AMIRA on THIS IS ENGLAND '90
Cinematographer Stuart Bentley discusses his virgin voyage with the ARRI AMIRA, having already had a long and successful working relationship with ALEXA. Joining director Shane Meadows and the near-family cast and crew of the highly watchable THIS IS ENGLAND '90, Bentley put his experience to good use with the AMIRA, shifting into a documentary approach with takes that sometimes lasted hours and sometimes went from daylight into night. For this latest, final installment of the BAFTA-winning THIS IS ENGLAND series, Bentley explains the importance of having a camera flexible enough to match the improvisational style of the show, the decision to shoot with AMIRA, and why it paid off in spades.
Cinematographer Stuart Bentley discusses working documentary-style with the ARRI AMIRA camera on THIS IS ENGLAND '90, the final installment of director Shane Meadows' award-winning THIS IS ENGLAND series.
Had you previously worked with the AMIRA? What led you to choose it for this series?
I'd had a look at it, but never actually shot on it. As for the decision to use it, there were several key factors. The first was that we could run for a very long time on the memory card, which was something Shane was keen to do; his approach is to do long, continuous takes. Also, the fact that it's a lightweight, documentary-style camera was helpful because these long takes were often handheld. It's really beneficial to have a camera that you can kind of throw around and be flexible with. Having the controls on the left side and being able to change things very quickly on the operator side was quite a bonus for us.
But you'd worked with ALEXA and you were familiar with the look?
Exactly; the ALEXA is a camera I know inside and out, but it was quite nice to use the AMIRA for a change of pace. Obviously it gives you the same look because it has the same sensor; you know that you've got that great image quality, but you've also got that ARRI functionality, where you know it's going to be a friendly, easy-to-use camera.
Did Shane also know what to expect from the ALEXA sensor?
I don't think he'd ever shot with it, but he was aware of what the ALEXA could do and he was a massive fan. When we went in and looked at the AMIRA, he was excited by it. We coupled it with really nice old Canon K35 lenses and the combination of that sensor with those lenses was really, really good, and quite appropriate for the period in which our story was set. It gave us an interesting look, without feeling too forced.
You mentioned handheld camerawork and a documentary feel, so was there a lot of improvisation going on?
So much of Shane's process is about giving the actors total flexibility and freedom to go where they want and do what they want. The camera and the operator need to follow and respond to that. We'd light entire huge sets with practicals, because you just didn't know where the artists were going to go during a two-hour unscripted take. Obviously Shane gives them direction and suggests things they could do, but then he gives them the space to improvise and it's up to us to capture those moments. It was a really interesting way of working.
How many cameras were you working with?
Most of the time we were shooting with three AMIRAs, although for some scenes that grew to up to 10 cameras. For example for the big rave sequence we had four AMIRAs, an ALEXA and a selection of other smaller cameras. In terms of lenses we carried two sets of vintage K35 primes and two full ranges of ARRI Alura zooms, including the 15.5-45, 30-80 and 45-250.
How did you tend to use the three AMIRAs you typically shot with?
For dialogue scenes we'd have one on a wide shot and two over the actors' shoulders. With all the dialogue being improvised, you have to shoot reverse shots at the same time, because they're never going to play the scene the same way twice. To capture everything you have to be very focused and constantly prepared to move. It was a bit of a dance, with quite a lot of choreography behind the scenes.
That puts a lot of pressure on all three cameras to get useable footage, especially in situations where you were playing with quite extreme lighting.
Yes, and we would push the camera pretty much to the limit in a lot of respects. For the scene where the Kelly character is smoking heroin we were shooting at 3,200 ASA with a 45-degree shutter, and at 200 fps. Plenty of other scenes were shot at 2,000 ASA as well, so we were really pushing it. We'd be wide open on quite fast lenses and just keep bumping the ASA up until we literally couldn't get an image.
What's fantastic is that when you get into the grade you can pull the image up and manipulate it so that you don't see the noise, or if you want the noise you can reintroduce it. In low-light situations I quite often checked the Log C image with the false color tool to make sure we had enough detail in a face, for example, and adjusted the lighting accordingly. But the AMIRA definitely gives you confidence because you know that when you underexpose you still have information, and when you overexpose you won't get any clipping.
Did you find the internal ND filters a helpful feature of the AMIRA?
We used them quite a lot. We had a scene where our characters are driving to the rave and we did a lot of slow-motion stuff at 200 fps. Half of the route was in total shadow and half was in really bright sunshine. We didn't have time to pull over and change filters, so it was really helpful to have the internal NDs. If you go into the sun, you just whack an ND9 in and when you go into the shade, you can take it off within a couple of seconds.
How did you decide which moments would be slow motion -- was it pre-planned?
It wasn't really pre-planned; Shane made decisions instinctively. I think that when those little poetic moments come along, it's nice to be able to enhance them to whatever level you like, so having 200 fps with the AMIRA was fantastic.