In a recent interview, Christopher Nolan’s Batman director of photography had some harsh words for the Avengers film. To go a bit verbatim here,
What’s really important is storytelling. None of it matters if it doesn’t support the story. I thought The Avengers was an appalling film. They’d shoot from some odd angle and I’d think, why is the camera there? Oh, I see, because they spent half a million on the set and they have to show it off. It took me completely out of the movie. I was driven bonkers by that illogical form of storytelling.
Now, first, as far as a DP goes, Wally Pfister is awesome. If you don’t believe me, watch Inception sometime. He’s clearly got chops and mad skills. Good at what he does, in other words. But this is not just plain old silly, its just plum wrong.
I sure haven’t won any Oscars for my visual work (What visual work? Leave me alone, wuddja? I’m makin’ a point here!), but I have studied the form. I only wanted to be a film director for ten years and read everything I could on the theory and execution of film framing, direction and cinematography, as well as taking a number of courses on the subject.
Anywho, I don’t understand what he’s complaining about. So many wrongs here it’s hard (and tedious) to list them, but let’s start with the assumption that some non-traditional camera angles were utilized for the purpose of showcasing flashy sets. Barring for the moment the irony of this statement since DKR had a bigger budget and was frequently guilty of the show-off syndrome itself, it displays a stark (pun!) lack of knowledge with Joss Whedon’s personal style and field of work. Given that this is an area in which I can speak with fairly substantive authority, the Avengers is well in keeping with Whedon’s normal directing style, and any odd angles were chosen for aesthetic, not “ooh shiny,” reasons.
Reinforcing this point is the fact that The Avengers‘ cinematographer was none other than the Academy Award nominated Seamus McGarvey, who also did the cinematographer for Atonement, The Hours, The Soloist, High Fidelity, and Anna Karenina, and who is just as equally as awesome as Pfister. More than just a Marvel vs. DC rivalry going on here.
Frankly, all the comparisons and debates over which film is better is totally fruitless, since it is like comparing, maybe not apples and oranges, but two very different types of apples. They’re trying to do very different things. Batman is dark and gritty and serious and shot with drab color schemes and focused almost entirely on external story (especially in DKR). The Avengers is totally different, designed to feel more like the comics it came from or the Saturday morning cartoon, and more important than the external story is the internal struggle of five elitists learning to work together and realize, “hey, it’s not all about me anymore.” (I’m looking at you, Tony Stark.) The cinematography might have been a tad more flashy in DKR, but the more intimate and simpler angles of The Avengers fit its purposes and serves to hi-light the moments the film chooses to put you off your ease by throwing unique shots at specific moments.
I didn’t win an Oscar, sure, but I know why Whedon put the camera where he did. It made sense to me. And it worked. So what’s Pfister’s deal? His objections aren’t really. His complaint basically boils down to, “I wouldn’t have done it that way.”
Update: Whedon’s response was totally classy.