*Warning: The following interview contains spoilers for episodes four and five of Ms. Marvel*
Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had its share of visually dazzling productions, with titles like Loki, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, Moon Knight, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness taking huge creative swings in crafting astonishing action set pieces and a distinct look and feel that previous MCU productions did not have. Ms. Marvel is the latest Phase Four project that breaks the mold of a conventional MCU style and immediately distinguishes itself from the get-go. And some of the most impressive scenes in the series are featured in its fourth and fifth episodes, where Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) travels to Karachi, Pakistan.
These episodes’ visual look is not only distinct from the series’ previous episodes but on the MCU as a whole, which cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin worked on with director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy:
“For Sharmeen, it was really important that we didn’t portray Karachi or India in that clichéd kind of yellow tone that is so often portrayed in [Hollywood films]. We also really wanted to lean into Sharmeen’s documentary experience. And we wanted to give those episodes a semi-documentary feel to them. It’s cinematic realism, with the camera on our shoulder occasionally, and a handheld camera, which leans into that documentary experience. We also wanted to portray Karachi in the most realistic kind of fashion and not to give it some kind of a hyper-real superhero feel to it. It had to feel real and lived in. And we’re kind of up against it in that sense, because we’re shooting in Bangkok. So it wasn’t Karachi. But we wanted to portray Karachi and India as if we were really there, even if we weren’t, but that’s the magic of cinema.”
In establishing the style of the episodes with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, O’Loughlin first said that they had to tap into the story and respect what the previous episodes had established in style, before putting their own spin on their episodes:
“This is my first time working with Marvel. And there are certain things that you’ve got to look after, as far as Marvel is concerned. And not only that, it’s the world that they’ve created in episode one. So we can’t do a complete departure from that. It was really important that our episodes were fitted hand and glove to those first couple of episodes as well. We had to be very mindful of that as well. But my initial questions were “What is the show that we’re making? What’s the world that has been set up in episode one? And how can we take those things and make them distinct for episodes four and five?”
We would watch references and a lot of photographs that Sharmeen had of Karachi. I’d been to Pakistan some years before, and I traveled extensively in India, which gave me a really good feeling, but it was important that Sharmeen showed me her version of Karachi, her hometown, and what Pakistan meant for her.”
On crafting the partition scene in episode five, where Kamala saves a young Sana, O’Loughlin explained that Obaid-Chinoy had several photographs that they used as reference:
“There’s probably five or six photos that Sharmeen had. And you have to understand that, for the Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis, partition is such a momentous part of their history. And it was really important, for us to render it in a truly historic way. I knew from the get-go with Sharmeen that this was something that she really had to show and pay respect to, and it had to feel real. And part of that process was taking certain photographs and reenacting those [for the scene]. For a Pakistani or an Indian person who has lived with not only this oral history, through their family, but history rendered in photographs for many of them that have come down from their grandparents, and great-grandparents, it was super important for us to do that.”
The partition scene also took a lot of preparation and planning:
“Partition was the big one that took a lot of prep, a lot of planning, a lot of meetings, a lot of pouring over models of where the trains are going to be. It was the biggest set-piece that we had of the show, which was a massive undertaking.”
O’Loughlin also said that crafting the partition sequence was a career highlight for him:
“The entire sequence was a career highlight because it was not only was it a real blast, photographically and cinematography-wise, but I did feel the responsibility of what that sequence was going to mean to millions of people in the subcontinent and in Pakistan, who would see that. It was a responsibility, but it was also this incredible thrill when I was seeing it come to life, and as we were getting through that sequence. I’m incredibly proud, not only of the work that I did but also of what Sharmeen and the entire crew and our magnificent actors did on that sequence as well.”
Episodes four and five have some of the most elaborate action scenes of the series so far. One of them involves the Clandestines breaking out of the Damage Control supermax prison, which has an incredible corkscrew shot in the middle of the action. On that particular camera move, O’Loughlin explained that it was used to give energy to the scene:
“You’re in a space that doesn’t allow a lot of energy in this narrow hallway. We infused this sequence with some energy and also tip our hat to some of the wonderful camerawork in episode one. We’re able to achieve this on a Technocrane with the remote 3-Axis head, where you can have a nodal move with the camera, and the camera can just spin as many times as you want. It was just a fun moment to get us into that sequence. And that’s the type of stuff we can do with Ms. Marvel. While I did speak about the realism, of Karachi and partition, and that time in history, it doesn’t mean that we can’t have fun, with the camera. You look for those moments, during the course of an episode where you can have fun with the camera, and you can do some really cool stuff to lean into the drama, which hopefully won’t take you out of it as an audience member.”
Episode four also contains an elaborate chase scene in the streets of Karachi. Jules O’Loughlin described the multiple challenges that arose in shooting the sequence:
“Originally, we were going to shoot it on several streets, in Bangkok. And that became a bit of a logistical nightmare. We were going to shoot it outside of Bangkok, but that didn’t work for one reason or another. But we were taken there by our wonderful Thailand base production crew to this backlot in Bangkok, which was basically a neighborhood of apartments. [The owner of the backlot] bought them with the hope of actually developing the whole area, and in the interim, before they got the plan through, he started renting it out to film productions, and it became this booming business for him.
It’s a fantastic area of about five crisscrossing streets, three or four blocks, and I was like “Can we shoot this sequence in this in this area?” Because it’s not a particularly large area. It took a lot of planning as to how we could elongate that journey. And so it became this elaborate set-piece shot over several days of principal photography, and then quite a few days of second-unit run by Gary Powell, the brilliant stunt coordinator and second unit director from the U.K. And, incidentally enough, I’ve worked with Gary’s brother Greg, on three films in London. His younger brother Gary had the duties of second-unit directing and did a great job. So it was a combination of shooting on the backlot, and a fair bit of stage work that I did with the principal actors on the backlot, but also on stage against a blue screen as well, which blended seamlessly with the stuff we did on the backlot.”
O’Loughlin also talked about shooting the scene in which Kamala meets the Red Daggers for the first time and anticipation is created through the camera as she travels from the restaurant to the kitchen, and sees the lair for the first time:
“In my travels, through the Middle East, I’ve been to Iran, and there are mosques that are out of this world. When [Christopher Glass], our production designer, showed me the design of that place, I was like, “this is off the charts.” But I believe this place could be real.
And it’s often fun to create an expectation going through that Chinese restaurant that we’re going to end up somewhere not that kind of interesting. And then the oven pushes back, and all of a sudden there’s just a blast of color, light, and design. You’re then in this incredibly fantastic place that is still grounded in reality and totally believable, but it’s just a feast for the eyes, you know, and that’s fun.”
O’Loughlin has also worked on episodes three and four of The Old Man with director Greg Yaitanes, which premiered on June 23rd and 30th, respectively, on FX. He is currently working on Percy Jackson and the Olympians for Disney+, with director Anders Ergström.
You can listen to our full conversation below and stream the first five episodes of Ms. Marvel on Disney+
[Quotes have been edited for length and clarity]