AMIRA takes A BITE OF CHINA
In time for the 2016 Chinese New Year celebrations in February, a documentary feature film titled A BITE OF CHINA: CELEBRATING THE CHINESE NEW YEAR hit Chinese theaters, produced by the team behind the popular TV series A BITE OF CHINA. Travelling all over the country, the crew shot over 10,000 minutes of footage at 24 locations, documenting 43 regional dishes. The production chose AMIRA as its A-camera, utilizing macro and high-speed shots to highlight the beauty of traditional Chinese delicacies. Director Lei Chen and cinematographer Liwei Zhao spoke to ARRI about their experiences on the film.
How did this project come about?
Chen: When season two of A BITE OF CHINA was airing, some cinema chains asked if we could edit a few episodes into a feature film for theatrical release. We didn't feel that putting something made for TV on the cinema screen would work; we all love and respect the art of filmmaking so we decided to shoot a feature film from scratch.
Once that decision was made, the team started looking for a specific theme, and in the end agreed to focus on the food served during Chinese New Year celebrations. Preparations for the shoot began five months before the 2015 Chinese New Year, which gave us a tight schedule. We spent two months searching nationwide for stories and then two units were out shooting at 24 locations from January to March 2015. Although we shot some pick-ups in the autumn, all scenes relating to the Chinese New Year were captured authentically during the celebrations.
Was the visual approach to the film different to that of the TV show?
Zhao: I worked as cinematographer on two episodes of the second season but I understood that we would need a different approach for the feature film version. For the TV show we mostly used tighter framing because that provides a better viewing experience on a small screen, whereas a cinema audience might not like that many close-up shots. The bigger screen provides room for more detail, so we framed wider in the feature film. We also slowed down the camera movement.
While we opted for minimal lighting on the TV series, we spent more time on it for the feature film and used professional fixtures such as the ARRI M18. We still followed a documentary-style approach with minimal lighting when we were filming people, usually handheld with a shoulder mount. But for lighting food shots we used a soft box whenever possible, or at times made do with diffusion paper and a magic arm. Our intention was to showcase the rich detail and texture of the dishes on the big screen, and of course the image quality also has a lot to do with using better and more professional equipment.
Why did you choose AMIRA as your A-camera?
Chen: At the preproduction stage it was very clear to us that choosing the right equipment would be crucial. Shooting for cinema requires a high-quality camera and naturally ARRI cameras were our first choice. Many of the cinematographers on our team also shoot commercials and narrative films, and they spoke highly of ARRI cameras in terms of image quality, color rendition and reliability. In the end we settled on the AMIRA, as it was primarily designed for documentary-style shooting.
We were filming real events like family reunions, so we had to be mobile and constantly on standby. AMIRA was a great fit for us because the image quality is on a par with ALEXA but it is more compact and portable, which works well for fast-paced shooting in challenging locations. The lower cost was also a consideration when choosing this camera.
What lenses did you use?
Zhao: On the TV show we mostly used zoom lenses designed for stills photography, in order to be flexible and economical. For the feature film our priority was image quality so we chose a set of ARRI/ZEISS Ultra Primes, complemented by an ARRI/ZEISS 100 mm macro lens and the ARRI/FUJINON Alura 45-250 T2.6 with 1x to 3x extenders for macro shots.
Prime lenses have the best image quality and the large aperture is perfect for low light conditions; the downside is that there's no time to change lens when trying to capture spontaneous moments. When we were filming scenes of our subjects' daily lives we had to move the camera to adjust framing and this is where the compactness of AMIRA shines.
How did AMIRA perform?
Chen: As a director, the overall image quality is very important to me. What most impresses me about ARRI cameras is the excellent color rendition; the AMIRA pleasantly brought out the texture and color of food in our film. Compared with the TV series, the feature film has a more natural look and subtle warmth, thanks to AMIRA. This was exactly what we envisioned for the film -- a warm and welcoming mood. In addition, I was also impressed by the dynamic range and high sensitivity. A couple of spontaneous moments in the film were not lit properly due to time constraints, but the results turned out surprisingly well. AMIRA still managed to capture rich details in low light conditions; it helped us tremendously.
Zhao: In Guilin, Guangxi province, we were filming a girl preparing some freshwater snails by a well. The scene was backlit by the sun and there was a huge tree casting shadows on the girl, while the water was reflecting the sunlight, so there was a high contrast between subject and background. To ensure the best image quality in a theatrical environment we were very conservative with the exposure and the director was concerned about shadow details, but in the end the footage we captured had excellent tonal range. The camera performed so well that it put our minds at ease for the rest of the shoot.
Compared with the TV series, the feature film has a more natural look and subtle warmth, thanks to AMIRA.
There were also times when we had to shoot in adverse conditions such as temperatures of -10°C or even -20°C, or extreme humidity, and AMIRA never had any glitches; it was exceptionally reliable.
What kind of high-speed work did you do?
Zhao: AMIRA's high-speed ability came in very handy; a lot of the cooking processes happened fast and we had to use slow motion to capture the details. Shots of ingredients falling into water or pots tended to look much better in slow motion. AMIRA was able to shoot 200 fps at full sensor resolution without any quality loss, which was exactly what we needed.
Is there going to be a 4K version of the film?
Chen: Right now Chinese cinemas are mostly projecting in 2K, so at the early stage of filming we captured in 2K resolution. Later we learned that AMIRA would be able to shoot 4K with an upgrade, but taking into account the storage requirements we decided in the end to record 3.2K. The DCP for theatrical distribution was still 2K, but for Blu-Ray and international release we might use a higher resolution master.