Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople in the industry. In this entry, we chat with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier director of photography P.J. Dillon about the show’s cinematography.
Captain America’s shield is complicated. The Vibrainium metal was removed from Wakanda, molded into a frisbee by Howard Stark during World War II, spray-painted red, white and blue, and shoved upon the US government’s star-spangled propaganda boy, Steve Rogers. The Super-Soldier used the disc as both an offensive and defensive weapon against the Nazis until he went into the ice.
Seventy years later, he awoke in a country he barely recognized and wielded the shield as an Avenger. The Nazis were still here, but they were playing for the home team, and the Captain America mantle got a whole lot heavier.
And then Thanos showed up. And then time travel. And then old man Steve Rogers and his shield-pass to Sam Wilson, launching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Slapping the Captain America shield on your back now requires more than a gesture. The Disney+ series adds tremendous weight to an already heavy object. There’s history to the metal. There’s history to the colors. Sam Wilson must reckon with it.
When it came time to shoot the shield, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier director of photography P.J. Dillon recognized its iconic status, absorbed its use within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and then let his gut direct his decisions. He was less concerned with its narrative significance and more concerned that it looked as it should. If you can’t capture Cap’s shield, then do you even have a show? No way.
“The shield is such an iconic thing,” says Dillon. “You’re very aware of its significance, but we didn’t really discuss in any great detail how we wanted to shoot it. For me as DP, my main priority was: we gotta see the shield! I needed to photograph it in a way where there was no obvious shadow. I took a lot of care to be sure that when the shield became the focus of a shot that we saw it clearly; that it looked well and the colors were correct.”
It wasn’t on him to determine how Wyatt Russell held the shield versus how Anthony Mackie or Sebastian Stan held the shield. Those were performer choices made in collaboration with director Kari Skogland. Once they hashed out those details, Dillon made sure to sell the frame with the necessary impact.
There’s a particular joy that comes with making a Marvel movie. The creators are very much aware of audience anticipation and their inevitable reaction to certain elements. Dillon took a little glee from the jump, knowing that Russell’s John Walker would cut right into the fandom. Episode 1’s final shot, revealing Walker to the world, required conversation and devilish precision.
“We were very conscious of the introduction of that character,” says Dillon. “It was a big moment. We wanted to make [that shot] almost like a traditional big character reveal.”
Dillon plants the camera low in the crowd, looking up at Walker as he makes his entrance. The camera rushes up the stairs and meets the new Captain America as he halts in the middle frame. Russell offers a wink and a slight (smug?) smile. Cut to black, and the audience instantly imagines their fist meeting Walker’s mug.
“In terms of classic film language,” continues Dillon, “that is how you shoot a hero, but we deliberately overdid it a bit. Not to quite poke fun at it, but maybe to over-reference it. We were aware that the character is slightly bombastic, and we wanted the photography in that reveal to reflect that. So everything in [that shot] is a little bit exaggerated. It’s the low angle, but it’s even more exaggerated.”
Episode 1’s final shot stands in stark contrast to Episode 4’s final shot. The low angle from the reveal is taken further south, suggesting an even darker, almost demonic perspective. If the introduction to John Walker was a slap across fandom’s face, this second cut-to-black cliffhanger hurt the soul.
Audience reaction is never too far from Dillon’s mind, but he can’t dwell on it either. Again, his mission is to pull the most energy from the elements within the frame. The shot is his shot; it doesn’t belong to past filmmakers. He’s serving one story and one story only: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
In pre-production, he pounded the pavement, making himself familiar with the films that came before. He and Skogland decided early on to stick to the MCU’s widescreen ratio with anamorphic lenses but deviate with their own stylistic flourishes as much as possible. The worst thing he could do on a project such as this would be to adhere vehemently to the old.
“We looked at all the movies,” he says. “We took everything on board and tried to absorb them, but we were never in a situation where we would say, ‘The shield has to fall this way because that’s the way it fell in one of the movies.’ But you just absorb that stuff by osmosis. You have to be very conscious of trying to maintain a legacy look, but you also have to create the freedom to take something and run with it.”
While The Falcon and the Winter Soldier spins from several environments previously established in the MCU, it also contributes one particularly new landscape we’re destined to see more of in future films and shows. Madripoor is a fictional Southeast Asian island soaked in neon and criminal enterprise. It’s a staple from the comics, most prominently in The Uncanny X-Men, and could prove a significant battleground for the Avengers and friends. As such, a few extra hands got involved regarding its construction.
“We had a lot of photographic references that Kari put together,” explains Dillon. “Some film and video clips, but not from specific shows, just commercials, and various other places. We then reached out to our production designer [Ray Chan] and worked with Kevin [Feige] a lot in terms of developing the concept for what that should have looked like. But for me, it’s just trying to absorb what that is and what everybody’s thinking, and looking at specific concept work, and then just trying to execute that. That’s the process, really.”
Surprisingly, considering the amount of planning that occurs to assemble a season of television and the worlds it leaves behind for others to play within, for Dillon, some of his favorite shots from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier came together through happenstance. Sometimes, excellence is gifted upon you. Dillon’s job is to recognize it and point his camera toward it.
“There’s a shot in the fight sequence at the start of Episode 5,” he says, “where Bucky picks the shield up after they’ve taken it from John Walker. There’s a shaft of sunlight coming through, and that just happened on the day. We were shooting on location, and the sun came out, and it came through like that, and we dropped what we were doing and put the characters in.”
Filmmaking is about being open and ready to receive as much as it is about toiling away and plotting perfection. Serendipity is a tool you have to be ready to snatch from your kit. When Sebastian Stan walked into that shaft of light, and the light in return bounced off the shield, the cinematographer felt the universe coming together.
“I’m very pleased with that shot,” Dillon continues. “I thought it expressed the intent of the scene beautifully, and it happened without too much input from us, really.”
With one season of the MCU completed, P.J. Dillon is ready to jump back into the fray. Working with these characters and inside these worlds feels like no other project or story. And the team that nurtures the long game is absolutely unbeatable from his position.
“It’s a great world,” he says. “Marvel are great people to work for, like creatively great people to work for. They’re very generous, and you pretty much have complete creative freedom. You know, yes, everything is discussed, and stuff has to be approved, but I never once encountered a situation where somebody said, “No, you can’t do that, we don’t do that here.’ That just doesn’t exist. You’ve been hired to do the job. They want you to express your stuff, and I find that really rewarding.”
P.J. Dillon’s time with the shield is done for now, but he’s not putting a lock on the case. His awe for his coworkers and the items they act as caretakers for remains firmly intact. The reverence so many people hold for these characters is compelling and maybe a little addictive. The delight in twisting those emotions through image curation is matchless.
His final statement being a resounding, “Yes, I’d love to do it again!”
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is currently streaming on Disney+.