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ARRI cameras, lenses, and lights behind China’s spring blockbusters

From the ALEXA LF camera, ARRI Signature Prime lenses, and SkyPanel lights to ARRI Rental’s ALEXA 65 camera and DNA lenses, various mega films, released during the Chinese Lunar Festival, were captured with a range of ARRI technology.

The Chinese Lunar Festival, also referred to as Chinese New Year and Spring Festival, has long been a lucrative occasion for cinemas in China, however, this past February, the country broke its own astounding records by bringing in $1.9 billion US dollars (RMB 12.2 billion) in ticket sales for the entire month. The Lunar New Year holiday, which ran from February 11 to 17 in 2021, marked the first time in Chinese film history that the country’s single-day box office exceeded $155 million US dollars (RMB 1 billion) for five consecutive days. More than 160 million viewers attended more than 2.9 million screenings. 

While many countries around the world have shuttered their cinemas due to the pandemic, movies have become even more popular in China. Instead of traveling home for the holiday, which was discouraged by the government, many Chinese celebrated the festival by going to the cinema even despite higher ticket prices and strict hygiene regulations in the theaters.

The film line-up this year also didn’t disappoint; a total of seven Chinese films were released during the weeklong holiday. Among them were the much anticipated suspense comedy “Detective Chinatown 3,” the fantasy flick “The Yinyang Master,” and the star-studded adventure film “A Writer's Odyssey.” The highest grossing of the seven was “Detective Chinatown 3” which earned $550 million US dollars (RMB 3.55 billion) while “A Writer’s Odyssey” made $83.7 million (RMB 540 million).

ARRI spoke to the cinematographers behind these pictures about their choice of equipment and their experiences working on some of 2021’s already most-seen films.

Interview with Qiming Han, cinematographer on “A Writer’s Odyssey”

What equipment did you consider for “A Writer’s Odyssey” and which camera and lenses did you end up choosing for the film? 

We did many camera tests during preproduction and made detailed reports on our findings. In the end, we choose the ARRI ALEXA LF camera and the ARRI Signature Prime lenses. With this large-format combination, we were not only able to comply with the standards of IMAX and Dolby theaters but we were also able to achieve a deeper depth of field for an even better 3D effect. High resolution and big dynamic range open up more possibilities in postproduction and offer the visual effects, editing, and color grading teams all more space to create.

What lighting equipment was used for the picture? 

We used more than 700 ARRI SkyPanel S60-C LED lights for the shoot, which is very rare in China. One reason we needed to use so many lights is that the film had to be in 3D and in order to get that deeper depth of field, we needed the lights to be really bright and of good quality. 

Could you tell us about some of the lighting challenges you faced when shooting in a studio setting? Where there also benefits? 

There were many exterior scenes that we needed to shoot inside the studio. For these scenes we needed soft light that would cover a large area. Natural light is created by the sun from such a faraway distance, and this was impossible for us to simulate. We could only try our best to move the lights as far and as high as possible to get a larger area illuminated with the limited space we had. Creating a light matrix with the SkyPanel S60-C and adding diffusion gave us ideal soft lighting. In addition, SkyPanels have the advantage of being controlled remotely for brightness adjustment, adding color gels, and for special lighting effects. This helped us finish many lighting setups within a short period of time and it was very efficient.

Interview with Boxue Wang, cinematographer on “The Yinyang Master”

How did you choose the equipment for the film?

I knew large format was going to be the trend for feature films; it just has so many advantages. However, when I first joined the production in 2018, the ALEXA LF hadn’t been released yet. At the time, I was thinking about using the ARRI ALEXA XT with Panavision lenses. “The Yinyang Master” is a historical fantasy movie and that combination could have provided a vintage look. Then the production date was delayed and I had the chance to go to NAB and experience the ALEXA LF and ARRI Signature Prime lenses in person last spring. In June, the ALEXA LF came to China so I went to the ARRI office for some testing. Unfortunately, the ARRI Signature Primes weren’t available at that time so I could only reserve the camera. I decided on the camera first, then I began to think about lenses. In the end, we mixed ARRI lenses and Cooke lenses.

What were your experiences with the ALEXA LF camera during testing?

It felt really good. First of all, I’m a big fan of ARRI products. I used them for my very first project and have never regretted the decision. I have tried some other brands but I only choose ARRI cameras for shooting feature films. We were at the end of the analog era when I was in film school; my thesis was even shot on film. Personally, I love the color of film and all of ARRI’s digital cameras are able to maintain that kind of color. In terms of the ALEXA LF, the size of sensor directly affects the quality of the image. The angle of view is wider than the S35 sensor so the depth of field also changes. You probably can’t tell the difference when you’re watching from a small screen but it’s so obvious on a big screen. Even though, for now, all film theaters in China are still using 2K projection, but this will definitely change to 4K in the future. Higher resolution is a trend; the image has so many details.

Can you share with us some information about the lighting design of “The Yinyang Master”?

My gaffer this time was Yong Zhang and it was our first time working together. He has a lot of experience. He was the gaffer of “Mojin: The Lost Legend, Battle of Memories,” and “American Dreams in China.” 90 percent of the film was shot on sound stages. Sometimes we needed to have light setups ready in five sound stages the same time, due to the many scene changes and actor scheduling issues. Whenever a stage was prepared, actors had to be there right away to shoot. We needed many lights and it was an enormous project setting them all up. A lighting diagram was drawn up for every single scene and each light was numbered. All in all, we had over 400 lights, including S360, S120, S60 and S30 SkyPanels. They were very convenient and very easy to control, plus they offered so many lighting effects. We used a digital control system which had its own department. All the lights were connected to the console for quick access and adjustment.

Behind the scenes talk with Jie Du, cinematographer on “Detective Chinatown 3”

I used the ALEXA 65 for the first time on “Detective Chinatown 3.” It is the best large-format camera for me at the moment. Besides creative flexibility, there is more to consider when choosing a camera, for example, you must factor in the DIT and data management. We also did some lens testing to get an impression of what the final image would be. In the end, we chose ARRI Rental’s DNA lenses. Personally, I prefer lenses with a wider angle since they simply just include more area in the shot. In this movie, however, environment plays a crucial part, and these lenses can enhance that. If you’ve ever been to Japan, you would know that most places in Japan are very small. We were using a big camera to make a small space look bigger. One of the characteristics of the ALEXA 65 is that the perspective is different. It not only has a shallower depth of field, but also captures more detail due to the density of the pixels on the large-format sensor itself. We paid more attention to the perspective and adding more detail; we wanted deeper depth of field so we could see richer details in the image. Most DNA lenses are T2.8. In order to achieve a deeper depth of field, sometimes we closed the aperture down to T4 or T5.6. Then we set the ISO to 2000 or higher. The camera still kept all the details and there was barely any noise, which was really incredible. The image ARRI cameras capture has created an aesthetic trend, an industry standard. My goal is to create something beyond this standard, but as long as you reach it, your image will be beautiful.