As the highly anticipated adaptation of Rick Riordan's beloved series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, prepares to dazzle audiences, lead cinematographer Pierre Gill unveils the intricate process behind bringing the mythical world to life. From the dense woods encircling Camp Half-Blood to exhilarating battles against minotaurs, Gill delves into the challenges of crafting a visual narrative that seamlessly blends realism with fantasy. Amidst the dynamic interplay of ILM LED Volume technology and the demands of unpredictable weather, Gill's keen eye and innovative approach promise an immersive journey through the realms of gods and monsters.
As fans waited over 15 years for a book-accurate adaptation, Pierre used a cutting-edge ILM LED Volume, including adjusting light, shape, color, contrast, and depth; tested over 50 sets of lenses; and collaborated with William F Whites rental house, which spent 1000h detuning Cookes 2X/I Anamorphic lenses for ideal look - all to make sure the visuals exceeded expectations every step of the way.
PH: Can you walk us through the woods around Camp Half-Blood scenes in episodes 101and 102? What were the challenges of shooting in a new environment for each episode?
Pierre Gill: The biggest challenge (of the series in general) was to match location shoot to Volume, blue screen, and stage build. Camp Half-Blood was in all of the above. We built part of the Camp in a forest in Vancouver, Canada, but some parts were 2 hrs away in another location, then the bathroom was built on a stage and Dionysus was on the Volume… It's quite a challenge to match all these different places. The audience just sees it as one place; for us, it's a month of out-of-order shooting.
PH: The fight with the minotaur is a pivotal moment. How did you approach capturing the intensity of that scene, both in terms of cinematography and working with the actors?
Pierre Gill: It was another very cool challenge, and we shot a lot of it in the Volume. I worked for months with the ILM team (Mandalorian) to create the forest for the fight, down to the spaces between trees, fog in the distance, type of leaves… It took us a month and a half to figure out different aspects of the scene; we shot the dialogue in an actual car with a blue screen, then the majority of the fight scene was shot with Volume. Another important element was practical light. I used headlights to blur the line between the practical set and the Volume screen and to light the actors’ faces well and showcase their emotions. I always try to highlight actors' faces and eyes to emphasize characters' emotions, so having their faces lit by the headlights intensified the scene.
PH: The use of the ILM LED Volume for creating realistic interiors and exteriors is groundbreaking. Can you share some insights into the challenges of incorporating this technology into the shooting process, especially when dealing with different environments in each episode?
Pierre Gill: Previously, ILM LED Volume was mostly used to film “fantasy or sci-fi” sequences, so it took us quite a bit of work to figure out shooting interiors and exteriors in a more “realistic” environment. I am very proud of our work on the interior MET sets because they required almost no additional work in post-production. It was incredibly hard to achieve but very rewarding… we relighted the museum according to my vision of the scene with the amazing artist at ILM. My goal was to light as if I were in a real location and re-light the entire place.
There were quite a lot of scenes we shot using Volume, including elements of Camp Half-Blood and the Minotaur fight, so for each one, I worked closely with the ILM team to meticulously plan every detail. The ILM team also created tools that allowed me to manipulate different aspects, like the position of the sun and clouds as separate layers, and also control the contrast of the Volume to match it better with the foreground.
PH: Were there specific scenes or settings where the LED Volume played a crucial role in achieving the desired visual effects?
Pierre Gill: Yes, definitely a lot! The use of the sky and sun in the Museum, the Lightning in the Minotaur scene, and many forest tricks like the fireworks within were crazy achievements! And the work with clouds on the beach, and more to come in later episodes. One of them is quite phenomenal: the Tunnel of Love.
PH: How did you go about developing the visual style for Percy Jackson and the Olympians? Were there specific conversations with Rick Riordan that influenced the overall aesthetic?
Pierre Gill: Rick is a great person, collaborative and down to earth. He left most of the guidance to the showrunners, Jon Steinberg and Dan Shotz, so I had a lot of discussions with them. I came on the project with a lookbook of some of the references and visual elements I wanted to emphasize from ET, Lord of the Rings, and The Green Mile, and the showrunners liked them. They really wanted to avoid a flashy superhero-style look like I did and wanted the show to be grounded and realistic so that the audience could relate to an accessible Percy. This naturalistic approach is something that was crucial to me throughout the show. But I also wanted to look beautiful; I called it “Velvet- Realism.”
PH: Balancing well-established actors with newcomers can be a unique challenge. How did you ensure a cohesive look and feel throughout the series while working with such a diverse cast?
Pierre Gill: That is more of the director's job, but I made sure that our young cast would learn the very important details of filmmaking: Focal length and their meaning, learning how not to block the other actors in a scene, looking at the eyes closer to the lens when they have a close up, etc.
PH: Fans of the book series are eagerly anticipating the TV adaptation. Can you share some details about subtle elements in the cinematography that audiences might have missed but are integral to capturing the essence of the story?
Pierre Gill: I just try to keep the audience engaged all the time like if they are ready with a book.
PH: Were there any particular scenes or moments that you were excited for audiences to see, where the attention to detail truly shines?
Pierre Gill: There are many things coming in the last episodes… the Tunnel of Love (ep 5) is one of them. We built WATERLAND amusement park on a big stage, then they enter the tunnel of love on that stage, and when they get inside, they are in the Volume. It's a very transparent transition, and I’m very proud of this one.
PH: Filming in various weather conditions can be unpredictable. How did you handle the balance between rain and shine in outdoor scenes, and did it pose any unexpected challenges?
Pierre Gill: Yes, it's always a very big challenge that most people don't realize when watching a movie. First, you pray for the type of weather you dream of, but most of the time, it's quite a puzzle to fix. For example, we shot some of Camp Half-Blood in June and some in October. I used big, powerful 18K HMI lights in the forest to recreate the sun rays. Sometimes, I did the opposite by using huge covers to block the sun in order to keep continuity. But it's part of my DP’s task to analyze all the scenes and make the best assumption about what is the right choice to make. Even with a good budget like these series, it's almost impossible to change the schedule for the weather.
PH: The series features fast-paced fight scenes and extensive VFX. Can you discuss how you exceeded expectations in capturing the action while maintaining visual coherence throughout the story?
Pierre Gill: We mixed a lot of real locations, Volume, stage build, and blue screens… I had to evaluate and make many compromises. In the minotaur fight scene, for example, we shot a lot in the Volume, and it's actually a very small space to do any action scene, so that was a challenge on its own. We have to cheat the space by changing the props in the Volume. For example, when Percy, his mom, and Grover talk in the rain after the car crash, we use the front of a real car in the bag round, but when they look on the other side toward the hill and Talia’s tree, it's actually the same side without the car and by spinning the Volume 180 degrees… so we planned all the shooting orders carefully and shot by sections. I also use some lightning in that sequence to help keep it darker and just reveal the Minotaur in glimpses to create more tension.
PH: With the series premiering on December 20th and airing weekly until January 31st, how did the episodic nature of the release influence your approach to storytelling through cinematography? Did it impact the way you crafted cliffhangers or visually connected episodes?
Pierre Gill: I had no information about the launch of the series. I thought it would be all at once, so I approached it as a long feature film: like one story. But I do pay more attention to the beginning and end of an episode because you want to grab the attention in both.