Images courtesy of Disney Plus/Marvel Studios.
Thor’s mischievous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has found himself in quite a predicament. He’s been arrested by the Time Variance Authority for veering off his fated path and starting a new timeline “branch” that would have spurred the beginning of a multiverse. It’s a crime he’d never heard of and had no intention of committing. Now he’s on the run.
Episode 3 of Loki — Disney Plus’ latest series within the Marvel Cinematic Universe — sees our titular antihero teamed up with Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), a female “variant” of Loki from yet another timeline, as they attempt to escape an inhabited moon that’s on the verge of destruction. They race through the chaos of a neon-splashed city to reach the last space-bound transport.
The screenplay for the episode — titled “Lamentis” and written by Bisha K. Ali — described this run for their lives as a long-take action sequence. In this month’s Shot Craft, we’ll take a detailed look at this three-minute continuous sequence, which was photographed by cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw.
The first season of Loki was directed by Kate Herron, a relative newcomer whose previous work includes the series Sex Education and Daybreak. Alongside her for the entire season was Durald Arkapaw, whose credits include The Sun Is Also a Star (AC June ’19) and the upcoming Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. The duo began discussing how to capture this sequence in “Lamentis” when they commenced prep for the entire season, and Herron embraced the “oner” concept very early on.
Prep began in October 2019 but was soon halted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Herron, Durald Arkapaw and production designer Kasra Farahani stayed active during lockdown, however. The planning for this oner sequence officially took about one year — from the start of prep until the shoot in November 2020. The extensive rigging and pre-lighting took four weeks. Farahani kicked off the process by designing a 350'x200' circular city set that would ultimately be built on the backlot at Pinewood Atlanta Studios (now Trilith Studios), and by creating a cardboard-and-Styrofoam miniature the filmmakers could use to previsualize the sequence:
The early concept for the sequence involved a motorcycle chase through the streets, but that idea was abandoned in favor of a more intimate foot chase interspersed with several moments of hand-to-hand combat.
“Kate stepped back at one point and asked, ‘What does this sequence mean? What role does it have to play in the story?’ And we realized we might be throwing too much at it,” recalls Durald Arkapaw. “We decided to make it more humanistic, and that’s when we dropped the motorcycles and went with a foot chase.”
Planning and Preparations
Several iterations of 3D previsualizations were created for the sequence by The Third Floor. The discussions started with the general blocking: Where would the characters enter, which path would they take, what obstacles would they face, and how could the shot be broken down into smaller pieces to be shot over several nights?
“Certain aspects became givens,” Durald Arkapaw says. “In the story, the dying moon is about to be destroyed by a crumbling planet above it, so we’ve got to look up several times to see what’s coming. Since we’re shooting in 2.39:1, that meant a tilt up, so there are moments when we knew we were going to look at the planet, and those could be natural stitch points because we’d be looking at a completely CG creation.
“Then Richard Graves, the assistant director, timed out the sequence, so we knew when the practical-special-effects or visual-effects moments would happen, and when the actors would be running into a certain area and out of that area into the next,” the cinematographer continues. “Ultimately, we decided there would be seven stitch points in the shot, where we could break it down into individual nights to shoot each portion of the sequence.”
From there, the team did a physical walkthrough of the sets in progress to get a better sense of blocking, timing, camera positions and story.
To help break up the sequence visually, Farahani designed each section of the street to have a different base color, incorporating a large amount of fluorescent paint, UV fixtures and retro-reflectant lighting. “Kasra is a great collaborator,” says Durald Arkapaw. “He understands what a cinematographer needs, and he’s always thinking about that; he’s not just designing in a vacuum.
“We tested a number of fluorescent paints under UV light and picked the best, and then Kasra incorporated UV lighting fixtures into the production design so that the face of each façade had its own source,” she continues. “UV fixtures aren’t like normal lighting fixtures — it takes several of them to really work well, so a lot of them were built in. Then the art department designed all the LED signs and practical lights for the sets, and my fixtures foreman, Joel Warren, and data team built them RGBDT so that we could control any color or intensity on the lighting-console desk. The hundreds of [signs] were [all custom-made fixtures] — they did an amazing job. I didn’t do any movie lighting from the ground; everything was built into the set. I kept my lighting to overhead soft boxes and edge lights.” Josh Thatcher was the lighting-control programmer for the show.
Overhead was one construction crane and three Pettibone cranes with large box-truss softboxes. One held a 40'x40' grid with 64 Arri SkyPanel S60-C fixtures, and the other three were 30'x20' boxes loaded with 60 S60-Cs. These were augmented by six additional cranes with Nine-light Maxi Brutes for interactive lighting as the characters would make their way through the gauntlet.
“I like cyan moonlight, so we colored the SkyPanels a mint-like color for the glow coming from the planet above — and then feeling the warm edge from the explosions on the actors with ½ CTS on the Maxis,” Durald Arkapaw notes. “We had everything connected back to the lighting-console desk, so gaffer Brian Bartolini and I would look at the rehearsals and adjust intensities of architectural lighting, as well as our overhead planet ambient and edges, to shape the light as we went along.
“The integrated lighting effects supplemented both SFX and VFX; for example, when an explosion happens, we would shape our light on the talent accordingly. We had all of that timed out so that we knew at 37 seconds, a woman would throw a Molotov cocktail, and at 41 seconds, it would explode and we’d add in lighting to supplement. Then, at 1 minute 7 seconds, we’d add in lighting to simulate a large impact in the distance — and so forth.”
Once the choreography was roughed out, Durald Arkapaw broke down the sequence technically and determined that all of it would be shot on Steadicam by A-camera operator Andrew Fletcher.
Making It Happen
The sequence was shot over five nights. Durald Arkapaw shot the entire season with Sony’s CineAlta Venice (at a base of 2,500 ISO) and custom-tuned T Series anamorphics that were expanded for full-frame coverage. The oner was photographed with a 40mm T Series lens.
“The exact methods we used for each section of the sequence evolved,” says the cinematographer. “We really decided things as we started to rehearse with the actors and realized that Tom is a very fast runner. We knew it would be too challenging for Andrew to keep up with Tom on foot, so we brought in a Grip Trix [electric camera car]. We knew we wouldn’t use it the whole time — there would be moments of stepping on or off it. We also knew we’d have to build a platform for the Grip Trix to ride on because the ground was uneven dirt, so we started to plan that out.
“Kate and I worked out the general blocking, and then we’d say, ‘Okay, we’ve got to force them this way, so what forces them? This woman’s going to throw a Molotov cocktail, and then they get stopped by an explosion here, and they have to fight through these people there. Through the previs iterations we figured out where the stitches would be, where the visual effects would be and where the practical special effects would be, but the sequence really took shape once we got on the ground and walked it.
“For something like this, it’s really prep, prep, prep,” she says. “You can do as much as you can on paper — and with previs, if you have the budget — but you also have to get out there and follow someone around to get a feel for [the blocking] and work out the kinks, even if you just use an iPhone. A shot like this can’t be worked out on the day; you’ve got to have it set and then finesse the execution of it. A lot of what we set on the day involved the background players, and our AD was really great at that. Get all your ducks in a row ahead of time and practice as much as you can, and then on the day, you’re just having fun shooting and making it pretty.
“I’m someone who shoots from the heart. I’m a technical nerd, but when I’m shooting, if it doesn’t feel right and I’m not having an emotional response, then I have to step back, reevaluate and fix it. I put myself in the audience’s point of view and try to determine whether what I’m doing feels right and real. Luckily, Kate appreciates that, and our choices for Loki all came from the heart.”
1-2. Steadicam follows behind Loki and Sylvie as they enter the town through a tunnel and turn left, heading toward “the Ark” at the end of town. Their way is blocked by police and angry crowds.
2-3. Loki steps up on a crate to get a view over the crowd. Steadicam steps onto a platform rigged to a dolly, which booms up as Loki gets on the crate. Steadicam moves around to ¾ front shot on Loki, holds, then the dolly booms back down as he steps off. Camera follows. A woman with a Molotov cocktail runs past camera (STITCH POINT).
3-4. They turn right and go down the alleyway (Steadicam behind).
4-5. They stop and look up. The camera comes around and then tips up to see the planet crumbling above them (STITCH POINT). Camera tips back down from the planet and is in a different position (reposition happens during stitch) on the actors. They start to advance down the street, camera is behind them (STITCH POINT to replace actors with stunt performers).
5-6. An explosion blows them back (STITCH POINT for replacing stunt performers with actors).
6-7. Loki gets up from the explosion and he and Sylvie are on the run again. Steadicam follows.
7-8. They enter a ramen shop and fight their way through it. Steadicam follows the action by tracing around the perimeter of the shop as they fight.
8-9. They exit the shop through the window. Sylvie sheathes her machete (STITCH POINT).
9-10. Steadicam is now on a Grip Trix in front of talent. They run down the street (Steadicam leading). They take momentary shelter, a girl runs by (Steadicam steps off Grip Trix and camera is behind them), and they look up at an explosion and a large antenna array falling (lighting effect/STITCH POINT).
10-11. Camera repositions on Grip Trix. It tips down, following the antenna array. Loki and Sylvie turn and run away from the array, with the Grip Trix leading them down the street. Having circled the set, they’re now back at the point where they started. Loki uses his magic to stop a building from falling on them. Steadicam steps off the Grip Trix (STITCH POINT).
11-12. Loki and Sylvie run down the long street and fight their way to the end. Steadicam circles around them as they fight. At the end of the street, they see the Ark explode; the way out is gone. Steadicam circles around for Loki’s reaction.
Jay Holben is an ASC associate member and AC’s technical editor.
You’ll find all Shot Craft posts here.
The cinematographer subsequently detailed her Emmy-nominated work in this episode from our ASC Clubhouse Conversations discussion series: