ALEXA explores STEPHEN HAWKING'S UNIVERSE

The second series of STEPHEN HAWKING'S UNIVERSE, commissioned by the Discovery Channel (US) and produced by Darlow Smithson Productions, is based on Hawking's recent book, THE GRAND DESIGN. There are three films in the new series: one shares the title of the book and covers Hawking's views on God and the origins of the universe; another is called THE MEANING OF LIFE; and the third, directed by Dan Clifton and shot with an ARRI ALEXA camera by cinematographer Oliver Schofield, is called THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. Clifton and Schofield spoke to ARRI about their experiences on the production, which was possibly the first UK drama documentary to use ALEXA.

On set we were delighted to find how straightforward and intuitive the ALEXA is to work with.

ARRI News: How did ALEXA come to be chosen for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING?

 

Dan Clifton: I think that the reason we wanted to go with the ALEXA was because there was an aspiration to create high-end, cinematic images for this film; that was what our clients at Discovery were expecting. We needed to find a platform that was fit for purpose and would provide a good workflow for visual effects and all of the postproduction.

 

I'm on the board of Directors UK and we had a presentation from ARRI about ALEXA at one of our members' events. That formed my proper introduction to the camera, although as a director I'm interested in camera technology, so I was already aware about the emerging ALEXA buzz and had seen some footage that impressed me. Oliver obviously liked the camera as well, because he has actually bought an ALEXA!

 

Oliver Schofield: That's true - I have owned an ALEXA Plus since May, but I've been using the ALEXA on various productions since it first became available and for me it was clearly the right camera to invest in. Even before it came out I was excited about its arrival, not because I was fully conversant with all of its specific features but simply because I was looking forward to working with a digital camera that was an ARRI.

The ALEXA is a camera that can be used across a broad spectrum of filmmaking, unlike most other digital cameras.

I just knew that ARRI would come at it from a camera point of view, so you'd be able to sling it on your shoulder, or stick in under your arm, or put it on a dolly or crane, or do whatever you want. The ALEXA is a camera that can be used across a broad spectrum of filmmaking, unlike most other digital cameras that are only good for certain niche things. That's why I bought one really, because it can be used for the whole palette of work that I do, from run-and-gun doco work to commercials with a crew of 50.

 

For me as a DP it's the first time I can stop worrying about the technical side and just get on with what I used to do with film. I can forget about the camera almost, because I know it's going to do what it's supposed to do. I think the last few years have been dominated by an obsession with kit that has detracted from what's actually important, which is concentrating on the lighting and working closely with directors and actors.


AN: What structure does the film take?


DC: The way the format works is that Stephen Hawking appears from time to time and presents his arguments, and then a voice-over comes in and takes over the explanation of those arguments. There aren't any interviews in the film as such; the structure is essentially a detailed argument that we visualize. There's quite a lot of greenscreen work and high-end visual effects, as well as a docu-drama element whereby we're visualizing experiments or historical events. It was interesting because the style of the film encompasses a whole series of different kinds of scenes; you're going from historical scenes to ultra modern segments with a commercial style, so there's a real range of looks.


OS: That's right; we went from the 16th century all the way into the future, so it was a really great project. We filmed scenes of Sir Isaac Newton at night, lit almost entirely by candles and oil lamps; we filmed Victorian science labs and the beginnings of electric light bulbs; we did a film noir scene; as well as a modern, floodlit football stadium.

AN: Were you happy with the way those low-light scenes worked out?

OS: Absolutely. I shot all the candle stuff at EI 1600 and there was no issue with image noise or anything like that. There was a funny moment where we were filming Newton being led down a little alleyway and getting into his horse-drawn carriage, all lit by candlelight and flame-based sources on location in the middle of the night. There was this strange other light source and I kept seeing my own shadow, but I couldn't quite work out where it was coming from; it turned out to be a 60 watt light bulb in a house all the way across the yard. It was amazing for a single light bulb 30 meters away to be interfering with my setup -- that says it all really.

AN: What sort of image workflow was utilized on this production?

OS: We shot ProRes 422 Rec709 on the SxS PRO cards because the quality was good enough and it was going straight into the edit, with not much money for grading or postproduction. The routine of each day was to shoot a bit, get the card into a laptop and have a quick look to make sure we were happy, and then keep going. We didn't have the time to do more than that on set. I had a play with the white balance for each setup but I didn't have to use look-up tables or anything like that. Dan and I both trusted that the camera would give us exactly what we wanted.

DC: On set we were delighted to find how straightforward and intuitive the ALEXA is to work with. You swap out the cards, download them, see the footage straight away and begin editing in Final Cut Pro, so it was a seamless process. In the end, the point is that we achieved a high-end, cinematic look, the workflow was simple, the camera was reliable on set and the keying of greenscreen elements was easy.