A Universe X-pands

Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel talks about re-teaming with Bryan Singer on X2.


Adapting a comic-book world for a live-action feature is always a difficult prospect - you must give indoctrinated fans the experience they crave, but also satisfy the rest of the movie-going public. After X-Men proved to be a success in the summer of 2000 (see AC July '00), 20th Century Fox began assembling the ingredients for its sequel, X2. One of the studio's first steps was to tap director Bryan Singer and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC, who had collaborated so successfully on X-Men.

The studio and the paying public are expecting the X-Men's new adventure to be an even grander spectacle, and Sigel confirms that this was one of the major challenges the filmmakers confronted. "We wanted the second film to have a bigger canvas, a bigger scale," he says. The trick for the camera department, he adds, "was to give the sequel a visual continuity with the first one but still expand upon it."

Singer, who has collaborated with Sigel on Apt Pupil and The Usual Suspects in addition to X-Men, says he sees X2 as this series' The Empire Strikes Back. "We take the story deeper and we get a bit darker, but we also get more romantic," Singer says. "Whereas the first film established the universe and introduced the characters, this one uses the characters to tell the story. It's tough when you're introducing such a complex ensemble, and once you've done that it makes the second part more fun for the audience and the filmmakers. We weren't stuck having to [explain the characters and their superpowers]; we had covered that ground and could move on."

With both X-Men films, Singer and Sigel "strove [to lend] a kind of credibility to an otherwise fantastical world," says Sigel. "For Bryan, it was important for the films to have a very classical, naturalistic look, and yet have an otherworldliness and also an energy that's very modern. He did not want them to feel like comic books. In many ways, I think we're trying to make films that are closer to Road to Perdition than, say, Gone in 60 Seconds."

Though Sigel filmed X-Men in the anamorphic 2.40:1 format, he opted to shoot X2 in Super 35mm 2.35:1, and he observes that "the big gap between [the formats] is closing." Sigel adds that improvements in film stocks and optics have increased the advantages of using spherical lenses - even if the blowup to anamorphic must be accomplished optically instead of digitally. (At press time, Fox had not yet approved the filmmakers' request to put X2 through a digital intermediate.) "If you think about it, every anamorphic lens is simply a spherical lens with an anamorphizer on it, so almost by definition, they'll never be as good as the spherical lenses that they emulate," Sigel notes.

For X2, Sigel relied extensively on the Primo 11:1 (24-275mm T2.8) zoom and the Primo Macro Zoom. "When Bryan and I worked together on The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, I used a lot of combination dolly/zoom shots," he says. "When we did X-Men we wanted to go another direction, and one of the ways to give the film a more formal quality was to shoot in a format that limited our choice of lenses and wasn't really zoom-friendly. When shooting with anamorphic lenses, you tend to use a small number of primes and maintain a more solid or precise framing. With spherical lenses, we can go with more zoom shots or the dolly/zoom combination we like; it gave us a more fluid, ever-changing frame. It's like moving from setting the stage on the first film to energizing the second with more options."

Sigel's camera package con-sisted of two Panaflex Millenniums and a Millennium XL, as well as an Aaton 35-III that he would "stick in odd places or on rigs." In addition to the Primos, he occasionally took advantage of the Frazier lens system's unusual capabilities. In addition to its ability to slide into a position no camera body could ever squeeze into, Sigel says, the lens "tends to give you [abundant] depth of field and a little more distortion than you might have in another lens."

At one point in X2, a character trying to make a grand getaway must grab hold of a chain tethering a helicopter to the ground. Sigel used the Frazier lens to frame the chain in a way that enhanced the drama of the moment. "[The character] goes to grab the chain and the lens is just a couple of inches from it," he explains. "Freeing the helicopter is his means of escape. [Making the chain] really big in the foreground conveys its importance in relation to the character. Because of the structure of the Frazier lens, when someone reaches toward it you get a very elongated motion, which can be very dramatic if it works out right."

X2 features a lot more camera movement than its predecessor. "I did a lot of the seemingly normal coverage from a jib arm on a [Mega Mount] remote head," Sigel says. "I'd operate the remote head while communicating via headsets with the crane operator. It was a little dance we did together; he would move the crane and I would operate the head.

"We would sometimes do this coverage by keeping our framing very loose or giving the camera an almost floating feeling," Sigel adds. "We might be in an over-the-shoulder, but as the actors began to move we'd respond to what they were doing. I use that technique quite a bit. I like it when you can be responsive to what an actor is doing - the camera can take the viewer deeper inside the internal workings of the performance. It's as though you're talking to those people in real life. The camera participates in a proactive way. Bryan began to embrace that approach more and more as the shooting went on."

Sigel sees the camera as being "like another actor in the film. Consequently, you have to think about movement the way an actor would about a performance. You have to find that place where you're participating emotionally, but you're not drawing attention to yourself and pulling the audience out of the film. If you cross a certain line, the camera's performance becomes more prominent than the actor's performance, and that's when you're hurting yourself. It's the same as when an actor gets really 'big' and starts to chew the scenery."

X2 is production designer Guy Dyas' maiden voyage on a feature film, and one of Singer's first instructions to Dyas was to get in sync with Sigel and gaffer Tony Nakonechnyj so that the lighting and design work would complement each other. "I was actually quite intimidated when I met Tom Sigel," Dyas recalls. "After all, this was the guy who had shot Three Kings! I was nervous, but he and Tony were very helpful and down-to-earth, and they were glad to share their extensive knowledge. When you're wor
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EarthsMightiestAdmin
4/17/2003
American Cinematographer

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