Trent Opaloch had something the rest of us didn’t: A literal first-look at Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. As the cinematographer behind two of the biggest superhero movies of all time with a combined worldwide gross of $4.85 billion dollars, it was Opaloch’s operation of the ALEXA IMAX 65mm camera that captured the Avengers’ first and final stand against Thanos.
Fans remember the heartbreak of seeing their heroes vanish into wisps of dust, and the moment they returned victorious. But Opaloch, who worked with directors Joe and Anthony Russo across all four of their Marvel movies, only remembers the pressure, and how it all fell away every time the cameras rolled.
“Each of the films with the brothers had been, in terms of that time, the biggest film of my career,” Opaloch tells Inverse.
The Ontario-born cinematographer broke into Hollywood shooting Neil Blompkamp’s socially-conscious science-fiction films District 9 (2009) and Elysium (2013) before entering the Marvel Universe with Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014. He continued to shoot the MCU with Captain America: Civil War in 2016 and the last two Avengers films that capped off the eleven-year “Infinity Saga.” He also did Chappie with Blompkamp in 2015.
“Winter Soldier was the first legitimate studio film I’d ever been involved with,” he says. “The films with Neil Blomkamp were almost indie films. Just Neil and I and a group of people. You never felt a studio’s influence while shooting.” With Marvel, “You’ve got executives and layers at Marvel and Disney. That was a learning process for me, navigating that space.”
What helped Opaloch were the Russos. “The brothers have always made that easy. They make it easy for me and the crew because they’re great guys, very focused on the story. You’re so focused on the shot in front of you, you don’t consider the scale of what you’re doing. Once you get underway, the scale of what you’re doing falls away.”
With Avengers: Endgame now on Disney+ revealing deleted scenes not included even on the Blu-ray, Opaloch unpacks several of the movie’s most crucial shots, starting with one that didn’t make the cut.
Tony and Morgan in the Way Station
An eternal sunset over a shallow pool, what Opaloch calls the “Way Station” was a concept meant to be included in both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. It’s a place between existence that those who use the Infinity Stones temporarily find themselves.
Thanos wound up in the Way Station at the end of Infinity War, where he meets a young Gamora. On Disney+, a deleted scene from Endgame shows Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark meet Katherine Langford as an adult version of his daughter, Morgan in that same mystical setting.
“The concept of the Way Station was something that was on and off throughout the creative process,” Opaloch says. “Everybody liked the idea.”
It was such a popular idea, other characters were meant to visit the Way Station. “There was gonna be a scene with Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, he was in the Way Station at one point. Black Widow, she had a sequence just like that. It was an idea that was going to connect throughout the two films.”
Unfortunately, the scene was subject to the same scrutiny as any other, and the filmmakers deemed it expendable.
“There was a lot of pressure,” Opaloch says. “[Editor] Jeff Ford, the brothers, and Kevin Feige, they can be ruthless. There was a lot of pressure on every shot in the film just because of the running time. I mean, it’s long. To have anything cut down helps. It’s really under the magnifying glass. Everything had to earn its keep.”
Joe Russo, in a previous interview, told Inverse something similar. “Since Thanos had that poignant experience with his daughter in Infinity War, we started playing with the idea that there was something interesting and resonant in the symmetry with Tony and his daughter,” he said.
“The reason we ended up moving away from it is, once we shot it, we began to understand as we were actually shooting it, is that the audience didn’t have a relationship with his adult daughter in the film. They had a relationship with his young daughter but not with his adult daughter. It didn’t feel like it was as powerful as we may have thought so we began to move away from it.”
Still, the scene was one of Opaloch’s favorites, which made its omission rather heartbreaking.
“That was something we shot late into the production schedule,” he says. “And I was a little bit bummed [that it was cut]. I remember it being a touching performance. My favorite moments in these films are the human bits. The dialogues, the exchanges, the moments between actors. And that was a really nice, touching moment with his daughter.”
Ronin’s first appearance
“I’m not a big fan of the oner,” Opaloch says, referring to the trend of action scenes that feature complex staging and choreography (mostly) shot in one continuous take. “I think you get so much from an editor choosing and picking moments. But when it works, they work quite well.”
And Opaloch feels Jeremy Renner’s debut as Ronin, a ninja assassin, is one of those times, though an alternate version with edits was also produced.
“They did have as scene with edits across two or three different takes,” he says. “Frankly I can’t tell what’s what, I saw that scene yesterday and I can’t tell what that came from. But it’s a really beautiful and sad performance from Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson. You have this technical aspect where the camera is following these guys in an uninterrupted path but it ends in a beautiful moment between two friends. It’s a balance between the technical work and great performances.”
Opaloch adds, “When I watched it again recently, I was like, yeah, we nailed it.”
What makes the recreation of the infamous elevator from Captain America: The Winter Soldier extra fun is that Opaloch also shot that same scene several years prior. “It was fun to go back to that,” he says.
Reminiscing on the making of Winter Soldier, “The original sequence took place over three days and cleaned up in second unit. I think we shot it in Manhattan Beach. But it was really funny. You’re on this soundstage, but in this tiny little box with all these stunt performers. A lot of us couldn’t wait to get out.”
In Avengers: Endgame, the scene was always going to end with Chris Evans’ Captain America telling HYDRA goons (posing as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents), “Hail Hydra” to avoid a repeat of that original conflict.
“I don’t think we were ever going to [have a fight],” he reveals. “The idea was you’re leaning into that. It works so well with him diffusing. You’ve already seen the sequence in the previous film, so it was more of a nod. I think it works better that way.”
Iron Man’s funeral
It’s well-documented by now that the stars of Avengers: Endgame were informed their characters were attending a wedding, only to learn on set that it was actually Tony Stark’s funeral. For Opaloch, that was an especially “crazy day” due to the amount of A-list actors with busy schedules, which meant they only had one chance to get it right.
“There was a lot of back and forth on who we can get,” he says. “It was impressive we could get everybody out there. We had to pull a lot of strings to shift everybody’s schedules, that’s for sure.”
Due to the shot’s intensity — another “oner” that essentially tells the history of the MCU — planning was vital.
“We did a tech viz,” Opaloch says, “which was basically in CG we rendered where the crane would sit and we block out the actors because the light was only good for a few hours. It wasn’t the type of thing you could adjust for when everyone’s on set.”
Some “minor blocking adjustments” were still made by the time the cameras rolled, “but for the most part, it was laid out ahead of time because it had to be. With that many actors, you don’t get another go. I doubt very much we would have had a second day with all those actors.”
“The Staple Spread”
Opaloch filmed the biggest superhero movies imaginable, but he admits he was not a comic book reader growing up. When he landed the job for The Winter Soldier, his first call was to his brother-in-law (a dyed-in-the-wool Marvel fan) to ask him for the 411. “He lost his mind,” he jokes.
But shooting movies like Avengers: Endgame got Opaloch acquainted to the visual language of comics, which he says started to play a serious influence by Captain America: Civil War.
Critics have noted the Marvel movies’ innovation towards the cinematic “splash page” — the shots in major action set-pieces that purposefully resemble the baroque styles of a comic book, where the action is so grandiose that it takes up two whole pages. “Early in our conversations with Civil War, I think that was the first time that concept was brought up.”
The idea has other names — Opaloch calls it the “staple spread” — but the concept is clear. “It’s that idea of the center spread of the comic, and you have this epic framing using that whole frame. In Civil War, it’s that sequence on the tarmac. For this one, it was all the Avengers on one side and Thanos and his army of darkness on the other. That was a definite nod to that lineage that these stories come from. It’s a neat way to think of it on the big screen.”
Avengers: Endgame is available now on Blu-ray and streaming on Disney+.