ARRI equipment in China on ANIMAL WORLD

ANIMAL WORLD, a big-budget Chinese film with awe-inspiring visual effects, was captured with ALEXA SXT Studio and ALEXA Mini cameras and illuminated by ARRI LEDs and lights from the M-Series. Since its release, the movie has been well received by both the general movie-goers and film critics, for its well-constructed plot and fascinating visual effects. A joint production of Shanghai Ruyi Films, Shanghai Huolongguo Films, and Beijing Enlight Media, ANIMAL WORLD is a thriller starring Yifeng Li, Michael Douglas, and Dongyu Zhou, directed by Yan Han. The film was adapted from Japanese Manga Artist Fukumoto Nobuyuki’s work Tobaku Mokushiroku Kaiji (Ultimate Survivor Kaiji) and tells the story of main character and vigilante clown, Kaisi Zheng, battling an array of monsters in a mysterious city.

Adapted from Japanese Manga Artist Fukumoto Nobuyuki’s work, this thriller features Michael Douglas as the villain.

Recently, Director of Photography Max Wang shared some of his experiences of working on ANIMAL WORLD with ARRI.

ANIMAL WORLD is a manga film adaptation, what elements of this genre are attractive to you as a DP?

Yan Han is a director who puts a lot of effort into visuals. Even though his last film was a big hit, it’s very rare to find a film that focuses on visual storytelling in China. As is the case for most DPs, it is much more interesting to work on a film that has a lot of visual requirements along with having a good story. Personally, I love this kind of stylized film since it gives me the chance to really push the creative possibilities. We spent a lot of time on preparation and testing, many behind-the-scenes clips are online, and we did a walkthrough of our storyboard. We tried to make a film that’s both attractive and visually-compelling to the audience.

How did the use of storyboards come into play in this production?

The benefit of a storyboard is that you have the director’s viewpoints illustrated very clearly.; this is very important to me as a DP. We spent a lot of time making and revising the storyboard during the prep, and we stuck to the storyboard for most of the shoot. Language is generally not as detailed as storyboards when it comes to preproduction. It was more accurate to discuss ideas over a storyboard; that was the easiest and most effective way to coordinate with the director on this project.

DP Max Wang and his camera of choice.

What camera and lens testing did you do before shooting? Did you have any ideas about the visual style of the piece beforehand?

ALEXA SXT was just released when we were testing the camera. This process was relatively simple because we decided to use ARRI cameras. I’ve been using ARRI cameras ever since the ARRI D21 and I was very satisfied with the ALEXA’s quick switch to higher frame rates without rebooting the camera. This aspect helped a lot during our shoot.

As for the lenses, the director wanted the images to have a modern feel, so using anamorphic lenses was imperative. I’m also a fan of anamorphic lenses. Of course, it’s about personal taste: for me, anamorphic is very cinematic and brings a good deal of character and style to the images. The director concentrated on being “cinematic” throughout the planning phase, so anamorphic lenses came to my mind. The film was made to be a commercial film, so the visual style was set to be cool and modern at the very beginning.

Wang mentions: “anamorphic is very cinematic and brings a good deal of character and style to the images.

Aside from using 2X anamorphic lenses, what are the other reasons for choosing ALEXA?

We used ALEXA Mini for aerial shots and gimbal work and the rest of film was shot on ALEXA SXT. Since the ALEXA cameras have the same type of sensor and we used the same lenses, the style was uniform, even though we used two different camera types. We shot the film in the remote city of Haikou which meant it would have been very hard to get another camera body if anything went wrong. The reliability of ARRI cameras was outstanding and indeed a relief.

Tell us more about the main scene that features the battle ground? How was it lit?

We spent 5 months shooting ANIMAL WORLD, and about 90 percent of the shoot was done in studio. It was a sci-fi oriented story, so shooting in studio was the easiest way to fulfill the director’s wildest dreams. The main scene was very large and the director required the possibility of switching up to 90 fps at any time, so the gaffer’s work was bigger than usual.

We used a lot of 18Ks throughout shooting and utilized some smoke. Together with a few light beams we tried to create various lit areas. It would have been a huge task to set the lights for the whole scene, so we placed light beams in the most remote areas of the studio. Sometimes the director would go from 24 frames to 90, so that involved moving some of our lights. Most ambient light was controlled by DMX; some lights in the ship were stage lights, but most of the lights were SkyPanel S60s and S30s. We’ve rented almost every S60 and S30 that we could find. All the lights above the table were S60s; we used S30 for smaller areas. We used at least 60 S60s from a total of 4 or 5 rental houses.

The battle ground scene was lit mostly with SkyPanel S60s and S30s.

Since a good deal of the film was spent in this single area, how did you cope with the scenes appearing too similar? How important is flexibility to you in terms of lighting?

We used DMX to control the light most of the time, like in the train scenes, the moving light effect was done on DMX. Our lighting plan was carefully designed; I worked with the gaffer team for almost a month to discuss the lighting effect in different areas, the director also gave us some guidance. We used different themes for different areas, so the lighting of the film changed according to the story. I have also worked as a gaffer before, so personally speaking, the mobility of light is actually a very nice thing to have. As long as it helped us tell the story, we would move the lights. There were scenes in which the light moved with the actors. In the past, some DPs loved to use a Chinese Lantern with a moving crane to light the actors. We are now switching to LEDs which is much lighter even with batteries, especially with the S30. The light from the S30 is very soft and you don’t even know where the light is coming from if you add some diffusion. We were able to light the faces of moving characters without giving away the location of the source.

“the mobility of light is actually a very nice thing to have,” comments Wang.

How did image quality of the ALEXA hold up for the low-lit scenes?

There were actually quite a lot of low-lit scenes. Visually, they appear low-lit, but the actual luminance was more than enough. The hard part was staying flexible to be able to film at 90 fps at any time. Also, we decided to not push the ISO when we were planning our lights, so basically, we went with 800. I tested ALEXA SXT and found there was no problem under 1280. However, that didn’t mean we could take the easier route since the scenes had to be lit properly. ISO 1280 is fine when you have the right exposure.

The image quality is very good. The reliability of ARRI cameras is what has always stood out for me. I’ve been using ARRI cameras since I entered this industry. The most important aspect of the camera is that it can perform just as well under extreme conditions. Image wise, ALEXA SXT has the feeling of film stock. We are still using light meters on set, and the dynamic range of ALEXA is quite different from other cameras. 90 percent of the time you can just go with the reading and there’s nothing more to worry about, just like when we were shooting film stocks. You can treat it like a film camera. Young DPs can really rely on its viewfinder. Whether shooting the old-fashioned way or not, reliability is the most important aspect of ALEXA.

Wang and his team on set.

Which format did you record? Was any LUT used to help monitoring? How did the footage from ALEXA SXT perform in post and did anamorphic lenses affect the SFX work?

We recorded in 2.8K ARRIRAW. I had two Fujifilm Mini LUT Boxes so I didn’t use a special LUT. I usually made my LUT on set after talking to the director, then I would decide on what kind of style or preset to use. I’d try my best to show what was closest to the final image. If we needed any further adjustments we would use the LUT Box to produce the effect on set, so the communication would be faster and more efficient.

There’s no problem with the footage from ALEXA SXT or the anamorphic lenses. Anamorphic lenses are like Sichuan cuisine, when it’s spicy, you’ve mastered half of the dish. A commercial film also has to be “spicy”; you have to achieve the best results with the easiest and the most effective method to convey the emotion even before the audience thinks about it. They have to feel those emotional elements immediately, either happy or sad, and that’s why the art of film is so intriguing.

Are there any new ARRI products or technology that you would love to try out in the future?

Maybe I’m different from others; I studied film in the U.S. and worked as a gaffer for about five years before I returned to the camera. So, what really excites me are SkyPanel S30 and S60. Also, it’s quite a miracle to see that the ARRI M-Series won’t burn out even at an extreme tilt of 80 or 90 degrees. I’m also happy to see ARRI’s advancements in other areas, like the new remote head. The stability was quite nice and I’ve ordered some for upcoming shoots. I’m also happy about ARRI’s lens service team. Maybe I’m one of those eccentrics who is quite enthusiastic about these things, but it’s a good thing to know that we now have a good solution for precision problems on set.  Most DPs would love to work under ideal circumstances and all these technical improvements allow us to be more focused on making a film.

Director of Photography Max Wang

Photos: ANIMAL WORLD (8)