Extreme Latitude and Incredible Clarity
While many ALEXA productions opt for a ProRes workflow using the camera's on-board SxS PRO cards, an increasing number of major feature films are now taking advantage of ARRIRAW recording to access full sensor resolution, raw uncompressed data and the greatest flexibility in post. One of the first of these to be released will be EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, the story of a nine-year-old New Yorker named Oskar Schell, who embarks on an investigative quest after his father is killed in the 9/11 attacks.
Director Stephen Daldry originally wanted a New York-based DP for the production, and recruited Harris Savides, ASC. Initially drawn to 35 mm anamorphic capture, Savides soon became interested in ALEXA and conducted a series of tests in close collaboration with ARRI. He eventually decided to shoot ARRIRAW, using the award-winning Codex OnBoard recorder.
Sadly, just a few weeks before shooting began, Savides fell ill. Daldry needed a quick replacement and turned to legendary cinematographer Chris Menges, BSC, ASC, with whom he had worked on THE READER. Menges recalls, "I arrived in New York in early February 2011 to meet the crew and start working with 1st AC Gregor Tavenner, who reintroduced me to the ALEXA. I had first met the ALEXA three months before when I spent a day understudying Bob Richardson [ASC], shooting HUGO for Martin Scorsese."
Having heard positive reports of ALEXA, Menges had visited Richardson in order to learn more about the camera; now came an opportunity to use it himself. Tavenner had also worked on HUGO, so had a faith in ALEXA born of experience. "I'd put enough hours in with ALEXA to know that it was going to perform," says the 1st AC. "I had seen maybe 20 different camera bodies and was hugely impressed with the consistent manufacturing quality."
Tavenner had not, however, worked with ARRIRAW, since HUGO was recorded to HDCAM SR tape. "When Harris left I shot a technical test just to make sure of the Codex/ARRIRAW workflow," he continues. "Based on that, as well as my previous experience with ALEXA, I told Chris that we could make it work if he wanted to try it."
Menges was sufficiently intrigued to shoot his own tests and found himself impressed by the camera's latitude at both ends of the exposure range. "In post I discovered that you could recover even larger latitude, which made the ALEXA very exciting," he reports. "You could find information in areas that appeared at first glance to be completely black, while color and contrast were excellent."
Tavenner concurs that the tests "all went spectacularly well. Everyone in the workflow came together and it became obvious to me that we were only as strong as the weakest link in the chain." To keep that chain strong, he brought on board Abby Levine, a DIT based in New York. Levine contributed an expertise in digital workflows and helped ensure a safe, smooth image pipeline.
"When a Codex mag came off the camera it went to our loader, who reconciled the metadata to the camera reports created on set," says Levine. "Subsequently, he made backup copies of the ARRIRAW to RAID 0 hard drives on set. After spot checking these copies, the mags went to Deluxe for dailies color correct, sound sync and creation of editorial materials. Then they were copied to two LTO backups, and those backups were verified and appropriately stored before the mags were returned to set for reuse."
Most importantly, Levine and Tavenner managed the workflow in a way that allowed Menges to focus on creative aspects of the shoot. "It wasn't just about presenting Chris with new technology, but also preventing a new working process on set from interfering with the way he's made movies on film for years and years," says Tavenner. Menges appreciated their efforts and notes, "Those two guys are consummate technicians; they allowed me to concentrate on the composition and the light, which is what I'm normally thinking about on a film set."
According to Tavenner, the system performed so well that, "By mid-way through the show, a lot of us could have forgotten that we were shooting digital. You work with ALEXA like it's a film camera; on set, you function as though you're shooting film. From Levine's perspective, "It was a pretty seamless experience in terms of the integration of a traditional camera department with a digital workflow and DIT support. In fact, as the comfort level with Chris developed, I would say that it was a model demonstration of the benefits of digital production using an appropriately staffed camera department."
Just as he would on a film set, Menges operated the A-camera himself. "Cinematography is about story; about the psychology of character; about catching performance and using light to breathe life into the frame," he says. "All this information lives within the etched framelines of a camera's ground glass, and that's why I operate. When the chips are down and there is panic on the set or in your mind, study your ground glass and you'll know how to construct the scene."
Understandably for a cinematographer who discovers a scene through the eyepiece, Menges lamented the lack of an optical viewfinder and looks forward to the arrival of the ALEXA Studio. "For me, having an optical viewfinder would have made it easier in situations where we were under pressure," he says. "I know that the next generation of the ALEXA will be as revolutionary as the Éclair NPR camera was when it arrived in 1964; or crystal sync in the late 60s; or the first reliable radio mics; or the Steadicam, which I had to master in the late 70s for Alan Clarke and Stephen Frears; or the Angenieux F0.95 lens, so fast that you could shoot anywhere; or Kodak's breakthrough in 1983 with Eastmancolor 400 ASA stock."
You work with ALEXA like it's a film camera.
The 50-minute recording time of each Codex OnBoard recorder enabled Daldry to run the camera for long takes and coax a performance from Thomas Horn, making his feature debut in the lead role. Having instant access to images and an efficient data storage system was also useful for the many occasions when Daldry would revisit a scene to explore it further. "If you were doing more work on a scene, Abby could put up on the monitor what you had already shot and overlay what you were about to shoot, so you could very quickly compare the contrast and lighting ratios," says Menges. "It's particularly useful if you're recreating or matching something and the set doesn't exist anymore."
Menges rated ALEXA at its base sensitivity of EI 800. "As far as lighting was concerned I just worked the way I've always worked, with a meter," he says. "The exciting thing is that the camera can dig into the dark; to be able to photograph the sky at night is a beautiful thing." The camera's exceptional sensitivity proved especially helpful for night exteriors in New York. Tavenner notes, "It's like a whole new world now; you don't have to put in massive back lights for night scenes and you can't judge a film's budget by the radius of streets that are lit any more. It was just incredible how few lumens you'd have to put on buildings for them to show up in a natural way."
Daldry wasn't much interested in viewing dailies, but Menges had the chance to see a few shots up on a big screen both in prep and during the shoot. "I also saw some of Bob's HUGO footage in their DI screening room; it looked absolutely wonderful and they weren't even shooting ARRIRAW," he says. "The real test will be in our final DI grade, but what I've seen so far has been magnificent."
The postproduction so far completed on the film has justified the filmmakers' faith in the format. "Clearly, ARRIRAW is capable of creating and recording a superior quality master image," says Levine. "From my point of view the post workflow has been pretty flawless, and should only get smoother and more fluid as more post facilities become better versed at these workflows."
Looking back, Menges enjoyed his experience on EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE and is pleased with the film's emotional power. "I salute the crew that Harris Savides chose," he concludes. "Gregor is an outstanding focus puller and when he had to leave the film we were fortunate to work with Andy Harris for the last six weeks. Maceo Bishop, Steadicam operator and B-camera operator, was consistently willing, ready, and excellent. Tommy Prate, our key grip, was always one step ahead with a bright idea, and Brendan Malone, dolly grip, was a joy to work with, as was Bill O'Leary and his great electrical crew, and 2nd Unit DP Pat Capone. I owe them all a debt of thanks."
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