In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s character endures an experience reminiscent of Groundhog Day. He relives his dying day over and over, hoping to eventually gain the skill and smarts to break the loop and conquer his enemies. But the similarities end there. In Edge of Tomorrow, the world is a high-tech yet recognizable future where human soldiers equipped with robotic suits must fight off invading aliens.
Oscar®-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe, ASC, ACS (Chicago, Collateral, Memoirs of a Geisha, Land of the Lost, Green Lantern, Nine, Gangster Squad) had previously worked with director Doug Liman (Swingers, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Jumpers, The Bourne Identity) on a few commercials, but never on a project of this scale. They worked toward a visual strategy through careful preproduction testing.
“I really find that that’s the best way,” says Beebe. “Get into a darkened screening room and run the footage, and then measure reactions, talk about what works, and what doesn’t. It becomes a more defined way to find what a project requires.”
In this case, because the pivotal, repeating battle scenes take place on a beach, the production set up sandpits and tried to add in as many elements as possible – debris, smoke and even pyro effects. Beebe shot the tests on KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213, and brought in DI colorist Peter Doyle, with whom he worked to create a range of options in terms of look. One key phrase Liman used in communicating the tone he wanted was “a world worth saving.”
“That meant that we wanted to present a world under siege, but not a bleak, dark, post-apocalyptic landscape,” Beebe explains. “It’s not overly saturated or cool, and there’s some sense of realism. There is a love story element, and we needed to protect for that. We didn’t want to come at this with a bleach bypass type of approach, which can be a little harsh on faces. Some of the scenes with Tom and Emily Blunt needed to be a little softer, and of course we would complement that with our lighting choices.”
Beebe shot the majority of Edge of Tomorrow on KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, using some of the 200T as well. The lenses were Panavision anamorphics. The decision to go with 35mm film in the anamorphic format was an easy one.
“There was clear feeling all around that 35mm was the right approach here,” says Beebe. “This film has a slight parallel with the storming of the beaches in Normandy, and that might have played a part, because all the images we have from Normandy and World War II are film references, either still or motion. I think that did resonate for us. Also, we didn’t want it to feel too glossy or removed – we wanted the texture of film, and a very visceral, immediate and subjective experience.”
Logistical considerations also factored into the decision. Sometimes as many as six cameras were shooting on the beach amidst the pyrotechnics. “In setting up the action, you can cut your operators loose a little bit,” says Beebe. “You’re not running cable or signal to a complex switching system with six high def monitors. You can pay the images less heed, in a way, and really work towards what’s in front of you – the action that you are there to cover.”
Given the repetitious nature of the story, maintaining continuity and consistent lighting was a constant concern. Shooting on the backlot at Leavesden Studios in the U.K. provided a degree of control.
The interior of a helicopter drop-ship built by production designer Oliver Scholl also provided Beebe with a unique lighting situation. Outfitted in their heavy robotic suits, the actors hang in rows inside the narrow cabin. When the time comes, the floor opens and they are dropped earthward on cables.
“Doug wanted a kind of sardine can, a dehumanized environment,” says Beebe. “He wanted these people reduced to weapons, basically, that are jammed into this vehicle that is meant to deposit them.”
The structure was built 20 feet in the air so it could be mounted on a gimbal to be pivoted, rotated and shaken. Getting the actors in and out, one by one, was a tricky proposition, and they could only stay in for about 30 minutes at a time. There were safety considerations, and the suits were extremely uncomfortable when rigged into the ship. Beebe’s approach was to create an almost entirely practical lighting environment in the interior that could be operated via his lighting desk, in part because once the actors were in place, it was nearly impossible to access the tight space with lights. This practical lighting was accomplished using a lot of LED ribbon and fluorescent tubes, among other tools.
A rig made up of moveable Vari-Lites was constructed around the outside of the drop-ship set, aimed through windows and other gaps and programmed to simulate a sense of motion and to mimic sunlight passing through the windows. At one point the ship is hit by enemy fire, and a circular chase effect tells the audience the ship is in a desperate spiral.
All the action comes together in the widescreen, 2.40:1 anamorphic aspect ratio. “We chose anamorphic in order to encompass a vast landscape for the story,” says Beebe. “We wanted a really large canvas for this film. It goes back to this idea of ‘a world worth saving.’ We wanted a reminder that the stakes are high, that the world could be lost, and all this would be lost with it.”