ARRI behind the scenes on WRATH OF SILENCE
Director Xin Yukun’s critically acclaimed film, WRATH OF SILENCE, is a tough crime thriller set in a Chinese coal mining district. In an attempt to reveal the true nature of modern Chinese society, the story revolves around a mute miner’s search for lost children. The film’s Director of Photography, He Shan, spoke to ARRI about how ALEXA Minis, Master Anamorphic lenses, ARRI Lighting, and ARRIRAW workflow helped him realize his dark vision for the project.
He Shan and ALEXA Mini making the most of a tight shooting space.
This is your second time working with Xin Yukun, could you please share some of the stories behind your collaboration?
I met with Director Xin Yukun initially in 2007, and WRATH OF SILENCE was actually the first film he wanted to make. Due to various reasons, it ended up becoming his second feature project and we worked on THE COFFIN IN THE MOUNTAIN together first. Yukun and I come from the same province in northwest China, and he frequently went back there to scout for locations to shoot. When he decided to make WRATH OF SILENCE and I saw the script in May 2016, I was really excited about the project, since we had come to an unspoken agreement years before. There were many elements from our childhood in the story and I could visualize many scenes before they were even shot. We actually tried to create this particular look when we decided to shoot THE COFFIN IN THE MOUNTAIN, but it didn’t really fit the script. Therefore, we were anxious to explore the look again for WRATH OF SILENCE.
Lead character, Zhang Baoming, searching for his lost son in the mountains of northern China.
Could you tell us about the atmospheric settings you wanted to create in WRATH OF SILENCE?
These types of genre films are usually full of visual archetypes and traditions. Specifically, in terms of color, for Zhang Baoming, the lead character’s scenes, we focused on yellow and black tones. Yellow is a color that typically represents northwestern China. Black was then used for the darker elements of the piece including coal mines. The character Chang Wannian is the boss of a big coal mining group; we used a lot of natural light and red colors to highlight his character. While with Xu Wenjie, the lawyer in the story, we used a lot of flood lights and the tone was softer but also colder. These three characters symbolize three different social statuses.
Boss of a big coal mining group, Chang Wannian, red surroundings and extravagant habits.
Was the visual style of WRATH OF SILENCE inspired by other films?
I have to say that both PRISONER and SICARIO had a lot of influence on me, and there’s a resemblance between the colors of the mountain in both WRATH OF SILENCE and SICARIO. There’re also some tunnel scenes in SICARIO. I deliberately made the facial skin tone orange-ish to accentuate the burning anxiety of the characters; it helped to bring out the internal struggles and the overall ambience of the story. Roger Deakins loves the wide aspect ratio of the Master Primes. He has always amazed me with his ability to merge a good story and good visuals.
Why did you choose to shoot with Anamorphic lenses?
Before we started shooting, I came up with the idea of using high contrast, direct sunlight similar to the skies in northwestern China. I didn’t’ want to soften the exterior shots too much so I could build this cold and coarse texture. There were a lot of shots of mines, mountains, and people walking in the wilderness but also the office and chamber scenes were very important. We used Master Anamorphic lenses to try to heighten the unusual geography and the intense feeling of the film. With the wider nature of the anamorphic lenses, we could also capture more of the environment so that was another reason why we chose to use Master Anamorphic.
“I didn’t’ want to soften the exterior shots too much so I could build this cold and coarse texture,” commented He Shan.
Is this the first time you shot a feature film with ALEXA Mini and Master Anamorphic lenses? What is your impression?
Yes, it’s my first time using anamorphic lenses, I used to shoot a lot of spherical and crop in post. Aside from the wider perspective I mentioned earlier, the closest focusing distance is a bit longer, so I brought a set of close up filters which I used in some driving scenes and very tight close ups. As for the color of the Master Anamorphic, there’s no big difference between them and the spherical ones, and it’s indeed very sharp.
The size of ALEXA Mini is a big bonus, it allowed us to shoot lighter and faster. We had a lot of shoulder-mounted shots and there were caves that only allowed two people to squat in; this would have been very hard for a big camera. We used two ALEXA Minis also for the scenes where we were climbing mountains and also for the multicam shots of the action scenes. The camera really shined when we shot the exterior scenes. There were a lot of narrow places, including the shots in the forest, and ALEXA Mini was perfect for the job. I also think the overall stability of ARRI is superb, there’s no problem using an ALEXA mini as an A cam.
ALEXA Mini proved helpful when shooting action scenes.
Tell us a bit about the lighting process and which fixtures were helpful.
We didn’t use a lot of light on exteriors, and since there’re a lot of action sequences, we basically just used natural light. We knew sunlight would be very hot and allow for a visual texture with rough edges. It would also give more of a brown-ish tone to the actor’s skin which is what we wanted. However, for interior shots, we used the M-series HMIs, including M18, M40 and M90. For example, for the scenes in Zhang Baoming’s house in winter, we used M90 outside as a hard source and M18 inside to fill the space. I like the simplicity of this kind of lighting, the image looks cleaner and you don’t get messy shadows. We also used SkyPanels like S60 to fill some of the scenes. It’s very convenient and I’ve used it on two of my latest projects. I think the SkyPanels are really advanced in terms of brightness and color. They also save a lot of time since there is no hassle with changing the filters and gels. Especially the S360-C, I think that light is pretty amazing, probably because I lean more towards using a single, large-plane source.
“For the scenes in Zhang Baoming’s house in winter, we used M90 outside as a hard source and M18 inside to fill the space,” mentioned He Shan.
Could you tell us a little bit more about the recording format, on-set monitoring, the DIT workflow, and the grading process?
I used to use Alexa classic and mostly shot in 2k ProRes. But after we tried ARRIRAW and found out about its post capabilities, I’ve been using it ever since. This time we also used ARRIRAW. We didn’t make a LUT beforehand. We mostly monitored in Rec709, but I would check for the highlight and lowlight details with false color. DITs made double backups on set and there’s an on set editor. While grading, I would finalize the style alongside the director for some key scenes, and the post company would start with these shots as a reference. There was some fine grading in the color of the sky, the shadow details, and in matching skin tones. ARRIRAW didn’t let us down.
Are you satisfied with the current ARRI product line up?
ALEXA Mini is already a very good camera, including the button layout and user habit. Sometimes I got the impression that ARRI has tried to foresee some of the functions that cinematographers need to make shooting easier. That’s probably the reason why ARRI is a great company. The image quality, color, and dynamic range are all good, and the images have a cinematic feeling to them. For my future projects, I would also want to try out large format cameras with a larger image circle. The results may more closely match the capabilities of the human eye and have less distortion.
“There’s no problem using an ALEXA mini as an A cam,” commented He Shan.
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