NEW YEAR'S EVE with ALEXA
Since their first collaboration on PRETTY WOMAN in 1990, director Garry Marshall and cinematographer Charles Minsky, ASC, have worked together on some of the best-loved romantic comedies of recent times. Following the success of the ensemble piece VALENTINE's DAY last year, an equally impressive cast of Hollywood stars was brought together for NEW YEAR'S EVE, which follows the intertwining lives and loves of New Yorkers getting ready to usher in the new year at a party in Times Square. For the first time, Marshall and Minsky chose to shoot digitally, with ALEXA cameras provided by ARRI CSC as part of a complete camera and lighting package.
ARRI News: How did you come to choose ALEXA for this film?
Charles Minsky: Very early on in testing the ALEXA it became clear to me that it was a real game-changer. I shot tests in the daytime, at night, in the studio and in Times Square, and went through the full DI process. We really scrutinized what the ALEXA looked like compared to film and we were just blown away. I was very excited and I said to Garry, 'Listen, I know we've done every other movie on film and this is outside our comfort zone, but I think it could really have a positive effect on the movie.' I explained to him that the ALEXA could make all the night shooting we were going to do much easier. He wasn't opposed to it, but he was concerned about making the actresses look good, so I had to do quite a lot of tests to make sure he felt comfortable. As we went along he saw that the ALEXA wasn't like earlier HD cameras that just looked brittle or excessively sharp -- instead it seems to have the same quality as film.
AN: And of course with such an amazing cast you had a lot of top actors and actresses to make look good.
CM: Literally every few days we would get a new actor, or two actors, or three actors; it wasn't like lighting the same person all the time. Each new actor would also mean new make-up, a new hairdresser and new wardrobe person, so it became quite a challenge. To keep them all looking good you've got to light them differently and I didn't really have a chance to do any tests on them beforehand because they simply weren't available, so it was clear that we would just have to do it on the spot.
AN: As you say, there were plenty of night scenes in the movie. Did you go above the EI 800 base sensitivity at any point?
CM: Yes. I remember we were halfway through a scene on a rooftop, 22 stories up, and suddenly all of the buildings around us just turned off their lights. Luckily we had already captured enough shots to lay the background lights in later, in post, but all of a sudden it was just much darker, so we went up to EI 1280 and it was beautiful. I was very pleased, I was thrilled actually.
AN: Was ALEXA's dynamic range also an important factor?
CM: One of the things in cinematography that you look for is shadows; you look for blacks and with ALEXA the blacks are extremely rich. Even when I went to EI 1280, I didn't have to worry about them. I think the bigger concern for me was the exteriors. We were shooting on snow, with a lot of light bouncing everywhere, and my experience with digital in the past has been that the highlights get very hot and you lose all the definition in the light. With ALEXA it's much easier to shoot in high contrast situations. I felt like I had complete control and could retain as much detail as I wanted.
AN: What was your recording solution and image workflow?
CM: Basically the workflow we decided to go with was one that New Line had used on an earlier film. We recorded to HDCAM SR tapes, backed them up, sent them to the lab and the lab would transfer everything. The only time we recorded to the on-board SxS PRO cards was when we were shooting Steadicam. Garry loves to have dailies, so every day we'd have a truck follow us no matter where we were. Even if we were shooting nights we'd project dailies before the call time.
AN: Did you find that using ALEXA had much of an impact on your lighting?
CM: The idea that shooting with HD you don't need lights just isn't reality. Cinematographers deal with lighting emotion into various situations; you need lights because you've got to have control and continuity. That fundamental process hasn't changed; the difference is that I'm lighting to a monitor in a dark environment and of course the immediacy of that is a huge advantage. If I have a question in my mind about whether to put in or take out a double, or turn a light on or off, I can see it right there in front of me and make a decision. I tend to 'ball park' the lighting on set and then go to the tent to figure out the subtleties of how I want to refine it.
AN: You shot in Times Square on the real New Year's Eve with 13 ALEXAs, which was more than ARRI CSC had ever sent out on one job. How did that come about?
CM: That was before the main shoot, and as we were getting ready for it we realized that we would need a lot of plate cameras. I thought we'd use several different types of cameras, but when I talked to ARRI CSC they just asked how many we needed. I told them we needed 11 or 12 and they said they'd come back to me within a day. One day later they called back and said they could do it, by which time I'd realized I actually needed 13 cameras. They said OK, you can have 13 ALEXAs, which was fantastic because it made it so much easier than having two or three different camera systems. The quality was incredible and I know our visual effects supervisor was thrilled with what she had. It worked out really great and we were all very happy.
AN: It must have been amazing to be there and capture all of those New Year's Eve emotions for real.
CM: I actually took one of the cameras myself and walked the streets for eight hours. I'm a New Yorker, but I had never before experienced New Year's Eve in Times Square and it was fabulous, it was just great. At around the time when the ball drops it got very quiet and there was just a magical atmosphere, with everybody getting along with each other and being so friendly. I think that feeling is what Garry loved about the story. Everybody's got their own thoughts and issues going into New Year's Eve; building up to Times Square all of the characters in our film have their own stories and then when the music starts it's like - OK, here it is: one night that might change your life, or might not.