“If We were Doing Inserts, We Could Cut Them In as We Were Shooting”: 2nd Unit DP Ross Emery on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the Matrix Trilogy
A 2nd unit DP must be a chameleon who can bend their own style to the shape of the main unit cinematographer. For Australian DP Ross Emery, that can mean replicating the regimented classical approach of someone like William Fraker on one picture, then recreating the instinctual fluidity of Dariusz Wolski on the next.
For his latest project, Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Emery once again finds himself emulating main unit cinematographer Bill Pope, who he collaborated with on The Matrix trilogy two decades ago. Emery —whose career includes main unit DP credits on The Wolverine and Raised by Wolves—spoke to Filmmaker about crafting Shang-Chi’s bus fight extravaganza, breaking into the industry during the Australian New Wave and how deliberate mistakes are the key to selling VFX.
Filmmaker: The “about” section of your website mentions a transformative viewing of Blade Runner when you were a teenager. Tell me more about that.
Emery: My father is a documentary filmmaker. In my early teens, he would try to increase my education of all things films by dragging me around to see Seven Samurai and things like that at little arthouse theaters all around Sydney. Around that time he took me to a double bill of Blade Runner and this amazing documentary called Visions of Eight (1973). They basically commissioned eight filmmakers to do short movies about the Olympics, and they could do anything they wanted. For example, [Japanese director Kon Ichikawa] had eight minutes of coverage of different angles and lenses of the 100 meter sprint final. It must have been a few years after Blade Runner was first released. I didn’t think it was the kind of film my father would’ve been into, but that was a real light bulb moment for me, really, seeing something so visually inspiring. All of the textures that are there—the smoke, the rain, everything that goes into why Blade Runner is still such a referenced film today—really kept with me.
Luckily, I recently got to do some work with Ridley Scott [on Raised by Wolves]. To see how his brain works was really fascinating. Everyone knows the stories about how he’s a particularly talented artist and can draw a storyboard right in front of you explaining exactly what he wants. His understanding of layers and camera movement and depth and light is really quite extraordinary. Not many of us are privileged in that way to get to meet and work with someone who really inspired the start of their journey.
Filmmaker: I think there are many people whose minds were blown the first time they saw The Matrix in a similar fashion to what you experienced with that Blade Runner screening.
Emery: It kind of blew my mind as well the first time I saw it. You’re not really sure what a film is going to turn out like when you’re working on it. Most of the time you have no idea. Sometimes you think they’re great and they turn out not so great and the other way around. But I do remember standing on the sidewalk outside the cinema at the cast and crew screening many months after the shoot was wrapped and talking with people from the crew wondering if it was going to be any good. (laughs) It took that first couple of minutes, but when Trinity takes out the policemen, it’s like, “OK, this is amazing.” So it was just as much fun for me to watch it for the first time as anyone else.
The Matrix was such an ambitious shoot. Basically every seven days we were doing something nobody had ever done before. Whether it’s bullet time or the Trinity jump, every week there was something where you couldn’t really just ring somebody up and say, “I’m doing this shot of a miniature helicopter crashing into a glass wall with seven cameras” and get some tips. We’d have production meetings about sequences and after we’d finish up Barrie Osborne, our producer on the show, would ask, “How long do you think this is going to take?” And I’d have to say, “Well, Barrie, no one has ever done this before so I really don’t know.” It’s probably to this day the toughest shoot I’ve done just because the Wachowskis were reaching so far.
Filmmaker: I just re-watched the original movie after the Part 4 trailer came out. I hadn’t seen it in probably 15 years and, while there are a few effects that show their age, for the most part it really holds up.
Emery: We were really right on the cusp. I’d done a film that we literally shot the year before called Dark City, which is terrific but it’s like there’s a line in between those two movies in terms of what was possible in visual effects, even if you had unlimited budgets. Dark City fell on one side of the line and The Matrix fell on the other. In that 12 months between the two films, the advancements in integral parts of visual effects, especially in terms of comping and camera tracking, took a huge leap.
Probably my favorite shot in The Matrix is when Trinity and Neo put the bomb in the elevator after the lobby battle and the flames come out in a wave all over the set. That was a head-scratcher. Halfway through production no one could figure out really how we were going to do that. Today you just press a button [in post] that says “flames.” (laughs) But back then we actually had to shoot flames at 300 frames a second with a moving camera. The way we ended up doing it was really unique and it had a lot more to do with the nuts and bolts guys than the computer guys. We built the set out of steel and painted it black and I think it was done quarter scale, which is still pretty big. Then we inverted it and hung it from the ceiling at a 15 degree angle so that the special effects guys could blast the biggest gas cannon you’ve ever seen through the back of it. Then we built a giant X/Y dolly, which had a remote head and a 300-frames-per-second camera and a 120-frames-per-second camera right next to it that had to track back probably 35 to 40 feet. So, it was all a free-hand move with a couple of grips in some flame-proof gear. It’s such a beautiful shot to see now. It was one of the most fantastic sets of dailies I’ve ever been through because we just had like 45 minutes of 300 frames a second flames. It was like watching an open fire. I’m quite proud of the 2nd unit stuff I did on The Matrix and some other films where you literally cannot see where 2nd unit starts and main unit finishes. That’s what gives me a buzz, when no one can tell.
Filmmaker: Your dad was a filmmaker, so on some level that must have seemed like an attainable career, but you also grew up in kind of this Golden Age of Australian filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s.
Emery: It was an interesting period. There are all the films that everybody knows from that generation, but also an awful lot of amazing films that went under the radar because there were so many movies shot. The year I effectively joined the industry in Australia, the story is there were 108 feature films made in that one year. A lot of it was to do with an overly generous tax concession, but it did lead to a lot of really good films and also promoted an awful lot of really good filmmakers like Gillian Armstrong, Phillip Noyce and Peter Weir. A lot of people got their start through this tax concession break. It also meant that rising tides raise all boats. Crews and post production people were elevated as well. In my first 12 months I think I worked on four films and rose through the ranks incredibly quickly. I literally started the year as a 2nd AC and ended it operating the camera on some shots. It was kind of like, “Hey, you know what a camera looks like. Go over there and look through that one. If that guy moves, move the camera with him.”
Filmmaker: As someone who also has a long list of credits as a main unit cinematographer, what do you think is the specific subset of skills required to be an effective 2nd unit shooter?
Emery: You have to be a really good observer. You have to get inside the head of the DP you’re working for and understand the intention of what they are doing. Most DPs are incredibly similar in temperament and in the way the process works through their brains. Put most DPs in a room together and they’ll bond. So, when I’m doing 2nd Unit I tend to spend as much time on the main unit set as I can and try to absorb the flow and the rhythm of the main unit. I’ll also talk to the main unit gaffer and camera operator quite a bit, and the main unit 1st AC, to piece together all the little things that combine to get the real essence of what the film’s about.
Dariusz Wolski [News of the World, Prometheus] is pretty difficult to shoot 2nd unit for because he’s quite instinctive, but there is a method at the base of it all. One of the things I learned from trying to copy Dariusz’s stuff is that you have to use exactly the same fixtures he used. In Dariusz’s case, that could be a flashlight bouncing off a polystyrene cup in the corner of frame. If you’ve got to do shots that match his stuff, you can’t then go, “I’ll just put a Kino Flo down there and make it come from the same direction.” No, you’ve got to actually get the same flashlight, get the same cup and put it in the same place.
Then there’s more traditional guys. Like I shot 2nd unit for William Fraker [Rosemary’s Baby, Bullitt] on a film and he’s very Hollywood. There’s a number of rules you have to follow with him. Then you’ve got guys like Bill Pope. I really adore Bill. He’s such a fabulous guy. I’ll say to him, “We’re shooting some shots from that scene you guys did last week, so I just wanted to have a quick chat with you about you did.” And he’ll just look at you and say, “Well, don’t do what I did because I fucked it up.” (laughs) “OK, Bill. Do you want me to fuck it up the same way?”
Filmmaker: What was the key on Shang-Chi to creating that “no one can tell” symbiosis with main unit?
Emery: Getting in early when [the stunt team was previsualizing] the fight scenes, so that you can make sure what’s being choreographed is possible to work with when you’re shooting the final photography. They would choreograph a fight scene and shoot it on tiny cameras and do these crazy, amazing moves and I’d have to go, “Listen guys, that’s great, but we can’t get the cameras we’re going to use to do that.” Eventually what I did was put one of my camera operators, Tim Walsh, with the stunt coordinators when they were working out the choreography with the stunt team, and that ended up working particularly well. I had Tim in there with a small but proper camera, with a proper lens, with the right perspective; he would come back and we’d break down the scene in terms of what we’d need technically, like cranes or gimbals or Steadicams. It was really successful in the end because it felt like it started to integrate the stunt component with the cinematic component. I think you can see sometimes, in even the classic Jackie Chan films, the action is amazing but the camera gets left behind a little bit and it’s just there to capture, whereas we wanted to get involved and really be connected to the choreography of the stunts. I really do want to give a shout-out to the camera operators on 2nd unit on Shang-Chi, Tim and Frank Flick. They did some amazing stuff. It’s a very difficult thing to take what a stunt department has done with an iPhone in a gym and turn that into a shot set on scaffolding on the side of a building.
Filmmaker: Let’s use the bus fight scene as an example. Walk me through how main unit and 2nd unit worked together to create that.
Emery: Bill shot all of the dialogue happening in there, then the bus fight was probably 50/50 in terms of main unit and 2nd unit. We re-shot a lot of the stuff that main unit did with the lead actor with a stunt double, then in editorial if the lead actor pulled off the stunt successfully they’d use that. If not, they would use the stunt double pass from an oblique angle; we actually did a little bit of face replacement in some of that scene as well. [Shang-Chi star] Simu Liu was terrific—very, very fit, very committed to the action. His martial arts skills are pretty up there. We shot that on stage surrounded with blue screen and the whole bus was on a gimbal that went up and down and sideways. So, I knew going in I was going to need the bus to be able to do this and that, and we’re going to need the blue screen here and there. Bill is an amazingly cooperative DP in terms of that sort of stuff. He worked out a way of lighting the bus that was very sympathetic to what I was going to have to do once I stepped onto that bus and started shooting.
Filmmaker: I saw a “making of” clip that showed main unit’s video village for that bus scene and there was a wall next to village covered with hundreds of photo boards. When you’re doing 2nd unit for a scene like that, are you basically using that same giant wall of previs and just crossing off the missing shots?
Emery: You can sometimes sweat on the storyboards, trying to figure out how to do it, then you’ll walk up to the main unit director and say, “Listen, we’ve tried to do it like that” and they’ll say, “Oh, don’t look at those. Just do something cool.” But other times it’s like, “No, you have to do exactly what’s on the board.” On a Marvel film, they like to know what kind of film you’re making before you make it. So, there’s a lot of previs and a lot of storyboards, though on Shang-Chi that got overtaken by the stunt vis pretty quickly, which is what I talked about before where the stunt department choreographed the scene and photographed it, then cut that together. We would use that as the reference for what we were going to shoot.
We also had an editor on set who had all the main unit footage as well. Basically, if we were doing inserts, we could cut them in as we were shooting to make sure the cuts worked and everything matched. I’ve done that a few times, but not quite as extensively as we did on Shang-Chi. You literally had a rough cut at the end of the day of what you shot. That was actually a good way to do things, especially with these very precise martial arts techniques we were using. I’ve done a lot of fight stuff, but this was another level really in terms of how precise they were with the action.
Filmmaker: Tell me about Shang-Chi’s schedule in Sydney. You shot for a few weeks early last year, then basically had a four-month COVID pause. I feel like I’m asking this question in every interview now, but I guess that’s just the reality of making films during the pandemic.
Emery: Yeah, Shang-Chi is my COVID film. I think we’re all going to have our COVID films. I can’t remember how many weeks we’d been shooting for, maybe three or four, then you started hearing this little buzz from the real world about this virus in China—and we had a lot of people traveling from China for our film. An entire Mongolian stunt team had traveled through Beijing and Guangzhou to get to Australia, and we actually had people flying in from Wuhan to be on our film. Then the hammer came down and everything shut down. That was an interesting moment, because we were actually doing the fight in the night club with Benedict Wong and Abomination, and we had like 250 extras in the studio with us and everyone was very nervous. Everyone would be told, “Okay, don’t crowd together.” We were really just thinking things up on the run. The day after that, they basically said, “We’re shutting down. Everyone just leave everything where it is.” There were trollies full of camera gear just on the set and they were like, “Everybody go back home and we’ll get in touch.”
Disney and Marvel were fantastic in terms of the way they looked after us, kept as many people on the payroll as they could for as long as they could and kept everyone informed. In Australia we lucked out a bit early on. They closed borders quickly. So about the end of June or early July they basically said, “Okay, we’re going to start back up.” That’s the start of the Zoom meetings era. (laughs) Zoom meetings forever about, how are we going to do this? What are the protocols going to be? What are we allowed to do? What are we not allowed to do? We were the ones who kind of essentially wrote the rules that everyone has followed from there in terms of mask wearing, sanitation, COVID marshals, temperature checks at the studio gates. The COVID marshals were elevated to a level where if they said something to you, it’s like you’re being talked to by the producer. You don’t dismiss them. If they say put your mask on, you stop and you put your mask on. We had a 2nd unit pod, a main unit pod, an art department pod. Normally I would spend a lot of time on the main unit set, but I wasn’t allowed to go onto the main unit set and Bill Pope wasn’t allowed to go onto my set. So, we’d talk on the phone quite a bit and send pictures to each other and worked it through from there.
Filmmaker: You talked about the leap in technology that happened between Dark City and The Matrix. Now we’re twenty-some years on from The Matrix and you’re doing another martial arts-heavy action film with wirework. How much different is the way you go about creating that action now?
Emery: Audiences really pick up on the honesty of what you do. Let’s use The Matrix as an example. We worked much harder on that film to get Carrie-Anne [Moss], Hugo [Weaving) and Keanu [Reeves] up to speed with all the stunts and fights. They spent months training for all that. They had some very good stunt doubles as well, but you would basically construct the scenes, the shots, the action so that the actor could do it and look good doing it. Keanu worked his ass off—they all did, but he had a bigger load. He took it very, very seriously. He wanted [the audience] to be able to tell that’s him with the MP5 gun with the column exploding right behind him. Then he comes out, does that one-handed handstand, grabs the shotgun and shoots. He could do it, and I think that’s what gives that film a real honesty people really pick up on.
Now in the Marvel world, a lot of these action pieces are conceived in imagination, then made tangible in a computer. So, you then have to reverse engineer them when you shoot them to figure out what you can do—like, we can take it this far, then it’s going to have to be computers from there on. It’s going to have to be a face replacement or a digital double to make it work. For me personally, I think audiences pick up on that pretty quickly. That’s a really crucial thing you have to respect, an audience’s intuition in terms of what’s real and what’s visceral and what’s artificial. Even if it’s Superman: Everyone will accept that Superman can fly, but if you make his cape in the computer and it doesn’t look right, it will lose a little bit of the impact. So, I think that’s kind of the difference between twenty years ago and now. Now I think it’s a world where you can do whatever you want and sometimes people do whatever they want when they really don’t need to. Sometimes a good cut will have a better effect than a shot with $250,000 worth of digital effects.
Filmmaker: Do you think there’s a generational component to what people will accept? The effects in the 1980s version of Clash of the Titans that I watched as a kid still don’t bother me, but when I see an obvious digital double of Spider-Man, it drives me crazy even though, objectively, it looks incalculably more real.
Emery: I’m not sure about that, but it is something I think about because it is part of the job I do. John Seale [Mad Max: Fury Road, The English Patient], a great cinematographer I got to work with a few times, has this theory of the deliberate mistake. He can’t have an image or a shot that’s too perfect because the audience will pick up on that. The audience knows that nothing can be perfect, so you’ve always got to build in a little deliberate mistake to make the artificial feel real. Whether it’s a lens flare or a little camera wobble or some little aberration somewhere, the audience will accept it as a reality even though you’ve manufactured it. The illusion of some part of it feeling uncontrolled gives this perception of reality to the audience.
Filmmaker: I think you’re exactly right and it’s the reason that a shot that’s 80 percent practical and 20 percent CGI always seems to work better for me than when that ratio is reversed.
Emery: After I heard John talk about that, I discovered that Japanese potters have a similar theory. They’ll make the most beautiful, perfect teapot or cup you’ve ever seen and the last thing they’ll do is take a stick, turn the pot over and on the bottom they’ll mark it. That’s all about this idea that nothing can be perfect. In fact, something is more beautiful because it’s not perfect. That idea travels through a lot of art.
Filmmaker: I do miss imperfect camera moves, the sort of slightly wobbly dollies you’d see in the 1970s and ’80s. I watched The Color of Money not too long ago and there are these fantastically kinetic camera moves, but there’s an imperfection to them that makes them feel alive.
Emery: Yeah. I was watching something recently that was like that as well, a 1960s film where everyone was probably tracking on timber boards or just on the floor, but it doesn’t bother you. It’s part of the patina of the film, like a lens flare or a slight focus dip.
I was watching a cut of a film I did earlier this year. It’s that classic shot where you’re in an office, someone drops a glass and there’s a shot of the glass crashing onto the floor and the scotch spilling out. We had the camera right on the ground looking across the carpet and told the actor, “That’s the spot where we want you to drop the glass,” but they missed the spot and the glass fell eight inches back from where the focus was set. My 1st AC just rolled the focus back—she didn’t snap it, she just rolled it back and picked up the glass just as it was rocking in. And when we saw the scene cut, the editor used that take and it fit with the emotion of the scene so perfectly. You’ve got to leave yourself open to those kinds of moments, because sometimes the greatest moments in our art come from the unexpected.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.