When I visited the Ant-Man set in Atlanta last year I saw a big green screen, which is pretty common on these kinds of movies. I also visited an old office building that had been transformed into the headquarters of Pym Technologies (where all sorts of people, including members of the Ten Rings, judging from their neck tattoos, had gathered to bid on the Yellowjacket suit). But neither was as interesting as a room where a camera was trained on a coffee cup. Just a regular old coffee cup. That was the macro photography stage.
When you’re making a movie that features a guy shrinking you have a couple of options. You could put your actors on a set full of comically oversized objects - think the classic The Incredible Shrinking Man. Or you could put your digital stuntpeople into a digital environment and basically end up with a cartoon. Or you could take some special lenses and get very, very close to real objects and then digitally insert your real actors amidst them. That’s macro photography, and it’s how director Peyton Reed is creating Ant-Man’s embiggened environments.
“I was really adamant that it’s gotta be tactile,” said Reed, explaining why his movie had a whole photography unit and a separate soundstage dedicated only to getting extreme close-ups of record players, vacuum cleaners and rumpled clothes. “The bad version of this movie is you’re in the real world and whenever you shrink you’re kind of in a more sort of Pixar CG animated thing. One of the things that when I first met [Marvel] I really was sort of adamant about [is that] the exciting thing about the movie is it’s the real world.”
Within that real world exist ants, and a lot of them. Ants have a role in this movie that might surprise fans who are new to the world of Hank Pym and Scott Lang, the two Ant-Man. Ant-Man doesn’t just get as small as an ant, he’s able to control them with his helmet.
“The shrinking thing is kind of the most Ant-Man power but the controlling of the ants is the weirder power. It’s the one that I'm more into in a weird way because you have this sort of freedom to create these situations and this army of ants, and to see how something so small can be mobilized as an actual really formidable thing. That element was something that was always a part of Ant-Man but it’s tonally tricky.”
That means making the ants work onscreen. “In macro photography we’re shooting live ants and lighting them from behind and really creating tactile ants. You don’t want to have a compelling story and then go into that world and then suddenly be in Antz with a Z or something. We use real ants mostly for reference and we use ants for focus marks and to see how they light in environments, but the bulk of it will be all [computer] created. It’s about the tone of those ants, making them real and compelling and not cutesy-poo.”
Making the macro photography work ended up being about more than pointing big lenses at small things. Creating an environment into which human actors could be composited required new thinking about things like lighting.
“You’re experiencing it from a radically different perspective,” explained Reed. “There were a lot of discussions about how when you’re shrunk what’s the light play like? All these discussions of how light and sound and movement change, and it was really important to kind of discuss that endlessly. And we still discuss it in every shot we set up, in terms of scale. You can sit with the storyboard artist and board something that [has the camera go] over Scott to a [regular size] person and then you put an actual lens on it and it doesn’t work. Your scale has to be figured out for every shot and angle, and that’s fun… but it’s an insane amount of calculation.”
This is always the stuff that bums me out, hearing all about the technical aspects of getting a scene to look just right. Don’t get me wrong - I loved seeing the macro photography sets and I think it’s so cool that Ant-Man is using techniques that will actually make for an interesting behind-the-scenes documentary as opposed to just doing it in computers - but it’s always worrying when you hear a director talk a lot about the calculations and the granular aspects of FX work. You worry they lost sight of what actually makes a movie work.
Thankfully, Reed didn’t lose sight of that.
“I mean the main thing for me is these live action portions with the actors, making sure to focus on the right thing and keeping this sort of life and immediacy to the performances. The thing about a movie like this is I think you can sort of... there’s so much technical stuff going on that all the life can be drained out of it. But the actors in this movie are insane. I mean they’re just the best.”