Interview: The man who shot Logan and Gladiator on making heroic films look gritty and real

This was supposed to be an interview about the place of the DoP (director of photography) in a film industry producing movies with ever increasing levels of CG and VFX in them. And it is, but not in the way I'd imagined.

I'd been offered the chance to interview John Mathieson, a DoP who's shot epics like Gladiator and superhero blockbusters like X-Men: First Class. The interview would coincide with his latest film to hit cinemas, another in the X-Men series and the second focussed on the mutton-chopped brawler-with-claws Wolverine.

But Logan isn't quite the film I expected. It's as much a road movie and a Western as a superhero flick – at least for its first half. There's violence – not the cartoonish kapow of most X-Men films, but real violence that leaves marks. There's death, and sometimes you get to see its emotional impact on those affected by it, rather than purely the physical impact as another nameless henchmen's body thuds into a wall (though there's a lot of that too).

Logan looks gritty and dirty. As John puts it, comparing it to his work on First Class, "no-one is flying around in their sort-of-space-suits looking fabulous". If most X-Men films have a saturated look that you can trace back to 1982's Superman, Logan's visual style draws more on the road movies like 1970s.

(In case you haven't seen the film, be aware there are spoilers from here on in).

Much of that aesthetic comes from the decrepit states of both aging drunk Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who has a degenerative mental condition.

"Hugh is a good-looking man, but old man Logan – he looks rough in this," says John, who also compares the characters' look to Robert DeNiro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. "He's a drunk. He's unshaved. I didn't make it look nice."

The film's female protagonist – Logan's 'daughter' Laura (Dafne Keen) – could also easily fit into this aesthetic. Unlike an adult 'leading lady' – who John would be expected to light in a more glamorous way – the 11-year-old Laura could be presented in a way more in keeping with her aggressive, sometimes near-feral demeanour and tendency to get bloody and dirty from being in the thick of fights.

John sums up his approach to how he presented his leading actors.

"It wasn't like the other X-Men I did. It's very different. It's about real people. They wear crappy, old, beaten up, secondhand clothes. They're covered in dust and unshaven and haggard and scarred up.

"I just didn't have to do the Hollywood thing on the actors," he says – and I got the feeling made him happy.

The film's main outdoor locations also have a raw feel to them. The first third of the film is set in a grimy desert in Mexico, the last in a more beautiful open country in Montana near the border with Colorado.

"It's where [painter] Georgia O’Keeffe's Ghost Ranch was [below] – it's her kind of country," says John. "It's very beautiful, iconic American landscape – but it's hot. It's not all filled with gorgeous sunsets and beautiful Lawrence of Arabia. I wanted it to feel hot and uncomfortable."

Drone footage of the area around Georgia O’Keeffe's Ghost Ranch

There's a reason for this in the plot, of course. Logan, Laura and Xavier are in hiding, so they're going places where other people don't want to be go places where people aren't going to find them.

Another difference between Logan and other X-Men films – and the most important for this interview – was that there's not much obvious CG. Yes, obviously, there are visual effects throughout. Throughout the film, VFX provides the claws of both Logan and his daughter – and what happens to people when they get dissected with them. There are also two extended fight sequences between Logan and a super-pumped clone of himself, also played by Hugh Jackman. (For more on Logan's VFX process, read Ian Failes' excellent interview with Image Engine about their creation.)

But as much as is possible, the CG replaces what was physically there on set – and the composition of shots matches what John framed on location or set. Logan's and Laura used different sets of claws depending on the needs of the individual shots (and the safety level involved).

"They usually used real claws," says John. "They had some really nasty steel ones, which he holds using these grippy things, so they actually fit between his knuckles. And they look like there's pressure in between his knuckles.

"We had different length ones, and rubber ones that he fights with, so if he were to catch anyone, they're not going to get sliced open. And then we had little stumpy ones, which the CG guys extend [when they go through someone's jaw] and come out on top of their head. As long as they've got a bit of length on the stump on the claw, they've got two points of reference – so they can extend it".

The Logan vs X-24 fight scenes were more technically challenging, but Hugh really did play both parts. Each sequence was filmed twice, with Hugh made-up as Logan running through the scene with a stuntman – then again with Hugh on the opposite side as X-24 with a different look. For each shot in the final film, the VFX team could choose which Hugh to use from the footage – replacing the head of the corresponding stuntman with a CG rig of either Logan or X-24.

By shooting as much 'in-camera' and adding CG in subtle ways, John says that the end result is something less synthetic-looking – and better looking. Being able to see as much as possible of what will be on screen when framing shots help John be a better DoP.

The other advantage for a DoP of this, says John, is that he or she has more control over the overall look of the film.

"A lot of these big effects movies do end up looking the same," says John. "It almost doesn't matter who shoots them. On these big films, you essentially have two DoPs – the DoP and the visual effects supervisor."

John also notes that effects-heavy films that prioritise the 'in-camera' approach and concentrate on the quality of VFX shots – rather than the quantity – age better.

It seems surprising now that the film that John's best known for (and was nominated for an Oscar for) – 2000's Gladiator – had many fewer than the 400+ VFX shots that modern blockbusters have. But John says that's why it's not aged as badly as films from even a few years ago.

"Gladiator was considered a big CG film at the time – but had only 50 shots. It wasn't a time of great CGI. But a lot of it is real, so the film has lasted longer because [of that].

"There was a lot of physical stuff. There were real tigers. There were 5,000 extras out there. They really did build half the coliseum. They really did run horses into walls and smash things down."

So much of Gladiator was shot like this because creating it using CG would have been more expensive than really – and the results wouldn't have been anywhere near as good as even what you can get on TV these days.

Not a VFX nerd

The growing number of VFX shots in the films John's worked on since Gladiator hasn't required him to learn too much about the technical side of VFX – more how to work alongside a VFX supervisor and their crew.

"I don't think of myself as a total knowledgeable of VFX – but I do know the rules," says John. "I suppose it's been a gradual process, learning this stuff as you go along.

"The more you know the better, but it's more about being able to have an intelligent discussion when they come to you with ideas and say 'Can we do this? Can we do that?' [than to be able to do their job for them]."

It's also about being aware of advances in VFX that help him have more creativity in his shots. Here John cites the example of not being dependant on motion control cameras as much anymore – instead markers on set providing the tracking information the VFX house needs – allowing him more freedom with the camera.

After Logan, John worked on Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword - another VFX-heavy production, which is out in cinemas on May 12. 

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