Vasnayov set out to shoot a “a dirty kind of classical story.”
Hey, remember Suicide Squad? The David Ayer film that opened a couple weeks ago, about a ragtag group of misfits who stop an evil witch from taking over the world? Well, good news. The Warner Bros hold on behind-the-scene stories is up so we can now share with you cinematographer Roman Vasyanov’s first-hand thoughts on the project's complicated prep and shoot.
If you're not yer familiar with Vasyanov, he’s collaborated with Ayer on End of Watch, as well as Fury, which stars Brad Pitt as a WWII Nazi killing sergeant. The two are currently prepping Bright with Will Smith as the lead, who also played Deadshot in Suicide Squad.
"Having worked together before, the barriers have been torn down and you’re on this relationship level where we’re truly honest."
It was only a few months after wrapping Fury when Ayer called Vasyanov to tell him not to book another gig. The only thing he could share with the cinematographer at the time was that he was “working on a huge movie.” When October 2014 rolled around the director was able to show his cards, as Warner Bros CEO Kevin Tsujihara announced Suicide Squad to the masses. “David basically reached out and said we had to start prepping and shooting in two months. It was a little bit rushed, but to be honest, it was tricky subject for me because I didn’t grow up in the Soviet Union reading too many comic books,” says Vasyanov.
But having the familiarity and short-hand with Ayer gave him more than enough confidence to frame one of the most anticipated films in the DC Universe. “We have a relationship where we trust each other. Having worked together before, the barriers have been torn down and you’re on this relationship level where we’re truly honest.”
Prep started January 12, 2015 for Vasyanov, but he was already dissecting Ayer’s script. “What I love to do is go through it scene by scene, and on each page create three columns. One for camera, the second for lighting, and the third I label 'special.' I’ll jot ideas down and then look at different films or photography or things that I love and pull those references. Once I have some thoughts going, I’ll figure out how I can achieve them with time and budget we have.”
The visual strategy going in was to make “a dirty kind of classical story” says the cinematographer with photography that “was less polished and less glossy.” Vasyanov admits that the movie had to have a certain look to it or the studio would have probably fired him, but he wanted to approach it naturally using practical lighting.
"You shouldn’t be afraid to make bold decisions, to make something look a certain way. As a cinematographer you should follow your instincts."
“It’s actually funny. I read one review that said the movie looked so bad it looked like a Japanese horror film, but I think that’s the best compliment I have ever heard,” Vasyanov says. The reason for the high praise is that during prep Ayer and Vasyanov watched Japanese horror films to reference ideas.
“When you have material like Suicide Squad, you shouldn’t fear that it’s a big movie and that it needs to look like a big movie. Even if it’s a 'popcorn movie,' it’s still cinematography. It’s still drama. It’s still lighting and darkness and shadows. You shouldn’t be afraid to make bold decisions, to make something look a certain way. As a cinematographer you should follow your instincts."
Production started in Spring and primarily took place at Pinewood Toronto Studios in Canada, with 85 shooting days plus a second unit helmed by cinematographer Josh Bleibtreu, which ran 30 days. Using film was another early decision. Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 negative was used with Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2s and ARRI 435/235 cameras.
For glass, Panavision anamorphic series lenses provided the balanced look between beauty and reality that the cinematographer was trying to achieve. “We had a lot of nights, so digital could have been the more logistical choice but we felt the grain structure of film would add to the classic feeling we were going for. And what I love about film is that it brings a sort of discipline on set. A sort of respect for the camera when it rolls for everyone to give their maximum effort,” Vasyanov explains. “A lot of young filmmakers these days like to roll, roll, roll, but I don’t think it’s a great thing to do because between the takes and breaks, you can think and analyze. You can adjust. You can really try to double-check and ask yourself is this the right thing.”
"One of the ideas was to be able to change the color temperature of the environment and go from tungsten to daylight or daylight to tungsten or add flicker rather quickly."
With the entire story taking place at night and most of the principal cast in every scene Vasyanov, tapped gaffer Rick Thomas to help facilitate the lighting. “Rick comes from that classic gaffing school. What I love about him is that he’s a guy that remembers everything.” Knowing that, Thomas was brought in six weeks before principal photography and shown all the tech scouts and set models Vasyanov prepared in the software 3D Max. From the digital models, they collaborated further and looked to William F. White International to supply not just the majority of lighting and grip equipment, but specialty rigs as well.
Everything from Kino Flos and LEDs to soft boxes and larger 40x60’ boxes were built to fill backgrounds. Other SourceMaker balloon lights, theatrical and motional lights were used with the many practical fixtures built into sets. Nearly all the lights were rewired to make them dimmable too. “We had about 300 Celeb LEDs on all the stages, as one of the ideas was to be able to change the color temperature of the environment and go from tungsten to daylight or daylight to tungsten or add flicker rather quickly,” says Vasyanov.
The ambitious schedule also required extensive prep with production designer Oliver Scholl, costume designer Kate Hawley, and Guy Norris in stunts. The team shot tests with costumes on film and scanned them to find each character’s look. “Because of the huge fan base, it one of those things where every kid knows how they should look but we can’t really do what everybody is expecting. So we spent the extra time with costumes, makeup, and the lighting to get it right. Especially Jared Leto’s Joker. There was a lot of pressure with that character after Heath Ledger.”
When our anti-heroes are introduced, we find them in the notorious Belle Reve Federal Penitentiary, each inhabiting its own distinct cell. Diablo’s (Jay Hernandez) had a cell with a very efficient way of extinguishing fire. Killer Croc’s (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) was basically a sewer. “Oliver did a great job with all our sets. We wanted the prison to look as realistic as possible as each character had its own moment,” says Vasyanov. Especially Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who was locked in a cage in a room with an open ceiling. “I think that worked great lighting wise. Because of the open space we could hit her with sun and the rain and make it very different from the other characters,” adds Vasyanov.
As Dr. June Moone becomes overtaken by the witch Enchantress, Midway City finds itself under attack. It’s here U.S. intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) puts her Task Force X to work to help save humanity. In one sequence, the Squad tries to land by helicopter and ultimately spins out of control. To achieve this, production took a cut up Chinook helicopter and put it on rig that spun 360 degrees. Camera operators Peter Rosenfeld and Angelo Colavecchia found themselves strapped in and going handheld to capture the helicopter spinning out of control. “Our operators were absolutely top notch,” says Vasyanov. “Visually the camera movements have a nice, classy feel which brings a sort of heavenly idea to them.”
"We taped off entire sets and the streets in those facilities, and for about a month and a half they were training and creating the choreography for our fight scenes."
To prepare for the larger fight sequences, a huge hangar was rented where Norris, fight choreographer Richard Norton, and martial arts trainer Richard Mesquita worked with each character. “We taped off entire sets and the streets in those facilities, and for about a month and a half they were training and creating the choreography for our fight scenes,” says Vasyanov. Production shot everything on video, then Guy Norris’s son Harrison would edit the footage to show to Ayers, Vasyanov, and visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen. It was then further developed with previs to flush out details and any visual effects in the sequence. “A lot of those scenes were planned very well ahead of time. Even if it looks more chaotic, it was a style of shooting where we wanted to find that line of believability without going too much Hollywood. We didn’t want it to become heavy handed.”
During the fight between the Squad and the creepy monsters dubbed the "Eyes Of The Adversary," the city street was over 250 feet long and had a flying system suspended overhead that could hold up to 20 stunt performers on wires at once. The villains were leaping over cars, bouncing off walls, and attacking the Squad from every angle. “That sequence took us about three weeks to shoot and we used as little VFX as possible since David loves to do stuff in camera,” the cinematographer mentions.
"It’s about breaking it down into simple pieces so when the puzzle comes back together it becomes complicated."
Similarly, the climatic fight scene took two weeks in wind-driven rain with several layers to the story taking place simultaneously. “That was a very complex scene but not matter how crazy it got you have to answer two things: where is the camera going and how are you going to light it? It’s about breaking it down into simple pieces so when the puzzle comes back together it becomes complicated,” says Vasyanov. “I think the power of simplicity exists in all kinds of art forms. Even in a good lighting diagram. If you look at it from the above point of view it’s very symmetrical in a way. It has its own shape. It’s geometrical beauty. It’s never chaotic. I think that’s key when you have scenes with a lot of action. You keep things simple so you don’t get buried.”
Surprisingly, color grading took only two weeks. “I was able to work with my favorite colorist, Yvan Lucas at SHED, and because of his brilliant dailies work, we didn’t have to spend too much time in the DI,” mentions Vasyanov.
The cinematographer’s clear enjoyment of the project could be heard in his voice. “Our producers, Charles Roven and Richard Suckle, were very supportive on set. I was thankful they didn’t push David early on to hire another DP since this was my first superhero movie. But after the first week of dailies, no one touched us.”
Vasyanov does admits that there was a ton of other footage shot but not yet seen—with a possible cut that could near the four hour mark. “It’s a tricky thing to discuss, but I hope the DC Universe will have more of Jared Leto’s Joker. He really did some amazing work. All the actors brought so much joy and love to the set. As a cinematographer, you don’t have too much time to talk to them but we had a lot of fun and I think the entire crew put a lot of heart into this movie.”