LAWLESS pioneers ARRIRAW with ALEXA

Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, AFC, first worked with director John Hillcoat on THE PROPOSITION (2005), a tense period drama set in the Australian outback. Now they have reteamed on another film that, like THE PROPOSITION, was written by Nick Cave, though the screenplay for LAWLESS is based on a novel by Matt Bondurant titled THE WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD. Set in Virginia during the years of prohibition, LAWLESS follows a family of bootleggers as they resist increasingly violent attempts to curtail their illegal activities. Delhomme and Hillcoat were amongst the first filmmakers to record ARRIRAW with ALEXA on a feature film; Delhomme recently spoke with ARRI about his work on the production.

LAWLESS trailer

The official trailer for LAWLESS, the new film from director John Hillcoat and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, AFC, who previously collaborated on THE PROPOSITION (2005). LAWLESS was one of the first feature films to be shot in ARRIRAW with the ARRI ALEXA.

ARRI: When did John first talk to you about this project and what appealed to you about it?

 

Benoit Delhomme: I was sad not to be able to do THE ROAD, the movie he did just after THE PROPOSITION, so after that he said, "Well, I hope we can do the next film together," and he told me about LAWLESS. I would have been happy to work with John on anything, because I think THE PROPOSITION was one of my best movies -- I would have signed on to this picture without reading the script!

 

ARRI: At what point did you start to talk about digital capture, and when did ALEXA come onto the scene?

 

BD: I was just coming off a Calvin Klein commercial I shot with the ALEXA when I met John to talk about LAWLESS. John is really a film person, but I told him I had a feeling he'd love the ALEXA. Initially he wasn't interested in digital because he didn't think it would be any good for shooting in very low light, at dusk and twilight -- he'd never seen a picture from the ALEXA before! So I did one or two days of tests in Georgia to convince him.

 

ARRI: How did you decide to shoot ARRIRAW?

 

BD: I had only shot ProRes with the ALEXA; at that time ARRIRAW was a new development for the camera and I didn't know much about it. John was speaking to a lot of people on the phone to get advice; he spoke to Roger Deakins (ASC, BSC), who had used the ALEXA on IN TIME, and he also called Harris Savides (ASC), who was doing tests with ARRIRAW in New York. After what Harris told him, John was insistent that we go for ARRIRAW, so I had to learn all about it very quickly.

ARRI: What did your tests involve?

BD: I spent two days testing a complete range of things I wanted to put in the film -- high contrast; low contrast; costume textures; light fixtures. We shot it all on 35 mm as well on ARRIRAW with ALEXA, so we could see the comparison. It was so close even the colorist at EFILM was surprised; when John saw the tests he said, "OK, we'll shoot digital." It was a quick decision because we were shooting six weeks after that.

Everything just looked beautiful, from the skin tones in close-ups to the landscapes in wide shots.

ARRI: With ALEXA your base sensitivity is EI 800; what film stocks did you choose to compare with ARRIRAW?

 

BD: I compared the EI 800 of ARRIRAW with Kodak's 500T Vision3 for nights and interiors, and the Vision2 250D for day-time stuff. Of course the ALEXA has no grain at all, so the daylight exteriors were so close to the interiors. I liked that look, the lack of grain. It was really something new for me because I have always loved grain and so has John. So we were surprised how much we liked the ALEXA; the image was so pure without the grain and everything just looked beautiful, from the skin tones in close-ups to the landscapes in wide shots. It never got muddy in low level light and there's a lovely quality in the shadows. John was amazed how little light we could use for night scenes.

 

ARRI: Did you often work at quite low light levels?

 

BD: John was very enthusiastic to work at low levels. He said at the beginning that if we were shooting digital he wanted me to promise that we would push the limit even further than we pushed film on THE PROPOSITION. I felt safer doing that on digital because I could check what I had, so in a way we could be bolder. ARRIRAW was new to me and I didn't want to take too many risks, but John was pushing me and I thank him for that.

 

I quickly realized that at very low levels my light meter was of little use and that with ALEXA I could close down one or two stops more than a reading suggested. It was amazing how much we could get from the camera, even though we never once pushed the ASA above 800. On some twilight and night-time interiors we were using just one bulb and one Chinese lantern, and we got incredible results.

The history behind LAWLESS

Behind the scenes on LAWLESS, the new film from director John Hillcoat and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, AFC, who previously collaborated on THE PROPOSITION (2005). LAWLESS was one of the first feature films to be shot in ARRIRAW with the ARRI ALEXA.

ARRI: Were you applying looks to the dailies during the shoot?

 

BD: We had our DIT working as a colorist on the set, but we never went to a lab during the shoot and we did our own dailies in the editing department. I would love to have had a lab behind me, but it was a production decision. Sometimes it was a bit nerve-wracking because it was all so new; we were pioneers really, with ARRIRAW.

 

ARRI: Were you operating a camera yourself?

 

BD: Yes, I operated a camera as usual. With John it feels particularly important for me to be with him and to control things. I mostly operated using the on-board monitor, which felt a bit strange because I'm so used to looking in the viewfinder and getting that concentration. At the time I wished we had a proper viewfinder like you can get now on the ALEXA Studio, especially outside in bright sunlight and for handheld. But I got used to it, and it's good to learn different things.

 

ARRI: In what situations did you use the Master Prime lenses?

 

BD: For most of the movie I worked with a short zoom on one camera and a medium zoom on the other, because John liked being able to re-frame quickly. I really only used the Master Primes for exterior nights or really dark scenes where I needed the speed, although we were never actually wide open because the ALEXA allowed me to stop down more.

ARRI: Did you find yourself lighting in a different way?

BD: For night scenes I had to design special lighting because I realized all of the lamps I was adding were too strong. The things I would normally do when I wanted to shoot at T2, like bouncing light off a white frame or board, made the source too apparent, so I came up with the idea of black bounce. Usually I use a lot of bed sheets for bounce, but this time I was using black velvet. John likes everything very subdued and dim; it took me some time to find the right material to achieve that subtle look.

We even painted the reflectors inside lamps black, and when we used poly boards we used the black side. To begin with the gaffer laughed at this concept of using so much black, but the extreme sensitivity of the ALEXA means you need to find new tools and methods to light. I think there will be new types of lamps and even perhaps new types of lenses to suit the sensitivity of digital, which is very interesting. I certainly learned a lot on this shoot -- it was fantastic for me.