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DP Guillaume Schiffman AFC relies on the combination of ARRI ALEXA LF with ARRI Signature Prime lenses

“How to Be a Good Wife,” a hit this summer in French cinemas, along with soon to be released “My Cousinand“Waiting for Bojangels” were all captured with ALEXA LF and ARRI Signature Prime lenses. Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman AFC explains his choice of tools which also included ARRI SkyPanel and ALEXA Mini LF. 

Since his work on “The Artist” won him multiple best cinematography accolades including a BAFTA, a César Award, and an Independent Spirit Award, Guillaume Schiffman AFC has been in the spotlight. For his three latest collaborations on “How to Be a Good Wife” by Martin Provost, “Waiting for Bojangles” by Régis Roinsard, and Jan Kounen's “My Cousin,” he decided to shift his tool set in favor of the new ARRI ALEXA LF large format camera and the ARRI Signature Prime lenses. In an interview with ARRI, Schiffman talks about working with ARRI equipment—cameras, lenses, and lighting—and how they helped him achieve the required look. 

Why did you choose the ALEXA LF to shoot Jan Kounen’s “My Cousin”?

I had heard about this new camera from Natasza Chroscicki at ARRI’s French office, but I hadn’t experienced what it could give me. When preparing “My cousin,” Jan, who is keen on technical issues, also spoke to me about the LF and wanted us to try it. So we added the ALEXA LF to our comparison tests with a classic ALEXA. I remember that on a close-up of Vincent Lindon at 29 mm, the definition on his face and the depth of field was striking. It was the camera we needed on this film! We immediately focused our attention on the ALEXA LF and continued to push it to its limits.

What other aspects did you appreciate about the ALEXA LF?

It gives an extra dimension to the image. Because of the large sensor, a 40 mm lens corresponds to a 32 mm on a classic ALEXA, but it keeps the narrower depth of field of a 40 mm. Suddenly, working with an aperture from 2 to 2.8, I could play with the depth of field in the image, even with a wide angle. It was all the more valuable on “My Cousin” since Jan Kounen likes to work with wide focal lengths. He generally makes his films between 18 mm and 29 mm. I also really like the precision and the definition of the ALEXA LF sensor on wide shots. The backgrounds are not noisy. I also find the colorimetry of skin tones very accurate. There is much less deterioration in the colors. In fact, I have the feeling that it gives me a different relationship with the image; an additional dimension. 

What did you think of the ARRI Signature Prime lenses?

These lenses appeal to me because they're soft, but, depending on how I light the shot, I am able to get a more or less contrasted image. This corresponded well to what Jan Kounen wanted on “My Cousin.” The ARRI Signature Primes brought softness to the skin. Then I could add contrast without being too sharp.

Have you used the Look Up Tables (LUTs) with the ALEXA?

No, no. I never use LUTs on my movies. I have a rush color timer to whom I give my instructions. I always create the image on set. I like to have an image rendering that I like before putting on an additional layer in the color timing. Besides, Richard Deusy, who color timed the film, also loved the image of the ALEXA LF and the Signature Primes. These two tools gave us a good basis for the color timing.

How did you expose the camera?

I worked at 1200 ASA. This brings texture to the image. I was already doing this with the classic ALEXA because I found that it lacked texture at 800 ASA. It gives me the image I want. On “My Cousin,” I sometimes pushed it to 2000 ASA.
 

What was the most complex sequence on “My Cousin”?

Being in wide focal lengths means working with the light in a certain way. It was particularly complicated for the sequences where Vincent Lindon was in his fully-glassed office, revealing all of Paris. We had to avoid overexposing the windows and, at the same time, keep a certain level of brightness on the actors’ faces. It was a very complex scene to shoot over its duration. I had my electrician running behind the Steadicam to bring small sources of light to the actors. The ALEXA LF sensor gave me a lot of leeway during those scenes. Especially on this film, I had to make a lot of aperture changes within the shots; sometimes up to ten.

You also used the ALEXA LF and ARRI Signature Primes on “How to Be a Good Wife” by Martin Provost and “Waiting for Bojangles” by Régis Roinsard. Could you tell us about the decision making process in terms of equipment for these films?

When I adopt a camera-lens combination, I work with it over time. Previously, I liked to use the classic ALEXA with Leitz lenses. I have made dozens of films with that combination. But I felt like I had already explored it well and I wanted a change. Today, I feel good with the combination of ALEXA LF and ARRI Signature Primes. It’s like working with the same film without ever making the same image. Besides, there are vast differences between “My Cousin,” “How to Be a Good Wife,” and “Waiting for Bojangles.” I don't have to change tools every time. The important thing is that the camera gives me the image base that I like.

“How to Be a Good Wife” is also a film that utilized strong lighting…

Yes, it's a comedy with a 60s “Paris Match” look. There were a lot of lights inside the house. The idea was to see the exteriors all the time through the windows, without being overexposed. The latitude of the ALEXA LF sensor allowed me to do so. I used a lot of ARRI SkyPanel indoors and HMI sources outside. “Waiting for Bojangles” had another image direction. It's a psychological drama, but with a Boris Vian imagination. We are closer to the aesthetics of photographer Jean-Marie Périer, who, by the way, used 35 mm a lot.

Did you also use the ALEXA Mini LF on these last two films?

Yes, I mostly used it on Steadicam and handheld for its light weight. There are not many differences between the ALEXA LF and the Mini LF because they both use the same sensor. However, the Mini LF viewfinder doesn't have smooth mode, as on the ALEXA LF. I hope ARRI will improve on this. Regardless, the Mini LF remains an excellent addition to the ARRI wide format system.

Guillaume Schiffman is currently shooting actress Sanrine Kiberlain’s directorial début titled “Portait d’une jeune Fille qui va bien;” this is his fourth film using ARRI large-format cameras and Signature Prime lenses.