How’s your decade been? Probably not as creatively fulfilling or as utterly insane as Trent Opaloch‘s last 10 years. After knocking out a few shorts with Neill Blomkamp, the cinematographer closed out 2009 with his feature debut, District 9. Opaloch and Blomkamp’s relationship evolved into Elysium and Chappie, and along the way, Opaloch became the go-to guy of Anthony Russo and Joe Russo on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame.
If you’re not keeping track, that’s one Best Picture nominee and two films in the top 10 highest-grossing movies of all-time, with one nabbing nearly $3 billion and toppling Avatar from its throne. When I spoke to Opaloch over the phone and commented on his incredible run from District 9 to Endgame, he humbly agreed, “It’s a bit of a jump between the two films, that’s for sure.”
The one-two punch of Infinity War and Endgame was an unprecedented production, requiring an army of artisans to perform at the top of their game to get the job done and close the book on Marvel Studios’ epic first chapter. The industry is forever changed, with he and his cohort’s craft probably steering the cinematic conversation for another decade or two.
The opportunity to corner the cinematographer and present him with a few of my favorite shots from his last two films was an absolute delight. We had 20 minutes together. Not enough time. So, if your favorite shot is not seen below, I am sorry. I selected half of them, and the conversation determined the others.
Here’s what Opaloch had to say about his work with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and one Mad Titan:
“Almost all of that stuff was captured on a separate stage. We would shoot what we could on the day, but then we would go back and clean it up. I always feel the weight of what we’ve already shot, and how we’ve already spent all this money, but Kevin Feige, the Russos, and the whole Marvel team are really good about shedding that feeling and saying, ‘You know what? It doesn’t matter.’ It’s about what makes the best scene or the best moment, and that all culminates in the best possible version of the film.
“It’s really neat to see when they go, ‘Okay. Yeah. Sure. You shot something for four days straight. You had 250 to 300 crew members out, and now we’re going to go back because there’s a new line of dialogue or a new character piece or whatever it is, and we’re going to redo it.’ And fortunately for them, they have the resources to do that. It’s pretty incredible to see some of that stuff happen.
“That look from Thanos was something that we discussed quite a bit, because we didn’t want to make it too big of a moment. This is why I love working with the [Russo] brothers. Every day, every scene is a film school class where you’ll see them go over, and they’ll start with one thing, but that scene is modified as you shoot it. If it’s a big scene, you could just shoot one part of it throughout the afternoon. Sometimes, when you leave work for the day, and you think about it, where your scene started and where it ended is in completely different directions.
“Josh Brolin‘s look there is a good example of something that we might have done a dozen different versions. Of course, a lot of that stuff where we’re repeating performance capture can be modified by the animators, but most of that is clean up. If there’s a discrepancy between one of the character’s physical limbs or the balance of the body or something. It’s hard to map a normal human biped to an alien creature.
“For the most part, the performance is captured by the actors on the day. There’s a lot of fidelity there, and you’d see it because you’re there on the day, too. You recognize different takes throughout the shoot, and then you see it rendered out into achieving the final film. It’s incredible how accurate it is. I was really, really impressed. It was a little bit daunting when you started seeing the structures required technically from the volume capture, but in the end, it’s just something you incorporate through your methodology. It’s like anything, you get used to it and keep carrying on.”
“That came at a cool part of our schedule. Most of the stuff we did was based on the stages at Pinewood Studios in Atlanta, but that was done in one of the handful of actual locations that primarily took place in Durham Cathedral in northern England. It was really nice for the gaffer, Jeff Burrell, Michael J. Coo, the key grip, and I because it is a whole other scale of lighting. We were lighting up this whole cathedral. It was nice to just lay your eyes on this incredible structure and the architecture. And then, of course, you’ve got these tiny little characters living in there. The scale was incredible.
“I love how Chris Hemsworth has filled out his character of Thor in the last couple of movies. There is so much more to it then the biceps and the hammer. There’s a whole comedic side, but also a very touching, open, raw, and exposed side to his performance. I’ve always liked him as an actor, but in that scene, I just didn’t see it coming. I appreciate it. You also have the weight of what’s about to happen to Thor’s mother, and they both know it. She even acknowledges it at the end of the scene. That added this very heavy layer to it. It worked out nicely.”
“When you’re replicating a shot from a previous film, it is certainly more considered than others. It’s the same thing that we would look at if we were trying to match the weather outside. Where is the sun coming from? At the top of Stark Tower, you’re at the big wall of exposed mirrors. The geography of the space is going to inform things as much as anything else. Seamus McGarvey, the DP of the first Avengers, he would have shot Stark Tower in a certain way because of how you’re exposed to the light. We just did the same thing.”
“We did more of that with the Guardians of the Galaxy sequences and Peter Quill going after the Power Stone. The previous films inform the ideas, but it’s not like we’re sitting there looking at something and saying, ‘Hey, you know, there are some potential match cuts here.’ It’s the necessity of the script. We’re essentially jumping into another camera angle from a scene in a previous movie. I thought that was hilarious. The first time I saw that reel during the sound mix with Kevin and the [Russo] brothers, I burst out laughing. It’s Don Cheadle‘s dry reaction, ‘So, he’s an idiot.’ Just brilliant.”
“It’s the showdown. The classic gunfighter shot. You need to show the beauty of the landscape, and capture the characters in that big epic, wide frame. It’s the staple page, the center of a comic book. You get to see the lay of the land before we get to a lot of the fighting sequences, and those were conversations that took place over weeks or months.”
“Gauntlet rugby. We must have looked at dozens and dozens and dozens of different versions of those sequences. It was challenging, because it was shot over the span of months. We would jump in and out of the sequence, depending on who we had available to us. We really previs-d this because we needed some kind of working document to pull from. Most of it was based on concept art. Production designer Charles Wood and art director Ray Chan provided hundreds and hundreds of images that you were constantly discussing both in prep and while we were underway.
“It’s an open discussion among a lot of the key creative players in the film. What are we responding to? Sometimes your favorite image would change based on what you were shooting. A lot of it was based on visual references and what felt good for the moment, and then it’s great.
“It’s like any kind of creative process. There’s a resonance. Once you land on something, then there’s just a feeling like, ‘Okay, that’s the best iteration of this moment, and we’ve got to lock that down and move on.’ So, there’s a lot of those moments, where you determine we’re not going to do that. We just kind of move onto the next piece.”
“That was really, really powerful. There was a lot of emotion on set for Chris Evans. There’s the end of his character. There’s also a lot of his life that he’s connecting to on the screen as Cap. The parts of these films that I love are moments like this one. Even in the Avengers films that I had nothing to do with, it was always the banter between Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr., or whomever. That’s the stuff that I love so much.
“This final scene was special. We’re a Marvel family. Most of us have done four or five films together. Russell Bobbitt has done eight or nine, or more. I don’t know how many of these films he’s done. Most of the films he’s been the prop master. There’s a big connection between the crew who’s working on the film and those characters and the actors portraying the characters.
“Evans shot that in one day in Atlanta on location. There were technical requirements to get it right. That was very challenging just to get everything in one shot so he could get in there. As soon as you break that line of the window, and you see that silhouette, the shape of them dancing, I had goosebumps on the day and in the theater as well. It’s a pretty special scene.”
Avengers: Endgame is now available on Digital HD, DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming on Disney+.