ALEXA raises a (dust) storm

California-based cinematographer Sean Conaty combines narrative and documentary features with commercial work (for which he has won an Emmy Award) and music videos (for artists such as The Killers, Miles Fisher and Ben Harper). He recently spoke to ARRI about his experiences with the ARRI ALEXA on JACK AND THE DUSTBOWL, a depression-era short film that was shot in conditions so dusty that they tested the resilience of the camera, as well as the crew.

JACK AND THE DUSTBOWL

California-based cinematographer Sean Conaty recently used the ARRI ALEXA on JACK AND THE DUSTBOWL, a depression-era short film that was shot in conditions so dusty that they tested the resilience of the camera, as well as the crew.

ARRI: What led you to decide that ALEXA would be the best camera for this production?

 

Sean Conaty: At the time, I had recently wrapped a successful commercial shoot in Washington, DC, where we used ALEXA. We instantly recognized the value and viability for JACK AND THE DUSTBOWL; I was really impressed with the camera's versatility for narrative work on location.

 

After testing, I knew the ALEXA would be appropriate, despite the fact that we'd be working with a small crew. I was especially awed by its ability to handle hard, frontal, un-diffused sunlight, something I had only been comfortable with on film and had avoided on previous digital productions; going for a natural look, it was nice not having to stage every scene in backlight.

Not having the budget for a backup body and being so far away was a major factor in our decision to go with ALEXA.

ARRI: Was a 'natural look' the main visual approach you and director Brandon McCormick took to the film?

 

SC: We were going for a natural, yet classical cinematic look. Trying to avoid that 'depression era equals sepia and low-contrast' cliché, we drew inspiration instead from the black-and-white and color FSA (Farm Security Administration) photos of Dorothea Lange, Jack Delano, and John Vachon, with boldly saturated skies and steeper curves. I shoot all my stills photography on film, so I was looking for a camera system that most closely approximated that look. The ALEXA's ability to isolate and differentiate secondary colors while retaining the integrity of the primaries helped us to achieve this look.

ARRI: Were your locations far from the rental house you used?

SC: We rented the camera from PC&E in Atlanta and our main location was about two hours north from there. In considering different cameras, reliability was key - not having the budget for a backup body and being so far away was a major factor in our decision to go with ALEXA.

ARRI: What recording solution did you use and how were you looking at your rushes?

SC: We recorded ProRes 4444 in Log C to the ALEXA's in-camera SxS PRO card; monitored Rec 709; and applied a one-light/Rec 709 look to the ProRes 422 (HQ) dailies that we watched each night on a 21" iMac.

Making of JACK AND THE DUSTBOWL

California-based cinematographer Sean Conaty recently used the ARRI ALEXA on JACK AND THE DUSTBOWL, a depression-era short film that was shot in conditions so dusty that they tested the resilience of the camera, as well as the crew.

ARRI: How did ALEXA suit a situation where you had minimal crew?

 

SC: Because most of the film is day exterior with actors of varied skin tones, I was very concerned about the lack of control with minimal crew and equipment. On previous digital formats I would normally lobby the director to stage scenes in backlight so that the extent of my lighting could be mostly grip-return. With the ALEXA, I felt much more comfortable shooting scenes in side and even harder frontal light in order to give it some texture and variety.

 

ARRI: What was it like working in all that dust?

 

SC: My assistants were vigilant about protecting the camera from the dust during those dustbowl scenes. I was actually more concerned with keeping the dust out of the fan than away from the sensor, but I had a solid camera team who bagged and sealed the camera and were very careful during lens changes. So we never had a problem with dust intake; I would say that never having a camera-related delay was a major benefit of ALEXA, especially considering the shooting conditions.

ARRI: Did you stick to the EI 800 base sensitivity?

SC: I rated the ALEXA at 800 ASA and had no complaints. With Brandon's feedback, the instant gratification of digital allowed me to push outside my comfort zone even further when we could see the results on the monitor immediately.

ARRI: What project did you move on to after this one?

SC: I went on to shoot a two-camera ALEXA indie feature about rival high school football teams in the birthplace of the sport, Canton, OH. Supported by The Camera Department out of Cincinnati, the decision to go with ALEXA has increased the quality of the film and the image exponentially. The cameras held up extraordinarily well considering the intense football action we were putting them through.

JACK AND THE DUSTBOWL had its premier in Atlanta and is currently out for submission to various film festivals.