First-time Director James McTeigue on Miniature VFX, Shutting Down Trafalgar Square, and the Mask
Filming the screen adaptation of a revered graphic novel presented some unique technical challenges for first-time director James McTeigue. But the V for Vendetta helmer is no ordinary first-timer, having served as 1st AD on all three Matrix films and Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Film & Video asked him about his director’s-chair debut.
Talk about how you achieved the film’s look.
One of the most important things in the film was the mask [worn by the character V]. It doesn’t have any expression. So I tested different film stock, and found out that the mask reacts better when one side is almost completely in silhouette. In that classic noir way, you use your source from one side, and then more often than not I had no fill light. If you had strong source lighting coming from one way, or you’re lighting through a window or Venetian blinds, you can achieve a noir look pretty quickly and dramatically.
What were some other technical challenges?
From the sound aspect, micing the mask was very difficult. It’s very hard to get a mic inside the mask – a mixture of fiberglass and plastic – and get any decent sound off of it, rather than having it reverberate. So we mic’ed the inside of his hairline. It was important to get the vocal nuance, because when you have an inanimate facial object, the voice becomes key to the character.
Which scene presented the greatest challenge?
In London, we closed down Trafalgar Square and Whitehall up to where Parliament and Big Ben are for three nights. It hadn’t been done before. We could only start at midnight and had to finish shooting by 4 a.m. and be completely cleared out by 5 a.m. There were a lot of extras – 500 people dressed as soldiers. We had four hours a night to corral all those people, and within that there were a lot of performances we had to get.
Anything specific you did to help get those shots?
We placed cherry pickers [and used] backlights more than anything, setting big lights rather than setting a bunch of small lights and having to tweak those. We set four massive lights, and that got us through. If we got close, then we could always tweak it in post.
What camera package did you use?
We used an Arricam ST, Arricam LT, Arri 435 ES Xtrem, and an Arri 235.
What about lenses and filters?
Cooke S4 [LBS System] lenses, and the filters were Black ProMist. 1/4 was our main diffusion.
Kodak. Primarily 5218 and 5205, and occasionally 5289.
Joel Silver has said that for the effects, you worked more with miniatures than with CGI. Why?
There were some explosions. You can do things digitally, but for real things like buildings and things like that, sometimes it’s better to do a mix of visual effects and miniatures. We did some tests, and it turned out that the explosion of Parliament looked better if we did it as a model, then augmented it with digital effects.
What influence did the Wachowski Brothers and George Lucas have on your visual and technical approaches to filmmaking?
The great thing about the Star Wars and Matrix processes is that they give you a pretty inside-out knowledge of visual effects. Plus, after Star Wars, if I have to get an actor to act in [front of] the green or blue screen, I’m pretty comfortable with that. I know the way you just have to let an actor use their imagination.