Cinematographer Matthew Lloyd has been a friend of director Jon Watts for a long time, even before their collaboration on the latter’s second feature film, Cop Car (2015). So when Watts was getting ready to shoot 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, he thought of his friend — but, at the time, Lloyd was working on Power Rangers. Fortunately, the cinematographer got another chance to be reunited with his friend and be introduced to the world of everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood superhero with the new Spider-Man: Far From Home. What’s more, Lloyd was given a unique opportunity: to help take the web-slinger’s adventures beyond New York City.
Capturing the Real Locations of Spider-Man’s Road Trip
Because the Far From Home creative team approached their film as a road-trip movie, reality – as opposed to CGI – was always a starting point. They wanted to build scenes around the locales the characters visit. “It was important to me to really maintain the authenticity of each location,” says Lloyd.
A significant way of accomplishing that was to ensure that each location, and the sequences that happened within it, had a distinct visual look and feel that channeled the actual place. “As Spider-Man is moving through the story, and going to all these different places, we wanted each one to have a unique feel and lighting and color palette going on,” Lloyd says.
Take Venice, for example: “Venice had this bright, pastel feel, where the light comes through and hits a building. It bathes people in this warm, sandy light,” Lloyd says. Prague is another example: “It has a more warm and cool mix, and the beauty of that sort of Baroque, eastern-European architecture. We let a lot of that architectural lighting play into the buildings, which are often lit for texture.”
Those observations came from extensive talks during location visits. Lloyd went to Venice alone three times with the film’s creative team to discuss their intentions. “You get what’s in someone’s head much, much quicker by just going to the place and talking about it for real, instead of these theoretical conversations,” he says. It’s why he prefers on-site discussions over reference photos pinned to a wall.
Those conversations influenced the shooting both on location and sound stages. “We insisted that the set pieces get built outside, and we oriented them exactly to the correct orientation in terms of north and south so that the sun would wrap in the same way,” Lloyd says. “That leads to a more fleshed out look, and also a truer sense that it really was done as much as possible in the real place, or built in such a way that it fits exactly into the real place.”
Working Within the Marvel Studios Aesthetic
Because no Marvel Studio film exists in a vacuum, Lloyd also had to determine how to fit the look of Spider-Man: Far From Home into the Marvel Cinematic Universe aesthetic. “Because it is such a universe, you have to step back and say, ‘This is a unique movie, but it also needs to fit inside of this big mosaic.’ That’s why all the movies have a common feel and a common aesthetic — because it’s really about the bigger picture,” he says. “I think within the visual structure of Far From Home, it was really about, ‘Okay, it’s Marvel. It’s these big set pieces. But let’s give each place a unique vibe, so that you get the sense of the travel.”
Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders in Spider-Man: Far From Home. Courtesy of Marvel Studios.
Lloyd was no stranger to the worlds of Marvel, either. He worked on almost the entire first season of Netflix’s Daredevil and all episodes of The Defenders. And while the aesthetics of Marvel’s TV shows can be different than their films, Lloyd also had experience with the latter, having done additional photography on Thor: Ragnarok and Captain Marvel. The transition to those films, and then Spider-Man wasn’t too difficult for him. “I certainly like to think that my approach stays the same, no matter what format I’m working in,” he says. “It just will scale to budget and script requirement.”
Preparing to Go Big with Special Effects
That’s not to undersell how significant the scaling from Marvel TV to film can be. “The big difference is that the visual effects component of the movies is far more in depth and complex,” Lloyed explains. “On the small screen, there’s never the time to really develop any sort of visual effects approach and how it’s going to integrate.”
On something like Far From Home, there definitely was time, with the VFX team collaboration starting almost immediately. “The thousands of shots involved in any sort of movie that has CG on the scale of what we’re talking about are an extraordinary undertaking, and they have to be there right from the get-go,” he says. Fully pre-visualized scenes are common to Marvel, as they are for many big-budget films, but it was an especially important tool for Lloyd’s ambitions for merging the real with the CGI as much as possible.
Jake Gyllenhaal in Spider-Man: Far From Home. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.
“We had to talk about what’s real. It’s great to do a crane shot in the computer, but how do we do that on the day? Can we get a crane into that location? Do we need to do it on wires? You have to be able to make the thing real eventually. If you’re not involved in that conversation, you can end up looking at a thing and going, ‘I don’t know that the technology’s available to do some of these shots.'”
Collaborating with VFX Teams
Those kinds of cinematographer and VFX collaborations aren’t possible without extensive conversations. “You have to just be aware of how to communicate with everybody to get the information so that the physical photography integrates well with the CG in a meaningful and grounded way,” Lloyd says.
Some of that requires that a DOP speak the VFX team’s language. “You kind of have to learn how to communicate with visual effects supervisors, how to integrate the work, how to light in a way that will function for both the actors and the sets, and also the CG. You don’t want to get yourself in a situation where something is so sketchy that it has become difficult to light it in CG. You have to have that vocabulary down.”
It goes the other way too, however; it helps when the VFX team can speak a cinematographer’s tongue. “Having a good visual effects supervisor who can talk photographically makes it much, much easier,” Lloyd confirms. “They really become your visual partner in the process. You can’t think about how you’re going to integrate the lighting of the set or the ultimate mood effect that you’re after for a given scene without communicating, because if we’re not in line, things are going to look very odd when the final image is put together.”
That’s why Lloyd has nothing but praise for the Spider-Man: Far From Home team he worked with. “They were fully versed in the modern image-capture and camera techniques that we’re using,” he says. And the result of that synergy, along with Lloyd’s ambitions to make the movie feel real, undoubtedly contributed to what has made Spider-Man: Far From Home resonate among audiences, and propelled it into a box-office hit.
Top Image: Spider-Man in action in Spider-Man: Far From Home. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.