The survival of mankind hangs in the balance, as Australian cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. ACS shoots the big-budget action-fantasy Gods of Egypt.
Interview by Lindsay Coleman.
Gods of Egypt is a 2016 Australian-American production, featuring ancient Egyptian deities, directed by Alex Proyas (I, Robot) and stars Gerard Butler, Brenton Thwaites, Rufus Sewell, and Geoffrey Rush among others. Butler plays the ‘god of darkness’ Set, who takes over the Egyptian empire, while Thwaites plays the mortal hero Bek, who battles to save the world and rescue his love.
Proyas cited many films as influences on Gods of Egypt, including The Guns of Navarone (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and some of Sergio Leone’s Western films. But it is a unique visual style that evokes Menzies’ work as the film’s Cinematographer.
The film takes place in an alternative Egypt, where the world is flat and gods live among mortal humans. The Egyptian gods are distinguished from humans by their greater height, golden blood, and ability to transform into animal-headed deity forms. The gods in humanoid form are 2.7 meters tall and in ‘battle beast’ mode grow to over 3.7 meters. Proyas and Menzies used forced perspective and motion control photography to portray the difference in height between the actors portraying gods and humans. Proyas called the logistical challenge a ‘reverse Hobbit’.
Principal photography began in March of 2014 at Fox Studios in Sydney. Filming took place in Australia under the American studio Summit Entertainment. Menzies talks about his experiences here, exclusively for Australian Cinematographer Magazine…
AC: When Horus is being bathed by the maidens at the start of the film, the actor is literally scaled to be around twice the size of the actresses placing their hands on him, given that he is a god. How did you achieve this?
PM: We shrunk the maidens down. They actually did touch the actor.
AC: In terms of the sets of the film how much forced perspective was incorporated into the sets to help sell the difference in size of the mortals and the gods?
PM: None. Proyas’ rule was “we only build what the actors touch”. So we built floors, we built stairs. If they touch a curtain or column, we built it. Apart from that everything else was blue-screen.
AC: In the film, you were trying to replicate the midday sun and the sun reflecting off sand. What was your approach to this?
PM: Nearly the whole thing was done on stage, with the exception of a few days that we shot in Centennial Park. The only reason for those days in Centennial Park was was needing lighting to a scale which we couldn’t achieve on stage. I still shoot digital like I would shoot film, so it’s all about my ratios. So Sean Conway, my gaffer, and I would go outside on a nice day and read the colour temperature of the blue sky, then we’d say “the light today is a stop and a half over”. Any light which came from the bottom of the stage would be a stop and a half over.
Generally our sets were tiny. The desert set was maybe 100 feet by 200 feet. It wasn’t that big. We’d probably use a 20K or an HMI. I shot day, on stage, with 5600. I shot night at 3200. We were constantly changing our LED lights from daylight to tungsten. We put an 18K, and a series of 4 to 5 LED lights we made, so that the sun would wrap around. It was never a single source. We’d put three or four of these around to wrap the sun around the actors. It was a wide sun, one that didn’t have a centre punch to it. It could have spread as wide as 24 feet. But it could be soft around the outside. It worked really well.
AC: How close were the lights to the actors?
PM: (laughs) As far away as we could get them, probably 50 feet.
AC: How specific would you get on time of day for the angle of the light in your shots. Would you say “okay now it’s 10am… now it’s 3pm”?
PM: We’d be specific if it was day, it was night, it was sunrise, it was magic hour. We didn’t get that specific as to the exact time of day. There are a lot of sunsets, a lot of sunrises. There’s a lot of nights, on stage. Again, we would have a moon put in our concept art. So we would say “the moon will be here”, and that’s how we would light for the moon on the stage.
AC: How did you distinguish sunrise or sunset in terms of the angle of light or in terms of screen direction?
PM: To the Director and myself it was always a made-up world, so we’d often just cheat through backlight. The sun was always backlight. Except for a scene we shot in Centennial Park where we really want to sell the presence of the actual sun, so then we front-lit. But really it was just a backlit world. It’s good for everyone. It’s good for the ladies, it’s also easy to achieve on stage. It’s easier to have a back light, two stops over, than to front-light something. It’s easier to give something a strong edge.
AC: In a number of action scenes the characters move from light to shade, light to shade, within a given shot. Was this achieved in lighting, or in post?
PM: The work on this film in terms of the LED lighting was really a game-changer. When you switch on an LED it just pops as colour temperature immediately. There is nothing in the way of a sense of a light being turned on, gradually getting up to colour temperature, then coming back down again. All of that time either side, the colour temperature is changing, and not what you really aimed for. We can cue it now.
The toughest thing to do on stage is overhead daylight. We’d have to use space-lights, with blue on them and it would never work. With these light-boxes Conway built I could not only raise them up to produce ambient light from above, but I could also drop them down so that they could be key light or a back light. We’d just raise and lower them, change the colour. We could make them any colour we wanted too. We could have the strips, make one red, one white, one green, one blue. And when I took the diffuser off the front, it was as sharp a light as I’ve ever used. Sharper than the 20K. With these LED lights we could make sun edges like never before. It’s extraordinary.
AC: How would you describe the look of the film?
PM: Like reality. It’s meant to be real. It’s Proyas’ world, it’s a heightened reality. You really feel these characters are part of this world. We really lit them as though they were a part of that world. I think the flexibility of digital really helped. You could never have had such flexibility on film and I don’t think this film would have really worked on film. This is digital at its best.
AC: How long would you spend on the grade at the end of each day?
PM: I worked with my DIT, Jason Bowers. We’ve worked together five times now. We set the LUT for every shot, sometimes for every take. The grading is effectively done on the fly for us. So no need to spend time at the end of the day. It works great. Let’s say the wind changes, and there is too much smoke in the shot. We can just, on the fly, crush that down a little bit. That worked all of the way through.
For visual effects, they never had the raw file, they always look at my LUT for the reference. It would always get tweaked in the final grade. Setting up these looks on the fly is really extraordinary. By the time the shot is done, the look is set. There is no sitting around at the end of the day wondering how the dailies will turn out.
AC: Looking back at your work on The General’s Daughter (1999), that had incredibly rich, deep blacks. Do you feel that is something you could replicate on digital?
PM: Oh, absolutely. It is different, but I still shoot digital like I did film. I still use the light-meter my dad gave me when I was 17-years-old. I still use my Spectra as my stop meter. And the LUT still maintains a very filmic look. Bowers will often use Kodak for reference and say “this is what the blacks will look like” or “this is what the highlights will look like”.
AC: Would you say your approach to digital is very similar to your approach to film?
PM: Definitely. I remember a few films back one of my camera assistants, who was acquainting me with a new digital camera, said “remember, noise isn’t grain.” If you shoot digital like film you’re not going to have that noise issue. I very rarely let anything clip. I very rarely let the blacks disappear. I always shoot it, then give it a great LUT on top of that. I’m still trying to protect my blacks, and protect my highlights.
AC: Your work would seem to fly in the face of what many are saying about cameras like the Alexa, namely that it means you have to worry about fewer lights…
PM: You still have to light it. You need to shape it. You can’t just hope the camera will do it. I’m a firm believer of highlights in people’s eyes. Their eyes have to pop. If you shoot digital in a filmic way, verses letting the geniuses with their colour science work it out for you, then look at the difference. Look at what Roger Deakins (CBE BSC ASC) achieved on Skyfall (2012). It was unbelievable! Look what John Seale (AM ACS ASC) did on Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)!
AC: In your work on film you have gone very primal in your lighting. I’m thinking about all of that amazing caves footage in The Thirteenth Warrior (1999) where you just have flames from torches reflecting off water and the walls of a cave…
PM: I was asked to flash the negative for the first time on Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) by the Director, John McTiernan. What I learned is that you could send through cans to the Technicolour lab in New York with something like “flash negative 5%” written on them, and they would determine, through using the optical printer, how to generate an equivalent to that. We’d have various degrees we requested on that film, depending on time of day.
On The Thirteenth Warrior, however, we wanted a romantic look. Bleach bypass did not really work for that, it was too harsh. We forced everything on The Thirteenth Warrior one stop, and then flashed to a lesser degree. This lab in Vancouver, called Gas Town, did processing which was so clean. It was so clean! We had all of these scenes just lit by torches, so I sent them off a can and asked them to force it two stops, and it ended up absolutely gorgeous! We had 2000 ASA and there wasn’t a single artificial light ever. We went for days and days with just the flame from the torches. To work at 2000 ASA in 1998, even now as good as these Alexas are, I’ll push them to 1280 occasionally.
AC: What was your exact camera on Gods of Egypt? How did you come about choosing it?
PM: We tested the Alexa. We tested for anamorphic, for spherical. In the end we went with the Red Dragon, full 6K. We needed that resolution for the scaling, for the gods to be scaled up, for the mortals to be scaled down. The Red, and the horsepower it represented, really appealed to myself and Proyas. The problem is that there were no lenses available to handle the entirety of the 6K.
David Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth (ASC) were shooting with a 6K chip on Gone Girl (2014), but they were only shooting up to 5K. He was using Leica lenses, they covered the 5K, but we wanted to use the full 6K for what we had to do on Gods of Egypt.
We were the first people to use those lenses.
At Camerimage in Poland, Panavision had shown me their spherical lenses for 70 millimetre and said they would cover the full 6K. Trouble was, we were using Red cameras. Panavision was waiting for their cameras to be developed, which sadly will never be developed, and insisted that these were Panavision lenses. They had to go in Panavision cameras. Me being me, I asked that they purchase the Dragons, put Panavision logos on them, along with the lenses, and they ship them to me. About two weeks later I got a call from my contact at Panavision, Larry Hazzlewood, who said “yep, the cameras are on their way”. We were the first people to use those lenses. The mounts were absolutely huge! These 70 millimetre Primos were absolutely amazing.
AC: What were some of the greater contributions of these cameras?
PM: The resolution was great. We could shoot at high frame rates like with the Alexa. Early on when I was talking with Proyas he brought up Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), shot by Andrew Lesnie (ACS ASC). All the over-the-shoulder stuff the ape was always soft. Proyas said to me, “the gods must always be in focus”. So we had to come up with a way, even over the shoulder, for us to always have that depth, always keep them in focus.
We built a plate which could carry two Reds. We could do a bit of handheld with it, we could Steadicam it, and so on. We would have a plate with two lenses and we would angle them slightly, one on foreground, one on background, one focused on the subject, the other the point of view of the gods. Then we married the two shots digitally. Any shot of the gods or past the gods, everything is in focus, infinite depth of field.
AC: How did you maintain focus on such fast moves?
PM: It was a pretty wide lens, but also David Helms, our first AC, and his team, were world-class. They pulled off some incredible shots. From when I used to pull focus to when these guys pull focus, it’s a whole new world. The difference between film and a 6K chip, a 70 mill lens, it’s really frightening.
AC: Is it like a sixth sense where they can see two seconds into the future?
PM: They’re pulling focus off a monitor, which really is an incredible skill, yes. I spoke to the boys and they explained they are always just ahead of where they need to be.
AC: You have much experience filming ‘movie stars’. Given these new formats how do stars pop onscreen? Or is there really no difference between film and digital in this respect?
PM: We see things we never used to see before. This makes it tougher on the makeup artists. I still don’t use diffusion. I avoid it whenever I can. Bowers (DIT) and I would create curves to soften whatever we wanted to. It’s still a filmic curve we are aiming for. That in turn will influence how you light your stars.
AC: When you have everyone on the dais at the start you have so many different actors of so many ages lined up next to each other. Rachel Blake, next to Bryan Brown, next to Emma Booth. It must have been crazy.
PM: Any time you see more than fifty people that is in true, true sunlight. We’d use bounce light for those situations. In terms of the dais, with all of these major characters we needed to control the lighting, so we decided to place that, in story terms, in shade. We had to create a soft day look, with hard edges coming through on the columns. I think I had four large Brutes there, to give a daylight look. The set was quite large. It went edge to edge of the studio floor.
AC: What about the lights you put on the younger actors?
PM: I would say, given her character being the goddess of love, Elodie Yung got special attention. But sometimes, if she was standing in the same shot as Gerard Butler, we couldn’t compromise too much on the lighting on him. It’s a constant struggle.
AC: I thought Bryan Brown looked great. You took about 15 years off him.
PM: (laughs) Bryan would love to hear that mate.
AC: Were the costumes made out of real metal?
PM: They were. That led us to use blue screen as opposed to green screen. We used the blue bounce for day interiors and exteriors. The VFX guys wanted us to go blue screen too because the green and the costumes were just not cohesive. The green also reflective off metallic gold would not have worked.
Costume can make a character, and in a film like this we are shooting them head to toe. I always spend a lot of time testing the lighting for costumes. How much backlight can they take, how much crosslight to pick up the gold. How much can I light the costumes above without making them look ugly? Those wardrobes have to pop.
AC: When Set (Gerard Butler) walks out to survey his pyramid it felt like actual daylight. Was it?
PM: No, on stage. We couldn’t have mad a film like Gods of Egypt ten years ago. What we were able to achieve with the LED lights was amazing.
AC: Where would you place this film in your career?
PM: It’s the biggest technical challenge I’ve ever had. Every day it was like we were trying to reinvent the wheel. But you can’t get caught up in the technology at the same time. We needed to be in the studio to create an environment unlike any other on earth. In Clash of the Titans we could go to locations, shoot various plates, and so forth, but in this case there really was no equivalent to this imaginary Egypt Alex created. I hadn’t worked with Alex in 25 years, and to just circle back to one another, after working on commercials together early in our careers, was really amazing.
It’s the biggest technical challenge I’ve ever had.
AC: What was your attitude towards colour? How far did you think you could take it in relation to the vibrancy or intensity of colour?
PM: I always treat colour as a form of contrast. Colour is as much a means of creating contrast as light and dark. As a result I use an incredible amount of colour. I remember on The Getaway (1994), Kevin Murphy, who was my first-time gaffer, came up to me and said, “You’re using thirteen lights on set and twelve of them have different colours. I don’t think you’re going to get away with this much longer!” I’m still doing it.
We would try and push the colour to give us a look for a different world. When we went into space with Ra (Geoffrey Rush) we had a lot more magenta in there. As the backgrounds came in, and Proyas was happy with them, a lot of the magenta got pulled out. On set we were picking backgrounds from Google, but once we had rendered backgrounds we were happy with we then took the magenta out. There’s still a lot of magenta in there. Normally we’d shy away from such a colour, but there we pushed it quite a bit.
AC: How do you rationalise that? Obviously it’s a fantastic environment, but the audience has a preconceived idea about the lighting found in space. How do you come up with a plan for that?
PM: Very good question. When they first arrive on the spaceship the sun is out. So we knew where the sun was shining from. Ra pulls the sun towards them, above is totally black. The only sort of ambience on Ra is originating from light bouncing off of Egypt all of those miles below them. I think a lot of that was behind the magenta look, was because it was a colour that no one really knew. If we’d made it all clean tungsten it wouldn’t have made sense, because you’d be up in space with a perfect colour temperature. That wouldn’t have made sense!
AC: If the audience is looking at a kind of lighting they haven’t seen before what do you think is going on in their brain?
PM: It depends on what the overall environment is. I don’t think audiences really study a light, they just want to believe a world is believable. In Gravity (2013) Emmanuel Lubezki (AMC ASC) has the sun to use throughout, but we lost the sun quick, so all we ended up with was this glow from beneath.
I did stick to my fill ratios though. People laugh at me when I get out my dad’s old Spectra, but it’s the only way to get your ratios. Whatever ratios we decided to do, they were a very constant thing because of our meters.
AC: Did you go back to the monitor?
PM: Having as much blue screen as we had would change the balance. That much blue would effect the chip. So we would tweak it there. The actual ratios were always contrast, day interior, night interior. Always constant.
AC: How do you avoid having a problem with clipping?
PM: We’d knock things down, or stop down, to control the highlights and the blacks. We had to do so much work on the film later, if its clipped there is nothing for VFX people to work with.
AC: Some cinematographers are philosophical about clipping…
PM: It depends. If you’re shooting rough and ready with practicals, well you can’t go and knock practicals down, you have to work with them and deal with clipping if it occurs. On Gods of Egypt, where we were really in major control with our lights, we couldn’t afford to pass on a clipped image. If we did it would have destroyed the particular style of the film.
AC: In the fight scene on the lift there is the flicker effect where the torches on each level they pass are projected onto the two characters…
PM: We had small biers on each of the four posts of the lift/platform. But more than that we had the LED lights to produce that flicker effect on the characters. It was an incredible case of just popping and popping and popping to give the effect of the lift shooting up the pyramid. Nothing actually moved. There is no colour shift when they come on, so it looks so real.
AC: How do you conceive of spatiality? How do you conceive of a square mile of landscape which you know will later be comped in?
PM: It really just comes from conversations with the filmmakers. They are the storytellers. On the film Proyas and I always looked to conceive and block everything on the basis of backlighting. We’d say “if the sun’s over there they’ll be backlit, or at least three-quarters backlit.” Even on night exteriors we’d fight for a backlit world. It’s prettier, and faster to achieve. Where’s the sun? Always somewhere at the back of the set.
AC: You did have long shadows at the gateway to Ra…
PM: We had a very low sun for that scene. They were all real shadows. For that scene the sun was coming from the back of Ra’s ship, so we knew we needed to position it very specifically for the purposes of plot.
AC: What advice would you offer to young DOPs in Australia?
PM: Well sometimes it is about getting lucky. Adam Arkapaw (ACS) shot Animal Kingdom (2010) and that was a very well-received film that was noticed internationally. His career took off. Other DOPs might also do very fine work that doesn’t necessarily get the same kind of attention. You just have to keep chipping away. You still have to light. Don’t think the camera will do it for you. It is hard. Kids won’t get the chance to do films like Gods of Egypt.
Someone like myself, or Dion Beebe (ACS ASC), or John Seale, will get the chance. The studios look at our track record and they will only trust cinematographers with a track record for the bigger films. So yes, it definitely is tough. You have to keep chipping away.
Lionsgate released Gods of Egypt in theatres globally starting this year in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D. Menzies is currently filming All Eyes On Me, a chronicle of the life of rapper Tupac Shakur.
Lindsay Coleman is an author, film academic and ongoing contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.