Will Smith (right) and Josh Brolin (rear left) star in Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK 3. PHOTO BY: Wilson Webb/COPYRIGHT: © 2011 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.
The shadowy agents are back in Men in Black III, maintaining order among the extraterrestrials secretly living among the oblivious humans. But an alien plot with a time travel twist threatens the existence of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and Earth itself. Agent J (Will Smith) must time-jump to 1969 and team up with young Agent K, played with spot-on mimicry by Josh Brolin, to foil the scheme. Barry Sonnenfeld again directs, this time with director of photography Bill Pope, ASC putting Kodak film through its paces.
“We wanted this one to feel part of a piece, so if you get a boxed set of all three, it looks like they were all made in the same afternoon, and that’s one of the main things that led us to film instead of digital,” says Pope, whose well-known credits include The Matrix trilogy and Spider-Man 2 and 3. The previous Men in Black films also were shot on Kodak film. “We definitely chose film because of what grain gives you, something the digital world doesn’t have.
“I think it is THE grave mistake of our time to allow the removal of the film arrow from our quiver,” he adds. “A lot of people in this industry, including producers and heads of production, are deeply afraid that this juggernaut of digital is going to erase the option of capturing on film. You need that choice.”
Pope shot nearly the entire movie on film in Super 35 with Arricam LT and ST cameras and Zeiss Master Prime and Angenieux Optimo zoom lenses. However, the second unit did shoot a nighttime stunt scene with the ARRI Alexa digital camera that became part of a dialog scene, so Pope continued with digital for that one night scene. “I put a fake grain on it during the digital intermediate so it matched the film stock” he says.
He opted to use just one film stock for every situation, KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, for consistency in the grain structure and for the ability to filter and control the outside light. The production shot in New York during the winter so daylight was at a premium. Pope worked around a T2.8 stop and overexposed the film just a tad to do so.
Another aspect of making MIB3 part of a cohesive trilogy was the continuance of lens and shot choices that are very specific to Sonnenfeld’s cinematic oeuvre. Sonnenfeld, a former cinematographer himself, developed his visual style on early Coen brothers’ films and other comedies, and later through his comedic directing. “You can easily recognize that wide-angle, center-composed look of his,” Popes notes. “It is very odd, and it’s funny.”
The breakdown looked like this: a close-up was shot on a 21mm lens, an over-the-shoulder with a 75mm, and a two-shot with a 50mm. “When you have a close-up on someone and you distort his face and make it look kind of silly, there are obvious rewards to that,” Pope explains. “On the 50mm two-shot, you defocus the background and pay attention to the two actors playing off each other so there is no need for cutting. The 75mm over-the-shoulder allows you to defocus the foreground shoulder and bring the background person closer. Barry deeply believes in the two-shot as a comedic tool – classic [Howard] Hawksian filmmaking.”
The defining set piece for the MIB films is the immense, very white headquarters, and for MIB3, Pope prepared for two different time periods – 2012 and 1969. “I had the pleasure of working with production designer Bo Welch, who knows as much about photography as I do,” says Pope. “We tried to build into the set the solutions to shoot 360 degrees and have the set light the actors. That’s the goal I always go to a production designer with, and we came pretty close with the set of Men in Black headquarters.”
Through testing of various diffusions and digital design models, Welch and Pope arrived at a solution for the 2012 HQ consisting of a white muslin ceiling that the walls and columns merge into seamlessly. Lights firing through the muslin created a soft toplight to set the modern mood. “The soft toplight doesn’t light people that well so I had to supplement that,” he says. “I’d erase the toplight off the actor and change it to a soft three-quarter sidelight through 12-by-12 or 10-by-20 muslin, with high contrast and not a lot of fill, or maybe even a soft backlight depending on where they were in the room.”
For the 1969 HQ, Pope switched the ceiling to light grid cloth diffusion, and with a harder light quality and more backlight. “Because people’s hair was much more glossy – men with oil in their hair and women with super-sprayed ’dos – that required backlight to give the hair some shape,” he says. “Otherwise, same stock, same fixtures, same camera moves. The lighting is slightly different as a result of the art direction.”
Deluxe Laboratories developed the film, and the 4K DI master was performed at EFILM. Though the edict from Sony was a 3D release, Sonnenfeld was adamant about shooting in 2D for speed and keeping the actors engaged. Prime Focus World handled the 3D conversion process.
The result is a hilarious adventure, true to the trilogy, with the engaging visuals of a modern production. Men in Black III begins the summer with a late May release date worldwide.