Engaging cinematography

Javier Aguirresarobe, AEC, grew up in a small village in the Basque country of northern Spain. He attended film school in Madrid, where he studied the films of the French New Wave and Italian neo-realism. He contrasted what he saw in the photography of those films with what he had gleaned from Hollywood movies. Together, these lessons formed his own distinctive conception of what a cinematographer should bring to a film.

Today he is recognized as an artist of international stature, an in-demand master of cinematic imagery with more than 100 narrative films and dozens of documentaries on his resume. His recent credits include THE SEA INSIDE, with director Alejandro Amenábar, GOYA’S GHOSTS, with Milos Forman, THE CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION, with James Ivory, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, with Woody Allen, and THE ROAD, with John Hillcoat. He also photographed two installments of THE TWILIGHT SAGA – NEW MOON, and ECLIPSE.


Beginning where most romantic comedies end, THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT  looks at what happens when an engaged couple played by Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, keeps getting tripped up on the long walk down the aisle. Directed by Nicholas Stoller and shot on ALEXA by Javier Aguirresarobe, AEC. 

Recently, Aguirresarobe brought his talents to THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT, a comedic tale directed by Nicholas Stoller, who is best known for GET HIM TO THE GREEK and FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. The script follows the relationship difficulties of two modern-day career-oriented adults whose marriage is continually postponed. The lead roles are played by Emily Blunt, and Jason Segel, who also co-wrote. The film was produced on locations in and nearby Detroit, Michigan and San Francisco, California.


Stoller asked Aguirresarobe for a look similar to the one he created for VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. “To me, that meant he wanted a warm movie, with lighting inspired by natural sources,” says the cinematographer. “We talked about whether there are specific rules for how comedy looks. I have always felt strongly that it’s not necessary to conform to the typical romantic comedy clichés –or the clichés of any genre, for that matter. We have the freedom to find the personal look that is right for each movie.”

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA was photographed on 35 mm film, but Stoller was drawn to digital’s ability to shoot without interruption for magazine changes. He also felt that a digital format would save money.

“"I previously had the opportunity to work with the ARRI ALEXA for 10 days in New Zealand, filming CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: WORDS AWAY with Andrew Adamson,"” says Aguirresarobe. “"Most of the scenes were done at night, and the camera behaved beautifully. I also felt that the ALEXA came closest to the parameters of images made on film negative.”"

Skin tones are a primary concern of any cinematographer, and Aguirresarobe is no exception. He performed makeups tests in a variety of color temperatures and lighting conditions, and found that shooting in daylight produced the best results. “"I prefer a natural look with very simple and logical lighting,"” he says. “"I thoroughly hate the artificial look. I feel that with natural, logical lighting, a drama will feel more raw and real, and a romantic comedy will be sweeter. I don'’t like a hard, harsh image.”"

Aguirresarobe usually shot two cameras with Codex recorders in order to capture the improvisations – and real-time reactions – of lead actors Segel and Blunt. The lenses were ARRI Zeiss Master Primes, chosen for their texture and definition. When judging lighting and exposure on the set, he saw images on the set in Rec 709 color space.

“"I always worked with the ALEXA as if there were a magazine with film inside,"” he says. “"In this case, the ‘contents’ of the magazine are more sensitive –800 ASA – but otherwise, the conditions of contrast and texture are very similar to those of film negative. I always take great care in controlling the highlights, including when I’m working with film negative. I've always liked to create images close to reality. This practice has helped me a lot in digital filming, where I also carefully control the highlights.”"

Aguirresarobe says that the ALEXA'’s low light response was also welcome in night situations. “"For night scenes in the city, we mixed many different lights,”" he says. “"The sensitivity and chromatic behavior of the ALEXA helped me. I used half as much light. Everything was simpler, and the result was spectacular. In those circumstances, the ALEXA proves to be a great camera.”"

Dailies were handled at Company 3, as was the digital intermediate, done with colorist and Company 3 founder Stefan Sonnenfeld. “"The advantages of the ALEXA are also significant in the DI,"” says Aguirresarobe. "“I felt I could get more shades of color than I had with other digital systems I'’ve used. I like to be in a more subtle world when it comes to color. I’'m always running away from primary colors.”"

His advice to other cinematographers considering a shoot with the ALEXA? “"I would tell them to continue to think of the ALEXA as a different film stock, a daylight, 800 ASA film stock,”" he says. "“Shooting will give you more opportunities to get to know the behavior of the camera more thoroughly, and from there, to achieve a more personalized photographic result. With the ALEXA, you have many options, which is another great advantage of working with the camera."”