ALEXA and THE HOST

ALEXA and THE HOST

THE HOST is the latest film from the visually inventive mind of New Zealand-born director Andrew Niccol, whose credits include GATTACA and LORD OF WAR. His previous feature, IN TIME, was the first foray into digital moviemaking for cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, who chose to work with the ARRI ALEXA. Won over by his experience with ALEXA, Niccol suggested using it again to his DP on THE HOST, Roberto Schaefer, ASC, AIC, who has shot many of his films -- such as THE KITE RUNNER and QUANTUM OF SOLACE -- with ARRI film cameras and lenses. 

THE HOST official trailer

THE HOST is the latest film from the visually inventive mind of director Andrew Niccol. After using the ALEXA on his previous feature, IN TIME, Niccol suggested using it again to his DP on THE HOST, Roberto Schaefer, ASC, AIC. 

Schaefer was comfortable with the choice. He had worked with ALEXA before on commercials and a TV pilot; THE HOST was his first ALEXA feature. He decided to combine the camera with ARRI/ZEISS Master Prime lenses, with which he was very familiar, and to use Hollywood Black Magic filters throughout. Partly due to the extensive visual effects in the film, he chose to record ARRIRAW, the highest quality possible with ALEXA, using Codex Onboard recorders.

 

"The image quality was surprisingly good," says Schaefer. "Right out of the box, the ALEXA has a really nice quality to it. It has a softer patina and isn't quite as harsh-looking as some digital cameras. In the DI suite, I didn't need to do as much defocusing, softening, and contrast reduction as I might have had to with another camera." 

In the story, parasitic aliens have come to Earth and taken over human victims. The two main characters, Melanie and Jared (played by Saoirse Ronan and Max Irons) escape this fate and discover a community of other "normal" humans living in a network of underground caverns, where they have found a way to redirect sunlight and grow crops. By contrast, the world of the alien-humans features spare, angular architecture with clean lines and a modern feel. The aliens value harmony and peace, but the resulting world is bland and soulless.

In addition to the production design and his photographic choices, Schaefer used a combination of LUTs applied on set and DI work to distinguish the two main worlds. The exteriors have a heightened reality -- sunny, bright and saturated, with green vegetation and blue skies. Inside the sleek, modern glass and concrete buildings, which were often practical locations in Albuquerque, the art department created a world without color or emotion. Schaefer later worked at EFILM with colorist Mitch Paulson to carefully enhance the overall look.

THE HOST was shot in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and New Mexico with a camera package supplied by West Coast Camera. The story, based on the best-selling novel by Stephanie Meyer, was rewritten to place the female lead's home in Baton Rouge. Shiprock, the otherworldly rock formation in northeastern New Mexico, also plays a role. Almost a third of the film unfolds in the underground, cavernous community. 

In the DI suite, I didn't need to do as much defocusing, softening, and contrast reduction as I might have had to with another camera.

"Our stage was really one enormous cave room," says Schaefer. "There were a few smaller rooms and some tunnels. We had some practical lighting on the walls, but there was nowhere in the middle to put any practical lighting. Up in the roof was an incredible mirror structure that these people had built, according to the script. It's integral to the whole story."

 

The cavern set necessitated the first use outside Los Angeles of Chapman's 74-foot Hydrascope crane. The crane facilitated close, smooth walking-and-talking shots of people working in the underground wheat fields. There was also extensive use of Steadicam by operator Jim McConkey. "Jim doesn't like to use lightweight cameras," says Schaefer. "He likes the mass, and says it helps him, so we usually had the Codex on-board even for Steadicam shots."

Though the 16-strong Master Prime series has a focal length range of 12 mm to 150 mm, it was the lenses between 40 mm and 75 mm that were used most often on THE HOST. Some longer focal lengths were brought out for desert vistas and car shots, and an 18 mm was used for some wide exteriors to show off the landscape. Schaefer also used the ARRI Shift & Tilt System to create an unusual look for flashbacks. "We really stretched them out and played with them, and we put gold Glimmerglass filters on top of them to warm it up a little bit," he says. "We got some very pretty images that really gave us a feeling of memory shifting."

Other situations included day exteriors in the desert and a raging sandstorm. For the sandstorm, Schaefer shot directly into the sunset. "We never had any clipping problems," he says. "I was rating the camera at 800 ASA to preserve the highlights. In fact, when we first went into the DI, someone from the post house said, 'I have to really crush this because there's all this noise on the ground here.' And I said, 'No, that's actually sand moving and blowing through the shot.' And yet the bright orange sun was also visible in the shot, and it all held up beautifully." 

On THE HOST, Schaefer did not feel the need for greater resolution and the massive amounts of data that comes with it. "I think the ALEXA's look is much more pleasing for a fiction film," he says. "Some of the other digital cameras come off looking more video-like and crisp, as though you're looking through a window. That's great for a sports event or a nature documentary, but I don't really want to see fictional dramas that way, it just takes me out of the movie." 

David Heuring

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