How the 'Captain America: Civil War' Airport Battle Was Filmed and Why It's a Prelude to 'Avengers: Infinity War'

Cinematographer Trent Opaloch on closing an airport terminal, putting the new Arri Alexa 65 on a drone and whether he's Team Cap or Team Iron Man.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Marvel 2016

There’s more than meets the eye in a climactic airport battle in Disney/Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War.

It involved everything from shutting down an airport terminal to drones, practical explosions, digital effects, navigating airport security, unpredictable weather and cutting-edge camera technology. It all added up to a dizzying string of complexities that had to be successfully orchestrated by director of photography Trent Opaloch and the members of multiple production departments. 

The airport scene from directors Anthony and Joe Russo’s Civil War was filmed on a backlot at Pinewood Atlanta Studios and on location at Germany’s Leipzig/Halle Airport — which Opaloch said was a great experience, though challenging since it was a working airport. “We shut down one terminal and we had a little postage stamp of tarmac that we could shoot on,” he said. “We had to go through security after breakfast and at lunchtime. All of the equipment had to be ferried in beforehand and it was gone over with dogs and inspectors, so we had to make sure we had everything we needed because once you started shooting, you couldn’t just reach into the truck and pull out something from the other side. 

“We also had a tight schedule with the cast,” he added. “We shot a lot of the wide footage with stand-ins and stunt doubles. If we’d get Robert Downey Jr. in for a day, we’d shoot some of his stuff, then the other side of a conversation.” 

Asked whether, when it all was over, he was Team Captain America or Team Iron Man, Opaloch responded with a laugh. “Neither. I’m team Civil War.” 

The majority of Civil War was lensed with the widely-used ARRI Alexa XT digital cameras, but for the airport sequence, the filmmakers upped the complexity by using the still relatively new ARRI Alexa 65, a new 6K resolution camera with bespoke ARRI lenses. (Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was among the first to try the camera, which he used to photograph roughly 40 percent of The Revenant). Said Opaloch: “There was an idea late in preproduction to shoot Civil War entirely with the Alexa 65, but we were so close to our start date and it was such a large-scale undertaking, [so we decided] to use it for this key sequence, and use it as the testing ground for Avengers: Infinity War Parts 1 and 2, which will be shot completely with those cameras.”

Opaloch, a BAFTA nominee for District 9, will be reteaming with the Russo Brothers on the upcoming Avengers films, after having first worked with them on Captain America: The Winter Soldier. On Civil War, he put the Alexa 65 through its paces, using it on a Technocrane, Steadicam, dollies, "and a drone team did flyovers with the camera over the airport; it was incredible.

“Additionally, key grip Michael Coo developed a bungee rig system; Mark Goellnicht, our ‘A’ camera operator used a similar system on Mad Max: Fury Road," Opaloch continued. "Basically, it’s a long bungee tube attached to a rope that will run up 30 or 40 feet; we suspend that line over the set. It allows the operators to get very dynamic and right in there with the action; it feels like handheld but they don’t have the brunt of the weight of the camera."

With so much resolution and for such a big presentation format as Imax, Opaloch decided to back off a little on close-ups, tending to use medium close-ups. For wide shots, he sometimes held shots a bit longer, explaining "the great thing is there's so much information in the screen. If it’s a wide shot, you might sit there a little longer, maybe with a slight camera move that allows the viewer to take it all in.”

The scene also involved complex visual effects, led by VFX supervisor Dan Deleeuw. They included digital doubles, digital set extensions, and "we did explosion passes on the backlot as well.”

It’s no surprise that Opaloch said the digital color grading was particularly challenging in this sequence. “That goes a long way to achieving a cohesive look thought the sequence,” he said of the grading, which was led by Marvel’s go-to colorist Steve Scott (The Revenant) and his team at Technicolor. “Like any exterior sequence that is drawn out over a number of days, you get weather inconsistencies. Germany was fairly consistent. Atlanta has very dynamic weather; you would have clouds that roll in and the skies out up and you’d have this incredible biblical rain. We would flee the tarmac set and go finish another part of the sequence indoors on greenscreen.”

The Alexa 65 has been now been used by a growing number of cinematographers including Opaloch; Rodrigo Prieto, for Passengers; Greig Fraser, for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; and Tom Stern, for Sully. “The Alexa 65 is a game changer as far as being another tool that allows you to think about telling stories in a different way; it has such a huge canvas,” said Oraloch. “The scale and scope of Infinity Wars is so great, I think it’s going to be a fantastic match of filmmaking and technology.

“We are still catching up on lens options; I’m having weekly conversations with the guy at ARRI (who are working on lenses with additional focal lengths),” he continued. “There’s a mad push to get them ready for Infinity Wars. As it stands, we are meant to have 12 Alexa 65 cameras for those films since we are shooting them back to back, and we’ll need all the accessories and lenses. [When we get the script] we’ll break down logistically how we’ll tackle this, with how many cameras and units. It such behemoth of a project.”

ARRI is also working with Imax to create a special version of the Alexa 65 aimed at Imax exhibition, though at the time of Civil War's production, the technology wasn’t ready.

To meet demand, ARRI is additionally building 40 more Alexa 65 cameras for its rental facilities worldwide, which will more than double its current inventory of 30, ARRI exec Dana Ross told The Hollywood Reporter.

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