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American Cinematographer

An article from the new issue

Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC and director Bryan Singer reunite on Superman Returns, the first major feature shot with Panavision’s digital Genesis camera.

by Simon Gray
Unit Photography by David James, SMPSP

Since his original incarnation in 1938 as a comic-book superhero, Superman has enthralled generations of fans in an array of media, including newspaper serials, novels, radio shows, television series and, of course, motion pictures. “Superman is an iconic character, almost a shared memory of an archetypal American folk hero,” says Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC, director of photography on Superman Returns. “There have been many permutations, some good and some perhaps corny, but the mythology has endured.”

Directed by Bryan Singer, Superman Returns presents a fairly introspective superhero. Searching for his place in the universe, Superman (Brandon Routh) travels back to his home planet of Krypton, now a barren, lifeless husk. When our hero finally returns to Earth, several years have passed, and Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint) is thinking of selling the family farm. Meanwhile, back in Metropolis, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) appears to have moved on with her life. “I approached this film the same as I would any other character piece,” says Sigel. “This particular story just happens to feature a protagonist who wears his underwear on the outside and can fly.”

In formulating his approach to the project, Sigel strove to combine the script’s thematic concerns with aesthetic flourishes from comic books. “The general look was determined by the themes and characters, as it would be on any film. However, a large part of the look also came from the translation of comic-book art into three-dimensional space and movement. Consequently, the picture features very graphic, elegant compositions, and there’s a vibrancy to the colors that pushes the envelope of what is real. I wanted to create a look that would be naturalistic but also have a painterly, illustrative quality that pays respect to the paint-and-ink drawing of the original comics. The color scheme is not as strong as the hues in some other films adapted from comics, such as Dick Tracy [see AC May ’91], but our overall use of color does provide a different type of image quality. Superman Returns creates a sense of nostalgia through the use of golds, yellows and bronzes in both the production design and lighting. I also bent this scheme a little in the grading to create a slightly more pastel, less photo-realistic look.”

Singer also wanted the film’s visuals to pay homage to comic books of the 1940s. “They had a distinctly romantic quality, and that was a definite visual motif Tom and I discussed for the film,” says the director. This sense of romance is particularly evident in a rooftop encounter between Lois and Superman, during which the couple is bathed in a bright, soft glow from The Daily Planet’s iconic revolving globe.

The interior of the Daily Planet building has much in common with its conceptualization in the original comic, which was inspired by the Art Deco-style Ohio Bell building in Cleveland. The main floor of the Planet is an open space that features a central area for the reporters’ desks, referred to as the “bullpen.” The overall color palette for this set comprised warm tones, and several design elements informed the lighting style. “One of the main features of the Daily Planet set was the skylights, and we had amber glass placed in each one to provide a warm daylight look,” says Sigel. A total of 50 skylights were fixed 15' from the floor at an angle of approximately 30 degrees, and ran down both sides of the set. Each had a 20K Fresnel positioned behind it. In keeping with the Art-Deco scheme, the set’s main windows were fitted with Venetian blinds, which also served to control the view of the TransLite beyond them. These windows were also lit with 20K Fresnels, as well as 10 additional 10Ks.

The set’s practical fixtures provided ambient light. “We used long, 1940s-style practical lights, as well as amber-glass lights,” explains gaffer Shaun Conway. “We put incandescent bulbs in all the lights because Tom wanted to be able to dim them down to 15 percent. The longer practicals were essentially large softboxes containing space-light bulbs aimed through Perspex bottoms to provide a directionless source over most of the set. The other lights used thousands of bulbs in the 15- to 40-watt range.” To light the actors, Conway built units that were dubbed “Lois Lights,” which were 8'x4' 8K lightboxes. These contained eight space-light bulbs, each of which was dimmable, bounced into a backing of Ultra Bounce and then diffused through Half Grid. “They created a beautiful quality of warm light that was great for skin tones,” says Conway.

The illumination in the Daily Planet set was designed to be flexible and easy to rearrange. Every lamp was cabled to a dimmer room, which allowed Sigel to control the key-to-fill ratio by altering the level of specific lights on either side of the set. “In preproduction, Tom asked for every lamp on every set to be cabled to the dimmers,” recalls Conway. “He likes a lot of moving light — not visible changes, but subtle shifts to keep the mood as the actors move through a space. On films this size, it’s essential to give the cinematographer and director all the time they need to work with the cast and camera.” Eight 500kVA generators were required to provide power for the Metropolis set alone.

At the time of principal photography, Superman Returns was the first feature film to shoot with Panavision’s Super 35 Digital Cinematography Camera System, known as the Genesis. Singer had been investigating digital-acquisition formats for a few years, since he was invited to attend a summit organized by George Lucas. “It was around the time I was preparing X-Men 2, and I was in the company of Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Michael Mann and other directors,” says Singer. “For a whole weekend we watched all sorts of digital footage, and some of it was really astonishing. I’d already seen the tests Texas Instruments had done with its digital-projection systems, so I thought the exhibition side of things was there, but at the time I concluded that shooting on digital systems didn’t yield results as strong as film.”

It wasn’t until Sigel brought the Genesis to Singer’s attention that the director considered digital acquisition a viable option for Superman Returns. The path to that final decision, however, was somewhat indirect. “I’d had this notion that because Superman is so iconic and grandiose, we should shoot in 65mm,” Sigel recalls with a smile. “When we did some screen tests for Brandon Routh, I turned up with a 65mm camera as well as a Super 35mm camera. I remember thinking recent films done in 65mm hadn’t seemed that radically different than 35mm, but it was still worth exploring. We shots tests with both cameras, and when we projected the results, Bryan and I were blown away by 65mm’s sense of scale, sheer clarity and lack of grain.”

Sigel began investigating the possibility of shooting Superman Returns in 65mm, but soon realized that the difficulties outweighed the benefits. “There were many factors that made it near impossible, but the clincher was when it occurred to me that the reason 65mm had looked so good was because we’d projected it in 70mm, and I knew Superman Returns would probably never be projected in 70mm — today there are more digital cinemas than working 70mm projectors!” says the cinematographer. “Then I remembered seeing a test Allen Daviau [ASC] had shot on 35mm and with the prototype Genesis. It involved interior and exterior footage, and the results were very encouraging.“

Using the only Genesis camera in existence at the time, Sigel shot test footage that remains, to date, the most comprehensive 35mm-Genesis comparison. “We spent several weeks shooting everything we could — interiors, exteriors, costumes, sets — in all kinds of situations and lighting conditions,” says Sigel. “The more we saw, the more excited Bryan and I became about shooting digitally. I was looking for something a bit different for Superman Returns, images that were on a different visual platform, and the Genesis is great for that.” The final decision rested with the cinematographer and director. “The years of trust I have with Tom are invaluable to me,” says Singer, who first teamed with Sigel on The Usual Suspects (1995). “I wanted just the two of us to make the call, so we sat in the cinema watching the comparison tests by ourselves.”

Sigel decided that the Genesis camera, when used with a range of spherical Panavision Primo prime and zoom lenses, was so close to the responsiveness of film negative that no specific modifications to his lighting would be required. “Panavision and Sony have come up with a camera system that emulates the log curve and the color space of film very closely,” he says. “The Genesis has about 1?2 to 1 stop less dynamic range in the highlights than film, but that is well made up for by being able to go deeper into the blacks without getting noise — you can be a little braver at the point where you let the light fall off.”

The large volume of visual effects required for Superman Returns was another reason the filmmakers chose a digital format. In fact, much of Sigel’s prep time was devoted to working out the details of the effects sequences, an aspect of filmmaking that he believes is continually expanding the cinematographer’s role. “In effect, you’re shooting your film several times over now,” he observes. “I like to be very involved in how scenes are blocked and how the camerawork is choreographed. The aesthetics and technical restrictions of visual effects have a huge influence over how the final film is going to look, and the more preconceived notions there are about a scene or sequence, the less exciting it can be for a cinematographer to shoot. But whether you like it or not, it’s the way these type of movies are made.”

Digital previsualization was used extensively during the prep phase, and not just for complex action sequences. Sigel explains, “Bryan’s use of previz is certainly extensive and elaborate, but it doesn’t dictate the way we shoot. Instead, he uses it as an extension of the writing process. Many of the guys who work in the previz department are comic-book and computer-game aficionados, and they’ll often give Bryan suggestions.” For Sigel, previz is best used with discretion. “There were times when I respected the previz, such as the flying scenes, which take place in a virtual environment. But for scenes involving the actors interacting in a physical environment, I tended to use the previz as a reference only if something wasn’t working.”

Given the heavy visual-effects load for Superman Returns, Sigel saw no reason to change the Genesis’ internal menu settings. “I did as little electronic manipulation as possible in camera to allow us the greatest range in post,” he says. “We could’ve created one overall look-up table [LUT] and dumped our dailies right into the Avid, but because I knew I would be using many of the tools of the digital intermediate [DI], I wanted to grade the dailies so they would more closely reflect the final product. Every director falls in love with his work print, and knowing Bryan would be living with this material for months in the editing room, I wanted him to be comfortable with the final look. Also, I wanted to give the visual-effects team a general guide so they could make sure their work didn’t conflict with the picture’s overall look.”

All data was recorded to Sony SRW-1 decks. “Our original camera tapes, the digital ‘negative,’ went to The Cutting Edge in Sydney, and an archival/security copy was immediately made,” says Sigel. “Then our colorist, Trish Cahill, would apply our grade based on what we’d worked out in preproduction and my color-corrected digital stills, which I sent her every day. Then audio would be added and an Avid copy would be made, and the next day we’d look at the dailies during lunch in our screening room, where they were projected with a 2K Barco projector. The projection quality was amazing.”

Sigel made all of his lighting decisions with his own high-definition (HD) monitor, a process he likens to learning a new film stock. “The Genesis exists in log space, but because you’re watching the footage on a CRT monitor that is video space, you’re not seeing the full dynamic range. I was looking at a slightly compressed image that was a little flat, certainly not as crisp and subtly beautiful as it would be in its final form. So I had to learn how to translate what I saw on a monitor to what I knew would be projected on HD and seen in the release prints.” Conway describes Sigel as a “very gutsy cinematographer. On set, he’ll let areas of the frame drop off to black, but you know there’s going to be plenty of detail in the dailies. We didn’t really use any fill on this film; Tom just let the soft light wrap around to create contrast.”

Conway also found the process of lighting from the monitor to be beneficial. The monitor was set up next to the remote-head controls in a black, lightproof tent on the soundstage. “Gaffers don’t get a lot of time looking through the lens,” says Conway. “On this movie, once I knew Tom was happy with the lighting, I was able to sit behind the monitor and carry out any tweaks he wanted. It was like looking through the viewfinder all day, and it was a great learning experience. I began to wonder how I would go back to film!”

“When we made the decision to go with Genesis, all that existed was a prototype,” says Sigel. “Panavision assured me we would have seven cameras by the time we began, and I took them at their word. In hindsight, I think I must’ve been out of my mind. There were still a lot of things we had to work out, like power ports, accessory handles and viewfinders. For the first few weeks, it felt like we were still building the camera, but it was fun to have that kind of input and see Panavision try to respond.

“We did run into one strange technical problem,” continues the cinematographer. “About halfway through the shoot, we noticed a faint vertical line in an aerial shot. Our visual-effects team went back and looked at other footage and discovered that this aberration was on most of the camera chips, but it was generally invisible to the naked eye. The data was all there, but somehow a tiny portion was being suppressed. I believe Panavision has since fixed the chips, and we simply did a software fix to eliminate the problem in our footage.”

Although using the Genesis did not alter Sigel’s approach to lighting, the camera did require him to reconsider his usual operating style. He normally operates his own camera, throwing himself into the thick of the action and making many of his lighting decisions while looking through the lens. However, the non-optical viewfinder system of the Genesis prompted some adjustments. “The image in the viewfinder was so unrepresentative of the lighting that it could be disconcerting,” says Sigel. “The plus side was that I had an output from the camera to a 24-inch monitor with a sharp, clear image that in some ways was better than an optical viewfinder.” The cinematographer decided to do about 90 percent of his operating using the remote head, with the monitor acting as a viewfinder. “That gave me a great ability to see what the lighting was doing as I was shooting, but it also defined a very specific type of operating style,” he says. “Fortunately, Bryan’s taste in camerawork is fairly classic and formal, so this style complemented Superman Returns very well.”

Sigel points out that over the course of his work with Singer — which includes Apt Pupil, X-Men (AC July ’00), X-Men 2 (AC April ’03), and the pilot for House (AC Feb. ’05) — his operating style has changed. “On The Usual Suspects, we evolved a certain style that combined dolly movement with imperceptible zooms so that you’d always have a sense of motion in a limited space. One of the results of that approach is you’re always moving in, so you tend to work on the longer end of the lens. When we got to X-Men, we shot anamorphic, partly so we could dolly more. For Superman Returns, we’ve probably worked with wider lenses than before, just to open up the compositions and create a bigger vista.”

One of the key action sequences in Superman Returns involves the Man of Steel saving an out-of-control airline that is plummeting to earth. The aircraft set was mounted on a large gimbal that could provide up-and-down and shuddering motion. “There are a lot of visual- and special-effects elements in that sequence, but it’s really the lighting that sells the idea of the plane going down,” notes Sigel. “The sequence takes place during the day, so the cabin had to be lit through the windows, but this was complicated by the fact that the windows weren’t very large and were positioned down low.” Another concern was that the view outside the windows encompassed most of the soundstage.

Sigel’s solution was to position large areas of white muslin on both sides of the set and light them from behind with Dinos, creating a very soft source that illuminated the interior of the cabin and still read on camera. “There’s so much action going on in that sequence that we couldn’t afford to spend time lighting every shot,” he says. “Given the small aperture of the windows, the soft light provided plenty of contrast.” To create the illusion of the plane spinning out of control, Conway and his crew positioned rows of 20Ks just above the windows and programmed them for a chase sequence. Conway explains, “The 20Ks gave us a hard-sunlight effect coming through the windows, and by chasing the light in prearranged sequences down the length of the windows, we created the effect of the plane spinning. Every one of the practical lamps inside the cabin was cabled to the dimmer because at one point, the power had to flicker and then go out altogether. That changed the ambience inside, and it changes yet again when the plane begins to leave Earth’s atmosphere.”

No film about Superman would be complete without Kent Farm, the site of his original arrival on Earth. For Superman Returns, this setting, complete with a house, a barn and a specially grown field of corn, was constructed near the town of Tamworth, which is located in northern New South Wales. In an unusual step, the Kent house was constructed to facilitate the shooting of both exterior and interior scenes. Featuring working power outlets, the house was raised off the ground to accommodate the mass of lighting cables that ran to the dimmer room, which was disguised as the Kents’ woodshed.

Tamworth proved to be an ideal location not only for normal day exteriors, but also for sunset shots. “Tamworth has a totally justified reputation for its sunsets — they are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen,” says Sigel. At the beginning of the Superman Returns schedule, the filmmakers capitalized on this by shooting a series of sunrises and sunsets, capturing the last rays of sunlight as they disappeared over the horizon. These shots were later intercut with exterior scenes shot at magic hour, in which the setting sun was replicated with 100K SoftSuns. “We used two techniques,” explains Sigel. “We’d set the levels on the SoftSuns quite low to get that wonderfully warm color of the setting sun, and then we’d completely fade the lights out at the last minute to suggest the sun disappearing behind the horizon. Another, somewhat more manual technique was to slowly fly large black cards in front of the lamps.”

To create ambient levels for the night exteriors, Conway and his crew (which included rigging gaffer Iain Matthieson, rigging best boy Matt Clyde, and best boys Moses Fotofili and Peni Laloa) constructed a series of “moonboxes.” Conway explains, “Tom wanted to replicate the quality of light you get from a helium balloon, while avoiding the cost of the helium and potential weather problems.” Each moonbox was a six-sided half-sphere containing 30K panels of Par cans. Each panel was diffused with Hard Gridcloth, and the whole structure was hard-mounted to the end of a construction crane. “These lights could withstand 25- to 30-knot winds and provided an ambient level of T2 to T2.8,” says Conway. “To give the light some shape, we could turn any combination of the six panels on or off.” The boxes were originally intended as an ambient source, but Sigel was so impressed with them he also used them as backlight sources for night exteriors.

The Kent farm is also the scene of Superman’s spectacular return — his space pod tears a scorched trench in the ground as Martha Kent watches from her kitchen. The sequence was originally filmed on the Tamworth location. As the pod hurtles over the house, hard, rapidly moving shadows flicker across the kitchen. To depict the light from the pod, the special-effects department flew a large flare on a wire rig. Some time after the production had relocated to Fox Studios in Sydney, however, pickup shots were required for the kitchen scene. Given that the scene could not be repeated indoors with the flare, Sigel had to find a way to re-create the effect with lighting. “I needed a source that was dimmable and movable and would replicate the light of a flare, which is bright and stable in the middle and flickering at the edges,” he explains.

To achieve this, the crew built a mobile lighting unit consisting of a 20K and a 10K bulb removed from their housings. These two bulbs provided the central illumination, while the flickering edge of the practical flare was re-created by a series of 5K bulbs positioned around the two central globes and set on a flicker pattern. The entire apparatus was then attached to a crane and flown over the kitchen set to provide the desired movement in the shadows. “It was rather complex to use because it had to dim up and down, flicker and physically move at the same time,” says Conway. “However, the effect matched the location footage perfectly.”

Synonymous with the Superman legend are the Kryptonian crystals that serve as the superstructure for the Fortress of Solitude, along with the space pod Superman constructs for the long journey to Krypton. For the 1978 film Superman, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC photographed the superhero’s redoubt in cool, icy-blue tones (AC Jan. ’79), but Sigel took a different approach: “I wanted the lighting to endow the crystals, which were actually fiberglass, with a sense of life, a pulsing, breathing quality.” The space pod was a partial build, with large sections created digitally. To maximize shooting time, 30 10K tungsten lamps were positioned high and low around the set to create specific raking and 3?4-backlight angles, which brought out the texture of the scoured and beaded surfaces. These lamps were wired to execute a slow dimming sequence that endowed the set with a sense that the crystals were “breathing.” Additional Par cans were used to highlight certain areas of the set.

“With Superman Returns, I finally got to color-correct an effects film the way I wanted to,” notes Sigel. “Once the picture was fairly locked, I asked for that version of the cut to be loaded into our DI suite at Technicolor Digital Intermediates. Then I began to work with colorist Stephan Nakamura, even though most of the effects shots were only temps. This allowed us to give a lot of feedback to the visual-effects team as to how we wanted things to look, and also identify problems early on. We even made ‘mini-LUTs’ for individual shots so the visual-effects vendors could apply them to their work. As more effects were finished, we’d update the reel, and then go back over it again.

“Using the Genesis was pretty exciting,” he concludes. “I think we’re about to move past the film vs. video debate into something more interesting: how will we evolve this unique language of the motion picture in the future? After all, when our ancestors were painting on the walls of their caves, did they ever imagine the crows of Van Gogh?”


2.35:1 High-Definition Video

Panavision Genesis
Super 35 Digital Cinematography
Camera System

Primo Lenses

Transferred to 35mm
by Technicolor (Los Angeles)

Printed on Kodak Vision 2383

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