“Enola Holmes” on ARRI large format

Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens BSC chooses ALEXA LF and ARRI Signature Primes for the Netflix film “Enola Holmes,” about the younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes.

Nov. 3, 2020

Based on the first book of a series by Nancy Springer and set in the Victorian England of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s legendary detective, “Enola Holmes” is a fun, energetic, adventure film with multi-generational appeal. Directed by Harry Bradbeer and starring Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, and Sam Claflin as the Holmes siblings, it was shot in large format by Giles Nuttgens BSC with ALEXA LF cameras and Signature Prime lenses supplied by ARRI Rental. Nuttgens spoke to us from his home in Spain about the project.

What made you choose large format and ALEXA LF?

Working on digital I have generally used ALEXAs, particularly the ALEXA Studio, since I am used to operating with an optical viewfinder, as on a film camera. Three years ago I shot “Colette” with Keira Knightley, which is set in the same period as “Enola Holmes,” on an ALEXA Studio with ARRI Master Anamorphics, chosen for their speed and flare characteristics because much of the film was shot with candlelight.

But with the 2.8K ALEXAs I was getting more and more careful about underexposure. You’d get a great result if you had a really good digital negative, but I never felt I could push it as much as I wanted in low key situations. It would look great on the monitor, which has solid blacks, but on digital projection it could look flat and often you’d have to be quite careful to avoid noise. I wasn’t going to stop shooting ALEXA as I still felt it was the best camera available, but I was hoping they would produce a higher resolution ALEXA. When the LF came out, I immediately wanted to try it.

So, it wasn’t the extra resolution itself, it was the freedom you felt it gave you in terms of lighting and exposure?

If a 4K camera didn't have the same latitude as an ALEXA, then I would still have used the ALEXA at 2.8K because I'm recording a whole lot of information that I can't record on that other camera. You can say it's sharper, but without the latitude, I'm not particularly interested. But an ALEXA with more resolution would definitely be the way forward.

Although it has the same sensor technology, with the larger format I felt I could work the negative a bit more, and not have to de-noise afterwards. It was extremely liberating and I can't imagine going back to a standard ALEXA now. I was still careful on “Enola Holmes,” because it was new to me, but on the next film I do with ALEXA LF, I’ll feel much more comfortable about pushing it, particularly in the darker areas. It’s also noticeable how the color science of the ALEXA cameras has continually improved since the early days. They’ve kept working at it and where they’ve got to now is quite remarkable.

Could you talk about the thinking behind your choice of lenses?

I felt that the perspective of the Signature Primes combined with the large format was really good for the energy of the film. They look natural – you get a gentle drop-off in depth of field and they are very neutral in their contrast, giving me all of the information on the negative so I can work with it later in post.

The other thing about the Signature brand is the element of trust in ARRI equipment. A lot of our actors came on quite late and we didn't have much testing time actually with them. At the time, both Roger [Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC] and Remi [Adefarasin OBE, BSC] were shooting period movies with Signature Primes. My attitude was that if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me. I respect their work and them using Signatures was about as good a recommendation as you can get.

Were there focal lengths that you used more than others?

Enola communicates directly with the audience by looking and talking into the camera. Harry and I felt that she almost needed to reach out her hand and pull the camera with her; she's basically saying, “Come along, follow me.” That was the underlying ethos in terms of the construction of scenes; we feel a connection with her because we’re going on the journey with her. It meant we had to spend time looking at exactly how wide the lenses that she communicates with should be – at what point there was something forced about the perspective, and at what point we felt we were naturally accompanying her.

We loved the 21 mm, but it was just at the point where the perspective became noticeable for the audience. If you put somebody's face right into the lens, their nose is bigger, their ears are smaller, and the rest of the world is trailing away. In many situations the 29 mm Signature Prime was the ideal focal length, and it became our workhorse. At certain times we did use the 21 mm, especially when there was a lot of action. When you move with a wide-angle lens, you really see the movement, particularly at the edges of the frame. That helped us keep the camera energy up, to match that of Enola.

The great thing about the LF and the Signatures was that it was all very subtle; we were able to use relatively wide lenses, but without feeling we were looking at a forced perspective. You were close enough to her that you felt it was intimate, but you still saw all of the background, even if it was falling off slightly in focus.

How did this approach affect your camerawork and lighting?

Probably over 70% of the film was shot on a Steadicam, and we were fortunate to have Paul Edwards as our Steadicam operator. With Paul it’s not just about camera movement; his framing is excellent. His expertise combined with subtle use of the Volt, a horizon assist system, means that Steadicam shots no longer have a horizon issue that betray what they are. It leaves operators to really concentrate on movement and composition, and on Enola, with Paul's work, you would be hard pushed to tell that we weren't on a dolly.

I tried in most cases to do what I call single lights, in that the set is totally lit so we can just keep shooting once we have started, without major turnarounds. A wide shot might develop into a close-up, come back to a different wide shot, go over the shoulder, turn around and see the other person. Being on Steadicam, with wide-angle lenses, meant that anywhere you might look, including out of the windows, had to be acceptable on camera. With the latitude of the ALEXA LF plus a limited amount of stop-pulling during the shots, we could let people get hot towards windows, and darker when they came away from them. It gave us a huge amount of flexibility and meant we didn't have to rehearse the actors for technical reasons. We could start shooting instantly and they knew that even on their first take, everything was going to be completely usable.

What kind of work was required in the grade?

I timed the picture for the first two weeks on my own, and then Harry came in. The one thing he wanted to change was that I had given them quite warm skin tones, and he was looking for something very natural. He wanted Enola to be an English rose – fair skinned, with pink cheeks. I qualified that for night scenes with oil lamps, which I felt needed to retain a certain amount of warmth, but in general Harry was right: the result for her skin tone was really great, and it worked with Henry Cavill as well. Harry was adamant about the actors and the world around them feeling natural, and I think our success with that says much about the strength of the ALEXA, combined with these lenses.

Can you describe the importance of your relationships with ARRI and ARRI Rental?

I have worked with ARRI Rental in the UK since I did “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” many years ago and they were a tiny company, just starting out. I’ve worked with other rental houses as well, but I always had a connection to ARRI Rental and they have always had 100% support for me. Their client relations, whether it's in Secaucus, Burbank, or London, is really fantastic.

You can't fault ARRI on the quality of the equipment that they produce. When everything changed to digital there was the ALEXA, and then the Master Anamorphics, which I’m using again on my next film, shooting on 35 mm. They are sharp from left to right, top to bottom, and they don’t distort even on wide angles. Now there is ALEXA LF and Signatures, so I will stay with ARRI. If they made planes, I'd fly in them, put it that way.