Jan. 13, 2017

ALEXA 65 on "Live by Night"

Cinematographer Robert Richardson ASC shares his thoughts on shooting Ben Affleck's prohibition-era gangster film with ARRI Rental's ALEXA 65 system.

Jan. 13, 2017

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, "Live by Night" stars Ben Affleck -- who also writes, co-produces and directs -- as Joe Coughlin, a Boston police captain's son whose affair with a mobster's mistress sees him dragged inexorably into a life of crime.

Cinematographer Robert Richardson ASC chose to shoot with ALEXA 65 cameras from ARRI Rental, combining them with vintage lenses supplied by Panavision. After "Live by Night" he went on to select ALEXA 65 again for the Andy Serkis film "Breathe," on which he utilized custom-designed lenses from ARRI Rental.


 How did ALEXA 65 enter the scene and what testing did you do?

 ALEXA 65 entered into "Live by Night" as Ben and myself were trying to determine if HD would play a part, or if we would strictly shoot with film. I prepared a test where we used 35 mm film and ALEXA with anamorphic lenses, and the ALEXA 65 with 65 mm lenses that we cropped to a comparable frame. Images ranged from faces to macro shots of light filaments, and from full-frame shots of a painting to high and low contrast still shots of various objects. 

The results were graded by Yvan Lucas to attempt a near-match of all three and then shown to Ben at The Shed on a 4K screen. After viewing them several times we went into each of the three tests, blowing them up to analyze grain structure and determining if aggressive LUTs would have a positive or negative effect. Further, the test allowed me to determine ASA; I found that since I was shooting without lighting, a few of the interior shots were too far underexposed to register on film. The ALEXA was better but the ALEXA 65 was the best, and that is how we eventually decided on the ALEXA 65.

What visual approach did you and Ben take to the story and the period?

 Our initial discussions on the visual approach were that Ben conceived of Boston as being less saturated, akin to a bleach bypass, with larger grain, a reduced palette and more black in the frame. Needless to say this is a simplistic description because some of the black would become tarnished; other colors such as blue played heavily and at times we moved to a deep yellow/orange for interiors.

 When the story shifted to Florida the palette of all departments opened wider -- colors in buildings as well as costumes, vehicles, makeup and art direction. This widening of color was slowly stripped away as the influence of Boston upon Florida became greater, with darker hues returning. In addition there was a desire to work with staging so that the scenes would not be covered in a conventional manner at all times; we moved towards complex staging to allow longer takes, while still capturing the dialogue appropriately.

Did you have concerns about how a 65 mm digital format would perform?

I had little to no fears about how the ALEXA 65 would perform once I had tested it. I did need to work with all departments to allow them to witness the degree to which detail is captured, as well as color and skin tone. This is clearly a concern to all departments, in particular hair and makeup, because the digital image is only getting more detailed as time moves on. At what point does it become too much? And in the future how do we find solutions that prevent the large screen from appearing like a video game, unless that is the desire, which I am not opposed to. But for a period film such as this I felt -- as Ben did -- that we needed a softer patina.


How did your crew find the camera to work with, and how straightforward was the image workflow?

 My crew found the format superb. For Trevor Loomis, who was pulling focus, there was the additional strain of less depth of field, but he is extremely talented and the focus did not suffer whatsoever. For Steadicam the rig was heavier, but again, no issue in doing the work.

 The workflow felt no different on set or in post from my perspective, beyond the obvious increase in storage, which can burden a post house. The facility needs to be very aware of the amount that will come in from the film ahead of time, so that there are no issues with playback.

Did the 65 mm format have any impact on your approach to the lighting?

Lighting was impacted, particularly from my perception that the ASA is even higher than advertised, which meant we could work with much smaller lights or no lighting at all -- beyond practicals -- in some locations. That was rare for interiors, although the large hotel sequence was not enhanced beyond changing bulbs to period bulbs. No balloons were used, or other sources, except when I was sculpting a face for a medium shot or close-up. But the wides were relatively untouched.

Has ALEXA 65 changed your perception of the possibilities offered by digital cinematography?

Yes, the ALEXA 65 has changed my perception in so many ways. This is the best camera for digital work that I have yet experienced. The color range has already improved and will continue to do so, and -- vitally -- the choice of lenses is increasing.