Cinematographer Henry Braham looked to the RED WEAPON 8K DRAGON VV sensor for Gunn's Guardians sequel—the first for a feature film.
In the opening sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, an adorable Baby Groot grabs center screen moving and grooving to the tunes of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while his fellow Guardians fight in the background, protecting a planet from a strange tentacle space beast that's trying to devour its powerful energy sources. The sequence is quintessential James Gunn.
"It’s bold. And by bold, I mean it’s taking a big step forward in terms of what James learned from the first film."
“Music is a big part of the process for James,” cinematographer Henry Braham told No Film School. The Baby Groot dance was actually motion-captured by Gunn himself; while writing the treatment, he imagined the concept and brought in producer Simon Hatt to shoot him dancing on an iPhone. After piecing together the moves in a single take, the team took over two years to finalize the film’s opening scene.
"The beauty of this film is it builds on the strength of the first one," Braham said. "It’s bold. And by bold, I mean it’s taking a big step forward in terms of what James learned from the first film."
The clear vision allowed the cinematographer to focus on the director’s personality, Braham strived to put on the screen.
"The visual concept came very quickly to us," said Braham, "although the details took a very long time, with very strong work by production designer Scott Chambliss."
One of these details was the decision to shoot on a RED WEAPON with an 8K DRAGON VV sensor—a first for feature film—which Gunn announced on his Facebook page back in January 2016, saying he looked forward to "being one of the many who help to create a new kind of magic that will usher the cinematic experience into the future."
"When I went into the RED studio, they put a black box down on the table and said, ‘How about this?’ It was the 8K DRAGON in its most prototype form."
The team was looking for a high-resolution large format image with a camera body that was physically adaptable. "I went to see Jarred Land at RED because I had a very good experience previously with the company on The Legend of Tarzan," said the cinematographer, who shot the reboot on a 6K RED EPIC DRAGON with Leica Summicron and Angenieux Optimo lenses. "When I went into the studio, Jarred put a black box down on the table and said, ‘How about this?’ It was the 8K DRAGON in its most prototype form."
Braham spent about a month comparing many different formats before settling on 8K. He shot the entirety of Guardians of the Galaxy on the new format, with the exception of a few slow motion scenes on the 4K Phantom. The film was later downsampled to 2K and 4K projections.
"I learned that resolution was important because of the complexity of the images we were creating," Braham said. "Particularly when you start with a high-resolution image, then downsample, there’s a significant difference in the richness and the way detail was captured."
There were a great deal of people that collaborated to get the RED WEAPON firing on all cylinders.
With a movie this size, there were a great deal of people that collaborated to get the RED WEAPON firing on all cylinders. Braham needed to make sure the images worked not just for Gunn and himself, but also for the visual effects team.
"It was an interesting process that took about three months," said Braham, who plans to explore his process further in a panel at this year’s Cine Gear Expo. "Whether you’re testing a new film stock or a new camera, you want to drill down to the core things so you really understand what you are working with."
The smaller RED WEAPON allowed Braham to think differently about framing. "There are traditional ways of moving a camera—dolly and cranes are great, but they have a physical inertia to them," said Braham. "Steadicam is great, too, but it has a particular voice and feel to it. Handheld is good for being in the action, but it can be too much for the big screen."
"We used a stabilizing rig that creates rock-steady images somewhere between a dolly and handheld."
Though Guardians does feature many handheld shots, Braham tried a new method. "We used a stabilizing rig," he said, "which creates rock-steady images somewhere between a dolly and handheld work. It enabled the camera to really get in close to the action but keep a very low footprint. It connects the audience with a very immersive experience rather than something that’s a bit removed."
In terms of the visual aesthetic, Braham collaborated with Gunn on scale, color, and the richness of the images. "What was interesting was the dichotomy between that and how James liked to work," said Braham. "He wanted to build on his script with the actors and to capture the spontaneity of their performance. That’s slightly counter to this being a big screen movie." To accommodate Gunn's wishes, Braham shot the big visual feast with a slight documentary feel.
Barham operated the camera, using only a single camera for 85% of the film. Working in a relatively organic space where the actors did not necessarily need to find exact marks, he relied on instinct and the spirit of how Gunn wanted to make the movie.
"Everything you see on screen—there’s a decision behind it," he said. "Nothing happens randomly. By that, I mean as the blocking evolves and the performance evolves, the camera needs to be there and go with the flow. By getting to know the director and tuning into the director, it informs how you frame and where you put the camera. It also means you need a really good team behind you to pull it off."
"This movie is very much James’ personality," concluded Braham. "It’s a James Gunn film."