Shooting HOMEFRONT

Theo van de Sande grew up in Holland and attended the Dutch Film Academy in Amsterdam. For the TV pilot HAPPY TOWN (2009), he elected to use the then-new ARRI D-21. What was for some slow, the D-21 was simply falling back on what van de Sande had learned from shooting film. He discovered that it could give him the same affect as film, in fact better, as long as he had strong key lights. The camera could fill in the rest of the space for him.

Now, having become very familiar with digital sensors, van de Sande calls the ALEXA the “lazy camera,” and reassures us that it’s a compliment. “You just shoot and it looks good,” he laughs. “Of course you do have to give it your own touch, but with the ALEXA you’re not just talking about resolution or who has the most pixels in the bag. It’s about what you do with those pixels and what you do with the sensor.”

HOMEFRONT trailer

HOMEFRONT, directed by Gary Fleder and shot by Theo van de Sande, ASC was captured on ALEXA in a 2.35:1 frame extracted from the camera’s 16x9 image sensor.

He adds, “[ARRI] succeeded in processing the information and data that comes from the sensor to an image that was comfortable for us cinematographers, and for the director, ” he offers. “That was very helpful and kept me coming back to their camera.”

Before his most recent project, HOMEFRONT (starring Jason Statham and James Franco) van de Sande used the ALEXA on the TV pilot IDENTITY in Montreal, but had yet to shoot in ARRIRAW, where he finally felt like he had full control over the image.

“Initially we were going for a classic Western type of look,” says van de Sande. “It’s a thriller really, but the story is very ‘Western’ in its structure, so we thought that we should do the film in anamorphic. When [the producers] said that it would be too expensive, I decided to go with an ALEXA and anamorphic lenses, but even that was still too expensive. So instead of demanding what I wanted and then having to give up more in my lighting package, zoom lenses, or the scope of shooting, I shifted.”

The DP optioned to shoot a 2.35:1 frame extracted from the ALEXA’s 16x9 image sensor. He notes, “I don’t consider it a compromise. It really is just a shifting of all our needs and the ALEXA gave me the excellent quality to make the visual difference between beauty and gritty work. Actually, the limitations really started to work for us more and more as we went along.”

At the beginning of the film, police officers raid a meth lab. The scene was shot in very low light at night. “With the urban environment we had tremendous scope already,” he says. “So we could do a helicopter shot, wide shots through the city, and all that fun stuff. With the normal 800 ASA and a little bit of work in the lab, I could get great depth in the blacks. I never had to go any higher, and I didn’t want to have noise, so that worked well. I wanted to have grittiness and the practical lights in the street gave me that even at 800 ASA.”

From this urban setting, the story immediately visually contrasts, putting the audience in the retired cop’s home two years later where he lives with his daughter in a beautiful house in the Bayou.

“To capture this look I didn’t really have to do much other than use some softer lights and a little smoke,” says van de Sande. “Mostly, I changed from my initial mentality of shooting a big anamorphic film and took whatever I had to make the other side grittier in order to create a contrast between the ‘urban’ scenes and the ‘beautiful’ scenes.”

The camera package was supplied by Fletcher Camera from their New Orleans location. Shooting in ARRIRAW, van de Sande elaborates on the importance of having a good digital imaging technician on set so that the director of photography can set the image at the beginning of the project. He does this by lighting based on the image in his head, comparing it on a calibrated monitor, and only correcting the lighting -- not the image.

“That image will be the image all the way through production,” he states. “By the end of the day,” he continues, “I may do a little bit of adjusting so that the scenes fit together visually, but I don’t change the atmosphere at all, because I already adjusted that with the lighting. Sometimes I change the color temperatures in the camera, but other than that I just take some frame grabs and the DIT sends the material out to NextLab with the LUTs we chose on set.”

Van de Sande prefers to have his workflow like a film-based workflow. On HOMEFRONT, once the cards were out of the Gemini recorder in 444 RAW format, the DIT downloaded them for protection and then sent the cards away.

“Get the card out from your camera and give it away,” he says. “That’s my theory. I don’t want to deal on set with things that can and should be done in a very clinical environment. Moving around all the time, going to different locations, that can get dangerous in terms of protecting the image you worked so hard to create.”

HOMEFRONT is in U.S. theaters Nov. 27.