ALEXA anamorphic and A TOUCH OF SIN

Writer and director Jia Zhangke, the leading figure of the "Six Generation" movement of Chinese cinema, has recently completed work on his latest film, A TOUCH OF SIN, which has been selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. His long-time collaborator, cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, shot the movie in the anamorphic format with ARRI ALEXA Studio and M cameras, recording ARRIRAW to Codex recorders. Recently, Jia and Yu spoke to ARRI and shared their experiences of shooting with ALEXA.

Now in the digital age we have 4:3 sensors and new anamorphic lenses that are competing with Super 35 again.

ARRI: How did the idea of making this movie come about?

Jia Zhangke: I've always wanted to make a martial arts film. In martial arts films you tend to see lots of famous mountains and rivers, and historical locations. These places have remained the same as they were thousands of years ago, so in this respect the films connect with ancient China. I was also reading many news stories involving violence and crime, and I got the sense that what people want above all is dignity, much like the characters in martial arts novels. I think people's clothing has changed, and the pressures they're under, but people themselves haven't really changed since ancient times. So I wondered, why not make a film about modern people in the way we make martial arts films? That was the idea for A TOUCH OF SIN, although I still intend to make the martial arts film at some point.

ARRI: Did you choose to shoot in anamorphic widescreen with ALEXA in order to tap into that feeling of a martial arts film?

Yu Lik-wai: When we confirmed that the theme was going to be martial arts, we were pretty sure it would be a widescreen film. We tried to make a genre piece, and from the point of view of cinema history, widescreen's depth of field and aspect ratio are such wonderful tools that help to make genre films. So we wanted to shoot with anamorphic lenses from the beginning, which also made the best use of the ALEXA's 4:3 sensor.

ARRI: You shot with the ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphic 50 mm prototype -- what did you think?

Yu: There was a time when Super 35 almost took over anamorphic widescreen, because spherical lenses are smaller, lighter, and overall cheaper. But now in the digital age we have 4:3 sensors and new anamorphic lenses that are competing with Super 35 again. We used the MA 50 under some extreme conditions. For instance, during a shot of (actress) Zhao Tao walking at night, the large aperture of T1.9 really helped a lot. And its size and weight are so different from conventional anamorphic lenses -- it feels like a real breakthrough.

Shots done with the ALEXA M on a Steadicam felt even more free and fluid than I had expected.

ARRI: What are your thoughts on ARRIRAW?

 

Yu: With ARRIRAW the color rendition is extremely good, as is the latitude. You can get a lot more detail in the highlights compared to other digital media. We had lots of day exteriors that contained mountains and rivers, so the lighting conditions could hardly be controlled. Thanks to the wide latitude, we could capture all the detail we needed.

 

Other manufactures might pursue higher frame rates, or more "K"s, but ARRI's goal seems to be a film look, including the latitude and color, while the rest of the manufactures might trade off these elements for others. After a few post processes, a 35 mm release copy may have a resolution less than 2K -- that's why 2K is the standard. According to our viewing experience, 2K is enough; it would be a waste to have more pixels. The advantages of the ALEXA cameras are their latitude and color rendition, especially the skin tones. It's just like film, I could not wish for any better.

ARRI: You chose the ALEXA Studio and M cameras for this film?

Yu: The director wanted the camerawork to flow, so we did a lot of Steadicam shots with the ALEXA M. The Studio with an anamorphic lens was too heavy for our Steadicam operator, so the M was ideal for this.

Jia: We needed to let the camera move with complete freedom for certain shots. For instance there was a shot where the actor walks into a tiny room, takes a gun from a closet and loads it -- all in one continuous action. This and other shots done with the ALEXA M on a Steadicam felt even more free and fluid than I had expected.

ARRI: What was your workflow setup?

Yu: On set we had a Rec 709 de-squeezed image output to monitor, to give the director a basic idea of what the image would look like. And we had double backups, one handed to editor, the other to the production company for archiving.

Jia: There was a dedicated data manager who took care of all the data. He would find a place to set up the equipment. If we were in the fields or mountains, he would just set them up in the truck. It was so simple.

Yu: We had so many scenes in the wilderness that the data manager and equipment could not stay at the hotel. We were able to watch the dailies every evening, reviewing what we shot in the daytime; all we had to do was put the LUT on the ARRIRAW files and it was ready for the director to edit. The Codex recorder is very convenient, as it doesn't require a huge workstation. Now, with the in-camera ARRIRAW recording of the new ALEXA XT models, it will be even easier.