One of the most anticipated summer blockbusters of 2016 has finally arrived. Warner Bros. Pictures’ Suicide Squad, based on DC Entertainment’s anti-superhero team, has enough dark and gritty thrills to satisfy even the most ardent Dark Knight fanboys and fangirls. Since its release on August 5th, Suicide Squad has already broken box-office records worldwide.
Suicide Squad’s tense and foreboding look and feel didn’t come easily. The cast and crew had to deal with extremely intensive schedules and some enormously inclement conditions to capture what you see and hear in the theater. Production sound mixer Lisa Pinero and camera operator Peter Rosenfeld talked to us about their experiences working on the film.
S&P: How did you each get involved with this project, and what interested you most about it?
Lisa Pinero (LP): I’ve been fortunate to work with [writer-director] David [Ayer] now for several years. This was the fourth project of his that I was invited to join. For me, working with David is always an adventure. This particular project is the first time I’ve worked on a comic book film, so I knew we were going to be dealing with a lot of interesting costumes and visual effects. Whenever I work with David, it’s always a new and fresh experience, and I’m always up for the ride with him.
Peter Rosenfeld (PR): I came to the project through Suicide Squad’s cinematographer, Roman Vasyanov. Roman had worked with David — and Lisa, as well — on several projects. Sometimes in this business it works out so that if you’ve been involved with movies that someone likes, then they’ll be attracted to you because they think you can bring that sensibility to their project. Roman’s a big fan of David Fincher and was looking for some of that aesthetic, and I’ve done several of Fincher’s movies as camera operator. Suicide Squad is a movie that’s quite far removed from Fincher’s work, but there are compositional elements of what we were trying to do on this film that find some inspiration there. Roman and I met on kind of a cold call, and we hit it off. Then he invited me up to Canada to do the project.
I had done several of these kinds of comic book movies before. I’ve done them at all of the studios now. Each one will have a different look and a different spin, and this one is way off on its own, just in terms of what we were trying to accomplish. Bucking the trend with these movies to originate on digital, we worked with 35mm anamorphic film, and for a movie that takes place at night, that introduces a lot of different issues that you don’t find anymore with digital. There are different considerations for lighting, and you have to manage the specific mechanics of a film camera and the constant reloads, which becomes extra difficult when you’re shooting in rain cover. These challenges really interested me.
Otherwise, from the moment I read the script, I realized that there would be a lot of Steadicam, along with cranes and special overhead rigs to move the camera around for stunt scenes. This movie is basically a journey with the characters moving through a city at night and then, naturally, a climactic battle scene at the journey’s end. So I knew we would be working in the streets on cold, dark nights. This is darker and grittier than some of the other comic book movies, which keeps in line with how the DC universe treats its subjects, and parts of Suicide Squad push that even further. It’s not going to look like Deadpool or something like that, where they’ve gone for a more comedic look. The original Tim Burton Batman was quite dark, and I think this movie goes back to those roots. It’s a very cinematic picture with many shots that include a lot of the sets, meaning you have areas that fall off into very deep, dark corners. That’s sort of what they were aiming for.
I also knew there would be challenges covering all of the characters. We had six principal characters in many of the scenes, and each character is deserving of close-ups, with much dialogue between them all. All of the coverage of these different main characters presented special challenges for Lisa’s team and her boom op, Ben Greaves, as well as for us in the camera department. We had to work very closely with Ben to figure out lighting and shadows and reflections and all of that. There were a lot of challenges that you don’t find in the normal cut-and-dried narrative movie, and I think Lisa would agree.
S&P: Lisa, tell us about your sound team.
LP: Like Peter said, Ben Greaves was with me as boom operator. We’ve been working together for several years and he’s a very talented guy. A lot of the time, David likes things to just happen on set. He’ll set a scenario, and we’ll go with it. So it became very important for Ben and Peter, as well as Rick Thomas, our chief lighting technician, to work together closely. In addition, we dealt with very challenging wiring situations in which we received invaluable assistance from the on-set costumers, hair department, and VFX. So we all basically became this behind-the-scenes family trying to figure out what’s going to happen and how we can cover everything.
From the sound perspective, we’re focused on how to get the microphones hidden and in good positions in order to get the dialogue recorded at the best signal-to-noise ratio possible. Ben is the key man on set for that. We had two gentlemen from Toronto working with us, Alan Zielonko and Pat Cassin — Alan at second boom and Pat at sound utility. They knew all the local crew and vendors, which was incredibly helpful. Having a four-person crew was also essential. We had a lot of gear to move, and move very quickly.
Most of the filming took place in Toronto, and it was mainly at night and with not the greatest weather. But that’s what David was hoping for. Even when we had good weather, they would crane in huge rain bars and just douse everybody with enormous amounts of water. Any way you look at it, the environment was made to be uncomfortable and brutal and dark, which, as Peter has already said, has to do with the underlying mood of the film.
S&P: Peter, who all was on your camera team?
PR: We put together the top people in Toronto to fill out the rest of our team. The camera team members from Los Angeles included Roman and Josh Bleibtreu, the second unit DP, Dave Luckenbach, the operator on second unit, and myself. On the main unit, we had Russel Bowie as focus puller on A camera. Russel is one of these senior career focus pullers who has more or less lived his whole life pulling focus, and he’s extremely comfortable working with film and with anamorphic. He’s very conscientious. He did a great job keeping everything sharp and keeping the image clean.
In addition to that, we had Angelo Colavecchia working as B camera operator. Angelo is very well established as an A camera operator and a Steadicam operator, and he came along on this movie and proved very, very useful. For instance, if I had to take Will Smith, let’s say, on a dialogue scene that runs a minute and a half, then Angelo could put on his Steadicam and get Margot Robbie, for example, or one of the other characters. So, lighting permitted, we were able to cut down on what were very short nights in the summer. Having two Steadicams allowed us to maximize our shooting time, but that does introduce other issues for everybody, particularly for lighting. The sound department gets hit hard by it, too. Once you have two cameras running on close-ups, that means you’ve got to have everything set up and ready to go to get the dialogue.
As for the rest of the camera department, Josh took on some huge sets. He and his team, with Dave operating, did a lot of the big stunts you’ve seen in the trailers. They offered up some incredible material. A movie like this is so huge that at one point there were two massive units working simultaneously, employing maybe 150 to 200 people on the stages. So a movie like this is kind of hard to even put a finger on in only a half-hour conversation, because of all the individual efforts that go into it. But we had a really strong camera team. This was not an easy movie to do, for all of the reasons we described.
Shooting in anamorphic format on film brings up other issues as an operator that we’ve learned to not have to deal with in video. Probably primary to that, as an operator looking through the camera, you don’t have any look-around. In other words, you don’t see anything outside of the frame edges until it’s in frame. For instance, using most digital cameras, we have that additional viewing area, so when Ben has his microphone perfectly positioned just above the frame lines, I can keep an eye on him and maybe catch his attention if he’s getting too close and give him a little wave of the finger. But in this format, there’s no way for me to see. I only see what you see on the movie screen. So someone like Ben would have to be really, really good. And he is. He’s one of the best I’ve worked with. He was able to put the boom exactly where it should be, and we’d very rarely ever have an issue with it.
There are all kinds of trickle-down effect issues from shooting on film. Another huge issue for me as a camera operator is the lower-quality image from the NTSC video taps, both on the screen with the Steadicam and on the screen I use when operating the crane. All of these dark sets combined with a lot of dim video taps means that it’s very hard to see what it is we were getting. So we had to be very careful with reflections and shadows and frame edges, making sure that there were no stands in the way or shadows on walls. That’s another point where sound and picture have to work really closely together. Sometimes, through my screen, I couldn’t really see whether we had any boom shadows. But the sound department was very cooperative, and they’d often ask things like, “Do you see this wall here?” And I would respond, “Yeah, that wall’s in shot.” Then they’d say, “Well, I’ve got a shadow on it, so we’ll work on that.” So a lot of it is cooperating with one another, given that we can’t always see what others are seeing.
There are other kinds of issues like that that we’ve learned to move on from when shooting on digital, because with digital you can see pretty much everything. Film is challenging, and after having dealt with it for so long, we kind of forgot about it. We’ve done all of these digital movies, and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, right, we’re shooting on film again. It’s this old thing.”
LP: Because of the way David works and because so much of what he wants is to just catch things as they happen, it’s critical that we have a good relationship with the camera operators, because they’re seeing things right before they happen. They’re right in front. On one take, Peter might see something happening that he’s going to pick up and that he’s been asked to focus on, and we might never get that note in the sound department. One of the many wonderful things about working with Peter was how we always had an open line of communication through Ben, and Peter would let us know exactly what was happening next. Sometimes we all got caught by surprise, but having that kind of cooperation with the A camera operator is absolutely priceless. It can mean the difference between getting the dialogue on the scene or not. There were so many moments when things would change in the middle of a series take, in terms of what we were focusing on. Good communication with our camera operators really made a big difference in what we were able to accomplish.
S&P: Looking back, which sequences that you worked on stand out the most to you?
PR: There’s a climactic battle scene that happens inside a building. But it happens in a rainstorm, and the rainstorm is inside the building, too. One of the characters uses her superpowers to manifest this wicked rainstorm, and it’s the rainstorm to bury all rainstorms. We did about a week and a half of work on that scene in Toronto, and then we did additional photography here in Los Angeles. In total, I probably did about a month of work on that one part.
And I’ve done rain movies. I’ve done tornado movies. I’ve been out there with cameras in rain covers and splash bags. But this was nothing like any of that. This was horizontal wind-driven rain that got so strong and thick that, at times, I couldn’t even really see the actors through the camera. Every now and then the rain would give me a peek and I could see if the actors had moved or not. It’s that kind of intensity. I’ve got to say that the images we shot for this rain sequence are incredibly dramatic and unlike anything I’d ever seen before. But from the filming perspective, it was extremely hard. We were shooting with multiple cameras all on 400-foot loads, so you had to reload every three and a half minutes, after ripping the splash bag apart. The actors would then be dripping wet and getting cold. Also, we had to keep the lens clear, which we accomplished by spraying curtains of nitrogen in front of the filter in order to clear the lens of water and to prevent fogging. The camera itself would be in a Hydroflex splash bag. All in, it came close to 75 or 80 pounds. And every shot in that sequence was handheld. So you can imagine what everybody went through — not just the camera crew, but everyone from sound to lighting to grip. Everybody went through this, and particularly the cast.
When I look back on this movie years from now, I’ll remember this part. This is what’s going to stick with me. Even to this day, if I ever hear someone say, “Bring up the rain,” I cringe a bit and feel my fingernails digging into me, and I start thinking, “Here it comes. I can do this. I can make it through.” And truly, there were moments when they’d yell out, “Cut!” and you’d be standing there with every inch of yourself soaked and having had all your rain gear completely fail. We would be wet and cold and miserable, and the actors would be shivering. But at the end of the day, you hope that you’re bringing something to the screen that audiences haven’t seen before. David Ayer has a real vision for this kind of thing. Many times, I’d walk over to him and ask, “Are we okay? Are we seeing enough?” And he’d say, “It’s great. We’re pushing this. More rain. It’s terrific.” Audiences have watched scenes at sea with storms, but imagine that level of water being maintained over an entire sequence, complete with dialogue and combat and gunfire and explosions. So you can imagine the amount of water being thrown around.
LP: We were recording dialogue during these water scenes, and Ben was right in there with Peter. It really can’t be overstated just how battered these guys were by this whole rain sequence. Not only did we have it in this scene, but we had it repeatedly, working nights on the street with a multitude of rain effects. When David asks for rain, it’s not like we usually see rain. It’s torrential rain. And on this film, it was bigger than anything I’d ever experienced. It was a major challenge for us to keep the equipment dry and keep rotating it all the time. With David, everyone is wired. Everyone who talks is wired, plus more. David will add lines on the fly, and he might add someone else mid-scene. He wants to hear everybody all the time, and of course, we have everyone isolated on their own audio track. I recorded this show on a Deva 16, and many times we were using every track.
Not only was Ben on the ground trying to get everything we could with the boom, he did most of the wiring every day, too. With the kind of environment we were in, to be constantly checking and tweaking the mics’ placement and keeping them hidden and sounding as good as possible — that was probably our biggest challenge in sound, and I can’t imagine it being done any better than how Ben did it. You’re trying to put these mics inside costumes that aren’t sound-friendly in the first place, and on actors with dialogue through serious action sequences in lots of water and wind and whatever other elements they’re dealing with.
On set in the costumes department we had Wayne Godfrey, who was Will Smith’s on-set dresser, Erin Daprato, and Isabel De Biasio. Owen Thornton helped us figure out the costumes and gear worn by the military guys. They helped us find ways to hide the microphones. For instance, with Wayne’s assistance, we put microphones into the plates of Deadshot’s costume. Then we had situations where some of the cast had nowhere to hide a transmitter except in a wig. Vincent Sullivan and Giorgio Gregorini helped us fix mics and transmitters into wigs and assisted us with swap-outs when they would get wet or damaged. It’s such a group effort to keep all of this going, and everyone was incredibly helpful. Doing the best work depends on great teamwork with all the departments.
Pretty much every set had a very high ambient noise level. The exterior locations were often adjacent to freeways and in very busy downtown environments. On the interior stage builds, we were dealing with numerous special effects devices running, and a lot of the lighting fixtures had internal cooling fans that needed to be left on even while the units were on standby. I’d bet that my team laid, moved, and re-laid more carpet in a typical workday than a professional carpet installation crew lays in a month.
We also had instances where there was no way to get the dialogue except to have a mic in the shot, because of the action or simultaneous multiple camera angles. In those cases, Jerome Chen, our VFX supervisor, would accommodate us with what he came to call “tokens.” So we would ask for a VFX token, and Jerome would look at the shot and tell us whether or not they could erase a microphone we felt might be seen. He was always willing to consider what they could do to make it work for us.
S&P: What gear did you use for this production?
PR: From my perspective, the gear on this movie was fairly conventional. There was a fair bit of Steadicam and a bit of Technocrane. The Hydroflex splash bags, which I’ve mentioned, were a big part of making this movie work. Second unit used some cable cam to great effect. On a backlot, they built one of our street scenes that has a large fight sequence in it, and the second unit had a cable cam unit that could fly along over some of our stunt performers. They captured some amazing shots that way. This wasn’t a movie with a lot of MōVI or drones. The tools we had were more simple. I think the movie’s look comes from the style in which we moved the camera, the frames that we created, and the lighting that Roman and Rick Thomas, our gaffer, managed to craft. I think that’s what drives the look of the movie.
LP: Working with David, you can never really have enough gear. It’s fairly conventional stuff, but given the large size of the cast and because we wire anyone who might speak, we had 18 channels of wireless, using two six-channel Lectrosonics Venues plus some SRb Series receivers working all the time. Lectrosonics gave me some pre-release SSM transmitters to try. We had two of those that we used to great effect. They worked very well and proved very durable. In fact, I bought two of them as soon as the show wrapped. Other than that, we used Zaxcom transmitters on our booms, which sound very clean. I prefer to have the booms cabled whenever possible. But on this show, we had to be wireless so much of the time, and the Zaxcom TRX742/QRX200 combos worked well for that. I used the Deva 16 as my primary recorder with a Sonosax SX-ST8D mixer. We used Schoeps and Sennheiser microphones on the booms and for plant mics. For body mics, we used mostly DPA lavaliers, although we also utilized Countrymen and Sanken lavs in specific instances.
PR: I’d also like to mention that we used a Phantom high-speed camera for some shots, both in Toronto and back here in L.A. Even though it was digital, we were still shooting with our Panavision anamorphic lenses. We shot with the Phantom at frame rates going up to 2,000 frames per second. And really, horizontal wind-driven rain at 2,000 frames per second looks pretty cool. It’s like a surreal ballet of water.
Because the Phantom is more light sensitive than film is, given our ASA rating of 500, we had a little bit of an edge there. On a few occasions we had to increase the ambient light level when the Phantom came out. Or they would increase the light level at the beginning of the day, knowing that the third or fourth shot into the day would be Phantom, so we needed to have a much higher base ambient exposure. But because the Phantom has its own look, I don’t think you’ll really be conscious cutting from film to a digitally-acquired image, because the Phantom tends to bring to the screen its own aesthetic.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros.