ALEXA and the Juke
French cinematographer David Ungaro recently turned to ALEXA for a television commercial advertising the Juke, Nissan's new, smaller, sporty SUV crossover. Produced by Wanda Productions in Berlin for advertising agency TBWA\G1, the visually bold commercial involved shooting in low light situations that perfectly suited the high sensitivity and minimal noise of ALEXA's sensor. Camera, lighting and grip equipment was supplied by ARRI Rental, Berlin; the commercial will first air in Europe on September 18th.
ARRI News: What was the concept for the commercial?
David Ungaro: The idea is that the Juke is going through a city at night where everything is dark; as the Juke drives by, spreading its infectious energy, it wakes up and energizes everything around it lights, streets, buildings, people and electronic elements. Then for the grand finale, the Juke arrives at a big Times Square-type plaza with a concentration of illuminated billboards and posters. As the Juke drives by, they intensify and the scene culminates in an explosion of billboards.
AN: And you were shooting in Berlin?
DU: Yes, we shot everything in Berlin, but the commercial is set in a non-specific big city. Of course we had some locations where the buildings suited our needs, but most of them are going to be created in post. We lit the buildings to a certain degree, but mainly in order to get the reflections on the car. Almost everything above street level is going to be replaced with CG buildings; we just needed the interaction with the light on the actual car. This was the only way to do it because it would have been impossible to get access to all the buildings we needed and to coordinate turning on all those lights to exact cues.
AN: Other recent Nissan commercials have been filmed on 35 mm. Why was this one shot digitally?
DU: Well, firstly because I wanted to! In June we went to Potsdamer Platz and shot side-by-side tests with the ALEXA and an ARRIFLEX 435 at night; we shot on 500 ASA Kodak stock with the film camera pushed one stop and processed normally and then 800 ASA and 1250 ASA on the ALEXA. We scanned the neg and had a look at everything on a Baselight at Medialab in Paris, and the footage from ALEXA was far better for our purposes; there was much more detail in the shadows and also more definition. The ALEXA was so much more sensitive, which didn't necessarily mean we used less light, but it gave us the ability to see further into the darkness and into the far background. It also gave the visual effects team much more to work with.
AN: So the tests persuaded you to go with ALEXA; were production and the agency also convinced?
DU: Absolutely, and so was Philippe Andre, the director. He was unconvinced to start with but when he saw the definition in the background, he was amazed. For instance on the test in Potsdamer Platz there were some posters in the distance; we could read them with the ALEXA, but not with 35 mm because they were blurred by the grain of the 500 ASA stock. Philippe wanted a bright, clear, night-time look, so the ALEXA at 1250 ASA suited our needs, even if it was slightly less organic than film; in the end we shot almost the whole commercial at 1250 ASA, recording to HDCAM SR in HQ 4:4:4 Log C, with an SRW-1 deck.
AN: What lenses were you using?
DU: We mainly used Master Primes, but there were a few shots with Angenieux zooms; for the night-time tests I was at T1.3 on the Masters and at 1250 ASA I was actually overexposed, so when it came to the real thing I didn't even have to shoot wide open, which was better for the focus pullers. Focus is very critical with digital cameras because you don't have the depth of the film, so it's extremely unforgiving.
AN: Did you use a light meter or a waveform monitor to judge exposure?
DU: A mixture of the two; I used my light meter for contrast and to check levels here and there, and after that I checked everything on the Astro monitor because at 1250 ASA the light meter sometimes wasn't sensitive enough. When it came to actually setting the stop, I used the waveform because it's more precise. During the prep we did some tests at ARRI in Berlin, shooting a greyscale and checking the Log characteristics. I found it to be less compressed than other digital cameras, so I was relaxed about how I exposed with ALEXA because the contrast was so low and there was so much detail in the blacks.
A behind-the-scenes look at the ALEXA at work on a television commercial advertising the Juke, Nissans new, smaller, sporty SUV crossover. Produced by Wanda Productions in Berlin for advertising agency TBWA\G1, the visually bold commercial involved shooting in low light situations that perfectly suited the high sensitivity and minimal noise of ALEXA's sensor.
AN: Did the dynamic range of the ALEXA sensor prove useful?
DU: It did, and I was able to get a good sense of the dynamic range from the tests and from talking with people at ARRI. For me, the range is about minus seven to plus six, so that's at least 13 stops. The bottom of the Log C curve is quite smooth because there is still some wattage going through the sensor even when you're really close to black, so there is detail there. For that reason I tended to expose for the highlights; I would look at the highlights in the frame and stop down slightly more than I would with film because I knew there was so much room in the blacks, and absolutely no noise.
AN: Having used ALEXA on a commercial, what kinds of productions do you think the camera is best suited to?
DU: Well, on Monday I start another ALEXA shoot a five-week TV movie, so that's a completely different setup. I think the camera will be useful for all kinds of things, although I haven't yet seen ALEXA footage printed onto film, so I can't comment on feature films, but I know people are doing it. From my perspective this is the perfect camera for TV and commercials; it's not too heavy, it's very sensitive and the image quality is really, really impressive. You do need a very good telecine operator though, because there is so much information that anything is possible both the good and the bad! The Log is not your image, it's just for recording, so if your colorist doesn't know what he's doing then you can end up with a very bad picture.
AN: So post is very important when shooting Log C?
DU: Yes - more important than with film. It's also an issue with editing because you cannot edit with Log: it's all grey and milky, and there's nothing to be seen. I talked with ARRI and for my next shoot they have given me a little plugin for Final Cut Pro to allow the editor to get a proper picture, and they've now done the same for Avid. On the Nissan shoot we did a very simple, one-light grade on the Baselight before editing, to tweak the contrast and saturation. That's essential, because otherwise the director is going to edit material that is not pretty to look at, and not representative of the final image.
AN: This will be less of an issue when recording ProRes to SxS cards.
DU: I'm really looking forward to shooting ProRes with the ALEXA. We've had a beta test version in Paris, but I'm very excited about using the final version because for Steadicam and handheld, it's going to be so much better. ProRes 444 has the potential to be extremely interesting.
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