Anonymous: ALEXA's first feature film

Anonymous: ALEXA's first feature film

The first feature film to have been shot with ALEXA cameras is Anonymous, an Elizabethan thriller with a controversial take on the true authorship of writings attributed to William Shakespeare. Set amidst London's shadowy theatrical and royal circles around the turn of the 17th century, the film features a strong cast of British stage actors and is directed by Roland Emmerich, best known for more explosive Hollywood action movies such as The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Emmerich worked with cinematographer Anna Foerster on the project, with whom he has collaborated since Independence Day in 1996.

ARRI News: This was your first digital feature – what were your thoughts going into the project?

Anna Foerster: It was interesting because so far I have always shot on 35 mm and I kind of felt lucky that I had escaped digital for so long. I think that the moment I was confronted with digital was the moment we reached a level that is absolutely amazing and incomparable to what has come before. Of course I was nervous about the whole process, but decided that if I started thinking that this was all completely new then it would just get too confusing, so I basically approached it as a new kind of film stock and set about discovering its limits.

I determined what ASA ratings I wanted to shoot at in what situations; it was just like testing a new film stock – you explore what its limits are at each end and then play within that safe area. But I had never experienced anything so capable of pushing the limits as this camera; I would not have had the courage to try the same extreme lighting with any film stock - things like having just one HMI beam and using the spill light and the bounce light from it as your main source.

I think that at this point filmmaking has reached a new era.

The other aspect is that you can see exactly what you’re getting and with the waveform monitor you can see where you’re going too far - by which I mean technically too far, which isn’t the same as aesthetically. Sometimes we pushed beyond what you should be doing technically, but it was absolutely right for the situation.

 

AN: Anonymous is set at a time when fires and candles and provided illumination – how did ALEXA handle low light situations?

AF: We did light a lot of scenes with candles and fire, but they were almost always augmented with other sources. The exciting part was that the candle or fire actually affected the environment; for example we put a candelabrum against a wood-paneled wall and you actually got sheen off that wall, because we were shooting at 1280 ASA at that point.

It’s a bit of an illusion to think that you can put a candle on a table and you’re lit, but at such a high ASA rating, the additional light can be very gentle and doesn’t overpower the visible effects of the real flame on its surroundings. That was incredibly exciting and I seriously don’t think that’s been possible before. You wouldn’t push a film stock to that ASA because the amount of grain would have been taking away from the image. Especially when you have a lot of middle grey areas that fall off to nothing – with a film stock those areas would have been highly prone to grain.

AN: 1280 ASA is nearly one stop higher than the base sensitivity - were you totally satisfied with the noise levels?

AF: Absolutely. As I said we did push it at certain points but there was never a real issue with noise. It also depends on the set and the colors – there are situations that are more prone to noise, just as with grain, and in those situations you may adjust the lighting or the background to prevent areas of noise from becoming too prominent.

More than two-thirds of the movie was shot at 800 ASA – interiors and exteriors. I did not believe at all in changing the ASA below 800; I don’t think that’s the right approach with this camera, so we were using ND filters for daytime exteriors. Then there were specific night situations where we shot at 1280 ASA. Don’t ask me why we ended up with this number, but that was our level for situations where we had a lot of candles. We had a dance scene that involved over 300 candles burning in a room and that was at 1280 ASA.

AN: Several images from the film look like Vermeer paintings – was that a reference?

AF: We had long conversations about creating that Vermeer look, but for me another big reference for the candlelit scenes was Georges de la Tours. Roland and I discussed at length what that actually meant for us in terms of lighting and staging. Together we looked at a lot of paintings and decided that this should be the look, agreeing that we didn’t want an over-lit, over-colorful period film, because it wouldn’t have been appropriate to the story.

So we used harsh sunlight, or simulated harsh sunlight, only very sparingly in the movie, and only ever for good reason. But that was completely a creative decision; it had nothing to do with the capabilities of the camera because the few occasions where we did use harsh daylight, we were amazed at what the camera could do. Again, in these situations I would have been quite scared if we’d been shooting on film, but I could see on the wavelength monitor that we had detail in the highlights and I was able to see dailies the same night that showed me everything was alright.

I have to say that you can get quite spoiled with that. It’s funny because I was always the one saying ‘We should shoot on film’ - all this time with film I knew the parameters and it was something I felt safe with. This was uncharted territory for me but I have to say that I now don’t know how to turn back. I think that at this point filmmaking has reached a new era. That’s not to say that film is dead, but for certain projects and situations, digital has become an option that is convincing in a way it never has been before.

We had slightly different visual approaches for the young [Queen] Elizabeth and the old Elizabeth, and also for the commoners outside and for what’s happening at the royal court. But basically the look was based on paintings and Vermeer was certainly one of the painters, especially because of the soft diffused daylight, which we used a lot. Of course we always made sure that these references didn’t get in the way of the story, because there’s a danger in trying to make something look like a painting – when you start positioning characters by windows and it just doesn’t work for the story. It was great to be aware of the concept during the shoot, but you don’t stick to it for every single shot because you have to be true to the story.

AN: Were there any shooting environments where one might traditionally be reluctant to use a digital camera?

AF: Well we had a lot of heavy rain and humidity, and we didn’t have any problems with that, although it was the kind of situation where one would traditionally think a film camera to be the best option. There was a certain level of nervousness because we were shooting with ALEXA prototypes and of course you worry about losing material that you’ve shot, but I have to say that overall it went very well and there were very few mishaps – nothing you wouldn’t have had on a film set. The dynamic is actually not that different.

The fact that you can watch dailies the same night and pretty much see what you’re getting on a monitor is a great advantage. Obviously that’s a danger as well because suddenly you have a lot of people standing there giving input, whereas before you would just have a crummy little video tap that is never a real reference of what you’re going to get.

AN: What was your monitoring setup?

AF: We mostly shot with two cameras – A and B – and I had two waveform monitors above the main viewing monitor. So I was watching the image in a relatively good quality and cross checking with the wavelength monitors on top. I was also using my light meter; there’s a temptation not to use it sometimes, but that would be a big mistake because you start out with a certain light level and you need to know it; you need to know where you are and how much you’re moving away from that level. It’s just very important to use the light meter, and then if you shoot greenscreen it’s essential, because you need exact readings.

AN: Did you apply LUTS to the on-set monitors and the dailies?

AF: Together with Utsi [Florian Martin] at ARRI we created six different lookup tables for different situations and we applied these according to which period we were shooting in, or how moody the scene was, or how contrasty. When it came to it we essentially moved between four lookup tables; we always knew that the LUTs didn’t represent the final timing, but it gave you a pretty good idea of where things were. At some point I was thinking that it would be nice to have some more lookup tables to choose from, but I went off that idea because I think the fewer you have, the more you get to know them and the clearer your references are.

AN: And were the dailies graded?

AF: Not at all. It’s interesting because that was something we discussed doing; I think it could be a nice thing, but sometimes I felt that we wouldn’t have had the time and energy to actually do it. You just go through the dailies with the lookup tables applied and if something is questionable then you look at the original Log C image to see if things are there or not there. Grading could be an interesting addition to all that, but I’m not sure exactly where it would fall time-wise. I don’t think I would have been able to grade on set; I just wouldn’t have had the time.

At the beginning I was thinking that it would be great to grade as we went along and you get this euphoria about having so much control over the image, but I’m actually glad we didn’t, because it would have taken away from the immediate job of creating a picture. I think it’s already a dangerous situation when you’re removed by being behind a monitor; if you then step back even further to start grading, that could be a dangerous trap for the cinematographer.

AN: How manageable has the transition into postproduction been?

AF: The workflow is what’s so fascinating about this camera. The footage lands in post the same day, ready for the visual effects people to check the greenscreens and start the compositing. From what I’ve heard, they’ve been amazed by how well the compositing is working, which is really good news. There was a debate at the beginning about bluescreen vs. greenscreen, but I think a greenscreen environment - though it’s not very pleasant to work in - was the better choice with ALEXA. You also have your dailies the same day and I think the editors found it amazing to be getting footage on the day that it was shot.

What was also impressive was that we had a quality control team that was able to deliver a report at the end of each day, detailing whether or not we had any defects in the day’s rushes. That was set up in collaboration with ARRI because we had prototype cameras and we needed to know that all was well. It was very comforting having someone looking at the footage as we went along and by the time you were driving home at the end of the day, you had received an email telling you about any out of focus shots or any other technical issues.

AN: What did Roland make of shooting with ALEXA?

AF: Roland felt that it was perfect timing to do this movie just as the prototype ALEXA became available, with the possibilities of going to such extremes with the images and making use of candlelight. All the elements seemed to come together at the right time.

He’s just so pleased with how it all looks; we were laughing about there being no turning back to film now! He has very much been a film person; his previous movie was his first digital experience, which he did with the Genesis, and it didn’t really excite him. But I think now, after working with the ALEXA, he is very excited. I’ve worked with him for many years and I can clearly see when he is excited about something, and he is definitely excited about this camera!