Chinese DP Li Bingqiang on NEVER SAY DIE

DP Li Bingqiang shares his experience working on NEVER SAY DIE. The Chinese comedy film was shot with ARRI ALEXA Mini camera and mostly with Master Prime lenses in ARRIRAW, while using M-series lights and SkyPanel LED fixtures.

Comedy film NEVER SAY DIE is a joint production from Happy Twist Film, New Classics Pictures, and Maoyan Pictures, written and directed by Song Yang and Zhang Chiyu and starring Ma Li, Ai Lun, and Shen Teng. Adapted from a stage play with the same title, the film chronicles the hilarious story of a male boxer who switches bodies with a female reporter as a result of being struck by lightning. Premiering on September 30, 2017, the film topped the Chinese domestic box office during the National Day Golden Week Holiday. DP Li Bingqiang shares his experience working on the film with ARRI.

NEVER DAY DIE topped the Chinese domestic box office

How did you get involved with this project and the team from Happy Twist Film?

After working on the film I BELONGED TO YOU, New Classics Pictures, who produced the film, introduced me to Happy Twist Film. The two production companies had previously teamed up on GOODBYE MR. LOSER. I like the fact that Happy Twist Film adapts stage plays that are reputable and well received. I have watched many of their plays and I find their scripts to be well-written with funny and engaging narratives. Since I haven’t really worked on any comedy films before, it was a great opportunity for me to try something new so I jumped onboard with NEVER SAY DIE.

What kind of look did you have in mind for the film NEVER SAY DIE?

The two directors on this film are both stage directors who were venturing into feature film for the first time. They were very careful and worked incredibly hard for this film. I recommended some French comedy films to them because the comedic elements in French comedies tend to be more stylized than Hollywood productions. We also went through many Chinese comedy films. After reviewing those films, we came up with our own style that was largely based on realism but with a reasonable level of fantasy so the audience can better relate to the narrative. To put it simply, the film is urban fiction with action and comedic elements. My previous work on the films I BELONGED TO YOU and LOVE O2O didn’t utilize iconic looks associated with certain genres. We did the same on NEVER SAY DIE and gave each scene the most fitting look based on a bright, vibrant palette with a warm tone.

NEVER SAY DIE is urban fiction with action and comedic elements

What equipment did you choose for the film and why?

Due to the action element of the film, there were plenty of fight scenes and handheld shots. For this reason, having a compact and lightweight camera was essential. ALEXA Mini was the perfect choice. For many years I’ve been enjoying ALEXA cameras and since the introduction of ALEXA Mini, it is even practical to have it as an extra camera on most of my projects due to how compact it is. This time the entire film was shot on ALEXA Mini. With the ARRIRAW upgrade, the image quality is no different than ALEXA SXT, therefore I don’t worry about image quality at all. Now I can focus on flexibility in camera movements for shooting different scenarios. I like that ALEXA Mini has modular components and that ARRI makes a shoulder mount for it. Assembling a ready to shoot rig takes very little time. It’s also very comfortable shooting handheld with a basic configuration.

DP Li Bingqiang (l.): “ALEXA Mini was the perfect choice”

What lenses did you use?

I had two sets of Master Prime lenses and two zoom lenses from Angenieux. I used Master Prime lenses on my previous projects such as BUT ALWAYS, FLEET OF TIME, and I BELONGED TO YOU so I’m very fond of these lenses and I believe they have the best optical quality of the lenses offered by ARRI. I find their large aperture particularly useful when working with low levels of light. Especially when shooting night scenes, having a large aperture helps tremendously. By carefully choosing the location and making use of the available light, we were able to get decent pictures with Master Prime lenses without a lot of artificial lighting. There was no visible image quality degradation when these lenses were used wide open, which was quite reassuring. Of course we didn’t use them wide open all the time, otherwise the depth of field would have been too shallow and various background details would have been obscured. Overall, Master Prime lenses offered excellent color rendering and a sharpness that fit the style of the film.

Can you talk about the lighting design of the film?

Overall the film contains vibrant and bright pictures. Originally, I thought about making some of the fight and car chase scenes more stylized by darkening them. But in the end, I went with a more realistic look that retains as much detail as possible. An over-stylized look might have undermined the comedic effects. Also, in other scenes, we did not want unrealistic “beauty” lighting effects. The indoor lighting looks like what you would expect in real life; same with the stadium lighting. As an example, for the press conference scene and the stadium scene in the film we hired a professional stage lighting technician to acquire an authentic look. Then we added some subtle enhancements on top.

Preparing a car chase scene

What lighting fixtures did you use?

HMI and tungsten fixtures are my usual go-to lights. However, on this film I used mostly M-series lights and SkyPanel LED fixtures. This combo worked really well for the modern look of the film and I did notice a difference in light quality compared to traditional fixtures. M-series lights are compact and lightweight. They offer sufficient and highly focused output with a long throw while maintaining excellent color accuracy and uniformity from center to corner. We relied on M-series fixtures for lighting large sets; the UFK stadium scene, for example, involved a large number of M-series lights. Since we did not have enough flood lights for the giant green screen, we used the remaining M-series lights after setting up the stage lighting for the boxing ring. Adding diffusers to them created even illumination for the green screen. Lighting an interior with such scale wouldn’t have been possible with conventional fixtures.

On NEVER SAY DIE, mostly M-series lights and SkyPanel LED fixtures by ARRI were used

SkyPanel lights were used primarily for lighting talent and interior close-ups. For example, the boxing club scene was lit by just two SkyPanel fixtures on the ceiling. At first, we put parchment paper in front of the SkyPanels but they lost the contrast iconic in action scenes so, in the end, we just used the bare lights. The output from the SkyPanels looked more pleasing on skin compared to traditional diffused lights. There is a perfect balance between softness and contrast with the SkyPanels and they offer excellent consistency from unit to unit. One of the most convenient features of the SkyPanels is that they can be remotely controlled by an app on mobile devices. We often combined multiple SkyPanel units with 5-pin DMX cable and dialed in their color temperature and brightness with a smartphone. Also, due to their light weight, they can be hung from the wall or handheld or even attached to each other for a highly flexible setup.

Can you talk about the UFK Stadium scene?

The scene was shot in a 4,000-seat stadium. We built an 8’x 8’ standard fenced boxing ring. There were three rounds of fighting in that scene and we shot each of them differently. The first round contained most of the comedic elements but these died down in the second and final rounds which lived from emotionally charged action shots. Because we were shooting an entire match season in the same location and setup, we varied the shot size that got tighter from round to round. The final round had mostly close-ups and extreme close-ups and the focal length got wider as well for more intimacy and impact. The lenses ranged from 20 mm, 21 mm, 25 mm, 27 mm, 32 mm, 35 mm to 40 mm. The boxing ring was lit with standard stage lighting and SkyPanels. We dialed the color temperature to 7300 K as rim light for the talent and fences. Close-up shots of the boxers on the boxing ring were lit directly with SkyPanel fixtures. We added some grain to the final round during color grading to enhance the boxers’ impact and fierceness.

The final round had mostly close-ups and extreme close-ups

Because the actors were engaged in real fighting during the shoots for an authentic look, they were also prone to injury. To minimize takes, we shot the scenes using a three-camera setup to capture as much details as possible from different angles and shot sizes. We set up one camera above the boxing ring for dynamic aerial and panoramic shots. Two cameras were positioned on the ground with one inside the boxing ring responsible for close-ups and the other outside for wider shots. We also did plenty of high speed shots. Two shots were filmed in 1000 fps on a high-speed camera using a motion control arm. Shooting in 200 fps would have caused the stage lights to flicker so we had to adjust them; fortunately our own lights were all flicker-free. All of the other high speed shots were captured using ALEXA Mini in 100 fps and 200 fps.

One camera was set up above the boxing ring for dynamic aerial and panoramic shots

What recording format did you use? What did you think of the images from ALEXA Mini?

It was mostly ARRIRAW due to its excellent color gamut and latitude. In some extreme shooting scenarios I didn’t have time to fine tune lighting. I had to shoot in either high sensitivity setting or low light and there was still sufficient detail in post. We did an establishing shot of the gate of a temple for the film on an early morning, because the temple is located deep in the mountains, it can only be illuminated when the sun reaches a certain angle. On the day of the shoot, the sky was already getting bright when the mountains were still hidden beneath the shadow. I wanted to retain details in the sky so I got the shot with 1600 ASA and some fill light for the foreground using SkyPanels. At first I was worried that the shot might not be usable but in post we were able to pull an amazing amount of details from the footage and it fit in nicely with the rest of the film. I’m very satisfied with the image quality.

ARRIRAW was used as a recording format due to its excellent color gamut and latitude

Can you describe a particularly memorable or challenging scene?

The UFK Final scene was tough. We were shooting in this massive stadium but only with a few hundred background actors, half of the stadium was covered with green screen. We had to constantly reposition the background actors to different seating areas for different shots. The fences around the boxing ring posed a significant challenge for the visual effects team; for every shot we had to consult with the VFX supervisor if we should remove the fences. It was a lot of work after setting up the lights, but overall, the 20-day shoot went well because we are a professional team and we knew what we wanted.

The fences around the boxing ring posed a significant challenge for the visual effects team

The swimming pool scene was shot on the top floor of a hotel building. We used two ALEXA Minis; one by the pool and one underwater in a waterproof casing. Lightning effects in the scene were done with arc lights and we hung two 1.2K PAR lights from the ceiling as space light. We used the color-tunable SkyPanel as a fill light for close-up shots. The underwater shots were tricky because we had to film the actor falling into the water with weights, luckily, we had a professional actor and it only took a few takes.

Two ALEXA Minis were used; one by the pool …

… and one underwater in a waterproof casing

Have you been following ARRI’s developments recently? What projects do you have lined up? Are you looking to try something new?

I was doing color grading sessions so I missed BIRTV. I’m really fascinated by ARRI’s new stabilized remote head; I would love to try that out sometime. I’ve used most of ARRI products on my projects so I’m quite familiar with them.

DP Li Bingqiang: “I’m really fascinated by ARRI’s new stabilized remote head; I would love to try that out sometime”

Currently I’m working on an art film called POET in Xinjiang, it’s about a large mine in the 90s. The film contains a lot of locked-off, wide shots with very few close-ups. I plan to do some Steadicam® shots as well. I’m still using ALEXA Mini with 3.4K Open Gate mode. I wanted to use anamorphic lenses but couldn’t due to budget constraints. I think cinematographers really need to keep a keen eye on technologies because every new technical development aims at solving practical problems. Only with reliable, user-friendly tools can cinematographers have full creative freedom and the ability to experiment with new ideas. After all, we are visual storytellers and it’s our responsibility to tell a good story.

DP Li Bingqiang: “Only with reliable, user-friendly tools can cinematographers have full creative freedom and the ability to experiment with new ideas”

Photos: © 2017 NEVER SAY DIE