Goya-winning DP shoots ALEXA anamorphic

Director Manuel Martín Cuenca's film CANNIBAL tells the disturbing story of Carlos, a prestigious tailor in Granada who also happens to kill and eat women. He feels no remorse, until Nina appears in his life and love begins to stir. Despite its modest $2 million budget, CANNIBAL was captured in the high-end ARRIRAW format because it gave the filmmakers complete freedom to delay any 'look' creation until post, safe in the knowledge that the uncompressed ARRIRAW images would be pliable enough to allow any degree of manipulation. Cinematographer Pau Esteve Birba combined ALEXA Studio and M cameras with Hawk anamorphic lenses. Here he discusses his efforts, which have already been rewarded with Goya and CEC Awards for Best Cinematography, as well as a Jury Prize for Best Cinematography from the San Sebastián International Film Festival.

CANNIBAL trailer

Manuel Martín Cuenca's film CANNIBAL was captured in the uncompressed ARRIRAW format despite a modest $2 million budget because it gave the filmmakers complete freedom to delay any 'look' creation until post. Cinematographer Pau Esteve Birba combined ALEXA cameras with Hawk anamorphic lenses and was rewarded with a Goya and other awards for his efforts.

What kind of a look did you and Manuel want to give this rather dark story?

 

Since the first chats I had with Manuel he insisted that this is a love story, even though it is about a cannibal, so we were always trying to find the love in it. I tried to approach these opposites of dark story/love story by mixing color temperatures. There is a particular image in the movie that is a good example of this: Carlos is looking up at Nina, who is at a window one floor above. Nina is lit with the warm interior light, which is surrounded and contrasted by the cool, ambient, exterior light that illuminates Carlos.

 

Does the look of the film start to change as Nina comes into Carlos' life?

 

Well, this fight between warmth and coolness starts with the arrival of Nina. As she gets involved in Carlos' life, the presence of warm light increases gradually until finally we arrive at the night sequences in a cabin in the Sierra Nevada, where all the light comes either from the fireplace or from camping gas, so it's a completely warm look.

Why did you choose ALEXA; had you used it before?

I had used it before on commercials. I like the colors of the ALEXA, but I especially love the latitude that it gives you, so on a movie like this where we have either low light situations, such as the opening sequences, or high light scenes, like the walk in the snow, I thought  it would be the best option. In addition to this, on CANNIBAL I had the option of working in ARRIRAW, which I had never done before, and it was really helpful in the grading.

Did you enjoy working with the ALEXA Studio?

For day scenes it was a pleasure to work with an optical viewfinder like you have with a 35 mm camera. By watching the scene through the finder, you can decontaminate the digital image and really focus on the light. There is something special that you feel when you put your eye to the viewfinder and see the spinning mirror shutter. 

We also used the ALEXA M, with its 4:3 sensor, for all the car scenes. We needed a lightweight camera body that we could mount either outside or inside the car; we couldn't have done a shot like the one that opens the movie, where the camera was in the driver position for a driver POV, with a bigger camera.

What approach did you take to the lighting of the film? 

I like to work by lighting the space instead of lighting shot by shot, so the actors are free to move around. It also means you can go from one shot to another faster. To do this I try to light from the outside whenever possible, for example the tailor's shop day sequences were lit with one ARRI 18 kW and two ARRI 6 kWs through the big window. Shooting at 1,600 ASA allowed me to sometimes use real practicals as our main lights; examples include the night sequences at Carlos' home workshop.

There is another night shot of Carlos walking down the street until he stops in front of the camera to read an advertising flyer. This shot was lit with just a Kino tube inside the shop window; I actually had to ask the gaffer to switch off some of the street lamps. 

Once you put a shot on the Lustre and start working with it, you can really see the power of ARRIRAW.

How did ALEXA handle situations involving extreme highlights?

 

The sequence of the walk in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada was amazing for that. Everything was snow-covered, with millions of different whites, and you can see all of it on the screen. There is a shot where Carlos and Nina walk towards the camera with the sun as a backlight and from the faces to the snow everything is well exposed, with plenty of detail.

 

Were you grading images as you went along?

 

Manuel likes to work with as small a crew, and as small an infrastructure around the camera, as possible. For this reason we shot the movie without a monitor or any playback. Following the same philosophy we decided to go without a DIT, so very little was done to the image on set. We had a data wrangler who downloaded and checked the clips, and made the proxies. The first approach to making color adjustments was in the grading.

 

The budget was relatively low, but you still recorded ARRIRAW?

 

As I mentioned, ARRIRAW was very helpful in the color grading. During our camera tests I was surprised to realize that the H.264 clips had exactly the same latitude as the ARRIRAW clips, but once you put a shot on the Lustre and start working with it, you can really see the power of ARRIRAW. The uncompressed 3K of ARRIRAW lets you push the shot in ways that you would never be able to do normally. It was because of this that I decided to shoot all the night scenes at 1,600 ASA; I felt it gave a better grain than 800 ASA and let us work with really low light levels.