Stephen Windon, ACS is best known for some of the most widely seen images depicting World War II in HBO’s The Pacific. Windon shared credit with Remi Adefarasin, BSC on the miniseries, and his work on the episode “Okinawa” earned an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award, as well as an EMMY® nomination. His credits include two films in the Fast and Furious franchise, as well as Deep Blue Sea and The Patriot, among others.
In shooting The Pacific, Windon was focused on honesty and believability, down to the beads of sweat on a malaria-stricken soldier’s face. This time around, Windon is back in war mode, and while G.I. Joe: Retaliation leaves a bit more room for dramatization and even playfulness, the early talks with director Jon M. Chu and producers Herb Gains and Lorenzo di Bonaventura were centered around creating a realistic look on which to base the action and adventure.
“Jon wanted to make everything feel as real as possible,” says Windon. “Even though there are extensive visual effects in thefilm, he wanted the characters to seem like people you might come across in real life. He wanted a very organic style with nothing forced or too clean and polished. We talked about making it fun, without distracting from our characters.”
G.I. Joe: Retaliation was Chu’s fi rst foray into the action genre, after successes like The League of Extraordinary Dancers and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. HBO initially suggested that film was the right origination medium for G.I. Joe: Retaliation, but left the decision up the filmmakers. Windon and Chu were all for it.
“Film just seemed right,” Windon explains. “Jon was very pro-film. For the time, the look we wanted, and the texture, it was the right decision.”
Windon shot in the Super 35 format to achieve a wide 2.40:1 aspect ratio. For most shots, he used PANAVISION cameras and PRIMO lenses, although for overcranked, slow-motion shots he used an ARRI 435. He also made extensive use of the small ARRI 235 camera.
“I like to use the 235 at hip level, and it’s just great at that,” he says. “I used that technique quite a bit on The Pacific, with a little monitor onboard and no eyepiece. It’s literally ‘shoot from the hip.’”
That was in keeping with the shooting style that evolved, which prized continuous movement. “We just kept driving into things and getting whisked along,” Windon describes. “The film takes place in different countries with different governments, events and strategies. That was the fun thing for me — there were so many distinctive looks in the film. It’s quite a journey.”
Almost the entire movie, aside from some mountain shots photographed in British Columbia, was done in Louisiana. Windon estimates that 85 percent of the film was produced on sets, many of which were built at a hulking former NASA facility east of New Orleans called the Michoud Assembly Facility.
“I’ve never seen buildings as big as these,” remarks Windon. “We were filming in these massive chambers, if you like, and they became our sound stages. One of them looked so good that we ended up using it as a set itself, a place where huge missiles are being made. It was fun to light.”
These big spaces required plenty of lighting firepower. The production used an abundance of 20Ks and large Fresnel units. Dinos and Maxis were used to create strong beams of light coming in windows.
Another sequence done at Michoud depicts a Tokyo rooftop. Windon shot with a 360-degree TransLite. The nearby Greenwood Plantation stood in for the U.S. President’s vacation home. Fort Pike was the location for a climactic confrontation in Act III. A corner of City Park in New Orleans was used as a nighttime entryway into an underground lab. There, Windon played with a mixture of sodium vapor and tungsten light.
He says that the KODAK Film stocks — mostly KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 in that situation — handled the mixed color temperatures well. “The (52)19 is my favorite stock. I love grading it, and seeing all the details it captures. I love big, hot practical lights and overexposure, and contrasting that with dark areas in the frame. And you can’t break that stock. It’s really cool. It loves all the color.”
Windon and Chu leaned toward a cyan-to-cool color palette for the majority of the movie. The front-end lab was Cineworks in New Orleans. “There was a cyan-ish base in the dark areas and the blacks,” notes Windon. “We kept that in mind with the lighting and also with the color timing at Company 3 with Stefan Sonnenfeld. That was fun.”
Lenses were generally medium-wide, with the 27mm and 21mm getting heavy use. “That opened up the background, and Jon really loved that,” says Windon. “He had not worked with the wide, 2.40 frame before, and he really embraced it.”
Windon also made use of a daylight-balanced stock, KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 5203. Prior to G.I. Joe, his predilection in daylight situations was for shooting tungsten-balanced stock without a correction filter and adjusting in color correction. He says the result can be an appealingly gritty look. “But for this film, I wanted really fine grain, and that really clean crispness, especially for the beautiful sequences that take place in the Himalayas. I’ve used it on commercials, but this was the first time I’ve shot a feature with it. I really liked it, and Jon loved it.”
One amazing sequence shows a number of ninja fighters hanging off the side of a Himalayan mountain, fighting each other while swinging and swooping from their mountain-climbing ropes. The sequences required weeks of rehearsal. The scenes were shot on the big stages against a green screen background. It was the most technically complex sequence of the 80-day shoot.
“Normally, I would prefer to shoot something like that outside and really fight with Mother Nature because that’s what you’d have to do in a real environment,” says Windon. “And that’s the way I prefer to do daytime greenscreen. But because we were shooting in New Orleans, there’s always the chance of hurricanes and bad weather, so we decided to do it indoors. I can’t remember the number of 24Ks we had in this set, but there were many. The shots were so big that I was using a Russian arm on a pursuit camera car as the dolly. That was the most technically challenging part of the project.”
Since he wrapped G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Windon has moved on to Fast and Furious 6 with director Justin Lin — also originating on 35 mm KODAK Film.
Photos: Jaimie Trueblood © 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. Hasbro and its logo, G.I. JOE and all related characters are Trademarks of Hasbro and used with permission. All Rights Reserved.