"Skyfall" the biggest Bond yet

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, discusses working with ALEXA on the new Bond movie "Skyfall," a box office sensation and the highest grossing film ever for Sony Pictures.

Oct. 31, 2012

"Skyfall" has set box office records and swiftly become the most successful James Bond film of the franchise's 50-year history. In the UK, where "Skyfall" was filmed, it is now the biggest movie of all time. Internationally, it is the highest grossing film ever for Sony Pictures and is well on its way to taking an astonishing $1 billion. The decision to make "Skyfall" the first Bond film to be released in IMAX theaters has proved hugely successful - it had the best international non-summer/non-holiday opening in IMAX history.

Upping the ante in its strategy of recruiting top filmmaking talent for the latest James Bond films, EON Productions secured the services of celebrated director Sam Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, for"Skyfall," its 23rd official 007 adventure. Not only is "Skyfall" the first Bond movie to be shot digitally, as well as Mendes' first digital experience, it is the first production anywhere to make use of ALEXA Studio cameras, which were supplied - alongside ALEXA Plus and M models - by ARRI Media in London. Deakins recently spoke with ARRI about his work on the film.

How did you come to choose the ALEXA system for SKYFALL?

I first used the ALEXA on "In Time" (2011) and on that film I had a huge amount of night exteriors, so I needed a camera with speed and versatility. I did side-by-side testing and found that there was so much more latitude in the file from the ALEXA than in a 4K scan of a film negative. I was also drawn to the subtle fall-off to highlights and the enormous amount of detail in the shadows. It was the first digital camera I had seen where I thought the technology had crossed the knife edge and taken us into a new world.

I knew we would also have a lot of low-light scenes on "Skyfall," so I said to Sam that he should look at what I did on "In Time." I told him just to look at the actors' eyes and I think the clarity of their eyes is probably what swayed him more than anything else. For me there's just a snap to the eyes that you don't get with film.

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Once Sam had accepted the idea of shooting digitally, were there other advantages?

Being able to shoot more than one or two takes without having to reload was quite an advantage. Not that Sam shoots a huge number of takes in one go, but sometimes he would roll the camera for two or three, which I quite liked doing, because once I'm into a shot I don't like breaking the concentration either. 

Josh Gollish, our DIT, gave Sam a monitor that was as close to being color calibrated as possible, which I hope gave him a sense of confidence because there were a lot of big sets and the lighting was quite crucial in a lot of situations. It made me feel more confident, that's for sure!

So you enjoy having such high quality monitor images on set?

To me the great plus is that it takes away all the uncertainty in those conversations about how the director wants the image to look. Even if someone says they want a silhouette, people have different ideas about what a silhouette actually is; now you can look at a monitor and say, "That's what we're shooting." It's a great tool, and it means that -- even more than before -- I want to do as much in-camera to make that monitor image look as close to what we'll end up with as I can.  

Did you spend much time looking at a waveform monitor?

Now and again I looked at the waveform, but that was more useful on exteriors and places where I felt that there weren't the ideal conditions I wanted to shoot in. I would look at the waveform and decide on a point where I would be able to adjust the image later in the DI and get it closer to what I wanted it to be. It's interesting that on these high budget movies you've got less flexibility, in a way, than you'd have on a low budget movie, because everything is locked into a particular day and moment to shoot.

You had the first prototypes of the ALEXA Studio camera. Why was it important for you to have an optical viewfinder?

I think part of it is your history and what you've been brought up with. I just like the clarity of the image in the optical viewfinder and seeing exactly what's in front of me, because that's how I light. The most important thing to me is watching an actor's face and how the light falls on that face. You just can't do that with an electronic viewfinder -- yet. It's true that the Studio cameras we had were only prototypes but they were flawless, we didn't have any problems with them at all.

You also had the ALEXA M and ALEXA Plus models. Were you often shooting with multiple cameras?

There was a lot of variety; probably most of the film was shot with only one camera, as though we were doing a regular drama, but then there were other scenes with many more, for example we had 11 cameras filming one big stunt of a train crashing through a ceiling. On the whole, though, I think the "Skyfall" production people were surprised by how little equipment we needed on a day-to-day basis, because I like to work that way -- to downscale and simplify things as much as possible.

You worked with Master Primes, as you often have before. Did they perform the same for digital as they do for film?

The performance seems very much the same. I first tried the Master Primes on "No Country For Old Men" (2007) and I've used them ever since. I was thinking about why you would need such fast lenses when the ALEXA itself is so fast, but a lot of the night scenes on "In Time" were shot virtually wide open with the Master Primes and we did the same thing on "Skyfall." I use them because they're the fastest, cleanest lenses that I've come across. I always shoot on prime lenses rather than a zoom; I dislike zooms unless they are actually being used as a zoom. 

Was ALEXA helpful for the visual effects elements in "Skyfall?"

That was interesting because Steve, our visual effects supervisor, had never shot digitally and wanted to shoot on film. He'd seen another digital camera on a previous job and hadn't been impressed, but when I told him we were shooting with the ALEXA he said he'd go and do some tests with landscapes, explosions and everything else. When he came back to me he said, "I'm going to shoot absolutely everything on the ALEXA," so he was really impressed. All the plates and VFX elements were done with the camera and it all looks great.

How significant was the fact that "Skyfall" was to be released in IMAX theaters?

I didn't know that we were going to release on IMAX until after we made the decision to shoot with the ALEXA. We had also made the decision to shoot spherical and take a 2.40:1 extraction, so I was a little bit nervous when the IMAX issue came up. We did some tests straight away and in the first set the colors didn't look great. We then found out that IMAX have their own system of conversion, which they call 'enhancement', so we tried another test without using that system and I thought the images looked spectacular on the big IMAX screen.