[Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead for “Dumbo.”]
Ben Davis’ versatility was pushed to new heights in “Captain Marvel” and “Dumbo.” Good thing the British cinematographer can easily pivot from the MCU (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) to indies (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) because he incorporated a multitude of looks for directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Captain Marvel”) and Tim Burton (“Dumbo”). In fact, both movies (shot with the large-format Alexa 65) demanded dual aesthetics: naturalism and hyper-realism for “Captain Marvel” and surrealism and expressionism for “Dumbo.”
“Superhero movies work when you make a personal connection with the protagonist,” Davis said. “Anna and Ryan come from indies [‘Mississippi Grind’], and the idea of the film was Brie Larson’s journey as Captain Marvel. We wanted a naturalistic look and the camera to be very close to her, so we shot a lot of hand-held work, which intimately helps with that connection. The effects, the fights, the CG work, are always going to be there, but this helps ground it emotionally. The camera follows her, and the audience needs to discover the mystery of her identity along with her.”
Davis, who previously used the Alexa 65 on “Doctor Strange,” likes the softer curve and the way it mimics film in seeing through shadows and highlights. Even though the earth-bound scenes take place in ’95, they referenced earlier classics such as “The French Connection” and “The Conversation,” applying grain when appropriate and emulating the vivid colors of Eastman Kodak 5247 negative stock as well. For the alien scenes on Hala, Davis created totally different lighting schemes to depict the war between the imperial Kree (Jude Law) and the shape shifting Skrull (Ben Mendelsohn).
“We wanted that planet to have a particular look,” said Davis. “There are upper level structures where the military elite live and the street level where the rest of the people live. The military environment of the Kree is angular and precise, with colder colors. The Skrull environment is much more organic.” However, a warmer, softer aesthetic was required when Danvers/Captain Marvel and future S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) flee to Louisiana, they encounter former pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), who was her best friend in her former life.
“It almost becomes a different movie,” added Davis. “And we wanted to shoot that like a very independent, more organic part of the film with vintage lenses. We wanted Maria’s house to be warm and welcoming. The camera movement and editing pace are slower. The camera is closer to Brie to connect with her. A lot of what’s going on is her reacting. She might not have the words, but the close-ups are more important than [anything else].”
In terms of the VFX de-aging of Jackson (done by Lola, the go-to experts for Marvel), Davis merely had to consult on what they were doing. “There was no need to do anything different with the environment,” he said “I lit Sam when he was there and the de-aging was done later, and all the lighting references from the original photography were used in that process.”
But when it came to Captain Marvel’s photon blast superpowers, Davis very much had to set up special lighting conditions, creating an LED rig to handle the multi-directional aspects of the VFX (performed by Industrial Light & Magic, among others). “Whenever you do someone firing something or there’s a light-emitting energy source character, it’s always better to have light directed on them and on the environment around them,” Davis said. “So we did a lot of concept work and visual effects work on what the photon blast looks like. It had blues and oranges and whites, and we created a traveling LED source that had all those elements and rapid change of movement.”
Meanwhile, with Burton’s live-action reworking of Disney’s animated “Dumbo,” Davis combined beautiful “Gone with the Wind”-like skies with Edward Hopper-like environments in depicting the warmth and cruelty of the circus in the early 20th century, with the flying elephant as the social misfit centerpiece. “Tim wanted to create this fantastic world, where the surreal and the expressionistic rub shoulders,” Davis said. “He’s a huge fan of the original and he wanted to respect and reference that. We studied the lighting and wanted the live-action to have aspects of the animation. We looked at the skies and backdrops from the animation and the way Dumbo moved.”
Burton wanted a layered, stripped down approach, taking away the clutter. The director found Hopper very instructive in this regard. But the palette had to mesh when Dumbo flies. “He’s not photoreal so we didn’t want him to fit within a photoreal world. It’s a slightly elevated world,” Davis said. “We shot the film entirely on stages [at Pinewood Studios] and could create lighting conditions that we wanted. Most of the scenes take place at the very beginning or the end of the day and the control allowed us to change moods. When Dumbo first arrives, the circus is very warm. Then there’s a shift when he’s separated from his mother and gets taken to Dreamland [the proto-Disneyland created by Michael Keaton’s V. A. Vandevere].”
One of the biggest challenges was a nod to the iconic “Pink Elephants on Parade.” But to make it work here, Davis and the team first had to deconstruct the pink and purple outlines of the animated elephants. “It’s like a live-action motif,” he said. “We had real performers sprayed with bubbles, which I lit with neon pinks and purples in order to create the look of the original animation.”