Matthew Jensen has a distinguished reputation in the realm of fantasy and graphic novels. His credits include Game of Thrones and Fantastic Four — but Wonder Woman was different. This was a story that was set in World War I, but it’s far from a traditional period film. Director Patty Jenkins was clear to all the creative team that the film was going to be told in a modern way despite the era when it takes place.
To create the look, cinematographer Jensen studied films and paintings from the early 20th century to help bring the comic book heroine to life in her first action film. ” I was looking at the colors they used. I also looked at other movies to see how they were dealing with the elements that we were dealing with and that was a great entry point,” he says.
Of Wonder Woman’s commanding emergence during the No Man’s Land scene, Jensen says, “The bar had been set high with other movies. We knew we owed Wonder Woman a big, grand entrance.” The scene has made women cry WHEN they see the transformation of Diana Prince. Jensen admits that he too was able to step back from his own contribution and understand what they had created. “I never got a sense of it working until I saw the director’s cut months later. I saw it by myself in the editing room and I totally got choked up.”
Read our conversation below and learn more about the visual language of Wonder Woman:
With Wonder Woman you’re rejuvenating a character who has had many incarnations on TV and comic books. Now that she’s come to the big screen for the first time on her own, where did you begin as the cinematographer?
What was great about our story was that we were dealing with World War I and it was easy to just dive into the period and work my way out from there. I was doing a lot of research about how things looked during that time and how painters were portraying the world. I was looking at the colors they used. I also looked at other movies to see how they were dealing with the elements that we were dealing with and that was a great entry point.
I knew we were going to figure her out. I was always very confident that we knew how she was going to fight and portray herself and that was the easy part.
Patty Jenkins challenged me and all the creative department heads early on by reminding us that we were not making a BBC documentary, nor were we making something about remembering the past. We were in this period and we’re telling this story in a very modern way and that included how it was photographed. Our mandate was to avoid the clichés of period photography. She gave us a clear directive on which way to steer. Then it was up to me to get inside her head to find out exactly she meant by modern and colorful and narrowing those choices down.
We see shifts in the visual language throughout the film. Can you talk about that as she goes from Themyscira to London and then to the battlefront.
The overall mandate that Patty gave me was that she didn’t want it to be desaturated. She wanted it to be a vibrant movie. I’m not dealing with the modern world filled with neon and fluorescents and I didn’t have the usual tools to pump color in through the lighting and had to find my way in.
Themyscira was a world that had learned to work with the nature around it to provide light and they built their structures within existing rocks and mountains. It became about using the color to plot Diana’s journey as a character so you could understand her in terms of how she sees the world. We wanted to represent that visually, so when she is plunged into man’s mechanized modern warfare you understand where she’s come from and how she’s viewing that world. In Themyscira, we really wanted to emphasize how healthy and beautiful everyone looked, and how the sun baked the landscape, and how the water was vibrant. It was this big full-color palette. It is then chocked down into the overcast light and cooler Cayenne winter and the wardrobes feature more black and earth tones, and the vibrancy goes into this earthier palette. The emphasis is on blues and cayenne in the exterior locations in London and the front. The color becomes this way to understand her.
Take us through No Man’s Land, this pivotal moment.
From the beginning of my prep, it was the scene that everyone was rallying around. Patty and I talked a lot about that since it’s Wonder Woman’s emergence, it’s the first time that Diana is using her powers as Wonder Woman. We looked at a lot of other superhero movies such as the first Superman and Batman Begins who aren’t really revealed until the first hour into the movie and they naturally have this kind of tension that works in their favor. As an audience member, you’re waiting for that moment to arrive when the hero is able to use their powers and help humanity. We talked about amping up the tension progressively so when she emerges you feel a sense of relief.
That was what we were aiming for and that dictated how we revealed her and the suit and the shot design of seeing her full body walking out of the trench.
Beyond that, the great thing that Patty brought to the movie is something heavily rooted in character and it also tells a very linear story. She has to get from point A to point B and in doing so her actions have consequences later in the narrative. What was great about her approach was all the action had a point and it was an integral part of the narrative.
We knew we owed Wonder Woman a big, grand entrance and the bar had been set high with other movies and there was an enormous pressure to live up to those examples. We shot bits and pieces of it over the whole schedule and I never got a sense of it working until I saw the director’s cut months later. I saw it by myself in the editing room and I totally got choked up. At that point, I’m so removed from the feeling of the movie looking at it critically, I found myself completely swept up in that moment. I thought it must be working and striking a chord and clearly, it did.
What did you shoot on?
90% of the movie is on film, but we did shoot some scenes digitally. We used Panavision camera and lenses. We used the Primos Workhorse lenses because they’re clean and not too sharp. A lot of movies in the ’80s were shot on the Primos.