Mar. 31, 2017

ALEXA 65 on "Ghost in the Shell"

Jess Hall BSC turns to the ALEXA 65 system from ARRI Rental for director Rupert Sanders' take on the classic Japanese manga and anime series.

Mar. 31, 2017

"Ghost in the Shell" stars Scarlett Johansson as Major, a cyber-enhanced counter-terrorism soldier who comes to question her identity and background. Seeking to develop a timeless, high-quality aesthetic for the film, cinematographer Jess Hall BSC chose the ALEXA 65 large format camera system, which is available exclusively from ARRI Rental. He also used ARRI SkyPanels as part of his LED lighting scheme, and speaks here about his work on the movie.

What drew you to the ALEXA 65?

I think the ALEXA 65 interested me for several reasons. Firstly, I wanted to do something that had a different kind of visual quality to it, and didn't resemble everything else I was looking at. I was also very aware of all the different release platforms we would be working with: IMAX, HDR and standard projection. It was really about capturing in a future-proof way because I want this film to remain relevant and not look dated in a few years' time, so I needed to start with the most advanced technology available.

Before this film I had used the ALEXA 65 for a Halo commercial, although it was very early days for the camera so we shot side-by-side with a 35-format ALEXA. That process really highlighted the inherent qualities of the larger format, one of which is that it flattens perspective. For "Ghost in the Shell" this was interesting because I was thinking about how to translate anime and manga into live action, and a lot of the original artwork from the anime uses wide-angle frames, but drawn without much distortion, which suited the large image area and flattened perspective of the ALEXA 65.

How does cinematic depth of field and shallow focus translate to the world of anime?

The anime film of "Ghost in the Shell" is a combination of traditional cell animation and CGI, but to me every frame was like a watercolor. The softness of it was very beautiful to look at, so I wanted to see if I could get that kind of soft, painterly quality. Certainly the idea of shooting a straightforward digital image was not particularly interesting to me, and definitely not the aesthetic I was searching for. Having shallow focus to play with was an asset in this case; the custom lenses that Panavision put together for us were another important element to capturing that unique quality. 

What was your approach to color on the film?

Color was very important and I worked on it in quite a detailed way, looking at the genre of anime in general and also specifically at "Ghost in the Shell." The color palette is unique and complex, featuring many secondary colors with extremely subtle hues. It's not really something I've seen before in motion pictures. I thought it would be interesting to somehow capture those qualities -- things like the subtle tones of grey that infuse the skin tones. In testing I found that many of the colors easily generated by motion picture LED lighting veered too much towards the primary spectrum, lacking the subtlety I was looking for. I studied the anime and made extensive photographic studies of Hong Kong at night. Then I refined and analyzed the color palette, incorporating some practices that inform traditional Japanese art. Finally I distilled this into 28 colors that I wanted to see in the film and we set about programming them into a wide platform of LED lights, which was an interesting and extensive process.

How did you use the ARRI SkyPanel LED lights?

We had the SkyPanels before the latest software, which gives you the full gel package, so we were working with my custom 28-color palette across all the LED units. I was mostly using the SkyPanels housed in overhead soft boxes, to build up the ambient light. We were working with a certain level of atmosphere, which added another texture -- a layer of softness to the image. I was trying to trap light in the atmosphere to capture a sense of the Hong Kong night, where the tropical heat and humidity create a layer of moisture that traps the ambient light of the streets. So with the SkyPanel soft boxes I was adding a subtle level of colored fill light to the image, to help create an impression of night light in Hong Kong.

Is it vital to know that your camera will capture these very precise colors in a natural and pleasing way?

Yes it is. I've always really liked the color space of the ALEXA; it's very appealing to me and it seemed like the right kind of color space for this film. However, I found that the ALEXA 65 has developed a stage further, especially in terms of how it renders low light and blacks. The sophistication with which it was able to register things in that kind of borderland of the spectrum, the bottom of the curve, was really important. I did design a custom LUT, because with all the complex LED colors I needed something consistent and refined -- it was almost like working with one film stock. All the colors I used in the film were designed specifically to be captured by this camera. That was part of the testing and design process. The other thing I did was work entirely in P3 color space; I didn't use Rec 709 at all. Even the monitoring on set was done in P3 for the extended color gamut, because some of the colors just wouldn't read that well on Rec 709.

This was one of the first productions to record Open Gate ARRIRAW with the ALEXA Mini -- what kinds of scenes did you use it for?

I always like to have a very small, mobile camera on set, whatever format I'm shooting, so the ALEXA Mini offered us opportunities to position and move the camera in ways we couldn't with the ALEXA 65. Because Major is part-human, part-machine and exists in a sort of third space, I had the idea of expressing that sense of existential isolation -- which is a real feature of anime -- by having the camera float through scenes like an invisible observer. We used the Mini for that, and also for what we called a 'glitch-cam', where we put two Minis side by side but slightly offset, so we could morph between the two perspectives and create a weird effect that suggests the technology is slightly failing at times. 95% of the film is ALEXA 65, though, because we just fell in love with the look.

How was the process of working with ARRI Rental?

The ALEXA 65 is a fantastic achievement technically, but what was really great about the process of working with ARRI Rental was that they weren't just interested in the camera itself; they were interested in what I wanted to do with the camera and where we could take it. From the very first test they understood what I wanted and really helped me to achieve it, whether it was trying to get more frame rate or working with Park Road Post to improve the speed of the workflow and monitor in P3. That collaborative element of working with ARRI Rental was extremely important and valuable for me, particularly on this project because we were pushing the boundaries of technology.