EXCLUSIVE – Thor: Ragnarok cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe reveals career secrets
Thor: Ragnarok hits cinemas internationally today, boasting an all-star cast of Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum and more – and a wide array of exciting visuals, dripping in colour.
Mandy News had the pleasure of talking to the latest Marvel movie's BAFTA-nominated cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Twilight Saga, The Road, Talk to Her) about his craft, career, advice to cinematographers and shooting Thor: Ragnarok.
Javier, tell us a little bit about where you’re from, when you decided to be a cinematographer and how you went about pursuing it.
I was born in Eibar, an industrial village in the province of Guipuzcoa, Spain. For hundreds of years this small population has been dedicated to the fabrication of arms. When I was a kid they used to make bicycles, handguns, hunting rifles, sewing machines... a little of everything. There was a college in the village that specialised in industrial studies. It seemed that I, along with most of my friends, was destined to become an engineer or industrial expert.
But there were circumstances that would stop me from following that path. I had a brother who was a photographer, ten years my senior, who had dedicated himself to photography. When I was a kid I was always sticking my nose into his laboratory and by the age of 13 my hands already smelled of hypo sulphite.
On the other side I has this fascination for cinema. In Eibar there was a huge cinema complex, the Coliseum, where I would sneak in to watch all the big, Hollywood blockbusters. I remember back then I was already dreaming of being a part of those film productions, navigating vast seas where the pirates sailed. I liked living that fiction, which was a stark contrast compared to the grey, rainy and polluted skies of my village.
Did you study anywhere? How did you get work initially? Was it a struggle?
My brother gave me the opportunity to go to Madrid when I was barely 16. There I studied Journalism until I was old enough to enrol in the Escuela Oficial de Cinematografía (Cinematography school). This college accepted very few students and the entrance exam was difficult but I got in and suddenly found myself in the world of film using 35mm cameras, with a stage that had a gangway where the projector would be.
With practical classes in Sci-Fi film directed by the directing students, decorated by the aspiring set designers, etc, this stage was key in my understanding that my vocation would be lighting, camera operating and to get to be a DOP.
An issue I found was getting work after my three years of study. The college worked for the small Spanish film industry, but I had no connections whatsoever. For that reason I had to endure a barren spell of 6 years until I got my first opportunity, which I got from someone I had gone to college with, Fernando Colomo.
His film "¿Qué hace una chica como tu en un sitio como éste?” (What’s a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this?) was my first experience of being a DP and one that started my professional career. I have to admit that suddenly working after so many years of not having worked in that role was very hard, in the time between college and the film I had worked as a journalist, photographer and as a director in a photo laboratory…until my time came. From then until now I’ve shot seventy feature films.
What film/s do you consider to be your big break and why?
I’m going to refer to five films and their directors. Around 1992 I had the chance to shoot “Beltenebros” by Pilar Miro. A story that was very attractive visually. In that film I manipulated the photochemical process with the view of achieving a certain look that fitted in with the atmosphere of post-war Spain. What is certain is that I achieved a peculiar colour parting the negative from the positive without bleaching the copying material of low contrast.
Sensation was caused when my work won “Oso de Plata” at the Berlin Festival. I felt that this film would help me step up and raise me towards adventures of a larger magnitude. And so, in 2000, Alejandro Amenabar wanted me to shoot “The Others”. This film would end up being key to my career, due to its worldwide reception, especially in the USA where is had great success.
After that, and with the same director, I cemented my career with “Sea Inside”, which won an Oscar. Before that I had shot “Talk to Her”, with Pedro Almodovar, which also went on to win an Oscar. The three Spanish films that all had an impact in the mythical land of Hollywood, until Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona" came along. I think it’s possible to say that this light and fun comedy is the film that got me known as a DP in the United States, and a year after that I was in the States shooting “The Road”, with John Hillcoat. This was a special project for me due to the difficulty of lighting the film and the final results we achieved.
I thought “The Road” might be the door that opened me up to the USA with access to interesting stories, but it wasn’t like that as the film did averagely at the Box Office. It fared better in Europe and I was nominated for a BAFTA in the UK. For me “The Road” is one of those films that helps the cinematographer's soul to breathe.
When did you start making English language films and how did you make that transition?
When "Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2007) was done, I had the chance to shoot “Arrancame la Vida”, a very good Mexican production. After that I went to the United States to shoot “The Road”… and I didn’t go back to Spain to work until “The Promise” in 2015, which was an American production.
I haven’t had any contact with any Spanish productions for the last ten years. A convergence of matters that meant my “escape” could take place. Firstly, the work opportunities I was getting were all for jobs outside of my country. Secondly, the film industry in Spain at the time was going through big generational changes.
I realised that my opportunities in Spain were not going to be the same as they had been in years gone by, and so put all my efforts into working in the American market.
You’ve filmed feature fiction films and documentaries. What changes for you between the two?
There are times the systems of shooting both processes coincide but that’s not normally the way. I started out shooting documentaries and I always say that helped me plant light in simple and plausible fiction. There is a documentary style that helps in certain fiction films to achieve an interesting look.
In the process of shooting documentaries, you are obligated to consider the visual elements and space that you have at your disposal. It’s important to choose a good location and an expressive space. In a feature film you have to construct these, to create with lighting and set out to lay the narrative through the camera. Everything is more sophisticated. There is a lot less improvisation than in documentary.
My style of lighting – a lot of the time – uses that documentary style. I try to recreate that natural element of light.
What do you consider to be the treasured traits of an excellent director?
It's total immersion into the story you are about to tell. A sensitivity towards the rhythm of the narrative and intensity of the different situations. Intelligence with regards to your visual expression. Good and clear communication with the actors. Ambition. A love for the small details and a technical knowledge of cinematography.
And the same question for producers!
Knowledge of priorities on a production, to have and use a measured budget efficiently. The wisdom and intuition needed at the time of choosing your cast and shooting equipment. A sensibility and love of things that are done well. Good communication with the director and a generosity towards the crew.
Tell us a bit about the differences approaches to filmmaking that directors such as Almodovar, Forman and Allen have?
These three directors show three different facets at the time of facing up to their films. With Almodovar he makes the interpretation of the actors a priority. The setting of his films don’t rely on sophisticated movements. He normally shoots with a technically simple and efficient style. He’s a lover of bright light and saturated colours.
Forman also makes the actors his priority and gives a lot of freedom to the DOP with regards to setting a scene. Woody Allen relies on the natural setting of a scene. His scenes tend to resolve in sequences. His films are very brave for containing few levels. Perhaps Woody Allen is a complicated producer for a DOP, with the Steadicam being an essential part of his shoots.
What makes you say yes to a project?
First, the story. The script. Writing that will be interesting to the audience and makes you think in pictures, colours and textures. After that comes other aspects to consider like production, casting, director – these are the tools you need to tell a story.
Although I must confess that you don’t always have these circumstances. A lot of the time you accept projects for different motives, like the convenience of shooting as part of a big production, the current interest in the project, the presence of a particular actor or even the personality of the director.
Tell us about Thor: Ragnarok. How long did you shoot for? What were the challenges? How involved were you in post?
I was surprised to be put forwards for “Thor Ragnarok”. This Marvel production apparently wasn’t really fitting to the style of films I’ve made. Despite this, I accepted to take part in the adventure, knowing that it would be different to anything I had done in the past. I like the challenge of being a part of a “Super-production”. It included working with bluescreen for 95% of the sets.
Thor was shot in Australia, on the Gold Coast. I arrived at the start of May and left on the last day of October. Six months in which I prepared and shot the film in its entirety. The fundamental challenge consisted of my integration into the ambience of the special effects. In that world of fantasy, you have to bring your light to the actors, so that during and after the CGI stage they can continue with your spirit and textures of light.
I wasn’t involved with post on the film, partly due to conflicting schedules with other productions and also as this normally stays in the hands of the special effects supervisor.
When you’re working on a project like Thor which is part of a “cinematic universe” or Twilight where there are existing films, what kind of meetings or references are you given by the studio or producers to continue along the same “look”? Or is there freedom?
The previous films I worked on didn’t make me keep that same style for all of them. For films like Twilight or Thor: Ragnarok I’ve had the liberty to change the parameters of cinematography. For example, on New Moon I changed the tone from that of Twilight, which was cold, to something kinder. Chris Weitz and I were in agreement that this film was more romantic than violent. For this reason New Moon is warmer and has a much more sensual style of lighting.
For Thor: Ragnarok, I only took into consideration the detached atmosphere of Asgard in the first few scenes. This calm place, somewhat cold, with a sun in the sky between the clouds. A chrome texture akin to films set in medieval times, except for in its final moments. I’ve never worked under pressure before. It was almost like the films I had worked on before didn’t exist, although obviously I studied them in a lot of detail.
You shot Thor on the Arri Alexa 65 - for those who don’t know, why is this camera so favoured?
I worked with an Alexa 65. A luxury. Its sensor works with an incredible and consistent accuracy. I would highlight that magnificent warmth of reproduction and, for its size, its resolution. The camera isn’t much bigger than an Alexa XT but is easy to use.
I think the Alexa 65 has made a big step forwards for digital technology, for films of a small budget as well as high budget films.
You’ve worked on low and high budget films – please tell us how they differ for you making them.
I think the best thing that can happen in this profession is to be able to work on big budget films with the freedom and happiness you would have working with a smaller budget. I have felt sometimes, on big productions, like I’m one piece in a larger machine. The risk there is I lose of my personality. On smaller budget pictures sometimes you get the chance to make “crazy” and interesting visuals.
For one part when you work on studio productions with big budgets you know you will have less problems, because you know you will have mediums and elements with which you can defend yourself. On the others, you often need to rely on luck to achieve good results. For example on exterior shoots.
I like films that make me take risks, by which I mean in some way your photographic personality leaves a mark on it. On big films some of this spirit is diluted a little, you have little or no idea what will happen to the film after the final edit.
Many technological changes have occurred since the 1970s – which do you appreciate and which have proved frustrating? What would you like to see change?
There is so much that has changed. I think we get to work infinitely better than we did a few years ago. The lenses have an incredible aperture. Digital technology is even more sensitive than the human eye. These are all advantages except the mystery of images from forgotten eras which has now disappeared.
In reality, the work of a DP is there for all to see. Before, nobody could have had an opinion on the rushes until the dailies could be seen on the screen in the editing room, whereas now anybody can say something about the image because they can all see this on the monitor. This detail can somewhat condition our work in some way.
Elsewhere the advances in building light and post production, DI, have made it possible that work on different productions can look and feel the same.
In the future, I think the advances will be in VR, with textures that are practically unknown at the moment. But I think real images will always be here, plausible, credible and faithful to stories of life, like they are now.
What is one of your favourite career highlights or nightmares that you remember well?
When there is a serious technical problem that we manage to resolve I get a feeling that the film will have a long run and achieve certain success. That happened with “Sea Inside”. There was a scene on the beach with a crane that comes in close to the protagonist, just as Javier Barden touches his shoulder… Very complicated to pull off but it came out marvellously. The film won an Oscar.
In “Secretos del Corazon” (Secrets of the Heart) directed by Montxo Armendariz we had an “Impossible” plan in which a spider was the protagonist which we would shoot macro on a spider-web. Miraculously, our spider did exactly what we wanted it to. That film was nominated for, and was a serious contender for, an Oscar.
Also you forget about the bad times, although not all the time. I still think of how bad it went when we shot “The Promise”. That was an exception. In almost all of the films I have been involved in, it’s been great.
What do you recommend to camera trainees aspiring to work with you?
What I like the most from anyone who collaborates with me is that they have attitude, to have the guts to try to better themselves and a sense of opportunity when it comes to asking or questioning anything. Someone who knows how to move on set.
For those starting out do not give up when it gets hard and maintain energy during these moments. Analyse lighting styles of different films. Start creating your own style and make something personal that is in line with your sensibilities. You have to feel comfortable before letting anything out of your hands.Tags: