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What’s it like to be a second-unit director on Hollywood blockbusters?

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

The popular view of movies is that they are a labor of love that is ultimately a singular vision—that of the director. But most larger Hollywood films today are the product of an enormous amount of collaboration. In particular, second units have come to be an essential aspect of big-budget filmmaking. But what are these “second units”? What do they film? Who runs them? And, ultimately, how much of what you see on-screen was actually shot by someone other than that person with the “directed by” credit?

John Mahaffie is a 40-plus year veteran of the film industry who worked his way up to become one of the world’s leading second-unit directors for films requiring massive amounts of blockbuster action and CGI visuals. The A.V. Club spoke with him about filming Avengers: Age Of Ultron, the challenges of CGI, and how Peter Jackson gave him the biggest promotion of his life.

The A.V. Club: Where did you grow up?

John Mahaffie: I grew up in Auckland, New Zealand—born in Auckland, and lived there for the first 23 years of my life. Spent some time in Sydney working in the industry over there as well. And then more recently I moved down to an area of Queenstown on the South Island of New Zealand. I still have my home there now.

AVC: Were you always a movie fan growing up?

JM: Yes I was, but I wasn’t a kid who had my sights set on being in the film industry because back in those days—and that’s going back a long way for me now—there wasn’t really a film industry per se in New Zealand. So it was a long way away, and I didn’t grow up believing this is what I’d end up doing.

AVC: How old were you when you first started saying to yourself, “That’s maybe a field I’d like to be involved in”?

JM: I was about 17, 18, and I was working in an advertising agency. We were shooting commercials, and from there I realized that I’d had an art background and was at one stage was looking to go on and do fine arts at university—and then had developed into a hobby of photography. But in the shooting—of being an assistant on shooting commercials—I realized that I wanted to specialize in camera. So I talked one of the local production companies into taking me on as a complete green newbie to learn the business, and was fortunate enough to hook into a director cameraman, who trained me from scratch. It was such a small company that it was like film school because we did everything, from quoting and figuring out locations and even propping the commercials. Then we would shoot them; then we would go back and edit them in his editing room. So I got to follow the process all the way through as though it was film school. But it was the commercial world. And that was my introduction into camera.

But the industry was completely embryonic at that point. It’s hard to really imagine. I mean, I went—after I trained I was one of the first assistant cameramen to go freelance in the New Zealand industry 40-odd years ago. So it was a very small industry.

AVC: You mentioned you left the advertising agency when you talked a production company into taking you on as a complete green I-don’t-know-anything. What year was that?

JM: That would have been about ’75.

AVC: When you first started with them and they were teaching you the ropes, was there a process where they had you work from the ground up? Do you remember the first thing they had you starting out doing?

JM: The first thing was showing me how to load film magazines. But of course, it was a very responsible position, so at first I was able to practice but not necessarily do that in the field until I got proficient at it. But because we were a very small production company, I was the assistant to the director cameraman, who ran the company, and he was a very experienced DP. He just taught me from the ground up—the old cameras and everything. Including hand-editing the film after we brought it back. So all of those are things are of the past now, but that was the way it was. [Laughs.]

AVC: What were you mostly working on at the start there?

JM: TV commercials. That was our primary position. We were shooting TV commercials for the New Zealand banks, car commercials, tea or coffee commercials. I think one of the first exotic trips I did was a trip to London from New Zealand to be part of a New Zealand British Airways commercial. And in fact, while we were there filming the commercial, they were shooting The Shining on the studio backlot.

AVC: Wow.

JM: I was just a wide-eyed young guy, seeing Hollywood from a distance. But they were tantalizing ideas to come across and to see some of that—well, now history—in the making.

John Mahaffie

AVC: Looking at your IMDB credits, the first job technically credited to you is a focus puller on a film. Is that correct?

JM: That’s correct, yes. I trained up as a camera assistant, and then focus pulling—or first assistant camera is what they term it here in the U.S., but the English term, and the New Zealand term, was focus puller—is someone responsible for the camera and responsible for the focus throughout the shot. And it’s a very specialized position. Back in those days, [it was] all the judgment of the focus puller—you know, you would take measurements of positions in the set. But then all your adjustments were made by visual computations, and—especially if the light was low—it was a crucial position. And so I dedicated myself to that specialist position.

AVC: Did you leave to become a freelancer before you started as the focus puller in feature films, or did that start while you were still at that company?

JM: No, it was while I was still at the company. We actually were invited to be involved in the very first independent television drama production made in New Zealand, a co-production between England and Germany in New Zealand television. But that was the first independent—there’s been government-funded shows, but that was the first independent show. And so that was really my introduction into something different from television commercials—to doing TV drama. And it was a family TV show, but that was the first time that I’d been involved in TV drama. And at the end of that season—which was about six or seven months long—I then decided to go freelance in the commercial scene. And doing whatever work in New Zealand you would do would be TV commercials, documentaries, TV drama if it was available, or features on the occasions they came up. So I’d gone freelance, and then continued to specialize as a freelance focus puller, or first assistant cameraman as they call it here.

AVC: What was the name of that first TV series?

JM: The first TV series was called The Flying Kiwi. [Laughs.] It was about an old vintage car, which was the Flying Kiwi, the White Lady. It was an old white vintage car, which was sort of the visual center of this family. And it was almost like a Lassie thing, where there’s a family involved in various dramas around the community. And the white vintage car was a visual link to the series.

I worked my way into a number of features and then through contacts as a freelancer, did various feature films—probably really burgeoning into international with Roger Donaldson, who I’d done a film with as a focus puller. And then when he did the film The Bounty, with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, he said, “Look, I really want you to be on board as one of the focus pullers.” Well, a majority of the crew were coming from England and were far more well-known technicians. But as a specialist as a focus puller, he got me onto that, and that really kick-started me into a whole other side of my career in terms of Steadicam and camera operating, as I developed through in the years of progressing through the camera department.

AVC: Did you know Roger Donaldson in advance of that, or did he become aware of your work as a freelancer somehow?

JM: No, we had—Roger, at that stage, he was a film director doing commercials in New Zealand. He had done a Renaissance film in New Zealand, which was Sleeping Dogs. Sam Neill was the actor, and that was the beginnings of Sam’s and Roger’s burst onto the international stage. It got acclaim, certainly over in New Zealand, but it was recognized as the beginnings of that New Zealand industry. And then I did some other smaller films with Roger, and commercials with Roger. So I got to know him through that.

And then when I’d actually gone away to Australia and had freelanced in Australia as a focus puller and worked on films like Mad Max and various other Australian films, then when I moved back to New Zealand is when Roger had The Bounty. That was obviously a huge project that had initially been—well, it was a Dino De Laurentiis film, and David Lean initially was going to direct that film, and they built the replica boat in New Zealand of the Bounty. And then a series of events culminated in the film changing and Roger Donaldson taking over as the director. So then, my link with Roger—he asked me join them as part of the camera team.

AVC: So it sounds like this is when you first started to graduate from doing the focus pull and became a Steadicam operator?

JM: Yes. I worked with a chap by the name of Toby Phillips on The Bounty and on a number of other films around the world. And Toby at that stage was regarded as the top Steadicam operator worldwide. And I was his focus puller, and obviously learned the skill set and technique of Steadicam operating. And so after a number of years, I decided it was time for me to make that next step into camera operating. And I took with me that other specialist skill. So I was both a camera operator on drama, and also had the skill set of Steadicam operator. And that was both a specialist position but an additive to the traditional position of a camera operator.

AVC: What would you say was the takeaway or thing that was most useful in that, in terms of prepping you for then making that next step into actually starting to do some DP and directing work?

JM: Well, you know, operating is such a creative part of the process, filmmaking-wise. You’re intermittently involved with both the actors and the shape of a scene, through the camera. And Steadicam in those days, prior to a number of other remote heads [computerized camera rigs that allow for the kind of fluidity and movement previously only attainable via things like Steadicam —ed.] was a way of having a real fluid creative input into the shape of a shot and a scene. It allowed you a freedom in terms of creativity. What I gained out of that was a freethinking ability with camera, in terms of movement and in terms of contributing to scenes. So once I started to move into lighting and directive photography, I took with me that overall sense of nearly 10 or 12 years of camera operating as a specialist position. And I value that to this day.

AVC: Most people who aren’t involved with the industry still assume that the director of a movie is the person overseeing the camera for every single shot. Do you remember the first project you were involved with or your first realization of even the existence of what are now called second units?

JM: Well, in past eras, really, the second unit was an additive unit. But often it was only a short duration of a film, and maybe just to pick up some incidental pieces of a film that either the main unit didn’t have time for, or after the fact, or they were distant locations. But probably around the time of Lord Of The Rings, the schedules of films and the size and scope of the films—both special effects and visual effects, and just in terms of content—were such that if Lord Of The Rings had been filmed by one unit, and we did three films at the same time… if they had been filmed by one single unit and one director in Peter [Jackson], as talented as all those people are, just the duration of time would have more than tripled the time, if not more, it took to shoot the film.

So what the difference really from my past experience with second unit versus what was put to us in Lord Of The Rings was—second unit to me in days gone by prior to that was a very small, additive unit. When it came down to Lord Of The Rings—and initially Peter had talked to me about camera for the main unit of Lord Of The Rings—but because it was such a big project and I didn’t have credits for the Hollywood studios to think that I was in that realm [Laughs.] to be on the main unit, Peter said, “Well, why don’t you be the director of photography on the second unit?” Which is a huge action unit, and it transpired that as they were looking for a second-unit director. Peter said to me, “Well, why don’t you direct the second unit?” Which was a big shift from my history as, you know, the previous eight or nine years as a director of photography, to make a watershed decision, really, into the specialist position of second-unit director.

But the schedule of that second unit was the entire duration of the main unit. It would seem as big—at times bigger—in terms of numbers, than what the main unit was doing. So it was really another unit, rather than what had traditionally been in mind, or in my mind, of other films, where the second unit was a very small, compact unit. This was a massive unit with a huge schedule and huge workflow. And for the last 15 years, that has been the case on the films that I’ve worked on: Where the second unit is coping with work that is either very complex for technical reasons or for stunt-action reasons, and therefore too time-consuming or not efficient for a main unit, who needs to get through the dramatic parts of a film. So second-unit filming of the last 15 years in these large films has really become a completely different specialist role of action and technology. And that technology and visual effects are changing all the time, so the tools in the box are changing.

AVC: Let’s talk about The Fellowship Of The Ring. Because, as you said, that was a big transitional moment. And since it’s your first time as second-unit director, that really seems like being thrown right into the deep end immediately on your first time out.

JM: [Laughs.]

AVC: How would you explain to someone unfamiliar with it what the second unit on that film did?

JM: Well, in actual fact, what we did on second unit—we were filming parts of each of the three films concurrently. Sometimes I would go to work with scenes to do from almost three different movies. But the role of the second unit on those movies—on Lord Of The Rings—I had a spectrum of work which included all the main actors. Sometimes it was complete drama scenes. Probably the bulk of the work, though, was large battle and action scenes, and it’s the numbers of people involved to do those big battles where the actors are part of it, but not all of it. And the second unit tends to do those big-scope action pieces. And then what I would do is the big-scope action pieces, and I would have scheduled Viggo Mortensen or Elijah Wood or Ian McKellen to do a day or two’s filming in amongst that battle scene as was appropriate. But maybe those actors in those big scenes were 15 percent of the overall scene. And therefore the second unit would do the big action that took a lot of time organizing logistics and creating that action.

AVC: So while you tended to be filming these large battle scenes and such, was the first unit what Peter Jackson would be running? What sort of scenes would he be filming while you were filming that big action stuff?

JM: Well, for instance, Peter was doing a lot of Hobbiton—Gandalf turning up at Hobbiton, and introducing himself to Frodo and that part of the story. Meanwhile, I was at a quarry shooting at night, shooting big battle parts of Helm’s Deep. Or I would be down in the South Island in New Zealand shooting the Black Rider chase, which once again would be, say, 80 percent of it guys in black hoods with black horses chasing Ian on a white horse, and within that 20 percent would involve having lead actors to be in that story.

But often in those early days, Peter was tied up in the studio shooting the dramatic pieces of different sequences. So really, we broke the script and schedule up into logistics portions. But as I say, I got many parts, including dramatic pieces if it was more valid that my unit shot them for logistics. I shot dramatic parts because I was on that location.

AVC: So it sounds like a lot of what you end up filming has to do with the logistics of scheduling, like what makes most sense for when you’re going to be where. Is that accurate?

JM: That is accurate. And obviously, Peter or whoever is the main-unit director—while they would love to be shooting all of that part of their movie, there’s a pressure on efficiencies and logistics these days, no matter how big the budget is. And so that would be divided up into those logistics as you put out, in terms of locations or proximities or what’s the demand of the scene. And then, Peter would look at that schedule and go, “Yeah, no, that’s good; let’s give John those portions of that film. And then we’ll give him these actors at that point,” or, “I want to do those close-ups for this,” as he would determine his priorities of time.

AVC: So then, once you’ve got those scenes set up or scheduled, what are the duties you need to complete before you even set out for the shoot on any given day?

JM: Well, certainly if we’re dealing [with] big action like that, normally we’re breaking that action down into storyboards or sometimes pre-visualization, or animatics. And doing rough assemblies in a storyboard form that could be as simple as flicking through pages of storyboards. On Lord Of The Rings for instance, with Peter, when we had a chance we would go through those things together. And so the template—not only of the written word and the script, but the template of what we figured were the quintessential shots to story-tell—even in rough sketch storyboard form, we would go, “Yeah, that feels like the rhythm, and that feels like the shots.”

So then I would go away from there, find the locations that were appropriate to the story we were telling. And often in complex sequences, one image might be made up of two or three different locations as you compile them together. So I’d go and do all that background and prepare all of that work, but based on an agreement of what we were hoping to achieve in the final visual work.

AVC: So that’s the before part. Then, once you’re on set, what’s the first thing, or what are those first steps you have to do when you arrive for a shoot?

JM: Well obviously we’ve done a lot of work in terms of knowing where the location is or if we’ve built the sets and the like, and then the schedule we’ve broken down to a logical order of how we go about shooting. If it’s a stunt or action sequence, then we go through rehearsals. Once we’ve got the shape or blocking of that action that I think fits the rhythm of what we’re trying to tell story-wise, then I would take the lens and set up cameras.

AVC: So it actually sounds like once you’ve started that process, there’s no qualitative difference between what a second unit does and what the first unit does. Is that right? Like, in terms of what you’re trying to get done.

JM: That’s exactly right. And for all intents and purposes, we operate as a stand-alone unit—independent. And my role as a second-unit director is, first of all, to be in tune with the style of the main-unit director and the action requirements, and to be intuitive as to his priority for the look of the film and how the film is to go together. But then once I’ve taken that and I’m on set with a full crew of 120, 150 people, it’s a machine that I run like any other unit. You know, main or second unit, first or second unit—they’re merely just terms.

The film has to run very efficiently because, as in any film set, there’s a lot of demands: schedule-wise, budget-wise. So once we’re on set, everything is running under my guidance, hopefully intuitively getting what the main-unit director would like to get himself. And sometimes, because of my specialist area that I’ve concentrated on in both directive photography and in action, hopefully sometimes I’m bringing something augmentative and additive to the process. To bring back something slightly different or hopefully inspiring to the film.

AVC: Creatively, it seems like it would be very challenging, or one of the most challenging parts, this idea that you have to try and—I don’t know if “emulate” is the right word—but you have to try and be stylistically on board with the director’s vision for whatever film you’re doing. How do you approach that?

JM: I approach it based on years of experience, and as you say, on the basis of my camera background. And so I can talk shorthand with both the main-unit director of photography and a new director, in terms of style. Is it handheld, is it very composed, is it moving camera, is it static camera? Does it want to have dramatic pauses, or does it want to be full-on action? I get those principles. And obviously we’re continuing to watch each other’s footage throughout the process. And I then read how they’re interpreting their scenes, even though they’re completely different to what I’m doing. But it’s a matter of emulating the style of the film, rather than making two different films with two different people.

My role is to try and see this sort of style, and styles are just that. They tend to be palettes of color or palettes of light, or even senses of action or drama. And different directors have their different nuances and likes and dislikes. It starts off with early conversation, and it goes right down to continuing to watch their interpretation. And then trying to—I wouldn’t say “mimic,” because it’s always interpretation, because everything I’m doing is completely different or new—but the role is to try and bring that into context. And as I say, the shooting action and some of the technology that we have now, it’s a very specialized area. And not everyone comes to a film with those same skill sets, because some directors are brilliant at comedy or brilliant at interpreting and intuitive directing of drama and romance or whatever. And some like to do both, but some will actually say, “Action is not my forte. I need you to bring that part of the film to life.” So depending on what’s required or asked of me…

AVC: You become whatever they need you to be.

JM: Then you do whatever is requested. And a majority of the films I work on tend to be ones where the duration of the second unit is for either the entire run of the main unit or at least 80, 90 percent of the main unit. And it’s always big in demand. The big blockbuster films that we’ve been involved in demand a huge contribution from the second unit.

AVC: Especially because some of these films get so enormous. Can there be more than one second unit on a film? Or would that be considered a third unit or fourth unit?

JM: It would be then considered a third or a fourth or splinter unit or visual effects unit. It tends to be—there are two main units, if you like, the main unit and that complementary unit known as the second unit. And it’s not unusual to have other units who might be shooting some blue-screen elements or shooting some miniatures, or shooting some beauty shots or visuals. But traditionally, as I say, the second units I tend to be involved in are a massive other unit that’s shooting huge logistics parts of the film.

For instance, a clear example of that would have been for Avengers: Age Of Ultron, having just come out, where my unit—initially there were plans for both units to go to South Korea, for both units to go to South Africa, to do various parts of the sequences. Through logistics and time and schedule, it transpired that my unit was the only unit that went and did all the entire work in Korea. And the entire sequences in South Africa and Bangladesh, while the main unit went to Italy to do pieces, and then we all came back to London to keep on working on sequences. But all of the work in South Korea was done by my second unit.

AVC: Wow. Is that often the case? Do you find that a lot of the second units nowadays require second-unit directors who also, like you, have experience as DPs and other fields as camera operators and that sort of thing, so that they have that sort of training?

JM: Yes. There tends to be two sides to the specialist second-unit director. One is a background from camera, such as myself. And then some other second-unit directors come up from the stunt coordinator role, and then embrace directing from that point of view. Those are the two main areas for second-unit directors, and each have their own strengths. And these days, with technology of CGI visual effects integration into action—and where you draw the line between what’s real and organic and giving you the bang for the buck, and what’s the visual augmentation—it’s becoming a very technical-based role as well as action storytelling. But at the end of the day, for me, the main role always is as a storyteller contributing to the story, whether it be action or visual augmentation.

AVC: Do you see a sort of qualitative difference in your responsibilities, depending on the type of movie? As you were saying, you’ve been doing a lot of these very enormous CGI-heavy blockbusters, but you also served as second-unit director on Zero Dark Thirty, which I imagine was pretty minimalist in terms of CGI. I’m curious what you see as the difference in your responsibilities depending on when you do something like that as opposed to ones where there are all these technical moving parts.

JM: Both present themselves with their own challenges. At the end of the day, it’s what tools you’re using in the box to tell the story, and I think for me, having been involved in the industry for a long time, it’s choosing the right tool in the box. Just because there’s new technology that can do something a different way doesn’t mean it’s always the best way because it’s the newest. And so I like to keep an open mind and sometimes do things very simply in camera, if I believe it’s the most effective way of illusion and storytelling, because that’s the business. It’s always, “did that guy really get hurt?” [Laughs.] Does it look as though it really hurts? But you don’t want to hurt him! So there’s various ways of doing that.

Sometimes it can be complete camera trickery and very old-school in-camera effects or illusions. And then other times it goes to where the transition is to CGI. And for me, I think one of the challenges of the tools in the box today is where you draw the line between organic action—real life in front of camera—and where you use camera trickery, or you augment the story with visual effects. The key for filmmaking is completing the illusion. The moment you lose the illusion, and you lose—whether it’s through very clever CGI—if you lose the audience because of believability, then you’ve stopped being the storyteller.

AVC: Having done this now for a while, have you found that it’s gotten easier over the years to be able to have that sort of picture in your head—that notion of what’s going on, once all the technical and CGI elements will be added, to then shoot in camera the elements that you know are going to be fitting into that larger puzzle?

JM: Yes, it’s definitely—it’s a changing game. It’s a changing area. And so your approach to what you put in front of camera is definitely a different approach these days. But I think that it’s still staying up with making sure that you make the right choices, and not just a carte blanche, oh, well, we can do that in the computer and therefore we will. You need to make sure that where you contribute the elements of the frame that are going to be best done in camera, that you make that choice. And sometimes it’s made on a schedule or otherwise, but where you can, you try and stay true to the best choices.

AVC: Since with these big projects, there tends to be the first and second units shooting the majority of the film, do you feel—since it’s basically at that point two independent units doing their jobs—do you feel like you’re working in parallel with them? Do you feel more pressure to capture what’s needed and move on, or do you feel like you still get the time you need to get different takes, same as a main unit?

JM: Well, I always take the time that I need to bring back the work that I believe the main-unit director would want to see. But there is definitely pressure because of the size of the projects and the work. The budgets are huge, but so are the demands and expectations, and so it’s a very pressurized day, which I’m used to. And I guess we all enjoy the buzz of that. But it’s certainly intense, when you’ve got—say, for instance in Korea, where on some days I had 1,400 people on the call sheet for catering. People were controlling traffic, controlling crowds, safety, stunts, camera, the whole gamut. When you’ve got 1,400 people to move around a city as busy as [the one in] Korea… imagine the 405 [Los Angeles’ main freeway —ed.] at rush hour and you’re trying to control that traffic and shoot a dangerous stunt sequence, and you’ve got 1,400 people. You can’t be standing there dithering, thinking, “Oh, what should I do next?” You’ve got to have a plan and you’ve got to be able to organize the troops, and together get everyone moving in the same direction.

AVC: I was going to ask you the question, “Is there such a thing as a normal day for a second-unit director?” but I’m starting to get the impression that no, there’s no such thing as a normal day. [Laughs.]

JM: [Laughs.] No, it’s a full gamut. Definitely a full gamut. And, that’s what I also like of the challenge of that—how you break that down and how you achieve each day. It’s the same old thing, though, shot by shot. And even shot by shot, you say, “What do I need in the shot to make the final elements work?” So it’s by breaking down the detail in your preparation that you then can have a concept and a visualization of the final image you’re going to put to the audience. They don’t need to know the basic ABCs of how you put that together, but when they watch that image, they do need to be convinced that it was real—even if they know it’s not real. They still need to feel like they weren’t cheated.

AVC: Yeah. Well actually, maybe this is a good time to ask about your work on films blending live-action with animation. I was wondering how that process changes your responsibilities or changes the day to day.

JM: I haven’t done any straight animated, but I’ve done Charlotte’s Web and Racing Stripes where you’re still augmenting real live action, whether it be getting animals to perform and talk or whatever. But you’re breaking down the realities and then doing the visual effects work in the process.

AVC: So those movies are almost half-animated, in a sense, right? That you’re going to be bringing in these animated elements, almost, to the story. You had previously done similar motion-capture work—did that prep you for what that work would entail?

JM: Most definitely. And that’s where I say my background as director of photography—with a lot of visual effects background to that—my specialized area overlays with the technical specialist area as DP. And integrating the other animated elements that come into creating a world when you’re using sort of live action animals that are then going to end up communicating with each other and performing differently.

AVC: So when you finish shooting for the day, what needs to happen before the day quote-unquote ends for you?

JM: So once we’ve—we’re usually shooting a 12-hour day on the set. Once we’ve finished that, I would head back and watch dailies or rushes of what we’d done the day before; analyze that and make sure that we’ve got what we required out of that, maybe get some feedback from the main-unit director—hopefully positive [Laughs.]—that we’re on track.

And then my preparation. I’ve normally done a sort of general attack of each day in advance in my preparation, but then when it’s coming to the night before, once I finish filming on set, I might have various locations to check to make sure everything’s in order and stacking up going forward. And then I would break down the work that I had coming up the next day, so that I can give a heads up to various department heads as to how I’m going to interpret various portions of the day shooting, and the order in which I want to shoot them, particularly if I’m director of photography at the same time. Where’s the light going to be? What’s the order of that day that we’ve listed? Camera requirements, lighting requirements, stunt requirements. So that when I turn up in the morning, I’m not stopping to think about how I’m going to do the day; the day’s already laid out in my mind. And then I can have 150 people know from the moment they arrive what’s required for us to roll the camera on the first shot.

AVC: So most of the planning actually happens at the end of the day, before the next day, so that once you’re actually on set shooting, it’s more of just executing a plan?

JM: Yes. That’s the ideal, of course. [Laughs.] Obviously lots of things change. And then you’re doing a dance to change things around. But no, that’s the plan—so that when we turn up in the morning, all the crew knows where we’re going to be. We turn up and we lay out what the action would be. And then, I would take a lens on a viewfinder and lay out where the first cameras are going to be, place multiple cameras as we want them… and then start those rehearsals to get ourselves to be able to record camera and record a take which fits the bill. So the sooner people realize what’s required of the action and where the camera’s going to be, then everyone knows what they’re working toward.

AVC: Are there any other duties that happen at the end of the day?

JM: Sometimes I would need to go into editorial, and look at not only what we’d filmed, but how maybe we were putting an edit together of the sequence. So I’d go and look at my dailies, the rushes from the day before, but also visit with the editor and give notes on how the sequence was to go together. Because when I’ve finished a film, I like to be able to turn over to the main-unit director either during the process of filming an assembly—a cut, an edit—of the sequence we’ve been shooting. So at least there’s a template for how I believe the sequence that we were shooting goes together and tells the story.

Now, that will go through several nuances of editing as they go forward, depending on how the film comes together, depending on the balance of the sequences around it. But I work toward the goal that when I finish on a film—when we’ve finished filming or shortly after we’ve finished filming, I’ve completed an assembly of editing—that at least outlines the work we’ve done in a form that makes sense in terms of sequence.

So then sometimes as the process goes forward with visual effects and the editing post-production, sometimes I’m required or requested to come and have input into that process. But in the main, by the time we’ve completed our filming and completed that assembly, the outline of that work is reasonably clear and ready to evolve as the film requires. But it tends to be the end of my responsibility, as opposed to the main-unit director, who carries on to bring the story together of all the elements and all the units that have been filming.

AVC: When you’re going during shooting to meet with the editor to try and pull together cuts of things, how often would you say you’re in there with just you and the editor versus how often are you checking in with the main-unit director to help craft those?

JM: Ninety percent of the time it’s me going in, just myself and the editor putting that together. And then the main-unit director will be going in independently to cut his sequences. And he would then go, “Oh, let me have a look at John’s sequence while I’m here.” I may or may not be there at that time. And then we’re always talking, so I would keep in touch if we were breaking into some new area of the film. I’m always in contact with the main-unit director. Normally, ahead of times, and then obviously editorially, he gets to see where things are going, and we’re exchanging ideas all the time.

AVC: As you said, you try to at least have it schedule-wise so that when you’ve finished your shooting, you can present the main-unit director with a cut of the footage so that he can then integrate the different sections together. Is there a rough percentage of what ends up in the finished movie that you can say you’ve shot? Or does it just vary so much from project to project that that’s impossible?

JM: It does vary. As does even the main unit ratio of what they film and then what ends up making the cut for either timing or rhythm of the storytelling. But for instance, with Avengers: Age Of Ultron, the sequence we did in South Africa, is 90 percent—there were a couple of little other scenes we did that for reasons of timing didn’t make the cut—but 90 percent of the sequence we were working to, because we had been very particular in our planning, appears in the film as we shot the sequence. Likewise for Korea, there’s very little we shot in Korea that didn’t make—there’s not yards of footage that didn’t make the cut. It was pretty efficient, to be honest.

But it does vary from film to film. And it varies in terms of how the overall film comes together. I always liken it to a piece of music. You can write the piece of music and you go, “I want a lot of drums. And I want a bit of violin here or there.” But once you listen to the piece of music, if the drums go on too long, they lose their effect. So you have to intersperse. And storytelling and films are very much like a rhythm of music, where you have crescendos and the quiet moments. And that adds effect to the action or the drum sequence. So there’s a rhythm that comes out, once you start editing a whole film, between the drama moments, the romantic moments, the comedy moments, and the action. And once you put the whole project together, portions of the film—be they great action or great pieces—are sometimes sacrificed for the overall rhythm of the story. And that’s probably how most films are determined that they go together.

AVC: You mentioned the fact that the way in which a lot of this work is done, especially on these large movies, has changed so much over the past 15 years. I’m wondering if there are one or two things that stick out as the things that have changed the most, from your experience on the Lord Of The Rings to Avengers: Age Of Ultron.

JM: Yes, I would say, for instance, when we were doing the Black Rider horse chase for Lord Of The Rings, and Liv Tyler had just flown down to New Zealand. And the first sequence she was to be involved in was with the second unit. So she’d come down to work with Peter Jackson; unfortunately she ended up working with John Mahaffie on the first scene. [Laughs.] But back in those days, even some of the camera technology of how you stabilized the camera… in many ways on Lord Of The Rings, despite the amount of money, was so big it was low-budget because we were stretched so thin to make things work. And that was part of the challenge and part of the gem of working on that project.

But I can remember, we strapped a 40-gallon oil drum on the back of a pickup that wasn’t even a tracking vehicle, it was just a four-by-four pickup truck, and we chased through the countryside on a very rough graded road, and the cameras were shaking around so much that the guys that were there, eye to the eyepiece, could hardly see what they were filming. And here’s Liv Tyler, this Hollywood actress, on this barrel with a guide lying on the back of the pickup truck, shaking the barrel as though it was a horse galloping. And she was just sort of wide-eyed, you know, “Is this going to work?” And of course, it did. But that was as basic as it gets.

At the other end of the scale now, we’re comping so many elements together in CG characters in fights. For instance, with the South African fight with Hulk on the streets of [Johannesburg]—we’ve got special effects and other elements going in—but we’re dealing with two fictitious characters that don’t appear in the frame a lot of the time. So your imagination is key, in getting the rhythm of what a mess these two fighting creatures will do and the effects and the speed of camera and then what you’re doing with vehicles being trashed out of the way, and all of those things are at another end of the scale.

AVC: That seems like it would quickly get exhausting, trying to remember all of those moving parts.

JM: [Laughs.] Well, it certainly keeps you on your toes mentally. You’re visualizing things all the time. What are there, what aren’t there, and what the final frame needs to look like in terms of once those elements come together.

AVC: Has there been a project that you’ve worked on where there was a drastic shift or change at some point, where you suddenly found yourself doing something completely different from what you had initially thought you were going to do?

JM: Once again, Age Of Ultron where we first started and scheduled our work, and then found that Scarlett Johansson was pregnant and therefore unable to do some of the action sequences as planned, so we juggled a lot of things around and shot around a lot of those logistics in a different way, and then put her into the image later. But it’s not unusual for the game plan to have to change for numerous things, whether it’s weather, or whether it’s a change of government structure, or schedules. You’re constantly juggling changes in the way you put the story together.