Movies featuring comic-book superheroes are among the most popular films today, with the spectacular exploits of these colorful characters rendered more convincingly than ever thanks to today’s digital imaging technologies. Among the many advanced filmmaking tools recently used by cinematographer Matthew Libatique to shoot the blockbuster hit Iron Man 2 were Canon EOS 5D Mark II Digital SLRs. Libatique, an accomplished member of the American Society of Cinematographers, explained that the Canon cameras were indispensable for capturing crucial images in a key action sequence.
“Without a doubt, we couldn’t have gotten the shots any other way,” Libatique says. His comment refers to a scene in Iron Man 2, in which the titular character’s alter ego Tony Stark drives a race car in the Historic Monaco Grand Prix and is attacked by super-villain Ivan Vanko. Canon 5D Mark II Digital SLRs served multiple roles in photographing this important sequence. One was to capture moving background plates on location in the famous European racing city; another was to provide crash-cam footage amid the scene’s high-speed auto race.
Libatique brought his film crew to Monaco for authenticity in shooting their background plates, which were later integrated with live-action footage of racing cars shot in Hollywood. The plates were captured using a motion-picture camera and several 5D Mark II Digital SLRs mounted on a chase vehicle that kept pace with the race cars as they sped through Monaco’s winding streets.
“We mounted the Canon cameras on all four sides of the vehicle to get background plates for Tony Stark driving on the race track,” Libatique explained, noting that the small size of the 5D Mark II Digital SLRs enabled his crew to obtain more coverage than would have been possible with an equal number of (larger and heavier) film cameras.
“There is no other camera that can really get into some of the tight spots that the Canon 5D Mark II can, and with the ease that it can,” he added. “We got extra angles in spots that we wouldn’t have been able to get in 35mm without a lot more effort.”
Libatique’s comment applied even more to the crash-cam shots he and his crew captured for the racing sequence. “We had extremely dangerous circumstances, but traditional crash-cams are cumbersome and they take time to set up,” he explained. “With the Canon cameras we were able to easily change lenses and make quick decisions. The setup time was ten times faster than with a film camera, and we could mount the 5D Mark II cameras in all sorts of places.”
“It’s probably the most impressive shot in that sequence, and it was captured by a 5D Mark II camera.” —Cinematographer Matthew Libatique
Libatique and his crew sealed several Canon 5D Mark II DSLRs inside heavily padded Pelican cases with holes cut out for the lenses. These were then placed at strategic locations around the track to capture dramatic footage of the race cars zooming by.
“We set 5D Mark IIs down on the race track and had the vehicles pass by them, crash near them, and run right into them. It was very impressive to have the 5D Mark II cameras hold up and then pop-out their cards and get the shots we wanted.”
Canon 5D Mark II DSLRs were also mounted directly on some of the cars for additional point-of-view shots. These included Tony Stark’s car, which was destroyed by Ivan Vanko’s Whiplash weapon.
“The camera is mounted in the front of Tony Stark’s car as it flies up into the air,” Libatique said. “It’s probably the most impressive shot in that sequence, and it was captured by a 5D Mark II camera.”
“The new manual exposure firmware introduced during the shoot enabled us to expose 5D Mark II imagery more similarly to the film we were shooting,” Libatique noted. “That sealed it for us. Once that manual firmware was installed we knew that we were going to be using the 5D Mark II.”
Subsequent workflow tests at a major Hollywood digital intermediate facility confirmed that motion sequences captured using the Canon 5D Mark II could seamlessly match 35mm film.
“We did our exposure tests and the image quality exceeded my expectations for cutting into a 35mm sequence,” he said.
Although he has lensed Iron Man 2 and other major Hollywood features, Libatique began his career shooting independent films, an area he says is particularly well suited for the Canon 5D Mark II.
“I’m interested in low-budget filmmaking, and in what it can provide,” he said. “If I were shooting an indy film of any narrative length, I would probably choose to shoot it with the 5D Mark II, as opposed to one of the small HD video cameras offered by various manufacturers. I think we’ve always been in search for a smaller camera, and—right off the bat—you can’t get much smaller than a SLR. This is an ergonomic advantage. On my last film I shot subway scenes in New York, and because the 5D Mark II was so much lighter to carry around in the subways, it didn’t attract a crowd.”
Although compact, the Canon 5D Mark II features a full-frame 21.1-megapixel CMOS image sensor for exceptional sensitivity and low-light performance. The camera also can be fitted with Canon’s full line of EF lenses. Libatique noted that he favored the wide-angle 14mm and 24mm lenses and the ultra-wide 16–35mm zoom lens for Iron Man 2.
“I’m a big fan of Canon lensing, and I like the focusing and the depth of field that it creates—or lack of it, in some cases. It just feels more cinematic. The correlation of the 5D Mark II, and its chip size, and the Canon lenses all keep things in a sort of a ‘35mm language’ for me.”
Libatique sees the Canon 5D Mark II camera as a still evolving motion-image capture tool with more production applications yet to be explored. “It definitely has the ability to have its own look,” he said. “You can integrate it with film, but I also think you can use it to make disparate-looking images. With all of the 5D Mark II’s manual functions, detail settings, contrast settings, and saturation settings, it’s like having another film stock at your disposal to create a different look. I’m considering using it for flashback sequences on the next film I’m shooting.”
“As for Iron Man 2, I was very impressed by the Canon 5D Mark II shots we were able to cut in with the live action,” Libatique concluded. “The camera was invaluable for shooting the Monaco sequence, which was vital to the storytelling of the entire film.”