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Roger Deakins on his journey to ARRI’s large format

The celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC joins ARRI to give his feedback on ALEXA Mini LF, Signature Prime lenses, and the TRINITY stabilizer, all of which he used on director Sam Mendes’ new film, “1917.”

Halfway down the Portobello Road in Notting Hill sits the Electric Cinema. One of the oldest cinemas in London, the Electric first opened its doors in 1911, survived World War Two, became a famous arthouse venue in the 1970s, and is now owned and operated by the Soho House chain. Normally off-limits as a shooting location, the management swiftly made an exception when ARRI asked if it would be possible to film an interview with Roger Deakins in the historic auditorium. Such is the respect for Deakins among film lovers.

So, not long after wrapping Sam Mendes’ highly anticipated World War One movie, “1917,” Deakins meets up with a small team from ARRI to talk about his experiences with new technology on the shoot. Accompanied by his wife, James, Deakins walks unassumingly into the theater wearing his trademark blue jeans and white button-down shirt, and chats with old friends from ARRI before sitting down for the interview.

Watch the video interview with Roger Deakins

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Deakins is a career-long user of ARRI camera equipment. He started out with the ARRIFLEX 35BL 4 in the 1980s, moved on to the ARRIFLEX 535 B in the 1990s, ARRICAM in the 2000s, and made the transition to digital with ALEXA in the 2010s. His latest film, “1917,” marks another significant progression; it is Deakins’ first foray into large-format cinematography.

“The format, to me, feels more like my stills camera,” he says. “I have always been a stills photographer, really, since I was pretty young. So I feel more familiar with that format and that sort of depth of field than I do with regular [Super] 35.”

His experience with 35 mm stills, which is the same size format as full-frame cameras like the ALEXA LF and Mini LF, meant Deakins had an instinctive feel for how different focal lengths would behave. “It was the sense that you could shoot with a longer lens, get less depth of field, but still maintain the width of view,” he says. “I don’t like shooting close-ups of people on wide lenses. A 40 mm is very comfortable, I think, for shooting a close-up, unless you’re going intensely close. And that’s what drew me to it, really, the idea of shooting on a 40 mm but getting the width—getting the background at the same time.”

For “1917” Roger Deakins shot tests with the ALEXA LF

Thinking that the larger format could be an interesting option for “1917,” Deakins shot tests with the ALEXA LF. “I was surprised at the quality difference between a standard ALEXA and the LF,” he notes. “If you’re actually studying it on a big screen, it is remarkable, the difference in quality and the roll-off, and the subtlety of the tones. That was the thing that struck me most, actually.”

When Deakins heard that ARRI was working on a smaller large-format camera, the ALEXA Mini LF, he became sure that this would be ideal for the visual approach Mendes wanted to pursue. With the first shoot day approaching, ARRI accelerated its development process to make sure that prototype cameras would be ready.

“I’ve done a number of films where you guys, ARRI, have come up with a piece of equipment that has fitted just right for the project I’ve been involved in…it’s kind of nice,” says Deakins. “So, the fact that the Mini LF was at the beginning of its development at the time this project was mooted, and that we could get hold of it by the time we were shooting, was really great.”

The ARRI team has brought along an ALEXA Mini LF to the Electric Cinema, which Deakins picks up and handles during the course of the interview. “It’s one of the smallest cameras, so far, I’ve ever used…it’s a beautiful piece of design,” he says, holding it in his hands. “I like cameras to be small and intimate. I like shooting with a small crew, and I operate myself. I don’t want the technology and the presence of the film crew to overwhelm the scene, so I think it’s only natural for cameras to get smaller. It gives you more opportunities of how to move the camera, and how to explore what you can do with it.”

Another major advantage of the ARRI large-format system for Deakins is the low-light performance and lack of digital noise. “I was blown away, with the LF, by the difference if you shoot 1,600 [EI] or 3,200,” he says. “I know you can always underexpose, but there should be something like a 4,800 setting, because it’s remarkable, the image quality. Yes, you get a certain amount of noise at 3,200, but it’s minimal. On a future film I could quite imagine myself shooting the whole thing at that setting, to have that little bit of noise.”

For brighter scenes, Deakins made use of the ALEXA Mini LF’s internal FSND (full spectrum neutral density) filters. And where necessary, he supplemented them with matching external FSND filters made by ARRI with the same high-quality glass and coatings. “After 1.8 on most NDs, you start noticing shifts in the color and quality of the image,” he says. “But the NDs in the Mini LF are very, very clean, and we had a set of the same NDs to put in front of the lens…I was really pleased with them.”

At the same time as testing the ALEXA LF, Deakins also tested ARRI’s Signature Prime lenses, which are purpose-built for large-format digital cinematography. “I have always used primes, he says. “I started off with the Zeiss Distagons and Planars, then Cooke S4s, then I went to the Master Primes. So coming to the LF, we did a lot of tests with various lenses, but for me, the Signatures are the cleanest I’ve seen.”

“I don’t like vignetting; I don’t like breathing when I’m shifting focus,” continues Deakins. “I want the sharpest, the cleanest; I want a lens that shows the world, or records the world, the way I see it, which is—I’ve got pretty good eyesight, so it’s pretty sharp. The image that the LF and the Signature produces seems more like what my eyes see than anything else I’ve experienced so far.”

ARRI TRINITY on “1917”

A further piece of ARRI technology that Deakins tried for the first time on “1917” was the TRINITY camera stabilizer, which allows fluid, mobile camerawork. He comments, “The thing about the TRINITY is the ease with which you can move up and down. You can do a shot that flows; you can be on somebody’s feet walking, and go up to their back and around to the front. There are things you can do that you can’t do with a Steadicam, and if you were doing it on an Aerocrane with a remote head, it would take an enormous amount of time to lay the track. One of the things that really drew me to the TRINITY, too, was the fact that it’s a very stable image. It doesn’t float like a Steadicam; there’s something about it that’s a little bit more solid. It seems to be less problematic in the wind, for instance.”

As the interview draws to a close, Deakins picks up the ALEXA Mini LF one more time and muses on the future of camera development. “How much smaller will it get? That’s what I want to know,” he says. “As I get older, they get smaller and lighter, it’s kind of good, really. I wasn’t doing much handheld, but I did a bit of handheld on the last film, and I thought, ‘I wouldn’t have done that with a BL anymore,’ you know what I mean?”

For more information please visit www.1917.movie and www.rogerdeakins.com.