After working on critically acclaimed TV series like Game of Thrones and Sherlock, cinematographer Fabian Wagner was very aware that his next project, Justice League, was a comic book movie.
Working with the film’s director, Zack Snyder, Wagner gave Justice League a style that was lighter and more colorful than the director’s past superhero movies. And he knew that, even though the characters wore colorful tights, they also had real lives outside the costumes, and their stories had to connect with audiences as realistic.
Newsarama talked to Wagner to find out more about the challenges in working with the film’s CGI, how he wanted source material to inspire but not completely guide the cinematography, and what the experience was like making Justice League.
Newsarama: Fabian, with Justice League, how did you and the director come up with the overall style and tone for this movie?
Fabian Wagner: When I came on board, Zack Snyder, the director, he had a clear idea that he wanted to go slightly lighter and more colorful than in his previous movies like Man of Steel and Batman V Superman.
So they wanted to shift the tone a little bit away from that.
For me, it was still a comic book movie and was based in that world, so I wanted to — you know, it’s Batman and all these other characters — so I wanted to keep it dark and interesting but also keeping in mind that it needed to be lighter in tone and have a bit more color than being too desaturated or overly stylized.
But it was something that came very organically. You know, it was a combination of lighting and framing and art direction and production design, and sets and locations.
Nrama: Did you look at source material at all? Or draw inspiration for any past movies?
Wagner: I looked at all sorts of things. I looked at a lot of comic books. I looked at other comic book movies. I even watched the old Michael Keaton Batman films.
But you know, you look at things for inspiration and you pick up things that you like, and then you find a way of making that into a look for the movie. But it was more of a general interest of mine to look through some comics and some old movies and find bits that I really liked that I could evolve into something for this movie, something we could use in our own way for this film.
Nrama: But it sounds like you were very aware that this was a comic book film.
Wagner: Yeah, it is a comic book film, but then all our superheroes are also very normal guys. Flash is a normal guy. Batman is Bruce Wayne. Wonder Woman is Diana Prince. So they also have their normal lives.
So I didn’t try to find a style based only on comic book films or superhero films. I didn’t think, “Oh, we have to do this kind of framing or this kind of angle to make this a superhero film.”
But then, there are certain times where you are aware that it’s a comic book film as you’re making the movie. Like there’s a shot of Batman when he’s sitting on the gargoyle. I mean… that was one of my favorite things to shoot! I’m a Batman fan, and I’ve loved Batman since I was a kid. So it was one of those shots that felt like a really iconic moment.
But I didn’t look at any particular comic book movies or comic books to replicate any of those typical shots.
Nrama: You’ve certainly worked with CGI before, but this movie is filled with scenes that required post-production work. Was that a significant challenge?
Wagner: It was certainly bigger than any CGI I have ever done. I mean, I’d done some CGI work before and know my way around CGI, but obviously the scale of this movie was calling for a lot more CGI.
But for me, that’s one of the great things about my job, is that every job is different. Sometimes you do a job with very little CGI and sometimes you do a job with a lot of CGI. And I always try to take the best away from it.
It was just a lot of fun. I just had a great time during the whole thing.
And I had a great relationship with John DesJardin, “DJ,” who’s Zack’s usual visual effects supervisor. I mean, he’s a super, clever guy and his team are great.
And as soon as we started prepping, we started talking about what they wanted to do, and what I wanted to do and how we could combine those two things. They were super helpful and very collaborative. It was a very joyful experience for me the whole way through.
We constantly talked about what this will be. We talked about the sets and how we would extend them. And I spoke to them about my lighting ideas and how they integrate that into the CG world.
So it was a fun experience really.
It takes imagination sometimes, if you’re standing in front of a lot of green screens. But you do concept art and you can see what the world is going to look like.
We talked about it and so I quite enjoyed it.
Nrama: Were you involved in the reshoots?
Wagner: I wasn’t unfortunately. I was actually on another movie at the time, which I had just started. So I couldn’t unfortunately come back for the reshoots.
But my second unit DP, who was working on the main shoot doing the second unit — thankfully, he came in to take over the reshoots.
Nrama: So for continuity, someone from the main shoot did return?
Wagner: Yeah. Obviously, I would have loved to do the reshoots, but because of scheduling issues, that didn’t work.
But we talked about everything while we were shooting the year before, so he knew the style and everything. And he’s a great guy.
So it was great to have that continuity.
Nrama: It sounds like you’ve been busy. Have you seen the film? Did you make it to the premiere?
Wagner: I haven’t actually seen the whole finished film. I’ve seen bits and pieces. I was away for a family emergency at the time. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
For me, it was a really fun experience. Zack Snyder is a really visionary director, I think. He’s a guy who loves comics, and he’s so knowledgeable about that world. He wants to be true to the comics. The detail was really fascinating.
For me, it was a great time, and it was wonderful to get the chance to do a movie like this with someone like him. It was just very, very enjoyable.