Ben Davis BSC / Avengers: Age of Ultron & Genius
Ben Davis BSC / Avengers: Age of Ultron & Genius
As much as big action blockbusters are often derided for being all visual effects and noisy set pieces, the genre is hugely popular and successful, which can be only good for the film industry. They provide employment for hundreds of crew and allow studios to finance more thoughtful, intellectually stimulating features. Like many cinematographers Ben Davis BSC works on both, most recently the latest Marvel Comics epic, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, and Genius, a low-budget study of the background to some of the great literary works of the 20th century.
Davis' filmography is varied, but super-heroes of various kinds have become frequent entries. From the wannabes of Kick-Ass (2010) to ancient Greek prototype super-beings in Wrath Of The Titans (2012) and, most recently, a foray into the Marvel-verse with Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014), Davis has become more familiar with those of amazing powers.
"It's something that just happened," he says. "I was never a huge comic book fan, but your career goes in a certain direction. It wasn't something I deliberately set out to do."
Avengers: Age Of Ultron is the second film to feature an ensemble of Marvel characters – Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr), Captain America (Chris Evans, Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) among them. Like 2012's The Avengers (DP Seamus McGarvey BSC ASC) it was directed by Joss Whedon, co-creator of the similarly Marvel-based The Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D TV series and driving force behind Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Davis met Whedon when the writer-director visited the set of Guardians Of The Galaxy. "He liked what I was doing and from that meeting to signing on to do Avengers: Age Of Ultron was a quick process," Davis says. "What he brings to The Avengers is very different to Guardians Of The Galaxy. It's earth-bound and a normal setting but in that are these extraordinary characters and situations. Joss gives them a humanity through the writing, but in this one he did set out to make it grittier than the original, which I loved."
All Marvel films are shot digitally in HD but there was not a prescribed 'house style'. Davis says there were "many discussions" during which a number of concepts were worked on, with input from production designer Charles Wood, who also worked on Guardians Of The Galaxy and Wrath Of The Titans. "The style developed in pre-production," Davis explains. "The aim was to get something very real so we looked at quite a bit of war photography, which influenced the third act featuring a big battle."
This has "a lot of handheld camera" but the angles are different from what people might expect. "War photographers and camera operators don't stand in the line of fire," Davis comments, "so there are views not directly looking that way. But within this we wanted to show each hero using his or her powers and put the audience in there with them."
The scale of the action sequences is shown by the use of three camera operators: Julian Morson on A-camera, Luke Redgrave on B and Sam Renton on a third when necessary, which Davis says was "about 70 percent of the time." Each was using an ARRI Alexa XT with Primo lenses provided by Panavision. Davis adds that although he "loves operating" the size of this film did not make that a practical option: "I need to be on top of the lighting and be looking at the monitors. If I'm on a camera then I don't have an overview of everything, although during the big battle scenes I did grab a [Canon EOS] C500 to do a bit of handheld shooting."
There are cinema purists who are concerned at the amount of money spent on what they see as lightweight, mass-market entertainment. But as well as clearly enjoying working on a production like Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Davis sees it as the reason he can do a film such as Genius.
"It's also why the crews can do it and Panavision and Panalux can supply equipment for a lower budget, independent film," he says. "If you've got returns of billions from an Avengers movie, then that keeps the industry viable and is how it can get indies into cinemas."
Genius was directed by actor and stage director Michael Grandage and tells the story of book editor Max Perkins' work, at New York publishing house Scribner, handling such American literary heavyweights as Ernest Hemmingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Starring Colin Firth as Perkins, with Dominic West, Guy Pearce and Jude Law as the authors, Genius was shot in the UK, where Manchester, Liverpool and London stood in for the Big Apple.
Davis says Genius threw up a "completely different set of challenges to Avengers", the biggest of which was recreating NYC of the 1930s without actually being able to go to the US due to the small budget. "We had to create [the period and the look] but with very little money for visual effects," he explains. "What we did was create a sense of the city."
"If I'm on a camera then I don't have an overview of everything, although during the big battle scenes I did grab a [Canon EOS] C500 to do a bit of handheld shooting."
- Ben Davis BSC
To portray a mid-20th century metropolis bustling with people and creative energy, Davis and Grandage looked to early colour photographs of New York by Saul Leiter as both inspiration and a template for their look.
"Those were very interesting and from that I created a LUT with [freelance colourist] Adam Inglis working at Pinewood," Davis comments. "It was exhaustive to cover all the colours and changes and all the settings were connected to it."
Genius was shot using Panavision Anamorphic lenses on the Alexa, which Davis says softened the digital camera, reducing some of the sharpness and helping achieve the period feel. Which is a far cry from what he describes as the "heroic lighting" for The Avengers, where all the characters had to look as good as each other. Although there are many who would consider the protagonists of Genius – particularly Hemmingway – to be as much a super-hero as Captain America, Iron Man or Hulk.