The Suicide Squad Cinematographer On How To Make Giant Starfish And Talking Sharks Feel Real [Interview]

"The Suicide Squad" is as colorful as the big personalities that exist front-and-center in James Gunn's ensemble supervillain film. For the "Dirty Dozen"-inspired adventure, Gunn reunited with cinematographer Henry Braham, who shot "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," and the two created another lush picture together.

With the DC Comics film, Gunn and Braham struck a balance of pop and reality, with both valuing "perfectly imperfect" visuals.

For Braham, though, it was all about setting a tone of magical realism. A part of the realism comes from, as he told us, getting close to the action and the characters, thanks to the handy RED cameras. In a recent interview, we talked all about that, as well as which shots proved the most challenging and much more.

Do you take much influence, aesthetically, from comic books when you make a comic book movie?

No, that's the short answer. What my work is, to collaborate with directors, and to translate their personality and their visual language onto the screen. Of course, James is a writer, so the work is inspired first by his writing. And then second, by talking to him about the way he sees things. And that's how we find our way into the visual language of the movie.

How did his song choices listed in the script then help you visualize "The Suicide Squad"?

Well, James writes the music into the script and also, we play it on the set. So if we're shooting an action sequence, be it the Pixies sequence or Harley's escape, we're shooting that to music so that the rhythm of the choreography of the camera is informed by the music. It really helps, because his music choices are so specific to the story and the emotion of the story at that time, that it's a very good way of making sure that everything falls into sync. It's a particularly good way of getting everybody's brains in sync with that particular moment, and it's particularly true of action.

So that's to do with the choreography of the camera and the rhythm with which it moves. The other thing is, as with all things, all things need to be based in truth. James would refer to that in "The Suicide Squad" as magical realism. There's a walking shark or a giant starfish, but the things around them are ordinary. Therefore, because things are ordinary and kind of truthful to the way they are in real life, then the extraordinary, fantastical things make sense.

Why not have a massive starfish in the streets of Panama? And those streets of Panama are real. I think that's true of all storytelling, however fantastical, there has to be an element of truth. And it's absolutely true in the case of photography, that things have to be based in reality before you can move on from there.

The shot of King Shark looking out the car window is a good example of that, too.

Well, the story point is, we want to see him seeing the world go by. He's CG of course, but the rest of it is real. The van is real and the street scenes are real, so that's the point. In many ways, so much of this movie is for real. We're blowing things up for real. There are a lot of sets built, and the Panama location, it's all real. So it's not like anybody actually is against green-screen backgrounds. They're acting in real situations. Of course, that informs photography as well. You can take, I suppose, complete control at the time of the nuances of framing, the nuances of color and tone and all those things, and that's a big difference.

What's advantageous about the RED camera you shot on in that regard?

Firstly, what I'm looking for is a photographic medium that captures everything to the quality that we need. And in this case, this is for IMAX. And secondly, the physical size of cameras, to me, is very, very important. I think the physical size of cameras enables you to put the camera inside the scenes, in a way that larger cameras don't. You get the audience immersed in the scene because you're literally in the middle of it.

At the beginning we wanted to find a visual language that was very active and that would get the audience right in the middle of the story. So if you think historically, movie makers started with small cameras and they were spectacularly imaginative with what they did. And then the technology forced cameras to get bigger and bigger, be it with the invention of sound or color, three strip color, that informed the way movies were made and shot.

So the larger the camera, the harder it became to move the camera. That's not to say they didn't move the camera, but it made it very difficult. And therefore, the camera stood outside the ring, if you like. I think the audience stood outside the ring. So that's what interests me, the ability to get intimate with the story and get intimate with the actors when it's needed. I think that's what James found, and he found that very liberating. Once you can do that, in fact, you have spectacular freedom to move the camera where you want. Because the photographic quality is so great, it gives me enormous latitude to work with natural light or low light, and so on.

The opening shot of the movie lets you know that, thematically, first glances or impressions can be deceiving. How'd you and James conceive that shot?

That sequence was originally pre-viz because it's actually a very precise sequence on how the ball bounces around the courtyard and how it hits the birds and everything, so it required working out properly. The shot starts looking at Savant in a puddle. So the guys put the puddle and we were doing the shot, and I think James called out, he said, "Well, hang on a minute. Can we do this upside down? So it's the right way round." So like all these things, it evolved from him saying something and us thinking, well, we can do that. Of course, we can do that. So it's a technically very complicated shot to do, but that's the last thing you want anybody to think about that. You just want them to be immersed in the story. And of course, it's appropriate for the story, for the exact reasons that you point out. You've hit it on the nail, it's all about something being different than it appears.

All things that are interesting to me, certainly are perfectly imperfect.

What shots were exceptionally challenging?

Funny enough, I don't think like that. Figuring out the idea is always the real challenge and figuring out the visual idea. It took us a while to really find the voice of the movie, when we were experimenting. Part of that came from finding the color tone and all the rest of it, because the color is slightly counter-intuitive. This is a wallpaper, and in some ways, quite an old fashioned wallpaper.

If you're a generation that's grown up with "Where Eagles Dare" or "The Dirty Dozen," I love those movies and, fundamentally, this is the same genre. And the default would be to make it, and it wasn't the default, would be to make it gritty and possibly monochromatic, very contrasting. But it never seemed right. It never seemed right.

In fact, the more we worked on it, the more we realized that color was crucial to the idea. And the moment you use color photography rather than purely light and shade, then of course it opens up. Not only does it open up complexity, but it opens up the scope of what you can do. So the hardest challenge was finding the idea, and then the next challenge was finding the actual language of how the camera moves.

The short answer to that was, we ended up with a style that was very intuitive. Which means that, often James would work out scenes the way he saw them very specifically, and having done that, actually opened his mind up to other ways. And a lot of where the camera is and how the camera moves, is intuitive, which is why I operate the camera. Because sometimes, you've been working a lot with the director on the idea of the movie, and there are moments when you just call on those conversations and those resources, and you don't even think about what you're doing. You're just doing them because you're immersed in what you're doing.

I always think finding the visual style is the hardest bit. The first week is terrifying. Because you kind of make a start and you think, well, we're doing what we said we'd do, but is it any good? And you have to be quite brutally honest with yourself to see what's wrong with it, because you can improve on it and make it better. But I think you do have to be brutal and honest and say to yourself and ask other people, "What's wrong with this?" And then you really start to find the voice of the movie.

How do the characters help you there? They're such colorful characters.

It's more to do with the colors and mood of the scene, and therefore the purpose of the scene and the environment, because I think the colors of the characters come through very strongly in their costume. Brilliant costume design, because there are all these colorful characters that sit naturally in their settings. For me, color is more about mood. Whether it's unsettling, and so there's a cacophony of color, or whether it's something that you are more familiar with, be it sunset or an early morning and whatever. Sort of those things. Those things, to me, need to be rooted in reality. So, color is endlessly fascinating.

The colors are so extreme in the Harley Quinn action sequence.

Well, I think although that's spectacularly violent, the color there is really important because it's also really beautiful. And it's a beautiful song. So the contradiction of this spectacular violence in such a beautiful background, is fantastic. And what's not to like about it? And of course, the utter dream with that is that Margot is such an accomplished performer, and has the ability to do the stuff that we see her doing. We can show that it's her that's doing it, and she did every bit of that.

It's fantastic for me, because in terms of where I put the camera or how I move the camera, I can tell a very clear story because I can show the audience that it's really her doing this stuff. So it was conceived as, how the color of her dress would play against the color of the sets? And that's why I was saying the costume designer and the production designer are so good. And the key thing photographically, we capture that rather than kind of muddy it. I think if we'd put too much light and shade in there, the color would have been confusing. I think it's generally important with color to play to its strengths.

You've said before you want imperfections, so a film doesn't look like a video game. What imperfections make "The Suicide Squad" more authentic?

Well, all things that are interesting to me, certainly are perfectly imperfect. It's going back to the point about truth, or in James' terminology, realism. That's what we're trying to build into everything that we do is imperfection. Perfectly perfect is a different language. That's the world of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Very, very, very fine movie, and that was the idea behind it. I think in this world, imperfection is important as part of creating a real space for the audience to suspend their disbelief.

What are your favorite examples of perfectly imperfect?

Wong Kar-wai. I think Asian cinema is particularly interesting, in that respect. Movies like Chungking Express are spectacular. They're seemingly rough and ready, but of course, they're beautifully crafted. They embrace everything around them, and I think that's a great approach, to embrace things and look for what's interesting in them.