Scene from the National Guard's "Soldiers of Steel" spot.
Larry Fong, ASC and Zack Snyder have known each other since film school, where some of their earliest collaborations were made on Super 8. Eventually, their success as storytellers led to bigger projects, and today their feature film collaborations include 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch.
“Zach can just say one or two words to me and I know what he’s trying to do,” says Fong. “I’ll set it up for him and get out of his way. When we get to work together, it’s easy that way. Sometimes it’s a code word or an inside joke from long ago. I’m really spoiled when I work with Zach – it’s always a good time.”
Most recently, Fong and Snyder created a set of bold, iconographic commercial destined for cinemas. The client was the United States Army National Guard, and the spots were designed to be a tie-in with the release of Man of Steel, Snyder’s new feature take on the Superman story. The locales include an all-American farmhouse and barn, an urban setting, and various rescue scenarios.
Visuals parallels are drawn between National Guard soldiers and Superman. After all, National Guard soldiers dress like regular people during the week, but when trouble arises, they don uniforms and take heroic action. Brief shots from the Man of Steel feature film are intercut with the heroic efforts of the “Soldiers of Steel.” A soldier hugging his son cuts to Superman rescuing a child in his arms. A soldier reaching into a flooded house towards a stranded victim cuts to Superman reaching out to make a similar rescue.
Fong notes that the boards he saw when he first joined the project emphasized an energetic feel. While the spots were designed to echo the Man of Steel visuals in terms of contrast and color, they were not slavishly imitating the feature.
“Zach wanted the energy and feel of Man of Steel,” says Fong. “Of course, I’m not going to try to exactly duplicate something as a formal exercise. Zach was directing the actors and finding the compositions, so I knew it would have heart and soul, and his stamp on it. But there is also, hopefully, a little bit of me is in there as well – not out of ego, but because you can’t help it.”
Fong notes that visually, Man of Steel was quite raw, with lots of handheld camera. “But we ended up using all the tools at our disposal – handheld, dolly, cranes remote heads and Steadicam, as well as aerial,” he says. “I took some cues from the movie, but I applied my style and kept it kind of natural. Some parts are more romantic, like the farmhouse. The rescue footage has a different look – desaturated, cooled off and contrasty to make it look a little raw.”
Because the spots were meant for cinema screen and not televisions, Fong could compose for a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio not concern himself with compromising for 16:9, 4:3 or any other framings that must often be dealt with on television commercials. Together, the cinema screen display and the tie-in to Man of Steel played an important factor in the decision to shoot film. For entirety of the shoot, Fong used KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213.
“I really love 5213,” he says. “It has tight grain and great range, but you can still tell it is film. We had some interiors, but they were near windows, so I could pump enough light in without having to switch to a faster stock. Even when the sun started going down, I could make it work.”
The spots were photographed over the course of three days, some at locations in Southern California and some on the Universal backlot in Hollywood. Fong used Panavision cameras and lenses for the most part. For a shot of a line of Guard vehicles streaming towards an ominous cloud on the horizon, Fong used a Lenny Arm II and a gyro-stabilized head from Panavision Remote Systems called a Pictorvision XR II.
For an idyllic tracking shot of kids on their bikes, “A” camera operator Chris Haarhoff used a Steadicam rig while riding on an electric cart. Snyder also used a technique he used on Man of Steel where he grabs an ARRI 235 and captures “artsy” handheld shots. Here, shots of a windmill and wind chimes add detail.
The DI was done at Company 3 with Stefan Sonnenfeld.
“It was a fun shoot,” says Fong. “The National Guard had a very good agency, LM&O, and they gave Zach a lot of freedom to deliver the real heroic feeling. I had fun with the contrast between the romanticism of the home scenes and the energy of the rescues. I enjoyed shooting a commercial just like I’d shoot a movie. And it’s all for a good cause – after all, they really are heroes.”