Reluctant Allies: Red Notice

Markus Förderer, ASC, BVK and director Rawson Marshall Thurber enlist vintage optics, the latest drone and camera tech, and an LED volume for this action-comedy.

At top, ex-FBI agent John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson, left) and art thief Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds) form an unlikely alliance.

Photos by Frank Masi, SMPSP, Courtesy of Netflix

A former FBI agent (Dwayne Johnson) aims to clear his name by forging a shaky, snarky alliance with a smart-aleck art thief (Ryan Reynolds) as they go head-to-head with a criminal mastermind (Gal Gadot). Although the storyline for the Netflix action-comedy Red Notice includes such locales as Rome, Bali, Russia and Egypt, nearly the entire production was captured at Atlanta Metro Studios in Atlanta, Ga. — where Markus Förderer, ASC, BVK and director-writer Rawson Marshall Thurber leaned heavily into such cutting-edge technologies as FPV drones and LED walls while pursuing a vintage look with classic lenses.

Förderer — whose prior work includes I Origins (AC Sept. '14) and Independence Day: Resurgence (AC July '16) — first worked with Thurber when he was called in for additional photography on the director’s previous picture, Skyscraper, shot by Robert Elswit, ASC. “Robert wasn’t available for the reshoots, and they were very complex,” says Förderer. “It was a good testing phase because Rawson and I started talking about future projects, which ultimately led to Red Notice.” 

Says Thurber, “I’ve been a fan of Markus’ work since Hell [aka Apocalypse, see Shot Craft in AC May ’18], which I thought was gorgeous. It was such a pleasure working with him on the Skyscraper pickups, and he was my first choice for Red Notice.” 

Thurber’s desire to make, as he says, “an old-school, swashbuckling, globe-trotting heist picture” led him and Förderer to develop what the cinematographer describes as “a classic approach, but also something fresh, fun and entertaining.” Förderer cites The Talented Mr. Ripley as a reference — “it feels so classy, and it’s shot on location in Europe and on water on a fairly modest budget” — as well as James Bond and Mission: Impossible movies, and True Lies.

 Cinematographer Markus Förderer, ASC, BVK (left) and director Rawson Marshall Thurber plan out a shot.
Cinematographer Markus Förderer, ASC, BVK (left) and director Rawson Marshall Thurber plan out a shot.

Vintage Glass, Wide Sensor

To imbue Red Notice with a timeless feel, Förderer tested vintage glass, ultimately selecting Panavision APO Ultra Panatar anamorphic primes. Elements of the lenses were originally used on such Ultra Panavision 70 productions as Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). “Whenever I’m trying to determine the best format to shoot a project on, I always start with the lens before picking a camera,” he says. “At Panavision, I saw the vintage Panatars, which Robert Richardson [ASC] had dusted off for The Hateful Eight [AC Dec. ’15] and Greig Fraser [ASC, ACS] had used on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story [AC Feb. ’17]. These lenses were the perfect fit to capture the large-format look we were after. They create gentle, soft skin tones with natural high resolution, and are reminiscent of the classic anamorphic look without adding too much distortion.”

Regarding the choice of Red’s Ranger Monstro 8K VV for the production’s main camera, Förderer says, “Because the lenses have a 1.25x squeeze, they’re very subtle in their anamorphic quality, and it’s beneficial to have a wider sensor like the Red’s. I also loved the DSMC2 Monstro’s smaller form factor because the Panatars are quite large and heavy. [Red Digital Cinema President] Jarred Land was highly supportive; with input from Rawson and me, he made us a custom, compact and stripped-down RED Ranger Monstro camera.” The production shot at 8K full-frame sensor mode. 

To assemble a complete lens package, Förderer turned to Panavision’s Dan Sasaki, an ASC associate member. “Dan was super helpful tracking down three of the original Panatar lenses and also making additional focal lengths so we could have two complete sets of 35mm to 180mm,” says the cinematographer. “We shot most of Red Notice on the 35mm and the 65mm. 

“As good as the newer Panatars are,” Förderer adds, “it’s just impossible to re-create the way lenses were manufactured before they were designed with a computer. The glass was hand-polished and less precise — this acts like a natural diffusion filter that softens skin tones, but the effect is spread out over all lens elements, unlike a purely two-dimensional filter in front of the lens.”

A Red Komodo was mounted to a custom-built FPV drone, flown at high speeds by pilot Johnny Schaer.
A Red Komodo was mounted to a custom-built FPV drone, flown at high speeds by pilot Johnny Schaer.

Fast Flying

Seeking to combine a vintage palette with contemporary shot techniques, the filmmakers chose some cutting-edge tools. One was the firstperson-view (FPV) racing drone, which flies at very high speeds — in the case of this production, up to 30 miles per hour — with remarkable agility. “The main difference between an FPV drone and a traditional drone is there’s no gimbal stabilization, so the FPV flies more like a tiny plane with the operator seeing everything through virtual-reality goggles. We found this incredibly talented operator, Johnny Schaer — aka ‘Johnny_FPV’ on Instagram — who just does crazy stuff and makes the camera look like it’s freefalling.”

To make the rig as lightweight as possible for the custom-built drone, Förderer teamed a prototype Red Komodo 6K RF-mount camera — shooting in 6K full-frame sensor mode — with a highly compact, hand-made Perar Ultra-Wide 17mm f/4.5 pancake lens from Japanese company MS Optics. “These drones typically carry an ultra-small camera like a GoPro, and the Komodo had just been announced at the time we were shooting,” he says.

Förderer used the FPV to capture Red Notice’s dizzying opening shot, set in Rome. “At first, it looks like a standard helicopter establishing shot,” says Thurber. “Then it suddenly dive-bombs into a narrow alley and chases police cars across the bridge to the Castel Sant’Angelo before wrapping up in a close-up of Dwayne Johnson as he gets out of a car.” The sequence worked out so well that the filmmakers added Schaer to the permanent crew and tasked him with shooting additional scenes with the drone, including a climactic mine-shaft chase.

The production employed an LED volume for sequences that included a tense encounter on a train car and an escape in a helicopter.
The production employed an LED volume for sequences that included a tense encounter on a train car and an escape in a helicopter.

Turning to the Volume

The production primarily employed the LED volume to capture cockpit shots for a helicopter scene, close-ups and stunt work for a mine-shaft chase, a tense sequence aboard a train car, and a scene set on a yacht off the coast of Sardinia. 

For the latter, Förderer says, “We were supposed to shoot near a beautiful beach there, and we scouted it several times via helicopter, but then Covid shut everything down. During the shutdown, we decided to restructure the scene for the LED wall to avoid concerns about the safety of the location. 

“Also, I got married during the shutdown,” the cinematographer continues, “and when I heard Italy had reopened, I suggested to my wife, Julie Förderer, who’s a gaffer, that we honeymoon on that beach. While there, we hired a local drone crew and shot plates that we could use in the volume. I think it’s critical for cinematographers to shoot their own plates for LED-wall work, because you know which angles you’ll need and you can ensure everything will line up correctly in the volume.” 

“I’d previously shot the Netflix show Nightflyers using LED walls and Unreal Engine,” says Förderer. “We had a huge LED volume outside of a spaceship cockpit. I was amazed by the technology, but it was expensive and complex due to the camera tracking. For me, the parallax is not nearly as important as having a photorealistic image that reflects onto a set and is the main lighting source. I also prefer capturing everything in-camera with lenses that have character, as opposed to shooting against greenscreen with clean lenses to simplify compositing.”

Actors Gal Gadot and Johnson perform in a scene that, due to the pandemic, was relocated from the coast of Sardinia, Italy, to the LED volume.

Lux Machina integrated the LED volume onstage in Atlanta. According to Wyatt Bartel, Lux vice president of production, “the volume included a slightly curved 60'-by-20' primary LED wall, a 20'-by-20' ceiling for overhead lighting, and a flat, mobile 16'-by-16' wall on wheels. We also had 6'-by-3' LED walls on C-stands that could be rolled in as needed. Everything was made with ROE Black Pearl BP2 2.8mm panels.” 

Förderer notes that the production employed “[Arri] SkyPanels and Astera tubes to add interactive light — but we [primarily] used the [lighting from the] wall, and five portable smaller video wall sections as portable lights.

For a sequence in which the two reluctant allies steal a helicopter from a snowy mountaintop stronghold, the filmmakers used high-resolution still-image plates as LED-wall backgrounds for the interior shots of the aircraft. “The entire helicopter prison-rescue sequence in Russia was built essentially with a still image and a lot of smoke,” Förderer says. “I extracted an 8K raw frame from Red footage we’d shot in the Alps and Photoshopped it a bit. Onstage, the effects department blew real smoke and snow particles through the air, which gives the illusion that there’s life outside the window of the helicopter.” 

Regarding his aim to eschew greenscreen for this production — which he essentially achieved for principal photography — Förderer says, “as soon as you get even a little green spill in your shots, it starts polluting skin tones. Richard Hoover, our visual-effects supervisor, was very supportive. He said, ‘Shoot it the way you want to, and we’ll rotoscope anything we need.’” 

In addition to these high-tech solutions for background imagery, for a number of other sets the filmmakers used the classic technique of photographic backdrops. Says Förderer, “Several of our jungle scenes, including the sequence where they discover the bunker, are built on a stage with real plants and a huge [backlit] photo backing.” 

Parting Shots

During AC’s interviews with Förderer and Thurber, which took place shortly before the movie’s premiere — November 5 in limited theatrical release and November 12 on Netflix — each assessed the onstage, in-camera effort. “It was such an amazing collaboration with Markus,” the director says, “and he’ll be my DP for as long as he’s willing to work with me!” 

“Rawson and I spent a lot of time testing, finding the right lenses, and creating a show LUT that matched our intended look as closely as possible,” says Förderer. “Working with Roland Emmerich [on Independence Day: Resurgence], I learned the importance of making shots look as close to final as possible in camera, because the director is going to spend a year or more looking at them during postproduction.” 

Förderer also credits his crew and collaborators for their support throughout the production. “We were fortunate to have [A-camera/Steadicam operator] Jeff Haley, who had just won [SOC] Operator of the Year for Joker,” says Förderer. “And our production designer, Andy Nicholson, was fantastic; he built huge sets that you might think are real locations, including the jungle and part of the waterfalls. To have everything designed, prepared, pre-lit, and ready to go on the day meant we could give Rawson and the actors more shooting time, and that was our goal.”

Tech Specs

2.39:1
Cameras: Red Ranger Monstro, Komodo
Lenses: Panavision APO Ultra Panatar

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