INSURGENT in anamorphic
In the second installment of author Veronica Roth’s popular young adult Divergent trilogy, INSURGENT follows the travails of Tris, Four, and other characters struggling for identity and power in a dystopian Chicago. INSURGENT is also the fifth collaboration between the director Robert Schwentke and cinematographer Florian Ballhaus, ASC. The movie, which used the ARRI ALEXA XT and ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphics provided by ARRI Rental Atlanta, is in wide release with IMAX and 3D screenings.
Schwentke and Ballhaus first worked together on a small movie shot in 2001 in Germany. Their career-changing film was the 2005 FLIGHTPLAN with Jodie Foster and Peter Sarsgaard; they also worked together on the 2010 Bruce Willis action-adventure movie RED. Those experiences made them a natural fit for the non-stop action adventure and heavy VFX of INSURGENT.
INSURGENT was captured on the ARRI ALEXA XT and ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphics provided by ARRI Rental Atlanta.
“Robert is drawn to big movies because it gives him the opportunity to paint on a big canvas,” says Ballhaus. “INSURGENT is an interesting project because it allowed us to experiment visually beyond the confines of an action-adventure movie.” Those experiments centered on “sims” or “simulations” in INSURGENT’s plotline, vivid dreamscapes of peoples’ worst fears.
Although the movie is the second chapter in a trilogy, Ballhaus notes that he and Schwentke were “given free rein to explore what this movie could look like and what the cinematic journey would entail.” “We were going into a new world, places the characters hadn’t gone before, and the producers encouraged us to go with our own vision, Robert embraced the surreal aspects of this world and the ‘sims’ became an integral part of the look of this movie,” Ballhaus adds.
“Robert likes clean lines, and symmetry,” he continues. “Having worked together, I knew what he would respond to. My desire to make the world seem bigger, more engaging and vibrant led me early on to explore anamorphic lenses.”
With regard to the choice of camera, Ballhaus knew he would use the ARRI ALEXA XT. “I was a reluctant convert to the new digital world,” he admits. “I experimented with several digital cameras, but nothing ever felt to me that it was as good as film. In 2010, when the ALEXA came out, I was won over by it and haven’t turned back. It’s the most intuitive system and the imagery feels so natural that I haven’t felt any need to change.”
Not even the advent of 4K cameras has swayed him. “I never felt that the resolution of the camera compromised the image in any way, ” he says. “Most movies are finished in 2K, and therefore I don’t see a great benefit to shooting in 4K. I’m more interested in image quality than pixel count.”
Digital cinematography, says Ballhaus, has pushed him to be “more experimental with my choice of lens manufacturers.” “Lenses define the look of the movie, ” he says. “Now, I scrutinize my lens choices very thoroughly for every movie I shoot. For each movie, there’s a right set of lenses. I felt INSURGENT could benefit from the anamorphic look in every possible way.”
Ballhaus used his lens choices to differentiate between the everyday look of dystopian Chicago with the dreamscape world of the “sims” – using anamorphics for reality and spherical lenses for the latter. “I find that the difference subtly indicates that this is a simulated world,” he says. The choice of spherical lenses for the simulation sequences was also practical. “The sims were incredibly VFX heavy,” he says. “When you shoot spherically with a 2.40 extraction, you have more re-framing options in post-production, and that’s where the spherical format came in quite handy.”
Looking for anamorphic lenses, Ballhaus revisited ones he had used before and liked. Then he tested the ARRI Master Anamorphics lenses. “The interesting thing is that they give you the best of both worlds: the perfect image of the spherical world, but with the depth of an anamorphic image,” he says. “It was an easy sell to Robert who is concerned about symmetry and resolution. The slight imperfections and beautiful bokeh falloff on the anamorphic lenses made the images more interesting dramatically without dealing with extreme focus fall-off on the edges.”
Although this was Schwentke’s first anamorphic movie, he readily embraced the format and the Master Anamorphic lenses. “He loves wide angle lenses and the ability to create beautiful rich wide shots with great detail,” says Ballhaus. “The anamorphics create a richer image that gives you a three-dimensional sense of the shot. The curvature produces a very natural sense of depth.”
Ballhaus says the lighting was “very naturalistic” and utilized LEDs extensively. “My gaffer Chris Culliton is very involved in the world of LED lighting,” he says. “We had LED fixtures made, which allowed us to dim the lights and not have color temperature changes.” As might be expected in an action-adventure movie, Ballhaus utilized a variety of creative tools in order to keep the camera moving: Technocranes, helicopters, Steadicam and even drones. “We both enjoy camera movement,” says Ballhaus. “But neither Robert nor I ever want the camera to move for the sake of moving. We always want to execute with purpose and precision.”
INSURGENT was converted to 3D, a decision made part way through production, and the use of anamorphic lenses was serendipitous. “I think anamorphic is a more aesthetically pleasing image,” says Ballhaus. “When you have action, everything is more vibrant and immediate. The focus shifts between foreground and background are more dramatic and pronounced and that helps when you’re trying to create more energetic images.”
Though he was initially nervous about it, Ballhaus declares himself “remarkably satisfied” with the 3D conversion of INSURGENT. “It added an interesting layer,” he says. “It literally gave it depth without feeling gimmicky.”
Did the Master Anamorphics fulfill their promise? “Yes, absolutely,” says Ballhaus. “We were thrilled with the result, and once we started watching dailies, Robert utterly embraced the new look. We have already started prep on the next one, our sixth collaboration, and of course we will use the Master Anamorphics again.”
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