ALEXA in the desert
Making a war film set amidst a real-life conflict that is still active puts untold pressure on the director. Accusations are bound to follow - of creating propaganda, of being gung-ho, insensitive or unrealistic. Every such production treads a very fine line indeed.
For his film AFG (short for Afghanistan), director and former soldier Tom Petch wanted to record the authentic experience of the armed forces on the front line in Afghanistan, but without the hindrance of an army press department or the severe practical restrictions of filming in an actual theater of war. Accompanied by recently serving military advisers, the crew of AFG was tasked with recreating the intensity, banality and brutality of the battle zone. To do so, they flew to the desert area of Morocco, outside the ancient fortified city of Marrakesh. DP Stuart Bentley notes, "The heat, environment, and architecture all closely mirror the areas of Afghanistan we wanted to portray."
To venture into these testing conditions, Bentley took minimal kit. Beyond an ARRI ALEXA, hired from London-based facilities company Onsight, he was equipped with only the most essential gear. "Previous shoots in the sand have taught me that the less kit you have, the better," he says. "My experience also told me that the ALEXA would have the flexibility to operate in conditions that would be unsuitable for other pieces of equipment."
Filming in scorching midday temperatures and shooting into blinding sunlight, Bentley set the EI to 200 and added up to eight stops of neutral density. "We wanted to capture faithfully the debilitating hardship of working fully armed in the desert heat, so shooting at a cooler time of day and throwing on additional artificial light was never an option," continues the cinematographer. "The pictures we shot were tremendous; we recorded every detail of pain and determination. The operation of the camera was flawless: nothing broke, nothing over-heated and with no tape or film mechanism, sand was no longer an issue."
Even tougher workouts were to follow, including footage shot from the vantage point of a moving tank, aerial filming amidst the sand thrown up by a helicopter's blades, as well as scenes recorded unlit at dusk. "As night approached, my light meter was giving me readings that should have been a serious cause for concern," explains Bentley. "Certainly if I had been using celluloid, I wouldn't have risked shooting the scenes at all. But capturing in Log C with Rec 709 monitoring, I knew that the ALEXA was still performing beautifully. The inevitable sensor noise at EI 3200 was not intrusive and actually added to the final look of the shots."
To cap it all, Bentley was then strapped tightly into an armored vehicle to cross arid scrubland at high speed. With no room to move, hot flying dust to endure and tracks no suspension could possibly cope with, the DP recorded scene after scene of fast-paced action. "Even bound into this tiny space and exhausted by the physical exertion of the hole-ridden road, I was able to operate the camera and select the settings I needed," he says. "As we turned into the sun, changing the ALEXA's EI rating to compensate was just so simple and fast."
Speed was a factor throughout the making of the film and the ALEXA was at the heart of the team's highly efficient workflow. With the help of 4K London, A DIT station was set up for fast download of the footage and Luke Deverill, an editor from Content Post Production, was on hand to perform an immediate rough cut for the benefit of the team back in the UK.
On his return from North Africa, Bentley reflects on the camera: "Our goal was to immerse ourselves in the lives of the soldiers, so we followed them night and day, in barracks before a mission, marching through the desert, and in frightening fire fights. Whether we were filming intimate, personal moments or fast action sequences, the ALEXA delivered exactly what we wanted. Shooting digital meant being ready in an instant for fast-changing lighting conditions, achieving a first edit within hours of ending a day's shoot, and being portable and flexible enough to shoot where and when I wanted. The ALEXA's a camera that ticks all the boxes and to be honest, it's pretty much the only system I use nowadays."
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