ALEXA and M18 HMI lights on ALL IS LOST
ALL IS LOST, director J.C. Chandor's follow-up to his successful 2011 film MARGIN CALL, is a tense survival tale that features only one character, played by Robert Redford, and almost no dialogue. Alone on a boat in the Indian Ocean, Redford suffers damage to his craft when it strikes an abandoned shipping container. Unable to radio for help, he attempts to outrun a gathering storm but is overtaken and eventually loses his battle to save the boat, taking to a life raft with scant supplies and little hope of rescue. Looking to make the most of his relatively low $9 million-dollar budget, Chandor re-teamed with MARGIN CALL DP Frankie DeMarco, who chose to record ARRIRAW with ALEXA cameras and also made use of ARRI M-Series M18 HMI lampheads supplied by ARRI subsidiary Illumination Dynamics. He spoke with ARRI about his choices and challenges on the film.
ALL IS LOST, directed by J.C. Chandor, is a tense survival tale that features only one character, played by Robert Redford, and almost no dialogue. DP Frankie DeMarco chose to record ARRIRAW with ALEXA cameras and also made use of ARRI M-Series M18 HMI lampheads.
Did you and J.C. discuss any visual references when talking about how the film should look?
J.C. wanted the camera to always be close to Redford -- as if we were the first mate, always at the captain's shoulder and experiencing things as he experiences them. A movie we looked at early on was DAS BOOT, which had the camera at very close quarters and we both liked that a lot. Another useful reference was THE PERFECT STORM, because J.C. said it was exactly the sort of film he didn't want to make. One of the best reference movies was Polanski's KNIFE IN THE WATER, which was very bare-boned, focusing on the interaction between the characters and keeping the camera close, although it didn't have the disaster element.
What decisions were made in terms of how to move and operate the camera?
We knew we'd definitely have to shoot the scenes in the cabin handheld, because there wasn't the space to do anything else. I'm pretty good with handheld, so I did all the A-camera operating and handheld photography. The difficult discussion was about how we would film Redford moving around up on the deck. I had suggested from the beginning that we needed to be on a barge with a 50' Technocrane and a stabilized remote head, but production felt that was beyond our budget. I talked with my key grip Pat O'Mara about designing a platform system all the way around the boat, but the problem was that if our camera was on the deck with Redford then the horizon would be bobbing up and down like crazy, and J.C. was very concerned about making the audience seasick.
We went back to Anna Gerb, our producer, and said that we really needed the Technocrane, and she managed to get a super deal from the rental house, which was great because with the Technocrane we were able to follow Redford pretty much anywhere on deck and keep the horizon fairly steady. We still wanted to give the film a handheld look, so I deliberately added a slight handheld feel to my crane operating and had one of my assistants gently rocking the third axis, just to keep the horizon floating a little.
What led to you choosing ALEXA over other systems?
I think the producers had sold themselves on shooting digitally. I had some concerns about shooting bright water exteriors, because there was no way we could shoot underneath a giant silk canopy and I wanted to be sure we'd have a decent latitude range from light to dark, so I did suggest that we shoot the day exteriors on film and everything else on digital. But we were in Mexico and there would have been the delay of sending film back to LA, whereas with digital we could process the ARRIRAW footage immediately and have it in the on-location editing room very quickly.
I had used a different digital camera on MARGIN CALL and it didn't work that well for me; the color space wasn't as generous or interesting as the ALEXA, so I pushed hard for ALEXA on this film. In the end we got three ALEXAs from our rental house, two that we worked with all the time and a third as backup, which we never needed.
The M18 is great because it's a small package but you get a lot of light out of it and the quality of the light is so interesting.
Why was it important to record ARRIRAW?
Bob Munroe from Spin VFX in Toronto was our VFX supervisor and he knew we'd be doing a lot of work in post with storm and sky backgrounds. There were also simple things to fix, for example outside on the big exterior tank there's an infinity edge between the tank and the ocean, and pelicans would constantly perch on it. We had someone in a golf cart throwing fireworks at them to scare them off, but regardless of the birds we knew we'd have to clean that edge digitally. Right off the bat Bob had said that we should shoot the best quality and highest resolution we could, because we'd be adding digital backgrounds, so that led us to ARRIRAW. To be honest it was barely a discussion.
Were you happy with how ALEXA handled the intense highlights and contrast of working on the water?
I certainly appreciated how the ALEXA's dynamic range can hold bright highlights so well. In general I'm grateful that with the ALEXA, ARRI has gone for features that filmmakers and cinematographers care about, whereas other camera companies have gone for 4K and high resolutions. We don't need any more resolution, we've got enough; what we need is the ability to render images and skin tones the way film has done so well. ARRI have been making cameras for 90 years, so they get it. They listen to camera people and when they designed ALEXA they focused on things like wide latitude and a generous color space.
The one thing I would really like to see in a digital camera is a multi-layered chip, because film has layers and I feel that digital cameras need to have the same thing. Focus is super critical on a single-layer chip, but a chip with depth would be kinder on the focus, much like 35 mm, giving a rounder look with smoother fall-off. Perhaps even more importantly, a multi-layered chip would more closely mimic the multi-layers of film and produce an image with more depth.
What lenses did you use?
I used old Zeiss Standard Speed T2.1 primes and a newer 15.5-45 mm Zeiss lightweight zoom, which is a nice lens with a good fall-off when you shoot wide open, and it matched the Zeiss T2.1 primes pretty well. J.C. and I talked about how we'd shoot Redford; I hate the artificiality of fuzz filters, so I preferred the idea of using older lenses and kinder lighting. We discussed it with Bob too, because we weren't trying to hide his age, but on the other hand we weren't trying to accentuate his wrinkles and pores either. Super-sharp modern lenses would have been too harsh and distracting.
You used the ARRI M18 lamphead -- what did you think of it?
The M18 is great because it's a small package but you get a lot of light out of it and the quality of the light is so interesting; you can either go direct with it, or bounce it off or push it through things. I've also used the M40, but it was the M18 that we used quite a bit on ALL IS LOST. We had floating platforms around the boat both outside and inside on the stages, so it was easy to put up a small light like the M18. There was a scene with Redford reading a book about celestial navigation in the cabin and I had an M18 pushing through one of the windows; the boat was gently rocking so you could see the "sunlight" moving up and down the wall. It looked natural and beautiful, which was my goal for all the lighting in ALL IS LOST.
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