When cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw (“Mainstream”) first interviewed with Kate Herron (“Daybreak”) about shooting “Loki,” it was the first time that a director presented her with a look book. Normally, it’s the other way around during prep. Of course, there were stills from “Blade Runner” and “Brazil,” but also “Zodiac,” which figured most prominently in discussions about the central location: the mysterious Time Variance Authority (TVA). It was definitely a retro look for this trippy sci-fi noir about alternate timelines, Loki variants, and digging deeper into Tom Hiddleston’s God of Mischief.
“When she showed me her references during the interview, I smiled because that’s what I was thinking and we obviously had the same taste,” said Arkapaw, who is rumored but unconfirmed to replace Oscar-nominated Rachel Morrison as the DP on “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” “TVA especially had a ‘Zodiac’ vibe in the theater and corridors,” she added. “We spent a lot of time in the the Time Theater space upfront. It’s a big character building scene in setting up Loki.”
Arkapaw shot with the Sony Venice digital camera using Panavision anamorphic T series lenses that she had expanded and de-tuned to her liking for flare quality, fall off, and focal length. But production designer Kasra Farahani (art director on “Captain Marvel” and “Black Panther”) was most helpful in building light fixtures that Arkapaw could play off and use as her key light, often with silver tipped bulbs for desired softness. “So you have the introduction where Loki goes through processing and all of those fixtures are something that were already built into Kasra’s design,” she said.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
“We fought to have ceilings on this project. This was a big thing for us. We wanted to be able to see up there, we wanted the actors to feel like it was a real space when they walked on set, and it was a big part of Kasra’s intention to build as much as he could in camera and Kate was a big fan of that as well. The TVA, depending on what practical sources Loki’s in, is obviously very soft and toppy or, in the theater, where he’s being grilled [by Owen Wilson’s TVA agent, Mobius] and looking over his life, you have harder, brutalist ceilings and shafts of light in a weight of space that’s [larger].”
Arkapaw likes to use haze on set in all her work, especially to fill lighting. And she achieved a level of control and consistency to her diffusion, regardless of whether it was back lit, top lit, soft or hard. “In the Time Theater, it’s really nice because we have harder light and you see those rays coming down and the light moves,” she said. It was also fulfilling to build in those warm tones that already had depth in the shadows. “Our references were these old ’70s, tactile, textural films that feel aged.”
When Loki accompanies the TVA agents to catch the elusive Loki variant (Sylvie, played by Sophia Di Martino) at a futuristic Walmart called Roxxcart in 2050 Alabama, the gaffers worked with Farahani to rig an elaborate modern lighting system that would automatically flicker on and off for a horror vibe, which turned red at the end. “Kate was a big fan of the darkness because it was such spooky intro for Sylvie to be hiding in the shadows,” the cinematographer said. “It was an opportunity to create dark pockets and having people going in and out of light.”
Meanwhile, when Loki and Sylvie are stranded on 2077 Lamentis-1, a moon about to be crushed by a planet, the dystopian look is defined by pink and purple during their series of walk and talks. “There was a big discussion of what that should be and then what [shade of] purple and pink,” Arkapaw said. “We came up with a palette as part of the character beats. We wanted a colorful environment to serve the romantic emotions.”
But the climax of Episode 3 (“Lamentis”) was tricky, requiring it to be elaborately staged to look like a single-take in the colorful mining town, with Loki and Sylvie fighting their way through guards and a crowd of people scrambling to board an ark while being showered by meteors. “We started planning that sequence at the start of our prep,” said Arkapaw. “It was one of the first sequences that Kate and I were excited about. I even remember Kasra made us a foam miniature of a set idea so we could plan and think about our moves. Once we got more into prep we worked on a previs and it continued to evolve weekly. Our original idea had them riding a motorcycle at one point. In the end, we fell more in love with our ‘Children of Men’ reference and went with a Steadicam follow shot through the streets that felt more gritty and humanistic.”
The sequence required a couple of Steadicam rehearsals on the actual set at Trilith Studios in Atlanta with the actors. They worked out the stitches and kinks with the camera, and production designer Farahani also built a lot of texture into the set with black-light paint, which provided even more energy. “Some of the shots also included Steadicam on a Grip Trix tracking vehicle when they are running fast,” she said. “We had one 40 x 40 light box on a construction crane and another four 20 x 30 light boxes above for moonlight and meteor effects. It was a very big setup for all teams involved and everyone smashed it.”
Yet it was all in the service of developing the arc of Loki, thanks especially to Hiddleston, who began the project by giving a presentation explaining backstory and timelines that he wanted to emphasize. “It made my lighting better, it made my camera work better because he’s working at such a high level,” Arkapaw said. “So he set the tone at the beginning of the shoot to do something special in support of everyone’s visual ideas… to explore humanizing him in a way that he can make friends, he can have relationships, and comfort certain people.”
“Loki” is available to stream on Disney+.