The Cinematographer’s Guide to “Furiosa”

At one point, Furiosa was to be produced back to back with Fury Road—and even as an anime. Watching it, the animation idea sort of makes sense. The idea of shooting both at once doesn’t, so much. Fury Road was notoriously hard work, and Furiosa took eight-plus months. Producing both together would have created a real marathon.

In the end they would be shot a decade apart, almost as a throwback to the days when not every film was expected to launch a franchise.

Back catalog

Other things about Furiosa remind us of classic cinema, too. Various camera teams have worked on the Mad Max series, but the common factor has (almost) always been George Miller. He’s an interesting guy. It’s not instinctive to connect the creator of the Mad Max franchise to a musical comedy about a tap-dancing penguin, but Miller wrote and directed Happy Feet, too. Lorenzo’s Oil is different again. It’s a quiet, reflective film about a degenerative neural disease. (Miller was a doctor before he was a filmmaker, so it makes sense.)

Miller’s horror at the injuries caused by road traffic accidents were apparently a motivating factor for the Mad Max series, and the basis for its action-oriented approach. Furiosa is intensely visual, to the point that it’s been described as adjacent to a silent film. It’s noisy enough, but even the title character has only a scattering of dialogue. The same choices also lead to criticism that the film is one long action sequence. It really isn’t—it’s probably got more variation in pace than Fury Road—but all-action isn’t necessarily a criticism. Bad action is boring because it doesn’t reveal the story. Miller’s action does.

That’s interesting, because filmmakers are often exhorted to show, don’t tell. The decisions behind Furiosa mean it has little other choice.

Show don’t tell

It’s a tricky principle to follow. Limited resources often mean that show, don’t tell is easier said than done. The first Mad Max was made with a credited crew of 30. On Furiosa, production designer Colin Gibson had 72 people in his department alone, not including costume, hair and makeup. Anya Taylor-Joy has discussed the multiple levels of simulated facial grime, even beyond the character’s well-known forehead full of axle grease. Stunts credited 172, a team so huge that it included two secretaries and a runner.

None of this is any surprise. Amazing images always begin well in front of the camera. The best thing about camera technique, though, is that many things which worked on Furiosa work just as well on a music video shot in someone’s garage.

Behind the camera

The man responsible for that on Furiosa was cinematographer Simon Duggan, ASC, ACS. Despite the compatible look between the two films, Duggan did not shoot Fury Road; that honor went to the hugely experienced John Seale, ACS, ASC. Having considered retirement even before Fury Road, Seale, now 81, deliberately made Miller’s 2022 film Three Thousand Years of Longing his swansong. Miller reportedly made gracious overtures to Seale regarding Furiosa, but the latter’s retirement, it seems, is final.

Finding someone with the requisite experience might have been tricky. There’s a common complaint among film and TV people that nobody is ever hired for anything unless they’ve done exactly that thing before. Have you done food before? Yes, you might reply. Have you done frozen food? Absolutely. Ice cream? Sure. Mint chocolate chip ice cream? No? Then we’ll be going with another option.

Duggan, however, could answer that sort of question: he’s certainly shot cars. More than ten years ago, he shot a Nike commercial called Dominate Another Day, although the motorcycle action in that was in a city, not the wilderness. Ready for the Road for Audi has vehicles, but not much else to do with Miller’s desert car-fight story. Duggan shot a commercial for Ford called Utility which has some sand in it, but the similarities are otherwise slight.

What’s probably more relevant is Duggan’s work on films like 300: Rise of an Empire. It’s a visceral action piece and it enjoys a punchy, high-contrast look. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a sequel which looks like it took place in the same world as its predecessor. Duggan also shot Underworld: Evolution, Die Hard 4.0 and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, all of which are franchise movies.

Image persistence

It’s not inevitably the case that films in a series need to slavishly follow what was done before. Both recent Dunes were shot by the same team, but differ on points as fundamental as aspect ratio. Conversely, Furiosa has a lot of visual compatibility with Fury Road, and it’s not hard to understand how Miller might have imagined it as an anime. There’s just enough occasional undercranking to give things a nervous jitter. There’s snappy camera movement. There are solid blocks of color. 

Furiosa is very much teal and orange, in much the same way that’s sometimes been called a bit overplayed. Or at least, it’s sky blue and rust, which are very nearby on any artist’s color wheel. It’s hard to suggest what else might have worked: everything in frame is sand, skin, steel or sky.

Some evidence of grading choices leaks out, with the same shot graded very differently from trailer to trailer (and even reframed a little, with different compositing). The change is mainly in contrast and saturation, shifting the terrain from desert sand to martian red. Miller has said he didn’t want the kind of desaturated post-apocalypse we see in, say, The Book of Eli. So, those burning blue skies and rusty dunes were punched up significantly in the grade.

Trailer #1 "Chapters" Trailer

Shared vision

It’s even cut a bit like an anime. There are jets of dust thrown out by spinning tyres and tumbling wreckage. And there are big, expressive pushes into an intense pair of very blue eyes to remind us that Taylor-Joy’s character cares about all that action. That’s pretty essential, considering Furiosa speaks about as much in this movie as Max did in Fury Road—which is barely at all. She has maybe thirty lines in total.

But either way, a lot of it is straight out of Akira, and Akira has a lot of motorcycles, too.

Furiosa’s hardware

Furiosa has been promoted under the IMAX banner. It’s no surprise to find Alexa 65 and Red’s V-Raptor 8K camera involved—though that’s not inevitable. People have distributed IMAX movies that were shot on Super-35mm cameras in 4K. The IMAX corporation itself specified Canon C500s and 1DCs for A Perfect Planet. Anyone who wants more than that in 2024 could reach for a tiny, frugal Blackmagic Ursa 12K.

But it’s not all about resolution. Big movies like big sensors, especially movies that want to shoot a lot of wide angle, which Furiosa did. Big-chip options, especially when Furiosa went into production, were a little less common. The bigger surprise here, though, is not the selection of cameras. It’s more the unusual combination of types. Arri’s approach is based on creating tools which let people work as they have for decades, with a keen interest in highlight handling. Red’s designs lean harder into sheer performance, particularly resolution. These two things are not the same.

There’s also a large age gap. The ALEV sensor technology in all of Arri’s cameras prior to the Alexa 35 descends from the same design found in the original Alexa from 2010. The A3X sensor in an Alexa 65 is essentially three ALEVs stitched together. Conversely, Red launched the V-Raptor in 2023 as part of its DSMC3 generation. It’s a good stop faster, maybe two, depending on how tolerant we are of noise. 

Back to basics

It’s worth understanding the fundamentals. Each photosite on a sensor converts photons to electrons. It has the capacity to store a certain maximum number of electrons, which defines the brightest light the sensor can see. At the other end of the scale, there’s a random noise that affects all the values on that sensor. Once the signal becomes significantly smaller than the noise value, we’ve effectively hit black. That means black is a matter of how much noise we’re willing to tolerate. That choice affects low light capability as well as dynamic range.

Manufacturers have varying opinions, and so do cinematographers. It’s widely suggested that the V-Raptor is better at 1600 or even 2000 ISO, trading off noise for highlight rendering. The Alexa 65, meanwhile, might be a natural at its default settings for a film defined by harsh sunlight and gleaming chrome.

Practicalities step in when we realize that the Alexa 65 weighs over 23 pounds (10Kg) without battery, and it likes big batteries. It’s possible to put that on the end of a U-Crane (a car-mounted camera rig formally known as a Russian arm) and chase people through the outback with it. It’s easier, though, to do that with the Red, which weighs a little over four pounds (under 2Kg). Stabilized platforms work better for longer. So do perspiring Steadicam operators who’ve spent weeks schlepping a camera through the burning Australian outback. This is one reason the big Arri is rarely seen on garage-band music videos.

Furiosa’s lenses

Duggan and his team shot much of Furiosa on Arri’s Prime DNA lenses. They’re very much part of the modern fashion for lenses with character, which often means characteristics that the original designers would think of as flaws. Arri has been cagey about exactly who those original designers were on the DNA series. When pressed for specifics, company representatives have suggested that it stands for “do not ask.”

We can try to work it out, though. The Prime DNAs project a large enough image to cover the Alexa 65’s big sensor, which is actually a couple of millimeters wider than a true 65mm 5-perf frame.

Logically, that might mean that they’re mostly based on Hasselblad or Mamiya medium-format stills lenses. The Mamiya Sekor C series includes 25, 32 and 39mm options, while the Prime DNA has 28, 35 and 36, which are rather closely spaced choices. Either way, the purpose is to embrace things like aberration and softness in the corners which seems like a sensible match for Furiosa’s rust-belt environments.

Alternatively…

Interestingly, Arri offers another series under the DNA banner, the DNA LF. Their purpose is to address the popularity of the Prime DNA series. They don’t look quite so interesting on a large-format sensor, which is considerably smaller than a 65mm frame. Some of the optical fireworks of a 65mm-oriented lens might simply be missed. The DNA LF series aims to correct that, creating similar effects on a smaller chip.

Some people might therefore have chosen to carry the DNA LF for the Red camera, and the Prime DNA for the Alexa 65, although Duggan seems to have used the Prime DNA for both. The Prime DNA series are pretty identifiable because they’re a sort of pearl white in color, while the DNA LF are black. White lenses are frequently seen on both the Alexa and Red in behind-the-scenes shots.

Fujinon Premista

There was, however, at least one other lens used on Furiosa. The use of zooms in high-end cinema is unfairly overlooked, probably for no reason other than fashion. It’s an open secret that a surprising proportion of many modern movies is shot on a high performance zoom. Several set photos from Furiosa show the characteristic black barrel and green ring of a Fujinon lens. A closer look makes it clear they are, predictably, from the Premista large-format zoom series.

It’s hard to tell exactly which of the three Premista zooms is in use from photo to photo, since the 19-45, 28-100 and 80-250 have near-identical layout to make focus motor setup easy. Longer focal lengths have a longer nose, but that’s generally buried in the mattebox and other accessories. The 28-100 and 80-250 seem designed to overlap such that they create complete coverage of frequently-used focal lengths. It would make sense to use them in fast-changing situations just such as vehicle or stunt work. The ability to tweak a focal length from the cabin of a tracking vehicle might save a lot of time.

A mixed bag

So Duggan had all the options, especially regarding exposure. Day exteriors are notorious for blinding brightness, with modern cameras inevitably requiring neutral density filters. That can be a technical concern in its own right if we have a creative desire to shoot, say, the Red at a relatively high sensitivity. Very dense ND filters are more likely to create problems with infrared filtering, depending on the behavior of the filters and camera. That often looks like an unpleasant purplish fog over the frame, and demands careful testing in similar levels of sunshine.

Closing down too much might neuter the interesting effects of the Prime DNAs, although the production seems to like wide lenses. That has a few effects, not least of which being the absence of defocused backgrounds. Normally, we’d examine focus behavior to identify a lens, but day exteriors on a 28mm don’t typically provoke noticeable lens effects. The motivation is clear: putting the lens low to the ground makes motion look faster. Look at it long enough, and it starts to become clear just how low the lens sometimes is. Cause ants to duck, and the apparent speed becomes quite high even at walking pace.

Center of attention

Something that’s quite noticeable is the decision to shoot and cut action sequences to keep the subject in the same screen space. Simply put, if one shot has something happening at the left side of frame, the following one will at least start in the same location. Something might then cross frame to the right. Cut, and the action remains in the right of the frame.

It’s a simple thing in principle, though it takes some presence of mind to shoot things like that. It makes fast-cut action easier to watch and reduces accusations of cutting fast to get around stunts and effects that might not have worked out as well as expected.

That sort of flow is particularly valuable given the wide 2.39:1 frame chosen for general release. Sit too close, and action cuts that lack that sort of position-awareness start to feel like watching a tennis match. At the same time, some movies look very different on full-size , squarish IMAX screens. That’s partly because the very edges of an IMAX GT frame aren’t really intended to be part of the storytelling area. They’re intended to fill the viewer’s peripheral vision. Still, the bigger the display, the more valuable matched cuts are.

Creative pairings

Furiosa was edited by Miller’s long-time collaborator (and wife) Margaret Sixel. She also edited Fury Road at a time when the success of Fury Road—or even its completability—was in the balance. Both enjoyed glowing reviews, although Furiosa has faced some criticism over its use of CGI.

Perhaps the mistake here is to think that Fury Road was some sort of Nolan-style pinnacle of real-world filmmaking. Recently we’ve seen a couple of instances of aggrieved CGI specialists stating that things we thought were untouched were, in fact, significantly touched. Certainly Fury Road had a huge amount of CGI—just good CGI.

What’s most clever about Furiosa’s VFX work is probably the effects applied to Alyla Browne (who had worked on Three Thousand Years of Longing) to increase her resemblance to Anya Taylor-Joy. The film represents years of her childhood, and the resemblance gently increases as those years pass. It seems likely to be remembered as a huge success, especially given how easy it is for altered humans to slide into the uncanny valley. This is not a full face replacement, which is very difficult. Still, without prior knowledge, it’s so good that it is widely overlooked as simply a particularly inspired casting choice. That’s good CGI.

Unconvention

So the film does some unusual and instructive things. Going quite that heavy on action is not typical of conventional commercial filmmaking in 2024. Perhaps there’s not much that an independent filmmaker can take from a twenty-vehicle road battle, with flamethrowers and paragliders. At the same time, the lensing, the color palette, and the very deliberate collaboration between framing camera movement and editing are a textbook on non-dialogue scenes that we can absorb over popcorn.

At the time of writing, Furiosa was not selling as well as it was reviewing. That decade-long gap might not have helped. Then again, much the same happened during Fury Road’s general release, and Furiosa still happened. However, given George Miller’s filmography, it’s just as likely that his next film might feature tap dancing penguins singing popular show tunes. It might not happen at all, should the veteran filmmaker very reasonably choose to follow his old friend John Seale into well-deserved retirement. Either way, making movies might be an unusual kind of therapy for an ex-doctor—but it’s hard to argue with Furiosa’s 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.


Enjoyed this story? Check out The Cinematographer’s Guide to Asteroid City.

Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a cinematographer with over 20 years' experience in just about every area of production and post. He stopped working behind the camera because he was tired of eating lunch from a magliner, and has spent much of his time since lamenting that the food is the best part of on-set work.

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