ALEXA shines on Kanye West's 'Runaway'
When recording artist Kanye West went looking for the perfect cinematographer to capture the wildly creative concepts for Runaway a short film accompanying the second single from his latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - he didn't have to look far. Although he wrote the story (Hype Williams wrote the script), composed the music and directed the project, West relied on performance artist Vanessa Beecroft as an aesthetic consultant. Beecroft, who was credited as art director, is known for placing groups of semi-clad women wearing dramatic fashion accessories in huge public spaces. Over the last 10 years, she's worked steadily with New York-based cinematographer Kyle Kibbe to document her work.
West, after watching many of the videos that Kibbe had shot, decided that he was the right cinematographer to bring his stunning music video to life. Kibbe - who is primarily a commercials DoP - says that above all, West was looking to adopt a flexible approach. "Kanye wanted a lot of flexibility in terms of being able to go to these locations and be open to whatever creative impulses took place," he explains.
The extremely dense four-day shoot took place in Prague, where they scouted for the perfect locations, especially for the banquet scene with white-clad guests, which was ultimately shot in an airplane hangar. Kibbe was impressed with the crews in Prague. "They were very good," he says. "People had incredible command of the English language, and Prague is also a beautiful city that can double for different places rather easily."
When it came to picking the perfect camera for such a daunting shoot, Kibbe didn't hesitate to pick the ARRI ALEXA. "From my film background, I knew ARRI was going to [create a camera] that film people would find closer to their experiences with a film camera," says the cinematographer. "I also knew that we wanted to use a camera that was lightweight and portable. It was between the RED and the ALEXA in my mind, and I was anxious to use the ALEXA." Runaway producer Jonathan Lia gave the green light, and Kibbe got the ALEXA from Vantage Films in Prague. Kibbe notes that Jindřich Čipera, Head of Camera Rentals at Vantage, "was very helpful and generous with his time."
Since Kibbe faced four very busy shoot days, he wouldn't have a chance to spend a lot of time getting up to speed with ALEXA. Fortunately, he didn't have to. "The ALEXA menu system is very logical," he says. "It seems to be more user-friendly, or organic, than other digital menu systems I've had to work with. I'm not technical, but even sight unseen you can figure it out."
Kibbe says that, despite the fact that he had a great 1st A.C. focus puller (Dan Balzer) and ALEXA DIT (Lukas Bigl), he could easily hit the right buttons and get the information he needed from the camera. "It made me feel more confident that everyone was communicating on the same page," he says. "And it made it a bit faster as well."
West wanted overhead shots, something Kibbe was accustomed to from working with Beecord. "She has used cranes on a number of occasions because she works in such great spaces and uses many performers," he says. "I know Kanye wanted to have some of that movement and to see things from an elevated perspective looking down." The Technocrane came from Panther Prague.
ALEXA's sensitivity was an immediate advantage to the production. "The 800 ASA was very accurate to what it was," says Kibbe. "In some ways, the camera was more sensitive than that, and that was a huge, huge advantage for us. Four days to shoot that piece wasn't a long time, and the fact that the camera was sensitive minimized our lighting to a great extent."
"We were able to use Master Primes, which was a great combination with that camera," continues Kibbe, who also praises ARRI's PL mount technology. "And we were able to use a tremendous amount of natural light. When we did use lights, we were able to use smaller ones and fewer of them. It was great for both the material production aspects and the creative possibilities."
More specifically, the ability to shoot with natural light gave the director the flexibility he craved. "It was possible for him to turn around 180 degrees and say, I like this look better," says Kibbe. "And we would be able to do that readily."
Kibbe also liked what he saw on the monitors. "It was detailed but soft imagery," he says. "I was very impressed with the image output and the latitude between the highlights and shadows. That wasn't the crucial issue for us, because we didn't have that many high contrast scenes. But I did get into daylight situations that were normally lit or even overcast, and the image was exceptional - very smooth. And flesh tones also looked great."
According to Kibbe, West was very specific about what he wanted, but the retakes were largely based on performance. If Kibbe wanted to try the Technocrane move again, there was no time. "The level of confidence I had in the camera helped," he says. "We used the SxS cards, and the procedure of swapping and checking the cards to make sure the information was recorded correctly went smoothly and quickly. "Because the camera is capable of the workflow, I can foresee situations when you'd be able to cut the piece right on the set," he says. "I'm looking forward to that possibility."
Kibbe says he wants to use ALEXA for a documentary. "The image was so great and the light sensitivity and latitude being what it is, it's an incredible tool for capturing reality," he says. "And it's also quite a nice handheld camera compared to what else is out there."
Some cinematographers have had a hard time moving from film and finding a digital camera that satisfies them, notes Kibbe. "Not me, but I see it among my peers," he says. "But this camera, the ALEXA, is it. It's unanimous. This is the camera that makes the future seem possible in the digital realm."
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