‘Avengers: Endgame’ DP Trent Opaloch on the Challenge of Crafting That Final Battle

     November 21, 2019

Creating one of the biggest (eventually highest-grossing) films of all time on any level is a daunting challenge, but imagine being the person responsible for the look of it all—for turning those millions of dollars worth of stars and sets and VFX into actual images captured inside a camera. That was the task afforded cinematographer Trent Opaloch on Avengers: Endgame, but while he knew he was in for a daunting ride in shooting Infinity War and Endgame back-to-back, he was also well aware that he had one of the best support systems in the world.

Opaloch’s collaboration with directors Joe and Anthony Russo began on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and oddly enough Opaloch was almost more excited to meet the directors of Arrested Development than he was to shoot a Marvel superhero movie. Their work together on that film brought a grounded, gritty aesthetic to the MCU, and when Opaloch was called to once again collaborate with “the brothers,” as he calls them, on Captain America: Civil War, he couldn’t pass up the chance to work with Iron Man himself. So by the time Opaloch received the offer to shoot Infinity War and Endgame, he had already solidified a great working relationship with the Russos, become familiar with the process of making a Marvel movie, and unbeknownst to him, had been working his way up, step-wise, to the herculean challenge of crafting a conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe story.

I recently got the chance to speak with Opaloch by phone about his work on Endgame, and he discussed his working relationship with the Russo Brothers and how they set about crafting Infinity War and Endgame as two distinct films. He also went into detail about shooting the epic Endgame finale, and the unique challenges that a movie like this presented regarding actor availability and having to shoot massive sequences in pieces over the course of months.

Check out the full interview below. If for some insane reason you still haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame, it’s currently available to stream on Disney+ or to purchase via Blu-ray, DVD, or Digital HD.

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Photo by Chuck Zlotnick
©Marvel Studios 2019

What was your first reaction when Joe and Anthony first brought you on board for both Endgame and Infinity War, and then kind of how quickly did you realize this was going to be one of the biggest undertakings in pretty much cinema history?

TRENT OPALOCH: Well, it’s funny. The whole thing started with The Winter Soldier, right, with the brothers. And the first time I ever met them, I was such a fan of Arrested Development that I was like a fanboy with them at our first meeting. Then their pitch for Winter Soldier, I was never really a comic book guy when I was a kid, and so their pitch for The Winter Soldier I thought was really cool in that they wanted to bring it down to reality, and get really gritty, and a little bit more realistic than some of the films had been handled in the past. And so I’m game for it. I was sort of seduced by their pitch and by who they are as just individuals. They’re great guys. And that’s always a really good experience for me. And then they asked me to do Civil War, I sort of thought like when I did Winter Soldier, I was like, okay, that’s great. I’ll do a comic book movie and go back to whatever. When they asked me to do Civil War, I was such a fan of the Tony Stark Iron Man character, and I really enjoyed the previous Iron Man films, that to me I was kind of like, oh, it’s almost like doing an Avengers movie. You know? And the scale was really quite big, and I was kind of excited with some of the preliminary ideas that they had for that film, and so I took that on as a challenge in that it was unlike anything I’d ever done before, and I was kind of really excited.

And then, I don’t know. I was at a hockey game in San Jose during the playoffs when I got the call from Joe. I mean that was the official call. “Hey, we want you on board.” And it was cool, but it was pretty daunting. You know that that’s going to be three years of your life. And that’s one thing I really struggle with films is that I have all these hobbies and interests outside of filmmaking and you put all of that on pause when you go to a movie for six months to a year or whatever, and you leave your friends and family, and you kind of go on the road with that film. So it’s a big responsibility to accept the film. But it was the same thing. The idea of making those two movies, that would be very challenging, but to make them with Joe and Anthony and the rest of the Marvel family, you just sort of know what’s in store, you know what the overall experience is going to be like. So as big and daunting as the scale is, it’s sort of like you’ve got the best selection of human beings around you to make it happen. So it’s a way more pleasurable than you think the experience could be. You know?

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Image via Marvel Studios

Yeah well and at this point I would imagine there’s a pretty huge support system at Marvel there as well. I mean, they’ve kind of got it down to a science of how to make these movies while still allowing for creative freedom. But if there’s a problem or issue it seems like they pretty much have an answer every time.

OPALOCH: Yeah. I mean, that’s a very interesting perspective, as well, to be on the inside for those conversations, and to see that workflow, to see how that all happened is pretty impressive. A lot of that comes down to Kevin Feige and him just being this ultimate collaborator working with the filmmakers, and he’s very trusting. My take on it is once he’s made the choice, like this is the filmmaker that is going to make this movie, this is who I want, it’s a very open and trusting relationship. It’s almost always a conversation, a group conversation. But the director is there to make the movie and he’s got a ton of support from Marvel. So yeah, actually. From my perspective, it was a really good experience. All four of the films.

I know a with Infinity War and Endgame, Joe and Anthony said that they really wanted them to feel like two distinct movies in terms of tone and in terms of aesthetic approach as well, and I was kind of curious how your visual approach to Infinity War differed or contrasted with your visual approach to Endgame.

OPALOCH: Yeah, that’s tough. I mean, there was a such similarity between the two films. A lot of it comes down to the scene that you’re shooting drives everything, right? So the tone of what you’re going for generally is there on the page, and then depending on what the actors and the directors do with it throughout the performance, that’s going to inform where you go with the scene. And so there is sort of an epic scale on Endgame. Both movies are very big, but to me—I was really happy with Infinity War, but I was actually really looking forward to Endgame for a number of reasons. I think a bunch of it had to do with the fact that it was just all those storylines coming together. And so you sum everything up that you’ve seen across all these different films for so many years and all these character storylines, and so I was really looking forward to that kind of closure. Then also there’s just some great scenes in Endgame. The whole opening, I love.

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Image via Marvel Studios

And so it’s funny, because I felt like I had to wait much longer time than I had for the other films, because of course they had to get Infinity War [done first]. We shot them back-to-back. We had to get Infinity War done so that that was in post, and then it felt like I had to wait forever to see Endgame, and I was really, really happy just to see the scale and the look of it all once we started color timing. I was just very happy with the end result.

Did you guys have any kinds of rules in terms of shot composition or how you were framing things up on Endgame that were different from Infinity War? Or was it just kind of whatever the scene needs?

OPALOCH: I think it’s, I mean, it’s funny because not just with the brothers, but on other projects, either commercials or shorts, sometimes I find when you start, there’s a theoretical discussion level that happens in the early stage, right? That guides the process and informs things, but everything gets trumped by what you see on the day. And so basically the feeling, and this is what I love about filmmaking, that you can react to… you get the camera up, you get that first lens up for the first wide that’s going to sort of establish everything, and that’s when you go realtime, and that’s when the decisions matter, because it’s being laid down for the history books, so to speak. And so I love those moments where you’re reacting, and again it’s often a conversation with the brothers, with the different camera operators, and you’ll react to what you’re seeing and depending on what the actors are doing in front of the lens, that’s going to drive you towards a certain direction, or look, or feel for that. It really makes it kind of an exciting organic kind of process to be involved with.

With the time-heist section of the film, you have these characters going back to the worlds of three different movies, which then had three different directors, and three different cinematographers, Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, and Guardians of the Galaxy. And so I was kind of curious how you guys approached shooting those scenes in a way that you can ensure that the scenes felt a part of a whole with those films, but then also fit in with the palatte you had chosen for Endgame.

OPALOCH: Yeah. The other films, we started with the discussion and looking at the previously shot scenes. And that definitely gave us the broad strokes, because we had to be able to drop the viewer into our scene and have a really quick lead as to where they were. And that’s kind of the gag you’ve got to pull into, and you’re seeing it from a different perspective. So that definitely informed the process. And then from there, we had to take over with whatever the specific needs were of what we were doing in our version of that scene.

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Image via Marvel Studios

So it’s like a matching the look and feel of the previous films, but then also doing your own thing. And once you’re into the sequence, I think it opens up a bit as far as what you can do. You don’t want a big departure from what people are expecting as far as the scene, because otherwise it kind of blows the gag of what the scene stands for. Yeah, it was fun. It was neat to have all the different looks.

I think it blends pretty seamlessly, as well. That’s a standout sequence from the film, but also, obviously, the final battle, which has to be one of the most complicated but purely satisfying sequences that I’ve seen in a long time. I was wondering if you could talk about how you even begin to plan for that. And if you could maybe take me step by step through the process of just how you guys went about capturing that final battle on film, from your perspective?

OPALOCH: It’s months of discussions, those big sequences. And there’s so much weight and so much pressure to pull it off. And there’s so many eyeballs expecting something special and great with all the Marvel fans. So, often, we would schedule those scenes, like the big showdown sequence at the end of Civil War, that was the same thing. We would schedule it, kick it back in our schedule to allow for some time for the juices to simmer. In this particular sequence it was logistically very challenging as well, because we had so many cast members, and everybody’s off doing different films. They’re doing their own films, other projects all around the world, so that was a massive challenge. That sequence, in particular, more than I think anything else that I’ve worked with with the brothers, was a combination of pre-viz, concept art, and, also, stunt viz provided by the stunt performers to piece everything together. Because we had to have a document that guided us during the process, through the overall sequence, like the “flea flicker” sequence. That’s something that comes up quite a bit, where they’re handing off the gauntlet from one character to another.

That was shot across months, from start to finish. And we might get Tom Holland for three hours to do his bit. So we would shoot the in and outs around that, that scene with him. We shot it a bunch of ways. We shot doubles, we slotted people in later on, in post, and obviously there’s a lot of seamless editing that takes place as well. But that was one of the more complex and complicated sequences. It’s a hectic sequence in its own right. Then when you add the logistics of reduced availability, and the scheduling problems with all the actors, it was very challenging, but great. I think it worked out very well. It’s really rewarding to see it when it was all said and done.

Yeah, it’s super gratifying. I would also imagine there were very few shots in this movie without a visual effects element in them, which is different from some other movies. And that’s obviously going to change what the image looks like versus what you captured on set that day. So I was kind of curious what your involvement is like in post-production, and honing in on what a scene is going to look like when it’s just an actor against a green screen.

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Image via Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

OPALOCH: Yeah, you always want to have as much real estate that you can touch physical set pieces around you. There’s a couple sets. There’s an interrogation cell that plays in both films. It was literally jet blue screen after screen, and it’s crazy. And I actually really don’t like… That’s not a lot of fun for me, because it just leaves so much to the imagination. Of course, you’ve got concept art and everything that you’re lighting towards. But all the feedback you get on the set is what is happening with the actors as far as how they look with the lighting. So it’s just not a lot of fun compared to lighting something with an actual set, something that you can get that instant reward from.

A lot of it starts very early with conversations with the art department. And we all settle on what it is, what’s the goal that we’re going for. What have we landed on as far as the design, or the architecture, or the construction? What is that physically going to look like? And then, it carried forward with the visual effects department, because that’s an ongoing discussion, as well. And that can actually bite you at times. There have been scenes where that conversation keeps going after you’ve shot it. So now you’ve got to retrofit what you’ve done, even shooting the final canvas as it’s been rendered out.

And a lot of that stuff you can adjust tonally, as far as color, you can shift the color balance or anything. But, yeah, it’s definitely something that you need a number of departments involved in those conversations to make sure that you’re all going in the right direction. Because so much of it, you’re spending so much money. And when the actors show up on set, you’ve got to be ready to go. So those conversations have to take place weeks or months ahead of time so that you’re ready to react to what you see on set once everything goes live.

Were there any instances on this film where what you shot, the visual effects element changed pretty significantly after you’ve shot it, and you guys had to rework the lighting in post?

OPALOCH: Not so much on this film. But on Infinity War there was that sequence with Thanos and Gamora up on the mountaintop. And there was this whole dynamic that we did that we added to the clouds. And the idea was that the environment was aware of what was happening down below, and it was almost like it was reacting. So there’s this storm that was building in intensity. As Thanos got closer to the edge, he talked Gamora down. So the idea was we had these lightning blasts going off. The concept was there was dynamic lightning effects, but not hard lightning, as it’s taking place above and diffused by heavy thick storm clouds. So it was like these lighting pulses that were building in intensity. So we had that, and we had those conversations, and everybody was on the same page. And then, something changed. So when you see the final film, I think, if you don’t know what to look for, you probably wouldn’t even react to it. But, me, I imagined something happening in the skies, because of course, all the skies are getting CG.

But I guess, for whatever reason, that just wasn’t a priority when it came to rendering that element of the plate. So the lighting is doing something that the skies aren’t doing. But overall it’s fixed. So I think the reason you get away with it is it just feels like there’s something happening offscreen. And it isn’t right in the very deep background that you can see in the shot. So in the end, it wasn’t that much, but I was pretty stressed the first time I saw that.

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