Keanu Reeves swears he didn't mean it when he said he was going to break the new ARRI ALEXA Studio camera during its maiden shoot in the dusty outskirts of Beijing: "Oh, I did say that, didn't I? Not the wisest choice of words. When I said I would break the camera, that was just youthful exuberance," he says, chuckling.
Reeves is speaking on the set of MAN OF TAI CHI, the MATRIX star's directorial debut, featuring Tiger Chen, Karen Mok and Reeves himself, as well as martial arts choreography by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping. For his first film behind the camera, Reeves is working with an ALEXA Studio package supplied by China Film Group through a special arrangement with the recently opened ARRI China facility in Beijing.
Boasting more than 40 minutes of martial arts fight sequences, MAN OF TAI CHI is slated for a 2013 release by Universal Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures Asia and China Film Group. The movie is being shot by cinematographer Elliot Davis in the dust-ridden environs north of Beijing and the damp, humid atmosphere of Hong Kong. This is a shoot that will cover all the bases in terms of extreme temperatures and climatic challenges.
"The camera was just out of beta and I wanted to test its limits," says Reeves, qualifying his comment about "breaking" the Studio. "We've been shooting in water, high temperatures, dust, using strobe effects, really pushing the camera - it's been getting a good workout! ALEXA is easy to work with and very well-made."
Taking advantage of the ALEXA Studio's 4:3 sensor, MAN OF TAI CHI is being shot with V-Lite, V-Plus and V-Series Hawk® anamorphic lenses from Vantage. Being far more similar to the size and shape of a Super 35 film frame than the sensors of other digital cameras, the ALEXA Studio sensor better captures the unique look of anamorphic lenses, faithfully carrying a long-established 35 mm widescreen aesthetic into the digital realm.
Reeves has been extremely pleased with the images created by combining ALEXA with the Hawk® anamorphic lenses. "It's a lovely combination, a filmic combination," he says. "It's sharp, but with a softness too, and it's nice on the eye." Ensuring maximum image quality and an easy workflow into postproduction, the film is being recorded in ARRIRAW to Codex Onboard recorders.
For Reeves, the production has presented new challenges on two fronts -- the dual responsibilities of directing as well as acting, and the transition from a photochemical to a digital set. In fact, shooting digitally has made his job as director much easier, especially in terms of the immediate access to images. "It's nice to be able to look at something straight after shooting," he says. "The cinematographer is already putting basic looks onto the image so we can start talking about the look of the film. You can also get a sense of where you are editorially, which you couldn't do photochemically."
Producer and long-time Reeves collaborator Lemore Syvan echoes her director's praise for the camera. "I will be going back to ALEXA again and again and again," she says, standing on the set. "This camera hasn't failed us and we've been shooting six-day weeks in all kinds of conditions. Today's location is dusty and we have a wind machine in there now, but the ALEXA is holding up fine. And the support from ARRI has been huge."
Cinematographer Elliot Davis explains that working with the ALEXA Studio has, for him, gone the furthest towards closing the gap between film and digital. "I like the outcome - it's the future," he says. "As much as I love film, I'm getting used to the ALEXA and to the immediate gratification of the workflow. And it's a great image -- very clean, modern and beautiful."
Patting the ALEXA Studio camera admiringly, 1st AC Matthew Yousuke Wakai notes, "It's been through every season in Beijing except the nice ones, enduring dust, rain, cold and heat. So far we've had no problems, recording straight to the Codex. It's a nice camera, my favorite so far. Most important was the 4:3 full-frame sensor allowing us to shoot with 2x anamorphic lenses, which for me was the most exciting part about taking on MAN OF TAI CHI. I think that anamorphic has always added a special element to movies and as a technician it keeps you on your toes."
Supervising technical engineer Michael Taylor has worked on a number of projects in China over the past 12 years, including THE KITE RUNNER in 2006. "There's been massive change over the years that I've been working here," he says. "In the past we'd have to bring in technicians from Hong Kong, but you can tell from the infrastructure that the industry in China is now gathering momentum. The facilities here [at the China Film sound stages in Huairou, just north of Beijing] are fantastic."
This is Taylor's third or fourth show shooting with ALEXA cameras. He notes, "It's getting to the point where I'm specializing in using the ALEXA and won't go out on a job without it. There's a lot you don't have to worry about anymore because this is a reliable, cinematographer-friendly camera with a simple layout, and the workflow that stems from using it is really easy. We're also loving the mechanical shutter of the ALEXA Studio [which produces pleasing and natural motion blur for Kung Fu scenes]; ARRI has upped the benchmark."
Dailies for MAN OF TAI CHI are being delivered on iPads to the director, producer and other key crew members, allowing them easy, scene-by-scene access to the work done so far. Rushes can also be viewed on large HD monitors on the set. "With the ALEXA we've got a lovely, full HD monitoring output, so Keanu sees everything," says Taylor. "He is on set, seeing his movie with the quality, colors, music and editing pretty close to the finished film, which is pretty cool. We are very excited by the fact that we can do that."
We get a glimpse during the filming of ARGO, directed by Ben Affleck and shot by Rodrigo Prieto ASC, AMC on ARRICAMs, ARRIFLEX 435, ARRIFLEX 235 and ALEXA.