Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel has been with Bryan Singer nearly since the beginning, going all the way back to the director’s break-out Oscar-winning hit “The Usual Suspects” in 1995. Their shared filmography boasts four “X-Men” films, including the upcoming “X-Men: Apocalypse,” which may well be Singer’s last foray helming the story of Marvel’s mutant superheroes. An aesthetic has developed throughout the franchise while maintaining a notable consistency, but for all involved, “Apocalypse” might have been the biggest bite taken out of what has become its own self-sustained cinematic universe. Sigel recently talked to Variety about that evolution and translating the world of the comic book to the screen in a pragmatic way.
You’ve worked with Bryan Singer on each of the four “X-Men” films he’s directed. What do you recall of the early days?
The first thing to remember is that there was not a lot of precedent or comparative stuff. There was obviously the old “Superman” movies and stuff like that, but comic book movies as a genre was kind of new. And Bryan wasn’t a comic book geek as a child. He wasn’t one of those people who had lived with it all his life and was getting a dream thing. He was kind of brought to it but a couple of other people who were. But what was interesting about that was Bryan brought more of a modern filmmaker’s sensibility and storytelling. I think that led to a fresh way of thinking about doing a comic book. And in particular because Bryan’s aesthetic is very much one of realism and real-world logic in the sense that he wanted to understand why something was happening. So we began with a certain degree of stylization but the initial translation was it was going to be a believable or real world.
Another sort of important decision that Bryan made on the first one, and it probably had as much to do with economics, to be honest, as it did aesthetics, was that while it was meant to be a sort of futuristic tale, it was meant to be actually not science-fiction future-y. It was more grounded in reality. That being said, there’s not a lot to compare Cerebro to. There was still a lot of freedom in terms of how you could create the look.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of that aesthetic over the years. You’ve worked on four of these, though including “Deadpool,” there are nine films in this overall X-Men movie universe.
There have been a lot of technical advancements that have made for the evolution of the franchise, first in terms of transitioning from film into the digital world and going from 2D into the 3D world. So you had a lot of things that have impacted the look of the film over the years.
Speaking of the transition to digital, is there anything specific that really changed for you there? You shot the first and second ones on film and then I believe you shot “Days of Future Past” on the Alexa.
Yes. The transition to digital for us really happened between the first two and the last two with “Superman [Returns].” When we did “Superman,” the initial thought was to do it in 70mm because of the iconic, classical, bigger-than-life place that Superman holds culturally and aesthetically. And then when it proved, at that time, untenable to do 70mm and the studio was hysterical about the fact that we might, we kind of shifted gears quite radically and thought, “Let’s go in the other direction and look at something that might be really new and fresh and in some ways maybe has more of a graphic quality to it,” which is digital. At that time, digital was pretty rare and we actually did that movie — Panavision had made a new digital camera and we were sort of guinea pigs on it, starting with prototypes, even.
So that transition kind of got made on another superhero movie. But by the time we got to “Days of Future Past,” the 3D juggernaut had been launched and we were very clearly going to be in a world of digital and a world of 3D, and Bryan was a big believer in the native 3D. So those two technological aspects made for a very significant change, but the aesthetic itself didn’t change that radically. It was still reality-based. We were still photographing it, shooting it, like it was film. I think in some ways there’s been a continuity of the aesthetic. It hasn’t been a big shift.
Why the switch over to the Red camera for “Apocalypse?”
We switched to the Red because at the time we started it, the Alexa Mini, which is able to record on-board, wasn’t out on the market yet, and you were able to do that on the Red, number one. And number two, the Red had come out with a new sensor that, for me, was the first time it was able to come close to the Alexa. Although I still kind of prefer the look of the Alexa. But because of the size and the ability to record on-board, we opted to go for the Red.
And as you noted, you’ve shot both of these last two films in native 3D. Those tend to be the only films I enjoy seeing in 3D, are those done natively rather than post-converted.
Yeah, that’s a long discussion we could certainly have! [Laughs.] Bryan, I think, feels that if you’re going to do a 3D movie, you should do it native. And perhaps even a bigger thing for him is that the ability to change things very late in the game in terms of the editing in post is restricted if you’re post-dimensionalizing, because you need time to post-dimensionalize. So I think one of the things he really likes about native 3D is that you’re able to add a shot or drop a shot at the very last second without jeopardizing your release.
Going back to the aesthetics, I’m always curious about comic book adaptations because you’re coming from a graphic medium. So would you say there were any frames you were interested in duplicating from the books? Was there anything you gleaned from the source material visually?
I don’t think there were specific images that we tried to replicate, but there was very definitely design elements in terms of, like, Cerebro and you have the Danger Room and the mansion itself. So that stuff, there was definitely at least respect given for what was done in the comics.
Were there any references besides that you guys were inspired by in terms of achieving the look at the beginning and all the way through?
In the way that a lot of directors will hold up the work of a painter or a photographer or another movie or something like that, Bryan’s not one to use those kinds of references for his work. He probably did it more so on “Superman,” actually, than on the “X-Men” movies, so much as trying to respect the individual elements of the X-world that had been illustrated. It was giving a visual life to the comic books, and I think there he tried not to stray so far from that that the fans would feel cheated or dislocated, which we all know you run into quite a bit.
And lastly here, just in terms of a color palette, was there anything with “Apocalypse” that was a particular shift?
“Apocalypse,” of the four we’ve done, is probably the one that plays with color the most. It’s a big story that goes all the way from the US to Poland to Germany to Egypt, so we kind of chose some colors that spoke to those different environments on one hand and also kind of color-coded things a little bit for the audience in terms of where we were and what was going on. The US stuff is a relatively neutral palette, and then going to Poland, where Erik Lehnsherr is living, you go through a range of a sort of warm, romantic look at the new life he’s made for himself, to a kind of cold and harsh look when he meets with a personal tragedy there. Germany was tinged and highlighted with green to give a kind of slightly acerbic and uncomfortable feel to Eastern Europe at that time period. And when we end up in Stryker’s base, Stryker had an element that is a similar element to that green, to kind of tie Stryker’s world into the new wave of terror that was boiling up against mutants in the German portion of the story. And then, when it all comes to a head at the end of the movie and we find ourselves in Cairo in the midst of a ruin, Cairo takes on a very kind of hot and gold quality to it. So there was quite a bit of color coding in “Apocalypse,” probably more than any of the other “X-Men” movies.