ALEXA XT and Master Primes on UNBROKEN

ALEXA XT and Master Primes on UNBROKEN

Directed by Angelina Jolie and based on Laura Hillenbrand's book, UNBROKEN tells the remarkable true story of Louis Zamperini, an American distance runner who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics before enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. When his B-24 crashed into the Pacific Ocean Zamperini survived 47 days adrift on a lifeboat, only to be captured by the Japanese and subjected to brutal mistreatment in prisoner-of-war camps. For cinematographer Roger Deakins, CBE, ASC, BSC, who has used ALEXAs on every digital film he has shot, UNBROKEN provided an opportunity to try out the latest generation of ALEXA XT cameras, combining them with ARRI/ZEISS Master Prime lenses.

UNBROKEN, shot with ALEXA and Master Primes

Directed by Angelina Jolie, UNBROKEN tells the remarkable true story of Louis Zamperini, an American runner who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics before fighting in World War II. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, CBE, ASC, BSC, worked with the latest generation of ALEXA XT cameras on the film, combining them with ARRI/ZEISS Master Prime lenses.

What kind of a look did you and Angelina want for this epic narrative?


The film is epic in some ways, but it is also intensely personal. The most important decision to be made was where to shoot the film, because we needed such specific and varied settings. In the end we were led to shoot in Australia, specifically in and around Sydney and in various parts of Queensland. The look of the film developed as Angie, our production designer Jon Hutman and I scouted and talked through the script, but key to it was that this was a personal story and we wanted the audience to feel connected to the characters.


Were different visual approaches taken for the various phases of the story?


I'm not sure I like to vary the style or approach to scenes within a film, as I feel any film should be a seamless whole. That said, we did have a variety of scenes that required different approaches from a technical point of view. For instance one prison camp, Omori, was a totally built set whereas for another, Naoetsu, we found an island location in the middle of Sydney Harbour. This, a rocky outcrop with sheer cliff faces, not far from the famous Sydney Opera House, had been a naval yard in the Second World War and very much matched the feel of the real prison as it had existed in Japan.

The scenes with Louis training and running in competition at high school and at the 1936 Berlin Olympics presented their own set of challenges. We wanted to be engaged with Louis on the track rather than shoot him from an audience perspective and this demanded specialized equipment. 

On SKYFALL I felt I had used the ALEXA in such a variety of conditions that I had absolutely no concerns about using the camera on UNBROKEN.

What prompted the decision to shoot spherical 2.40:1?


I think the choice of format is really intuitive. Yes, we had numerous scenes at sea as well as in the air which seemed to cry out for a widescreen format, but that wasn't the real reason for our choice. The widescreen format just seemed 'right'.


UNBROKEN was your introduction to the ALEXA XT cameras. Were you pleased with this evolution of the ALEXA camera system?


The ALEXA XT is a really wonderful tool and we had absolutely no issues with the cameras. I especially liked the internal NDs, as they were a real bonus for us in the bright sunlight of Australia. The ALEXA XT Studio has its own internal ND filter system, which was also of great value.


There must have been situations involving extreme highlights and contrast; did the ALEXA image hold up?


I had no expectation of the image not holding up, as I had shot in similar conditions for SKYFALL. In fact on SKYFALL I felt I had used the ALEXA in such a variety of conditions that I had absolutely no concerns about using the camera on UNBROKEN. When I was first talking with Angie we were considering film, but after shooting tests with the ALEXA and realizing the amount of effects work we would be doing in post, she was very comfortable with the choice of the ALEXA.

Which ALEXA XT models did you have?

We used an XT Studio, an XT Plus and an XT M camera. I like the optical viewfinder that the XT Studio has when I am working off the dolly or on a tripod. When I am on a remote head, which is something I do quite a lot on any film but which was vital for scenes on the water and on the running track, then I will use the XT Plus camera.

We had a full-size mockup of a B-24 plane, which we used in two expansive sequences. Although the mockup was 75 feet in length, the actual working space was very small, so we used an XT M camera mounted on a Micro Scorpio remote head. This allowed us to add a fluid movement to the camera and to follow the action in a way that would have been pretty-well impossible with a conventional rig; it would have necessitated a lot of cutting of the airframe and as the whole 75-foot set was 12 feet up in the air on a gimbal that would have been very time-consuming!  

To rig the cameras in such a situation presented a few hurdles but the lighting of the set was an even greater challenge, especially as UNBROKEN is not an action film but based on very real events. For the success of the film these sequences needed to feel absolutely real.

Were you often shooting multi-camera setups?

We did shoot double camera sometimes, such as when we were shooting Louis and his two fellow survivors on their tiny inflatable rafts. We also utilized two cameras when we had prison camp scenes with a multitude of extras. However, for the most part we shot single camera.

I have been loving shooting Open Gate with the ALEXA XT [on SICARIO]. I compare it to shooting Super 35 mm film.

Did you fine tune the camera's ASA rating for individual setups, or keep it fairly constant?


I usually shoot at 800 ASA as that gives the optimum image quality. I shot UNBROKEN entirely at 800 ASA for that reason. However, on PRISONERS I used a 1,280 ASA setting on some of the night work and I have been doing the same on my present project, SICARIO. I find the additional speed is very useful for low light night work and there is absolutely no discernible loss of quality. I think you do notice the shift if you were doing the same for a daylight scene, but even then the difference is fairly minimal.


You've been shooting with the ALEXA XT Open Gate mode on your new film SICARIO. Has it proved to be a useful feature?


I have been loving shooting Open Gate with the ALEXA XT. I compare it to shooting Super 35 mm film, as it has a similar effect on my lens choice. Utilizing those extra few pixels really does make a difference. Not that I have any complaints about the regular ARRIRAW image, but you do see some extra subtle crispness of detail with Open Gate, especially on a wide landscape shot. We have been playing quite a bit of this film on wide shots that hold for some time, so to have that extra level of detail has been a real bonus. I would have used the system on UNBROKEN had it been available at the time, but I am in no way unhappy with the results we got from the XTs on that film.