Cinematographer Ben Davis is often credited with a crucial role in creating the visual tone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In films including “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Doctor Strange,” he proved that big-budget superhero films can offer strong characters and soulful visuals.
But at the same time, Davis has kept one foot solidly in the real world, shooting intimate dramas like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
That enviable versatility is reminiscent of the classic and beloved Brit DPs under whom he trained, including Douglas Slocombe and Billy Williams, known for their extraordinary adaptability and for lending each film its own singular aesthetic.
“I learned so much from watching them create images, but also from who they are as human beings,” Davis says. “They all brought a sense of calm and control to the set. Filmmaking is very much a collaborative experience, and those people were very good at leading a team, often by example.”
Such team-building is especially critical “when you go on to the bigger films with very large crews,” add Davis. “The ability to get along with people is the main asset, and you either have it or you don’t.”
As a child, Davis was obsessed with skateboarding — he calls the sport his first love in creative expression. But he had always had an interest in photography, and when his father arranged a trainee position on a film set in the U.S., he was hooked. He found work at Samuelson Camera House, a job that made him conversant with a wide range of equipment. Set work as a clapper-loader soon followed, and eventually he started shooting shorts, commercials and music videos.
The DP’s first feature, in 2002, led to 2004’s “Layer Cake,” with Daniel Craig and Tom Hardy, and a meeting of the minds with Matthew Vaughn, then a neophyte director. Since then, Vaughn and Davis have teamed on numerous projects, including “Kick-Ass,” and “Stardust.”
“When I first worked with Ben on ‘Layer Cake,’ I knew very little about the camera and even less about lighting,” Vaughn recalls. “He very patiently taught me the basics and then so much more. He is the master of long lens and as good an operator as he is a cinema photographer.
“Experience is key with Ben, coupled with a calm and steady hand that has seen it all before and knows how to work around problems. But despite his years of experience, Ben still approaches a new project with the enthusiasm of a first-timer. Experience and enthusiasm together is rare in this business nowadays.”
As for the images he creates, Davis says his responsibility is to stay focused on the film as a whole rather than merely constructing cool shots. “Thinking in narrative terms can be difficult for cinematographers, who tend to think in images,” he says. “That’s why I work very hard at understanding the script and the director’s intent.”
Ross Dunkerley, a top gaffer who has worked with the greats, confirms Davis’ versatility. “Ben does not have a distinct style, and I assure you that this is a complement,” Dunkerley says. “He does not force a set aesthetic on his projects. That being said, there are common threads through his work — fearless, bold and adventurous are words that come to mind.”
Davis “always pushes to broaden his horizons, to try something new. Like [DP] Conrad Hall before him, Ben has a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and that enthusiasm is infectious. Potential problems turn into inventive solutions. The film set is his sandbox, and he relishes it.”
Writer-director Martin McDonagh teamed with Davis on “Seven Psychopaths” as well as on the aforementioned “Three Billboards,” which earned a best picture Oscar nomination.
“Ben loves actors and what they do as just as much as I do,” McDonagh says. “As much as he wants the shots to be beautiful, capturing the truth of what the actors are doing will be just as important. His thinking on the spot, his reactions to actors and his innovations around them, all serve to find another, equally important beauty. We couldn’t have showcased the cast’s brilliance in ‘Three Billboards’ as we did without Ben’s sensitivity to actors, his humanity, in other words.”
His collaborators all remark on Davis’ lack of ego. Asked how his thought process changes from one film to the next, and from tentpole behemoth to human-scale drama, Davis himself says, “You have to let go the sense of self and think about the greater task, which is to deliver something that people want to see.”
Moreover, he adds, “you must let go of any personal goals and always ask what makes the best film. If the movie calls for improvisation, I may not be able to finesse things the way I want to. But you have to prioritize the story as a whole. People become very focused on their little piece of it. I try to think about making something bigger.”
That wider approach “is something I’ve learned,” says the DP. “Maybe it’s because I’m getting older now, but I want to tell stories that people are going to go and see. You can spend a lot of time making amazing cinematography and making it all about you, and end up with a film that no one goes to see, because there’s no story. I want my work to have a wide audience.”
For Ben Davis, that’s definitely a mission accomplished. He’s working with Vaughn on “Kingsman: The Great Game,” due in theaters in November.
(Pictured above: Ben Davis, hand raised, sets up a shot on the set of “Captain Marvel” with directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden.)