A Fantastic Experience
Witmer, Jon D., American Cinematographer
Second-unit ace Larry Blanford maximizes his big break after being promoted to director of photography on Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
In 1961, Stan Lee and lack Kirby"s Fantastic Four #1 exceeded all expectations and inaugurated the Mighty Marvel Age of Comics. Forty-four years later, the 2005 feature film Fantastic Four, directed by Tim Story and shot by Oliver Wood, proved the superheroes' ability to endure in the modern age by earning more than $300 million at box offices worldwide. With Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Story and cinematographer Larry Blanford attempt to scale new heights with the franchise, bringing to life one of the most famous plot arcs in the annals of Marvel's First Family.
Silver Suffer follows the continuing exploits of team leader Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic (loan Gruffudd); his fiancee, Sue Storm/The Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba); Sue's brother, Johnny/The Human Torch (Chris Evans); and their blue-eyed friend, Ben Grimm/The Thing (Michael ChMs). This time around, the fearless foursome goes head-to-head with cosmic traveler Silver Surfer-a CG creation by Weta Digital, enacted on set by Doug Jones in a motion-capture suit-as they try to avert the destruction of Earth.
When he began work on the series' second installment, Story called Blanford, who had shot second unit for Wood on Fantastic Four. "Larry also shot pickups with me," says Story, "and at the end of Fan Four he shot the last few days of first unit when Oliver had to move on to another project Larr/s energy is infectious, and that's exactly what I was looking for on this movie."
Blanford's first brush with Hollywood came while he was still a sergeant in the US. Air Force, when he was hired as one of the aerial tinematographers on Top Gun (shot by Jeffrey Kimball, ASC). "After working on that show, I knew cinematography was what I wanted to do, and so I left the Air Force shoruy thereafter," he says. Another lucky break awaited Blanford when he returned home from the service. "I still have every comic book I bought as a kid - I had one of the few moms who didn't throw away all of your stuff - and they've turned out to be a great resource."
Over the years, Blanford honed his skills as an operator and aerial cinematographer before shooting second unit for such ASC luminaries as Janusz Kaminski (on Minority Report) and Mauro Fiore (on Tears of the Sun and the upcoming The Kingdom, among other projects). "I have to say that Janusz and Mauro have been the two biggest influences on my career," he says. "When they heard I was shooting [Silver Suffer], they both said, 'What can we do? How can we help?' If s really wonderful to know they had faith I could pull it off."
After leaving the shoot for TTic Kingdom a bit early - with Fiore's blessing - Blanford had six weeks of prep for Silver Surfer. In addition to referencing a bevy of movies, still photos and advertisements, Blanford and Story "went back to look at the first [Fantastic Four], because Oliver did a great job," says the director. "I wanted to keep that crisp, colorful vibe while trying my hand at some new things as well."
It was a given that the picture would require extensive digital effects, and the filmmakers strove to keep the characters grounded in a realistic milieu. Vancouver stood in for the foursome's hometown of New York City, and Blanford notes that about 70 percent of the film was shot at practical locations.
As fens know, a crucial setting for any Fantastic Four story is the First Family's home and headquarters, the Baxter Building. To bring the building to the screen, several practical locations and stages were overtaken by the cast and crew, including what gaffer Burton Kuchera describes as "a $20 million house of glass. It was quite tricky to shoot in." Blanford elaborates, "The exterior had all these massive bushes, yet we were supposed to be 55 stories up in Manhattan. So we had to put bluescreen outside the walls we'd see through, and we were realty at the sun's mercy. …