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Managing Visual Styles, Storylines and Superpowers on the Netflix Series ‘Marvel’s The Defenders’

The newest Marvel-Netflix iteration, 'Marvel's The Defenders,' brings Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist together to fight an evil greater than they've encountered before.

Separately, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist are already Marvel superhero superstars in their own television series on Netflix. The newest Marvel-Netflix iteration, the crossover series Marvel’s The Defenders, brings the four heroes together to fight an evil greater than they’ve encountered before. The eight-episode series from Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios for Netflix debuted on the streaming platform on Aug. 18.

In Marvel’s The Defenders, the solitary street-level heroes reluctantly realize they must team up, combining their powers to defeat The Hand, an age-old evil cartel headed by Alexandra Reid (Sigourney Weaver). Daredevil (aka Matt Murdock, played by Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Iron Fist (aka Danny Rand, played by Finn Jones) each has his or her own singular power, personal story and inner challenges.

From left, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Iron Fist (Finn Jones), Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Luke Cage (Mike Colter)
Photo by Sarah Shatz/Netflix

Executive produced by showrunner Marco Ramirez, Douglas Petrie, Jeph Loeb and Jim Chory, Marvel’s The Defenders features the return of director S.J. Clarkson, who came back into the Marvel Netflix fold after directing the first two episodes of Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Clarkson returned to direct the first two episodes of Marvel’s The Defenders, acted as an executive producer on the first episode and proved instrumental to the production in setting the tone and visual style for the series.

Ramirez brought in cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd, CSC, who had shot 13 episodes of Marvel’s Daredevil. Lloyd recounts that Daredevil had been “a massive undertaking” and that his schedule hadn’t synced up for any of the following Marvel superhero TV series until The Defenders came up. “Marco was interested in having someone familiar with the Daredevil franchise [on The Defenders], so I got into the mix,” Lloyd explains. “It worked out for me because, at eight episodes, it’s a shorter run and logistically easier.” Shooting began in November and ended in March, with a long Christmas hiatus. Each episode had between 10 and 13 shooting days.

Lloyd relied on the RED Weapon camera, shooting in 4K with occasional 5K and 6K shots. Clarkson wanted a softer feel, so Lloyd used Panavision PVintage prime lenses on her two episodes; with episode 3, he moved to ARRI/Zeiss Master Primes.

The cinematographer notes that another important part of the show’s look resulted from working again with senior colorist Tony D’Amore of Deluxe’s Encore. “Knowing what the director wants, he can build up color contrast where maybe it wasn’t as accentuated in camera,” says Lloyd. “He can refine and polish those looks.”

Photo courtesy of Netflix

The earliest conversations about Marvel’s The Defenders concerned developing an appropriate look, Lloyd says. While each character had been established in his or her own series, the four would be coming together in the new project. The Defenders needed to be able to exist independent of the other series, yet appear to have sprung from the same world.

“It wasn’t purely cinematography but also costumes, props, locations that we derived from each program,” the DP says. “We wanted to weave it together so that fans from all the shows can connect with it. It was an interesting predicament.”

He credits director Clarkson with helping to define how the worlds came together. “The answer was a refined color palette, as derived from the earlier series, into which S.J. was able to build in art direction, and I built a stylistic cue with lighting for each character,” he says.

Red was the color associated with Daredevil—Lloyd calls it “a huge component of his legacy,” but he adds that red can be an “overwhelming hue to play with in any meaningful way with lighting. So it became accents, visually motivated use of the color such as police lights. The rest of his palette is muted—grays and blacks—so when he comes through a red door or wears a red tie, it stands out.”

Danny Rand (aka Iron Fist)
Photo by Sarah Shatz/Netflix

Jessica Jones is steely, cool, with desaturated colors. “That played really well for Krysten,” says Lloyd. “She has an amazing porcelain skin that can go any which way.”

Luke Cage and his Harlem environment evinced an amber tone, inspired in part by director Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, shot by cinematographer Harris Savides, ASC. “Harlem in general has that warm stone and brick look,” he says. “Mike’s skin tone gave us that chocolatey warmth, and with sodium vapor lighting, we maximized the buzzy yellow warmth at nighttime.”

Because Iron Fist didn’t really have a look in his show, Lloyd had to create one for him. “We paid homage to the original martial art, with a Chinese flavor,” he says. “Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster was a reference, and we used cyan, greens and aquamarine tones that played well in his dojo. The production designer, Lauren Weeks, had already built in many things that made it work.”

Photo by Sarah Shatz/Netflix

Based on a suggestion from S.J. Clarkson, the production team decided on a white color palette for the villains in The Defenders based on their proximity to death. For Weaver’s Alexandra, “We went completely ivory with her,” Lloyd says. “No color whatsoever. We used whites, grays and blacks, and made them feel almost overly polished and lit. Rather than go dark and sinister, we went the opposite way, which made it more creepy.”

With regard to lighting, Lloyd says the mantra was “always have a discernable source in evidence in every shot.” “I won’t call it ‘extreme,’ but it goes in a direction where the audience can see that each character gets his own lighting scenario,” says Lloyd. “You have to work doubly hard to make it feel real. You don’t want look changes that distract.”

The workhorse lighting fixtures were ARRI SkyPanel S60s and S120s. “LED lighting has really changed the game,” Lloyd continues. “It would have been much more difficult to get the colors we wanted even five or six years ago.”

Jessica Jones
Photo by Sarah Shatz/Netflix

For color timing, the first two episodes Lloyd shot went to Deluxe’s Company 3 in New York. Lloyd was able to work remotely with D’Amore from a Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve suite in Los Angeles. “I could see the changes live in New York,” says Lloyd. “Tony is always 99 percent there, but then I’d give notes about what S.J. wanted and he’d run with it.” The two did episode 3 together as well. “Once you’ve covered all the bases, Tony was able to apply it to scenes, and I’d sign off on it,” he says.

D’Amore, who colored Lloyd’s work on Marvel’s Daredevil, describes his early conversations with the cinematographer on the series’ colors. “I knew each character would have his own color palette, but we had to figure out how to address that when the characters were all together,” he says. Because the show was in Dolby Vision, dailies wouldn’t be viewed in HDR, so Lloyd didn’t set the look at that stage. D’Amore reports that he’d do a first pass based on the color palettes he got from Marvel. “I’d make sure the color palette was married to that character for that scene, then send it to Matt, who would take his pass,” says D’Amore.

Alexandra Reid (Sigourney Weaver)
Photo by Sarah Shatz/Netflix

Director Clarkson weighed in heavily on the first two episodes, says D’Amore. “We were all on the same page,” he says. “At first we made the colors not so obvious, but S.J. said, ‘This is beautiful but not far enough.’ So we made fairly extreme palettes for each character, and by the end it really achieved Marvel’s target.”

To accommodate the scenes that feature several superheroes in frame simultaneously—this occurred most commonly in the fight sequences—D’Amore had to isolate the colors that didn’t match a character’s palette and adjust them. “Jessica would be standing in front of blue lockers, but then Luke would be in front of them, and I’d have to isolate the lockers and pull back the color [for Luke’s shot], and then isolate his shirt and put more yellow in it,” he says. “When they were in a full-blown action sequence, we’re talking about hundreds of shots with as many as 20 different cheats in one shot.”

Luke Cage and Jessica Jones
Photo by Sarah Shatz/Netflix

When Lloyd was shooting in New York, the two communicated frequently by text in a shorthand they had developed on Daredevil. “I’d text him for some guidance and he’d give me creative direction,” recalls D’Amore. “I’d get back to him with some thoughts and then try it out. He’d see the final when the whole show had a first pass on a Dolby Vision monitor at Encore in New York, and we’d go through it together, live.”

D’Amore describes inconsistencies the team had to deal with in creating HDR and SDR versions of the show. Pushing a color like cyan in Dolby Vision “would look great, but [the cyan] in the SDR version would be very muted by comparison,” he explains. “What we ended up doing was turning off the HDR display and re-evaluating it in SDR, to ask Marvel if it was enough,” he says. “People have the misconception that HDR is just bright, but there is also a perceived higher resolution that holds details with better highlight latitude. So we used the technology for more than just blasting people with brightness.”

Luke Cage and Iron Fist
Photo courtesy of Netflix

For example, says D’Amore, Lloyd likes to shoot dark scenes with something bright in the frame. “Dolby Vision let us do that without blowing out highlights,” he says. “Sometimes a light in the corner would turn into just a ball of light, which can be distracting. Matt said that with HDR, it still looked moody and dark, and we didn’t have to blast the highlights to get the contrast.”

In balancing the HDR and SDR versions, says D’Amore, sometimes they had to make compromises. “There’s a trim tool in Resolve that allows us to add saturation,” he says. “So the metadata packet in Dolby Vision will add saturation for SDR and more color would get pushed through. Or we’d pull back in saturation for HDR, which would help balance it out.”

The most challenging color was Alexandra’s white palette. “To achieve pure white with color, you have to push the luminance level to the point of clip,” says D’Amore. “It’s a common cheat with color correction because white is the color most likely to have contamination. In Dolby Vision, it never lost saturation, unlike in Rec. 709, but we had to go back and forth until we found the sweet spot. It’s a bold look, and I think we really pulled it off.”  

Download the October 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine