Magazine article American Cinematographer

A Unique Second Unit

Magazine article American Cinematographer

A Unique Second Unit

Article excerpt

Aiding Dan Mindel, ASC, BSC in the shooting of The Force Awakens was his 2nd-unit cinematographer and longtime collaborator Bruce McCleery. The 2nd-unit team, which includes visual-effects supervisor and 2nd-unit director Roger Guyett, has worked together on nearly all of director J.J. Abrams' films, including Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness.

"The way that second unit is structured on J.J. s films is different than typical second units," offers McCleery. "Were a fortunate team of filmmakers that has been together on a lot of projects, which brings about a level of comfort, intimacy and mist that isn't necessarily the norm."

That trust, McCleery continues, "allows J.J. to schedule the movie [so] that he can go back and forth between the units. We'll frequently work on sequences that the first unit is working on, taking care of the action beats and the more complicated and time-consuming aspects of the sequence, as a traditional second-unit team would, but sometimes were handling entire sequences just with second unit.

"Mostly, whenever you see someone flying in an X-wing or TIE fighter, when a set is on a gimbal, or there are a lot of big battles or explosions and fight sequences, or when characters are on wires, we'll handle the brunt of that," he adds. "Many of the ship interiors - with the exception of the Millennium Falcon - we handle those. We often dealt with really elaborate visual-effects components with CG elements. Because Roger is a very savvy visual-effects supervisor as well as an accomplished director, he knew intimately what the background environment was that we were inserting some element into, and that was invaluable."

McCleery started prep on The Force Awakens in early March 2014 and jumped right into discussions with Mindel. "During that prep I had a lot of time to test," he recalls. "I would shoot tests for Dan, which is part of our fairly unique relationship. I've known Dan for more than 20 years and we have a very comfortable sort of language and communication. We do multiple rounds of testing, and I try to light each set several different ways, working in cooperation with the art department and wardrobe to try out textures and colors and set dressings and such. The art and construction departments were really fantastic. They worked incredibly hard to have several huge sets ready for these tests way ahead of time. We'd try different atmospheric conditions; various lenses, gels, camera moves and filtrations; we'd test highlights and exposure bracketing; and then Dan and I would watch these tests together in the theater at Pinewood to figure out how to approach each set. It sounds like a luxury, but it really saves time on set. Later, when we went back to shooting that set for the film, I'd know that Dan went with 'Option C from our tests and know exactly how to approach my lighting."

Though occasionally the scenario was transposed, 1st unit would generally start shooting on a particular set and 2nd unit would come in later to finish it off. And although the lst-unit crew would move on, the lighting-board operators would remain with the set, as they had the detailed knowledge of 1st unit's cues and decisions. The system relied upon the close cooperation of the 1st- and 2ndunit lighting departments, led respectively by Perry Evans and David Sinfield.

In the course of the adventure, Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) steal a TIE fighter to make a getaway, and although the production had created a full-scale TIE-fighter cockpit, the coverage demands for one particular shot were too much for the small space. …

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