Cinematographer Jeff Kimball, ASC embraced the opportunity to collaborate with Stallone in bringing the action drama to movie screens. The DP shot the 1994 film The Specialist, which also starred Stallone. The Expendables was Kimball’s chance to shoot a feature with Stallone at the helm.
There was about four weeks of preproduction planning that included finding, assembling and dressing locations, as well as assembling the cast and crew. The Expendables was mainly produced at practical locations and sets in New Orleans, La., and exterior scenes on the island were filmed on the coast in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. New Orleans Location Manager Ed Liscomb knew the lay of the land in Louisiana, and Stallone and Kimball met with Production Designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone, who did double duty by scouting locations in Brazil, where he has worked on many films. “There’s a mansion built up against a hill that has a big statue of Jesus on top of it in Rio,” Kimball says. “It was built during the 16th or 17th century. The visual effects team led by Wes Caefer used shots that we took of the mansion and statue for blue screen composites as backgrounds for exterior scenes that we shot in New Orleans.”
New Orleans was familiar territory, as Unit Production Manager Joshua Throne has done four films in Louisiana in the past six years, and Kimball shot Glory Road there in 2006. The state offers attractive tax incentives, and Kimball notes that there’s a deep pool of talented camera crew. Locals made up most of Kimball’s crew; the main exceptions were Dan Delgado, who is Kimball’s regular gaffer, and A Camera Operator/Second Unit DP Vern Nobles.
An early decision was made to produce The Expendables in Super 35 film format coupled with digital intermediate (DI) timing during postproduction. Kimball explains that the scope of backgrounds and action scenes with multiple characters called for a widescreen 2.4:1 aspect ratio.
Nobles has been on camera crews on several films featuring Stallone, most recently Rambo in 2008. For The Expendables, Nobles provided most of the cameras and lenses from his own, well-maintained collection with additional gear from Keslow Camera. The first unit carried ARRICAM LT, ARRICAM ST and ARRIFLEX 435 cameras with a full set of Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses. The second unit carried ARRIFLEX 235 and 435 cameras also with Zeiss Ultra Primes. A compact Bell & Howell Eyemo camera was used occasionally. Chapman/Leonard and Panavision Remote Systems provided most of the other gear, ranging from camera cars and dollies to cranes and a Technocrane with a Libra head. That combination allowed the crew to cover scenes from any perspective.
Kimball asked Stallone if he wanted test shoots with the actors. “[Stallone] said, ‘I trust you. You know how to shoot faces,’” Kimball recalls, giving a good example of their collaborative process. After reading the script, seeing locations and listening to Stallone’s vision for covering scenes, Kimball chose three KODAK VISION 3 color negative films for his palette. He made extensive use of 5219, a 500T stock for evening, interior and darker daytime scenes. Most daylight sequences were recorded on either 5201 50D or 5205 250D film, depending on where and when they were shooting and what the light was like.
Stallone set up scenes, rehearsed with the actors and checked where Kimball set up the cameras –– some were on wider shots and one or two were usually on close-ups of Stallone or another actor. Sometimes one or more cameras would cover the physical explosions. The second unit crew occasionally covered action sequences with aerial shots taken from a helicopter. “There were almost always three or four cameras rolling,” Nobles says. “Some of the actors, including Jet Li and Mickey Rourke, were only there for a fixed amount of days. On certain days, Jeff had three units working around the clock.”
For the film’s opening when the mercenaries rescue the imprisoned hostages from the hold of a boat, the scene was literally shot in the dark. “The mercenaries were wearing special glasses that enabled them to see in a dark, smoky environment, which gave them an edge over the pirates,” explains Sean Fairburn, SOC, who operated the thermal imaging camera used to shoot that scene. Manufactured by FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared), the camera was mounted on a rig, which enabled Fairburn to shoot from the point of view of the mercenaries. The camera registered everything warm in different colors. “We tested to see how we should set the camera to record facial expressions on the actors and stunt men playing pirates,” Fairburn says. “I spent several days with the film effects and stunt people designing a way to create an illusion of bullets hitting the bodies of pirates. We had the AD drop the ambient temperature on the set by 20 degrees [Fahrenheit], so body heat stood out better against the background.”
For a shot of a mercenary punching someone in the chest, the heat from the actor’s fist left an imprint that registered on the infrared camera. Fairburn explains that he asked the stuntmen to hold hot tea in their mouths before they were punched, so the infrared images would look as though the men had blood on their lips. The infrared shots were integrated with live-action film during DI timing when the images were fine tuned.
When the film’s mercenaries rescue Sandra from prison, the scene was filmed in a dark tunnel with brick walls in a Civil War fort in New Orleans, and Kimball shot it with 500-speed film. For ambience, the DP put a 4-foot-long piece of LumiQuest UltraBounce on the ceiling to bounce a fluorescent light. Kimball says the result looks like moonlight coming through windows. His gaffer also used xenon flashlights reflecting off “little” silver or gold cards to simulate flickering firelight.
One huge scene takes place on a set for a 2-acre military compound that was built on a backlot in New Orleans. The compound was filled with army trucks and tanks and had a blue screen in the background, where a mansion and statue were later composited into the scene to establish the setting. “One of the first things the mercenaries did when they returned to the island was attack the military compound to destroy the tanks and trucks,” Kimball explains. “We used real explosives. Usually, those were one-take shots covered from different angles and perspectives by the first and second units working together.” If Stallone didn’t like what he saw, the scene was reshot. In one sequence, the crew blew up a stripped-down Huey helicopter. Stallone wanted helicopter pieces flying in all directions, so when it didn’t come apart in the way he had envisioned, the crew put the Huey back together and blew it up again the next day.
Kimball brought essentially the same crew and camera gear to Brazil but Delgado had another commitment, so Kimball brought Mike Ambrose on board as gaffer. There were some glitches when the production got to Rio, such as the camera car and a tow dolly they reserved for rental were no longer available. Also: “We were supposed to shoot a scene that had gunfire, but we were told that the noise would disturb the monkeys,” Nobles says. “Another time, we had a 45-minute delay because of a fireworks display for tourists who were visiting the area.” The crew planned on filming what Kimball describes as “a huge battle” in the Rio area, but Stallone decided to shoot the scene in Louisiana and composite jungle settings filmed in Brazil for the backgrounds.
Lionsgate has The Expendables scheduled for release later this summer, but here’s something to think about in the meantime: When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the production in Louisiana, he was filmed in a cameo role. What’s that about? You’ll soon see for yourself.