The Gold & The Cold

2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman reimagined the timeless legendary fairy tale with a flourish, augmenting its considerable star power with an array of breathtaking visuals. The film had come about after veteran commercial director Rupert Sanders, aided by his longtime associate and VFX supervisor Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, fashioned a proof-of-concept short that convinced Universal to back the $170 million project. With strong worldwide box office, a follow-up was soon in the works, but it wouldn’t be until 2015 before The Huntsman: Winter’s War began production. The action plays out both prior to and after the events of the first film, with Chris Hemsworth as the title character and Charlize Theron as evil Queen Ravenna reprising their roles, while introducing Emily Blunt as her sister Freya, the Ice Queen. Filmmaker Frank Darabont was signed to direct, but bowed out during preproduction, with Nicolas-Troyan taking up the reins for his feature debut.

“I had been developing another movie to direct for producer Joe Roth when he called me,” Nicolas-Troyan explains. “With his and other familiar faces present [including returning previsualization and VFX teams Nvizage and Double Negative], there would be a certain level of comfort directing this project, so it wasn’t really a head-scratcher for me to take this on.”

Stepping in at such a late point, however, was a daunting consideration. “The train was already rolling when I jumped aboard with only 14 weeks before shooting began,” admits Nicolas-Troyan. “Fortunately, we knew what worked in the first movie, so it became a matter of staying in the world Rupert had created, but adding new flavors and aspects.”

The Gold And The Cold
Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, with Jessica Chastain and Chris Hemsworth, took over as director of The Huntsman after Frank Darabont dropped out during preproduction. Image by Giles Keyte © Universal Pictures


This included more of an in-camera approach to depicting many elaborate and fanciful environments. “Rupert and I found common ground with reality-driven visuals,” notes the director. “We both feel that when choosing to shoot greenscreen, it’s only because there’s no better choice available. Having to re-create the world around greenscreen can upset the work, because not having any limits to your visuals takes you away from reality in a way you don’t want, not even in a fantasy. My theory on VFX has always been the same, no matter what my role; I want to use the effects to enhance what we have in-camera.

“I was able to take more advantage of practical builds on this film,” the director elaborates. “The cathedral on the first Huntsman was mostly VFX, but the art department built out our Great Hall on this one. Even the exteriors are authentic 85% of the time. I find the real-world limitations of a physical stage, or arising out of weather and time of day, can positively impact cast and crew and really help you form a film universe, because you can actually frame for it. Getting too far away from that works against some of our oldest and most reliable visual approaches to storytelling.”

With that in mind, Nicolas-Troyan had particular skill sets in mind for his director of photography. This led him to select cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, ASC, GSC, a recent Oscar® nominee for his monochrome work on frequent collaborator Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.

“It wasn’t a matter of finding someone with a look on his reel that I wanted to duplicate,” he maintains. “I had worked on a movie Phedon shot [The Weather Man] and knew he could handle the technical end of things, but the point of view I felt he could bring to production was much more important. There are so many possibilities when shooting a scene for a picture, not just angles, but also lens selection. Maybe 20 of those choices would be really interesting, but you have to decide on just three as the best bets. Feedback like, ‘That’s great!’ isn’t helpful. What’s wonderful to hear is, ‘This looks good, but if we add that…’ I knew Phedon would have my back this way, plus his great reputation is as a DP who remains right there with you in the trenches throughout.”

For his part, having never shot any kind of fantasy or genre feature, Papamichael had some initial trepidation. “My preference is to shoot things that actually exist,” he declares. “Fantasy films are traditionally not always reliant on this kind of approach. But after meeting Cedric, I was surprised and intrigued to hear him stress how he wanted to use real locations and that key sets would be built practically, which let me approach the film as a period piece photographically rather than a VFX one.”

Working with a first-time feature director posed no significant obstacle to the collaboration. “Dealing with Cedric was wonderful,” Papamichael reports. “His experience on the first film gave him expertise on this whole world, which informed how we approached unusual situations like the magical part of the forest called The Sanctuary. Part of the whole attraction of each new job for me involves not repeating old approaches and patterns, so learning about all this was in keeping with my exploring new avenues for visual storytelling.”

The Gold & The Cold
The Gold And The Cold
Chris Hemsworth as Eric the Huntsman and Jessica Chastain as the Warrior Sara. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, ASC, GSC, kept a warmer daylight exterior to contradict the cold, blue world of Freya’s Kingdom. Papamichael termed this “the gold and the cold” approach to storytelling. Image by Giles Keyte © Universal Pictures

For Nicolas-Troyan, Papamichael’s experience helped offset the director’s own insecurity over technical matters. “I am, to be quite honest, the worst when it comes to eyelines and knowing which side to shoot over-the-shoulders,” he admits. “But Phedon is the king of eyelines. He always knows where the camera has to be so the direction the actors are looking works, and that saved me enormously throughout the shoot.”

Nicolas-Troyan admits to not being a huge fan of previs, though he acknowledges its usefulness. “I previs mainly for technical and logistical reasons and, of course, for CG creatures,” he states. “But previs can be limiting when you solve too much creatively up front, and I like to be open to new things and any accidents that might occur. Plus, when you’re less than three months from shooting, you may not have time to take elaborate previs to a level of refinement where it becomes most useful, and that can confuse matters, too.”


Unlike its predecessor, The Huntsman relied primarily on digital acquisition, with about 30% of the film captured on the new ARRI ALEXA 65.

“The 65 lived on a 50-foot Techno we carried for much of the shoot,” reveals Papamichael. “I would use it whenever we had a wide shot or a painterly tableau. Because of the larger-sized sensor, we used medium-format Hasselblad glass, rehoused by ARRI. This was a kind of interim measure, because the newer lenses were not yet available to us.”

Most of the film was shot on ALEXA XTs, often using older Panavision C-series lenses. “These lenses are slightly more flawed than modern anamorphics, which takes the digital edge off,” notes Papamichael. “We added digital grain emulating [Kodak] 5219 to the image as our last step in the DI, so that combined with the C-series really served to make the image more film-like.”

Digital imaging supervisor Ben Appleton captured the data to Codex, with Technicolor handling digital dailies.

The director’s plan of attack mandated use of three cameras throughout most of the shoot. “Two cameras cover the main action, and he wants the third to fish for and find some gold, or textural details as he calls them,” reports the cinematographer. “Cedric didn’t mind if the cameras got in each other’s shots, as he’d just have them painted out. My philosophy has always been that there’s only one perfect shot, but once you wrap your head around the use of multiple cameras, it’s possible to find validity in getting extra coverage on each take. I had most of the light in the Great Hall coming down in beams from upper windows, which kept things from looking too flat on any of our chosen angles.”

The Gold And The Cold
Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, Sheridan Smith, Rob Brydon, Alexandra Roach and Nick Frost in a scene from The Huntsman. Filming took place at locations across England, including Waverley Abbey in Surrey, Windsor Great Park and Wells Cathedral. Image by Giles Keyte © Universal Pictures

Papamichael employed ARRI’s LED softlight SkyPanels for much of his overhead ambience, controlling color temperature remotely, allowing him to switch quickly from 5600 Kelvin to tungsten for night scenes.

Use of additional cameras meant some had to be equipped with G-series lenses, but Papamichael simply used ¼ Black ProMists to offset their sharpness. RED’s DRAGON, equipped with Zeiss Super Speeds on a PL mount, was employed on drone shots.

“We also used the DRAGON when an operator had to run with the camera over rough terrain,” says Papamichael. “We used a prototype device called Stabileye, which, though it wouldn’t accommodate a larger camera yet, could be attached to a pipe, or let you carry the camera underslung; you can even rather easily run it like a cablecam between two trees.”

The filmmakers elected to differentiate the film’s two time frames with subtly altered aesthetics, affording The Huntsman with, what Papamichael describes as, a broader visual spectrum.

“I kept my period approach to lighting, which meant natural daylight looks and night scenes that are entirely flame-motivated,” he explains. “Those used flame bars with tungsten sources, controlled with a wireless dimmer board. I added warm tones to The Sanctuary to make it seem something apart from the rest of the forest, while in Freya’s Kingdom, I kept things more blue—this was part of our ‘the gold and the cold’ approach to storytelling.”

Achieving that level of stylization called for a combination of on-set lighting and choice of LUT.

“We used the sun when we could get it, but this was England,” Papamichael laughs. “We often supplemented that with ARRIMAX 18K HMIs, knowing saturation could be enhanced in the DI. In the forest, we weren’t allowed to attach anything to the limbs or roots of the protected oak trees, so we used large inflatable balloons without light sources to block the sunlight in certain instances. With Freya’s world, where there’s no direct sunlight, I spent weeks dealing with massive overhead rigs, which was tricky, with how the winds could pick up our 40×60 black silks and tear them to pieces. For this colder realm, we desaturated up to as much as 20%, which required a little cocktail of black levels and added cyan.”

Reverse views looking out from the mostly practical courtyard needed to reveal icy and impressive vistas, so 30×40 containers were deployed so a greenscreen could be erected. Papamichael ventured to an Icelandic glacier to capture appropriately cool aerial background plates for later compositing.


Nicolas-Troyan is admittedly old-school in his approach to VFX. “Some creatives push for a no-limits approach, but even when I’m dealing with a full-CG shot, I consider how it would have been framed and shot if it was a practical event,” he acknowledges. “That’s also why I pressed to do aerials with drones and copters, because the inconsistencies of movement due to pilot and winds give subtle clues of reality that are hard to create in the computer.”

The director also expressed concern over the tendency in sequels to want more of everything. “You can have too much of a good thing,” he notes. “One big monster is great, but does that mean three of them will be that much better? Or will the others distract away from how scary any one of them is? Going expensive and expansive is something one expects in a sequel, but it doesn’t necessarily make it better because the eye is often not as engaged when there isn’t just one strong element in the composition.”

Nicolas-Troyan chuckles before continuing. “Some think this analogy is criminal, but I compare filmmaking with cooking,” he insists. “They both involve making a dish by adding ingredients. Some people will love how you combine ingredients, others will not—but the one thing I know that I don’t want to do is put too many sauces in the same dish that wind up in competition with one another, or have spectacle overshadow characters. I still think Lord of the Rings is about Frodo, not the ring, so while eye candy can enhance how audiences respond to your film, you should never permit it to lead on its own.”

Papamichael participated in the DI, which was handled by Technicolor, working for the first time with colorist Michael Hatzer. “We had tried to work together previously, but this was the first time our schedules lined up,” says the cinematographer. “He does all of Janusz Kaminski’s movies and was a particularly good match for this more stylized type look, which took me away from my usual natural and less colorful treatments.”

Papamichael is again working with Alexander Payne, this time on another fantasy effort, Downsizing. “I learned a lot on Huntsman and actually found myself looking forward to diving into this genre again,” he admits. “Alexander’s set is a much more intimate one, mostly single-camera and with no video village. I light and operate off a 17-inch monitor, not from a DIT tent, and he’s on an apple box next to camera. The VFX world is new to him, as it was for me before. Maybe now this will become a trend for me!”

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