For the longest time, Disney+ seemed to be supported and populated by content that only came out of the Marvel Studios and Star Wars properties. To make matters worse, a great number of other note-worthy productions that weren’t related to the aforementioned franchises (both television shows and movies) were removed, like Artemis Fowl, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers and Crater. But with the new Disney+ fantasy series Percy Jackson and the Olympians (adapted from author Rick Riordan’s best-selling teen novels), there is now a hopeful future for all sorts of other cinematic creations on the House of Mouse streaming platform.
Not only is the first season of Percy Jackson being well received by both children and adults since premiering on Dec. 19th, the fantastical show has also stormed the mantle in terms of live-action viewership (beating everything except Ashoka) and shattered a viewing record on Disney+ itself with well over 500 million minutes viewed in its debut week. As you can easily tell, the series adaptation has received numerous accolades right outside the gate. MovieWeb recently sat down and talked to one of Percy Jackson’s revered cinematographers, Pierre Gill, to find out what it was like collaborating with Disney, implementing a state-of-the-art volume soundstage, and his fondest memories from working on the show.
Capturing Audiences with Percy Jackson’s Minotaur Battle
Starting from the very first episode of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, viewers will be able to notice Mr. Gill’s inquisitive cinematographic style when Percy, his mother Sally, and his best friend Grover Underwood get their car rammed off the side of the road by a rage-filled Minotaur. Even though the vehicle was out of commission at that point, Gill requested for one headlight to stay on in order to emphasize the dramatic suspense of the moment:
“I wanted to keep some warmth on the skin because this is the last time Sally is going to see her son. When she leaves and Percy has to run away, the next part of that sequence, the headlights are far away, the lighting is cold, and I’m using that for the minotaur fight. I also wanted to use this beautiful glow and flare in the lens and also keep the light source of the rain.”
“I tried showing them as silhouettes against the car lights,” added Gill. “At one point, I wanted to have the light blinker a bit like it’s broken, but the complexity of shooting this type of show — it’s not shot in order, part of it’s on location, part of it’s not on a soundstage, part of it is on a soundstage — drove me to just keeping both lights on.” Because this beginning scene does a wonderful job at balancing the light and the dark so well, it was surely more than enough to draw viewers into Riordan’s mystical but dangerous world.
Switching over to a more technical aspect of the show that has helped immensely in mesmerizing viewers, Gill dove into the series’ incorporation of ‘the Volume’: an all-immersive LED soundstage that encompasses 360 degrees of panel like green screens and a ceiling. While wielding such state-of-the-art equipment turned out to be truly beneficial to Percy Jackson, the cinematographer does admit that there were challenges. “The difficult part is that you have to prepare the content. What you see right behind you has to be built before and that’s a lot of time and work. You have to test it too.”
Not wanting to leave out the positive, Gill explained the pros of using such a technology: “You can control your environment. The exterior and interior of The Met [in the show] is a Volume. All the Minotaur scenes are from a Volume. In a dusk or night scene, you can shoot all day.” He continued:
“For the Met, a camera crew was sent who took pictures and made a 3D model of the exact location. With ILM (Industrial Light & Magic), I then put lighting sources in the cupboards, in the windows, and in the light fixtures. Also, one of the strongest reasons the producers wanted to use volume was that we had three performers all under 16 who had to go to school, so this provided a perfect schedule.”
Capturing the Right Kind of Shot
In order to find the best camera lens that would help magnify the depth illusion of the Volume, Gill went to his motion picture equipment rental house, William F. White International, and they went about securing his request. “I was really trying to find a lens that would be pleasant in the Volume. After testing hundreds of lenses, I came up with the Cooke IS35, handcrafted in England. I asked [William F. White] to look into detuning them – because I didn’t want to have a flare in the Volume”, Gill explained.
“The flares are lines and such made from the light, and I didn’t want them here because I didn’t want people to understand the wall is only 30 feet behind you. It’s difficult because the lenses are massive, and they open them one by one. I asked them to do four sets and each one was about 200 hours of work. They were great alone, but then they were also able to tweak the lenses for my show, which was phenomenal.”
When not working in a studio and collaborating with a gigantic media suite, Gill and the others who worked on Percy Jackson were instead on location perfecting the best naturally made shots. While Gill does state that the Capture the Flag sequence in Camp Half Blood (episode two) and aspects of the aforementioned car crash were indeed filmed outdoors, the nicest part was just being there surrounded by the natural elements.
“We shot the on-location scenes of Percy Jackson in Vancouver, Canada. Camp Halfblood was also built just to the south of there. Of course, there are these gorgeous mountains. We were next to streaming rivers too, surrounding ourselves with all of this was just great. It was nice to be there in the middle of nature”.
With cliffs that cascade over valleys and forests, all popping with extraordinary color, the world of Percy Jackson is thus offered a dose of realism that the Volume just cannot provide.
Connecting Audiences Through Cinematography
Another scene that Gill worked on profusely to perfect is found in episode five, “A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers,” where Percy and fellow camper-turned-friend Annabeth Parker are traversing a dangerous amusement park called Waterland in order to retrieve Ares’ shield. Moments after embarking on a turbulent tunnel of love, the two youngsters have to escape into the water to avoid an untimely demise. Gill details this underwater scene, step by step:
With the help of the Volume, I kept a little pink light outside when they entered the tunnel of love and then a narrow shot contained the boat going inside. The boat was not moving, but we were moving the camera around them. We put a little engine in the water to create ripples. It’s an amazing sequence.
“After that, they fall down into the flume and actually jump into the water. It’s very dangerous to do, but we trained Walker [Scobell] and Leah [Sava Jeffries],” continued Gill. “Divers going in and out for them, taking their breath – it’s all real. It’s all shot underwater. We have these huge propellers that throw current. The set-up is basic in a certain way, but it is them underwater, there is no fakeness to it.”
He also adds that at one point, the scene was much longer, with Percy desperately reaching out for Annabeth to help bring her to the surface, but the sequence was ultimately shortened for time.
Aladdin and Deadboy Detectives
Even though Gill has already worked on some great titles in the past, like two shorts in the Blade Runner universe, Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, and 2000’s The Art of War, Percy Jackson is surprisingly his first Disney affiliated feature. On working with the House of Mouse, Gill reflected on how his own past shaped his present outlook on making cinematic productions for all ages.
“A lot of comments I heard are that this is targeted at adults in a way,” explained Gill. “But it’s also completely accessible for a young crowd as well. Disney is the king of merging a message that is both for the parent and the child. They started to show that in Aladdin with Robin Williams doing the genie. I had kids when Aladdin came out and when I went to the theater with them to see it, I laughed more than my kids. My approach on this series — as it was for Aladdin — was to talk to the parents, because I want them to watch it with their kids. It’s fun to watch stuff like this as a family, so I’m happy I was able to join those bridges once more.”
Looking into his future as a cinematographer (which includes the Dune TV series, Dune: The Prophecy), one of Gill’s newest collaborations includes an episode of the upcoming Dead Boy Detectives, an adaptation of the mature DC comic. When asked how this came to be and what fans should come to expect in terms of tone and on-screen presentation, he said:
“Initially, I loved the script because it was very strange and weird. The next step was to talk with the director — Lee Toland Kreiger, who is one of the most amazing guys I have ever met in my life. He’s clever, he’s brilliant and he has a vision. We tried to make sure to do it awkwardly enough, so it’s different, and I think it’s going to be very interesting to be a part of this when it comes out. I cannot wait to be able to talk about it!”
While waiting for the supernatural detective comedy drama (which releases in April on Netflix), Pierre Gill’s current hit is now available to stream on Disney+. You can watch it through the link below: