses? It proved to be a nightmare.
As we know, the cliffs made it into the film. What was the solution?
The cliff served as a reference and we were able to go to another location to find a wide open beach that accommodated our needs. Then the visual effects guys took the white cliffs and composited them into this new beach. Already there’s a layer of complexity there. Just every time you’re looking into a background, you are seeing a composite of cliffs. The water and the sand of course are all there and are all real.
Then, once we had that beach, it became testing with the stunt guys what we wanted our characters to do and how they were going to perform these awesome acts of athleticism and they were working on that for almost all through prep and all through the production, because we were shooting that sequence in Italy so late in the schedule, they had a lot of time to develop things. Then it became about breaking down what stunts we could achieve on location, and what stunts we would have to shoot on a stage, if we would need wires and a camera in an unusual place. Extreme slow motion and multiple takes — and we didn’t want to be concerned with the sun moving on us.
What was shooting on location there like?
Then we just had the mayhem of shooting choreographed fighting on the beach itself. So the second unit and the first unit joined together on quite a bit of it and we had six cameras out shooting all these Amazons and Germans attacking one another. It is just mayhem when you have so many cameras and I’m trying to control the exposure and making sure the shots are right and yelling instructions to the F camera operator, who has a small camera buried in the sand and is 100 yards away from me. It’s a complex dance. To me, the big job was making sure the light was consistent all the way through. When you are shooting over a two-week period and you have a sunny day and cloudy days and of course through the course of the day the sun moves on you. It requires all your focus.
Turning to smaller scene, Steve Trevor naked in the bath was a standout moment. It was funny and intimate. What was the secret there to giving him and Gal the space to perform like there was no one else in the room?
It was an enormous technical problem for me, as we were dealing with the idea that the Amazons had harnessed the power of the water that was running through the city and they could have light emerging from the water — and that’s really what was allowing them to see at night, because we didn’t want to deal with the standard candles and torches as a source of lighting at night. So I was trying to light the scenes basically all from these glowing vases and that idea came together very late.
It was about lighting the scene as if the light was coming from those vases and the healing water Chris is in, but also giving enough light to make them look attractive and still see them and get things in focus. It had to feel real and also register on film and also have mood and texture. And then during all of that, all the while remember that this is an intimate scene between two characters forging their bond at the beginning. The pool was leaking which was hilarious. There are all sorts of challenges to overcome, even just a simple scene. The great thing about all of that is Chris and Gal had such good chemistry and Patty was so good at just sort of shrinking the whole process down, so it became about them in the room relating and us getting out of the way with the camera. And not being fancy and just allowing two characters to relate.
The No Man’s Land scene is the most crucial moment in the movie, when Diana stands up for innocent people and truly becomes Wonder Woman. How did you approach that?
From the very beginning, that that scene was kind of our equivalent of Christopher Reeve revealing his S for the first time and saving Lois Lane from the falling helicopter or the first time when Christian Bale is Batman and he’s moving so fast you can’t see him in Batman Begins. We knew the whole movie was building up to this whole moment when she first reveals herself as Wonder Woman. We knew we had to take the approach of Hitchcock in a certain way, you’re holding back, your holding back. You are creating anticipation for that moment. And then of course doing the moment justice by not only revealing her in the full costume, but also revealing her enormous and awesome abilities. That was a major sequence that was developed by Patty and the pre-vis artists and the stunt guys who did a lot of stunts through previsualization to show what was possible.
When I came aboard, I sat in a lot of the previsualization meetings so I could try out a lot of the ideas about how Wonder Woman reveals herself out of the trench and how she blocks a bullet and then it became a process of breaking down the elements. What was going to be on our built set? What was going to be extreme slow-motion? What was going to be semi-slow motion? How were we going to get her to run across 300 yards of muddy field in her boots and also track with her with a camera? How were we going to rig that camera? All of these things were an enormous technical undertaking. Also there was knowledge in the back of our head that we were shooting this thing in February. We were going to have no light and our light would be gone in about eight hours, if not less than that. Gal would be out there in the Wonder Woman costume in the freezing cold. There were some many elements to this. But I think pulled it off.
In Chris Pine’s death scene, you really linger on his face and give him a powerful sendoff. What was capturing his performance like?
That is just a great example of Chris’ tremendous ability. Essentially our challenge from a shooting perspective is Patty was really insistent on having this cockpit on a gimbal, mainly for performance. From a camera perspective we weren’t gaining anything by having the plane able to move on a gimbal, because you wouldn’t really see that, especially with the background that’s composited. But Patty wanted him to feel the tilt of the plane and she felt that was instrumental to getting a performance out of him. Honestly, I had all this elaborate lighting that was moving camera to show the moonlight drift across his face, but when it came down to it, the thing that works the most is just the look on Chris’ face. He’s so good at that and Patty, we were watching it on the monitor and she goes, “I don’t need to do anything. I just need to get out of the way and let Chris perform.” A camera on an actor’s face is sometimes the greatest thing you achieve.