Wolverine: The Mutant Experiment

Donald McAlpine, ASC, ACS, has forged an amazing career in what he calls “World League” of film making. David Heuring spoke with him about his work in X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Born in Quandialla, New South Wales some of McAlpine’s first films were slow-motion records of athletes training for the 1956 Australian Olympic team that coaches used to analyse technique. During a trip to Sydney, he applied for a job as a stringer for the abc, and his work on a railroad story got him the job. Later, he transitioned to 35 mm colour documentaries, and that led to his first feature film credit, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie in 1972.

He went on to play a crucial role in the revitalization of the Australian film industry with projects like Breaker Morant, My Brilliant Career and The Getting of Wisdom. Since then he has compiled more than 50 feature film credits on projects that have  taken him to virtually every corner of the world, including Predator, Romeo + Juliet,  and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe. His work on  Moulin Rouge! earned him an Oscar nomination in 2002.

Earlier this year, the American Society of Cinematographers recognized McAlpine’s career by presenting him with the ASC International Achievement Award. TRUE FANTASY McAlpine’s most recent project is X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which continues the series of films based on the popular mutants from Marvel comic books, and stars Hugh Jackman in the leading role. The project brought McAlpine home to Australia — the majority of it was made in and around Sydney — and marks the cinematographer’s first collaboration with
director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition).
“In a fantasy film, you must establish the language you are going to use, and keep to it,” says McAlpine. “Everything has to ring true. If the audience senses that something is false or unreal within the parameters we’ve set, the game is up. Everything I do must be in line to reinforce that quality.” McAlpine credits Hood and the writers with creating credible, accessible characters with wide appeal.

He designed the visual grammar around those characters. “Generally, this film is slightly on the darker side with neutral colours,” McAlpine says. “We made that decision because it supports the integrity of the performances. We were deliberately trying to convince the audience that this is a totally believable situation given the genre and the story.” The filmmakers chose to produce the film in Super 35 format composed in 2.4:1 widescreen aspect ratio combined with digital intermediate timing at EFILM in Los Angeles.

The DI allowed McAlpine to extend his control over the images by using digital techniques to alter contrast, colour and other characteristics, as well as seamlessly integrate many green screen and other visual effects shots from the various facilities on the project, such as CEG Media, Hydraulx, Matte World Digital, Soho VFX and Tippett Studios.
Panavision provided the camera package, including a range of spherical Primo prime and zoom lenses. Chapman/Leonard contributed grip and lighting gear, including remote camera systems. McAlpine chose to standardise on the use of the relatively grain-free Kodak Vision 3 500T 5219 film, which provided a wide range of latitude needed to record details in shots with bright highlights and dark shadows.

The negative was processed at Deluxe in Australia and Canada. To believably depict the wide range of time periods and settings, McAlpine and Hood choose to film X-Men Origins: Wolverine in many actual locations, including “stunning landscapes” around  Queenstown, New Zealand, where they spent two weeks. They also shot scenes on one interior set that was built in an old concrete factory in Dunedin. Aside from a few sequences filmed in British Columbia, Canada, and Louisiana, United States, the rest of the film was
produced in Sydney and vicinity.
“New Zealand is of recent volcanic origin,” McAlpine explains. “It is very dramatic. That’s why we went there.  There are fantastic exterior locations that are relatively uncorrupted by power lines and other visual distractions you find in other parts of the world. There
are areas where the forest has never been logged. With supervision and a pledge that we would be careful, we were allowed to film in these magical places.”
There is an early scene in the movie in which a forest near Sydney stood in for war-torn Nigeria. “Night time in the jungle is one of the worst situations you can get in terms of lighting,” remarks McAlpine. “The true jungle I’ve been in is black, which is always frightening.
We used a 150-foot crane and suspended a number of massive lights above the treetops, which gave us an overall moon glow. We supplemented that with lots of fires and torch light below. It ended up being a beautiful scene, visually. It’s really amazing that we could make that little oasis look like a jungle at night.”

Even on a sprawling project shot on two continents over the course of many months, every minute counts, according to McAlpine. He says that each extra setup gives the director more freedom to create excitement in the editing room. “Particularly in a film like this, you make sure you do all you can to get the most from the actors,” he says. “The basic lighting has to be global. These films depend on cuts, and cuts depend on how many shots you get in a day.

I am very aware of that time frame when I’m on the set.” McAlpine relied on his seasoned crew to keep the logistical aspects of the film running smoothly, which allowed him to stay focused on the creative aspects. “I’ve surrounded myself with a couple of key people
who are perpetually worrying about the minutia,” he reports.

“My gaffer, Steve Mathis, and my first assistant cameraman, Tov Belling, kept me apprised of both  problems and their ideas. That allowed me to help the director supervise the performances, which are often done in a vacuum – in other words, against green screen with the background or other elements to be added later.
“Acting and judging performances in front of a green background screen is difficult,” McAlpine admits.

“Our cast, including Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, are amazing at it. They have this inner sight that allows them to perform in a totally believable way with nothing around then but green. It’s a total act of faith.”McAlpine says that there were a number of reasons why the production chose to shoot primarily in Australia, including a relatively advantageous exchange rate and the proximity to Jackman’s home. “There are so many variables that enter into a decision like that and people smarter than me sort all those things out,” says McAlpine.
“I’ve experienced the joy of working in Hollywood, where there are massive advantages for me and my craft, including an incredible depth of talented people and an amazing array of equipment available on a daily basis.
But the truth is, today you can find talented people to make good movies anywhere. “One of our main locations was Cockatoo island in the middle of Sydney Harbour, including a closed shipyard,” says McAlpine. “We worked that location at night because the rusted-out roofs let in too much night during the day. It was a wonderful experience, steaming under Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunset on the way to work and then again at dawn on the way home.” McAlpine says that his next project will be Main Street The director is John Doyle, known for directing the revival of Sweeney Todd in his feature film debut.


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