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Henry Braham BSC • Guardians Of The Galaxy – Vol.3

Jan 5, 2024

(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 015 May/June 2023)

SPACE TRUCKIN’

By Ron Prince

“God knows, we need people to come back to watch movies at the cinema,” says cinematographer Henry Braham BSC. “As filmmakers, we have a major part to play in that. We have a responsibility to create reasons for people to share common visual, auditory and emotional experiences that are different to sitting at home.”

If early box-office receipts are anything to go by, then Braham’s latest project, the action-packed, spaced-out Guardians Of The Galaxy – Vol.3, is doing exactly that. Within a week of opening, the $250m, Disney/Marvel adventure had rocketed to nearly $350m at the box office worldwide, with forecast predictions of a healthy $800m overall, making it one of the biggest crowd-pullers of 2023.

(Far right): Director of Photography Henry Braham on the set of Marvel Studios’ GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3. Photo by Jessica Miglio. © 2023 MARVEL.

Guardians Of The Galaxy – Vol.3 represents Braham’s fourth collaboration with director/writer James Gunn, following their work together on Guardians Of The Galaxy – Vol. 2 (2017), The Suicide Squad (2021) and The Guardians Of The Galaxy Holiday Special (2022), for Disney+ streaming service, the latter of which was shot concurrently with Guardians Of The Galaxy – Vol.3.

The movie features an ensemble cast of The Guardians themselves: Chris Pratt as Star-Lord/Peter Quill, Zoe Saldaña as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Pom Klementieff as Mantis, plus the voice talents of Vin Diesel as Groot and Bradley Cooper as Rocket. Their nemesis is The High Evolutionary, played by Chukwudi Iwuji, a powerful scientist specialising in creating hybrid creatures, who is trying to create the perfect society, assisted by his hybrid henchman Adam Warlock, played by Will Poulter.

(L-R): Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Dave Bautista as Drax, Karen Gillan as Nebula in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.

The threequel sees the band of misfits settling down on planet Knowhere, only to have their lives suddenly upended when Rocket is mortally-wounded in a dramatic attack ordered by The High Evolutionary. The Guardians rally together on a dangerous mission across the crazy cosmos to save Rocket’s life – an inter-galactic operation that, if not completed successfully, could lead to the end of The Guardians as we know them.

Along with robust returns at the box-office, critics praised the movie as a visually-stunning and highly-emotional experience – it juxtaposes themes of cruelty, eugenics and vivisection against kindness, loyalty and friendship, as a macabre backstory about Rocket is gradually revealed. Braham’s work has been well-received for the dynamic, inventive way it captured the action and the emotion.

Chukwudi Iwuji as The High Evolutionary in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.

The film was released in a multitude of formats including 3D, IMAX, Dolby Cinema, augmented 4DX experience and ScreenX 270-degree panoramic format. Disney released over 600 unique versions of the film to cinemas, including one with variable aspect ratios, shifting between 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 letterbox aspect ratio.

“You are the conduit to putting the director’s vision onto the screen”

“Every movie is different, but the one constant for the cinematographer is that you are the conduit to putting the director’s vision for their film onto the screen,” says Braham. “As with our first collaboration on Guardians Of The Galaxy – Vol. 2, we were making a spectacular, surreal, space opera again. But, rather than having a story about the universe being crushed by an omnipotent force, this time it was focussed on a touching and deeply-affecting drama around Rocket and a single life being in deadly jeopardy.

(From center to right): Director of Photography Henry Braham, Zoe Saldaña, and Chukwudi Iwuji and on the set of Marvel Studios’ GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3. Photo by Jessica Miglio. © 2023 MARVEL.

“I was highly-conscious of the need for the visuals to be colourful and kinetic as we travel around the universe, whilst also having the camera alive and present to capture the tender moments in story and emotion in the performances. We were taking the audience on a specific journey, and having truth to the camera movement and the lighting was really important in keeping them connected to the narrative.”

Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Dave Bautista as Drax, and Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, and Karen Gillan as Nebula in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

Braham says he and Gunn explored a multitude of filmic references, and highlights martial arts movies from Hong Kong and South Korean cinema as helping to inform the fight scenes in the film. 

“James wanted the fights to be staged with pace and purpose, for the audience to be up-close with every swing and every blow in long continuous scenes, which meant having a fluid camera that could run amid the thick of the action and could tumble around with our heroes. 

Baby Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

“To design and develop how to shoot those sequences, Wayne Dalglish, our very creative co-stunt coordinator, and I did a lot of stunt-viz during prep – shooting live footage of rehearsals that was then cut together. Nothing computer generated. Wayne was quick to understand the potential of the way I wanted to shoot and took every advantage of the how the camera can interact with the action – in other words – making the camera a part of the fighting rather than an observer. It also helped inform the camera package I was going to need to bring all of that physicality to the screen.”

On the set of Marvel Studios’ GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3. Photo by Jessica Miglio. © 2023 MARVEL.

Pre-production work creating the designs and visuals for the film began in April 2021. Principal photography commenced in early November 2021, on multiple stages at Trilith Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, under the working title of Hot Christmas, before wrapping 120 shooting days later on May 6th 2022. The Counter Earth scenes were filmed on-location at a housing development, about an hour’s drive from the studio base.

“On a film of this scale… preparation is everything”

“During production we typically had a 10-hour daily working regime, which I think protected us from the law of diminishing returns when you have to work longer days,” Braham notes.

Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

Braham reports that many of the set builds, such as the Guardians’ ‘Bowie’ space craft, were four storeys in height. The production team considered using Industrial Light & Magic’s StageCraft virtual production technology, originally developed for the Disney+ Star Wars series The Mandalorian. However, the sheer size and scale of those sets, combined with the need for an active camera and on-set lighting requirements, made the use of LED wall technology for background plates impractical, and traditional bluescreen was used instead. 

(L-R): Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Karen Gillan as Nebula, and Dave Bautista as Drax in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.

With image-quality and camera agility of paramount importance, Braham revisited a large format camera set-up he had pioneered and used to great effect on Guardians Of The Galaxy – Vol. 2, but with some fresh twists. For that earlier film, he paired the diminutive RED Weapon Dragon 8K VV camera with Panavision 70 series lenses, resulting in a highly-compact and lightweight camera package. During production, this was deployed on a miniature, remote-operated, gyro-stabilised head, made by UK company Stabileye, which was variously manoeuvered by the grips, slung on an easy-rig, telescopic crane or fast, point-to-point wirecam systems. A high-speed Phantom Flex 4K camera was used separately to shoot slo-mo sequences for the many action scenes.

For Vol.3, the DP came up with an even smaller and more versatile system that could be operated handheld. Collaborating with RED, Braham took advantage of the newly-developed and more compact form-factor RED V-Raptor 8K VV – an IMAX-approved camera, which offered up to 120fps capture at full 8K for the action scenes, plus improved low-light capabilities – fitted with Leitz M 0.8 lenses. Attaching this combination to a proprietary stabilising gimbal, specially-developed by Stabileye, resulted in a handheld camera package weighing just 4.5kg. Similarly, this new rig could also be attached to camera moving systems such as cranes or wire systems.

(L-R): Will Poulter as Adam Warlock in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo by Jessica Miglio. © 2022 MARVEL.

“All of the 8K large format cameras available today deliver exceptional images, but it is only RED who have managed to squeeze the technology into a small camera body that is not much larger than a traditional Hasselblad, and you can shoot full 8K at high frame rate too,” Braham declares.

“I had a great experience using RED Weapon Dragon 8K VV camera on Vol.2, and went back to Jarred Land and the team at RED Digital Cinema to see what they could offer. Once again, RED proved very helpful and responsive in making a few physical changes to the camera body to enable what I wanted to do, along with various updates to the software, colour science and workflow functions.

“Only RED have managed to squeeze 8K technology into a small camera body”

“However, whilst camera technology moves on apace, it’s not the same with optics. There are a number of large format lenses you can choose from, but not many, and it’s an area of the business in which I would like to see much more development and many more options. 

“Aesthetically, I decided to go with the Leitz M 0.8s as they shape highlights and interpret skin tones well, whilst also bringing a dimensional feeling to the image with clarity, colour and a certain pizzaz that is unlike any currently available alternative. Crucially, however, compared to other large format lenses, the Leitz M 0.8 are really small and lightweight. Fitted to the RED V-Raptor 8K VV, the camera and lens package was considerably smaller than my previous iteration.

(L-R): Zoe Saldana as Gamora and Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo by Jessica Miglio. © 2022 MARVEL.

“Working with the team at Stabileye, I developed a proprietary handheld gimbal that brought a new mobility and physicality to the camera. I can’t underestimate how revolutionary this is to the filmmaking process. Whilst the system I used on Vol.2 opened-up new possibilities for an active camera, this new arrangement meant that handheld became a much more viable option in bringing that sense of spontaneity, truth and emotion to the visual storytelling, and an even more versatile way of in participating in middle of the action scenes.”

During prep, Braham also worked closely with Stefan Sonnenfeld, president and senior colourist at Company 3 in Los Angeles, to define and refine the overall colour palette for the film, before developing individual LUTs that could be applied in different scenarios during the shoot. Braham also implemented an ACES workflow to ensure colour fidelity from camera to post.

(L-R): Dave Bautista as Drax, Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, and Karen Gillan as Nebula in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo by Jessica Miglio. © 2022 MARVEL.

As he explains, “Stefan he has a good photographic eye. During the look-development process with him, I necessarily had to consider the whole array of different skin types, set lighting, times of day/night, etc, that we would encounter, and how light, shade, colour and contrast could be used to bring depth and emotion to the image. 

“Ultimately the goal was to shoot with the looks baked-in to the dailies, and the ACES workflow meant that everyone downstream – the editors, VFX vendors producers and studio executives – were all working or viewing in a consistent colour space, and were always clear about the visual identity of the film. Ultimately, as everyone was working on the same page, the final DI grade with Stefan was fast and efficient.”

Sean Gunn as Kraglin in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

Whilst Braham’s camera gimbal was attached to a plethora of camera-moving equipment, Braham shot the vast majority of the film operating handheld. This sometimes included the DP wearing a harness himself and flying around the sets on a wire whilst operating.

“The Leitz M 0.8s interpret skin tones well and bring a dimensional feeling to the image”

The focus puller was Dermot Hickey, who the DP describes as being “an utter genius in being able to work in total sync with me in some mind-blowingly complex and extreme situations,” ably supported by key grip Kurt Kornemann. Stabileye technician Joe Marsden was also permanently on-hand to make sure the gimbal’s stabilisation system was fine-tuned and in perfect working order for every shot. Camera operators Chris McGuire ACO SOC and Tom Lapin also worked on the production in B- and C-camera roles, also using additional camera gimbals.

Director of Photography Henry Braham (far left), and Will Poulter (far right) on the set of Marvel Studios’ GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3. Photo by Jessica Miglio. © 2023 MARVEL.

When it came to lighting, Braham enlisted the talents of gaffer Dan Cornwall, who had previously worked on Vol.2. The lighting equipment was provided by MBS Equipment Co, based conveniently on the lot at Trilith Studios, although the requirement was so great that 600 additional fixtures were shipped over specially from London from the set of The Flash, which Braham had shot immediately prior to working on Vol.3.

(L-R): Cosmo (voiced by Maria Bakalova), Sean Gunn as Kraglin, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Dave Bautista as Drax, and Pom Klementieff as Mantis in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

“On a film of this scale, with the complexity of rigging such enormous sets, and such a huge amount of lighting kit being required, preparation is everything,” Braham says. “As the production was so stage and VFX-heavy, it was helpful to start early on this. Lighting rigs are expensive, and when you are going to be using a large number of lights, you must use this resource intelligently.

“The idea was to produce a rich and colourful contemporary movie, and I wanted the audience to really believe in the source of the light. Dan and I liaised with production designer Beth Mickle with regards to where we could site and hide the ambient and practical lighting – which incorporated the whole array of fixtures such as ARRI Sky Panels, Creamsource Vortex’s, Kino Flos, LED tubes and many miles of LED ribbon.

Cosmo (voiced by Maria Bakalova) in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

“It was a blessing to have Dan on-board again to deal with the logistical challenge. Also, during production, I was immersed in the shooting process all day long, it was a massive credit Dan and his crew that I was kept pretty-much free from any trials and tribulations that might have gone on.”

Braham concludes: “This was a complicated shoot, where lots of decisions had to be made well in advance. Much of the fun in making any movie is starting with a clean sheet, collaborating with the director to understand their vision, and then working with different departments and different manufacturers to develop the aesthetic and bring the imagery to life.

Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.

“James is a visionary, meticulous in his planning, but always open to ideas. With all of the new technology around, especially in lighting, it’s a very exciting time to be making films, and we enjoyed a sort of creativity on steroids on this film. I am so glad that the result has attracted people to the cinema, and long may this continue.”

Braham needn’t worry. As this story went to print, The Flash was set to release worldwide, and looks as it will be another sure-fire winner.

(Right): Karen Gillan on the set of Marvel Studios’ GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3. Photo by Jessica Miglio. © 2023 MARVEL.

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