X-Men Origins: Wolverine takes audiences on a thrilling, sci-fi fantasy ride

Donald McAlpine, ASC, ACS has earned 50 narrative credits during the past 35 years, including such memorable films as Moulin Rouge!, which earned an Oscar nomination in 2002, Breaker Morant, Predator, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Patriot Games, Peter Pan, Clear and Present Danger, Mrs. Doubtfire, Anger Management, Romeo + Juliet, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe.

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 Hugh Jackman in a scene from X-Men Origins: Wolverine. (Photo by James Fisher)

His latest assignment, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, took him home to his native Australia, as well as to Canada and New Zealand, where he had spent many months on Narnia. A second unit shot some sequences in Louisiana.

McAlpine was drawn to the Wolverine project in part because of the opportunity to work with Australian director Gavin Hood, whose films Tsotsi and Rendition had impressed him.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a chapter in a series of immensely successful and critically acclaimed graphic novels. As the title suggests, it is the origin story of the Wolverine character. As a boy, Wolverine witnesses the murder of the man he thinks is his father. In his rage, he develops superhuman powers, including razor sharp talons that emerge from his hands and an inhuman ability to heal quickly. He and his older brother (played by Liev Schreiber) travel through time and become mercenaries fighting in various wars through the last 150 years. In time, Wolverine’s brother is changed by the experience and become too sadistic. There is also a second plotline that involves the military finding mutants like Wolverine for the purpose of extracting their powers and giving them to one unstoppable fighting machine. The worldwide theatrical release of the movie captured more than $350 million at the boxoffice.

McAlpine came to the story fresh. “I deliberately maintained my innocence and that gave me a sort of freedom to take it all in as an original concept,” he says. “The characters that Gavin has drawn are quite strong and accessible. Within the genre, they act mature with a range of human emotions, and are very believable. Gavin has established his own reality and made it convincing. In a fantasy film, you must establish the language you are going to use and keep to it. Everything has to ring true. If the audience senses that something is false or unreal within the parameters we’ve set, the game is up. Everything I do must be in line to reinforce that quality.”

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Cinematographer Donald McAlpine, ASC, ACS checks the light meter on the set of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. (Photo by James Fisher)

To represent the wide range of time periods and to depict the various conflicts around the globe where the story unfolds, McAlpine and Hood choose to film X-Men Origins: Wolverine in many actual locations, including two weeks in the stunning landscapes around Queenstown, New Zealand, which include dramatic mountains, shimmering blue lakes, and magical old-growth forests.

“New Zealand is of recent volcanic origin,” McAlpine says. “It is very dramatic. That’s why we went there. There are fantastic exterior locations that are relatively uncorrupted by power lines and other visual distractions you find in other parts of the world. There are areas where forests have never been logged. With supervision and a pledge that we would be careful, we were allowed to film in these magical places.”

They also shot scenes on one interior set that was built in an old concrete factory in Dunedin, the second-largest city on the South Island of New Zealand. The set was a bar where the initial fight scene takes place.

After two weeks in New Zealand, the company crossed the Tasman Sea to Sydney, Australia, and its environs where the majority of the movie was filmed. One main location was a small island in the middle of Sydney Harbor, including a closed shipyard where American battleships were repaired during World War II. That facility stood in for the nuclear reactors at Three Mile Island.

“We had to work at night because the buildings were so rusted that light came through and there was no chance that we could black them out,” says McAlpine. “It was a wonderful experience, steaming under Sydney Harbor Bridge at sunset on the way to work, and then again at dawn on the way home.”

An important sequence that takes place in war-torn Angola was filmed in a forest not far from Sydney.

“It was nighttime in the jungle, which is one of the worst situations you can get in terms of lighting,” says McAlpine. “The true jungle I’ve been in is black, which is always frightening. I would have preferred to do it on a stage, but logistically we had no choice. We used a 150-foot crane and suspended a number of massive lights above the treetops, which gave us an overall moon glow. We supplemented that with lots of fires and torchlight below. The ‘natives’ were colorfully dressed, and it ended up being a reasonably beautiful scene, visually. It’s really amazing that we could make that little oasis look like a jungle at night.”

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Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber in a scene from X-Men Origins: Wolverine. (Photo by James Fisher)

Some elements of the final scene were filmed on a stage in Vancouver, British Columbia. “This scene was scripted to be lit by the first light of day,” says McAlpine. “It was the biggest stage we could find. We used 1,000 Par lamps at one end of the stage to create an amber glow. We had blue-tinged Spacelights above the Pars to create a feeling of daylight. It’s a scene where the core performances are supported by massive computer-generated artwork depicting the destruction of Three Mile Island. The interplay between our manufactured sunrise, the actors and the CG backgrounds was an interesting experience for everyone involved. That scene was initially going to be shot in a winter exterior. I was able to convince the studio that we’d be better off doing it on a stage. If we had shot this scene on location, I think it would have lacked depth with nowhere near the scope and feel we achieved.”

McAlpine’s approach to lighting the film centered on the actors’ performances. “Particularly in a film like this, you make sure you do all you can to get the most from the actors,” he says. “The basic lighting has to be global. In the good old days, we used to light close-ups. Now, we trim the close-up as quickly as possible, because these films depend on cuts, and cuts depend on how many shots you get in a day. By getting more setups, the editor and the director can be much more flexible in creating excitement. I am very aware of that time frame when I’m on the set.

“Generally, this film is slightly on the darker side with neutral colors,” he continues. “We made that decision because it supports the integrity of the performances. We were deliberately trying to convince the audience that this is a totally believable situation within the parameters of the genre and the story.”

McAlpine and Hood chose to produce the film Super 35 format composed in 2.4:1 widescreen aspect ratio combined with digital intermediate timing at EFILM in Los Angeles. Visual effects facilities with a hand in the project included CEG Media, Hydraulx, Matte World Digital, and Soho VFX.

“This is a massive effects film,” says McAlpine. “With Super 35, they can move up and down the frame during postproduction, which allows greater flexibility with the visual effects and compositing.”
McAlpine used Panavision cameras and lenses and KODAK VISION3 500T 5219 film. “I use 5219 for both interior and exterior scenes, day and night,” he says. “I pulled the filter off the camera lens to gain an extra hour at the beginning and end of each day.”

The camera equipment was provided through Panavision Los Angeles, and shipped through their local affiliates in Australia and Canada. Chapman/Leonard Studio Equipment also provided camera support equipment and remote camera systems.

McAlpine stresses contributions made by his crew. “I’ve surrounded myself with a couple of key people who are perpetually worrying about the minutia,” he says. “My gaffer, Steve Mathis, and my first assistant cameraman, Tov Belling, both refer back to me endlessly about their problems and their ideas. That allows me to help the director supervise the performances, which are often done in a vacuum – in other words, against greenscreen with the background or other elements to be added later.

“Acting and judging performances in front of a green background screen is difficult,” he says. “Our cast, including Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, are amazing at it. They have this inner sight that allows them to perform in a totally believable way with nothing around then but green. It’s a total act of faith.”

Surprisingly, McAlpine says that after 35 years on more than 50 feature films, his ability to think on his feet sometimes trumps his long experience. “I’d like to think that it’s part experience,” he says.

“But most of it is native thinking – thinking on your feet and solving the problem that is in front of you. Sometimes your experience shows you the way, but sometimes your experience gets in the way – probably more often than not, come to think of it. You’ve got to fight against it. Just because you did this or that in a movie 20 years ago doesn’t mean it’s the right choice today. You have to ask why it worked then and why it might work now. It’s very rare that I consciously look back on something I’ve done and do it precisely the same way.”