Captain America: First Avenger – Opening Sequence

The opening of this film features a group investigating a strange and large object that is heaving out of the ice, after being buried for many years, in Iceland. Director Joe Johnston wanted a midnight sun effect on the horizon and the entire scene was taking place in a blizzard. The production had considered going to Iceland but the fact we shot this film in fall and winter didn’t help the extreme short days there. Nobody seemed to be wanting to think about this opening and so I suggested we shoot this on stage. To me, there were three basic elements needed to create a frozen plain. Skylight, the lit horizon & sun and the blizzard to blend it all. My suggestion was to build up the horizon line and put a late day glow on a white backing, use a Varilite on a dolly as the actual sun-ball seen on the horizon and track that along with our characters (to give the illusion the sun was 93,000,000 miles away instead of 100 feet). The elements were so simCA4ple that they were somewhat laughed-off and looked upon as though it would never work. I created a digital painting that emulated the type of light that Joe wanted and he approved that. I then did a test on a miniature set using the units I proposed and that seemed promising… But still Joe and Rick seemed extremely cautious about pulling the trigger on it. Several months passed and we were well into shooting. After some attempts to stage it outside (including an idea to shoot night-for-day as we did on our JP3 Falls Lake rig) it was decided to build the set on H Stage at Shepperton. We laid out our skylight (HMI’s bounced into Ultrabouce on the stage ceiling) our horizon glow (old fashioned cyc-strips dimmed to 20%) and our dolly mounted VL that tracked about 1/3 the distance the camera did, every time the camera moved… Even if it was only a foot or two. I must admit, without the blizzard turned-on it looked like it would never work. But with the blizzard blending these simple elements into one frame, it seemed to work fine.


Production Designer Rick Heinrichs creates the most fantastic concept art. Here is a scene from the opening of the film where a Sub-Orbital Bomber is discovered largely buried in ice somewhere in the arctic circle. Workers repel into a cut hatchway and Joe Johnston specifically wanted to see a very vertical beam of light penetrate the darkness. All too easy for Rick’s artists to paint as they had plenty of elbow room to keep their paintbrushes straight and parallel. A little different affair for me, as you will see in my next post. That aside, I’ve spoken many times about Rick’s vision and how he “suggests” his sets be lit and how his ideas are wonderfully inspired. Frequently while creating my lighting diagrams during prep, I’ll visit the art department walls and even have a quick conversation with Rick and Joe regarding their intent and even fire some ideas over their transom myself before sitting down to do the final renderings for the crew. In the case of Captain America, there were 115 sets and lighting diagrams… Which is maybe 30-40% more than found in a film of this type and 50-60% more than found in an average film. Therefore, the pre-visualization and pre-light renderings were massively important. Biggles and I knew that if we ever fell behind, we’d never catch up


On the Sub-Orbital Bomber set that we see iced-over in the beginning of the film, Director Joe Johnston was quite adamant about having I very parallel beam of light blasting into the freshly cut hole and slicing through and invading the set. This was the same Sub-Orbital Bomber set that was used for the flying scenes. Different than most plane cockpits, Rick designed this set to be large and organically shaped. The set itself was on a gimbal that was 14 feet high… And the set itself was 20 feet high on top of that. We only had a 42 foot tall stage so that only left me 8 feet with which to rig this light beam. Typically, to make a beam parallel, you need to back the light off… Maybe 60 feet, and shoot it in from that great distance. If the light is too close, the beam fans out in a cone pattern and the beam is not parallel… But has the look of a light set very close to the opening. We ended up setting a 6×6 mirror up in the ozone above the stage perms, then shot in a 36 inch HMI Molebeam from 60 feet to the side of the set and reflected that light 90 degrees thru the opening at the top of the set. Being in the ozone above the perms gave stunts some space to rig their repel rigs and that crowded 8 feet of stage space became workable for us. When Joe saw the light for the first time at our pre-focus he said, “oh. I’m pleasantly surprised. I was prepared to ask you to re-rig this for a straight beam of light. You seem to have done it somehow. Ok.” Whew.



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