ALEXA 65 on Oliver Stone’s "Snowden"

Anthony Dod Mantle ASC, BSC, DFF discusses working with the ALEXA 65 system on Oliver Stone’s new thriller.

Sep. 20, 2016

For director Oliver Stone’s first digital movie, a political thriller about the US whistle-blower Edward Snowden, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle ASC, BSC, DFF worked with ALEXA XT, ALEXA 65 and ALEXA Mini. ARRI Rental provided camera and lighting gear, while ARRI Media handled dailies and other on-set services. Here, Dod Mantle details how he made use of the ALEXA 65 system.

How did you want to use the ALEXA 65 on this film?          

For a film about the visible and invisible worlds, I thought about the whole idea of the size of the sensor and how we use imaging, and what resolution means about truth and the depiction of reality. From an early stage I didn’t think of the ALEXA 65 as a camera to capture plates or massive vistas. I actually thought about exploring a face on this massive sensor, or seeing what happens when you start to journey into the picture through digital zooming.

What kinds of shots did you do in pursuit of this idea?

There’s a great deal of surveillance that goes on in the film and sometimes it’s about what the cameras on the lids of computers can do, and how certain programs watch people when they don’t even know. So I started to explore the possibility of traveling farther and farther towards a computer and then into the eye itself. There’s a shot I really adore that is based on this idea and was inspired by the big sensor, though we did it on both the ALEXA 65 and an Open Gate XT Studio to try different lens options. It was achieved thanks to the patient work of my 1st AC Telfer Barnes and gaffer Thomas Nievelt. 

I wanted shots like these to be slightly abrasive and violent. Another one was a kind of time slice for a moment when the character sees something and has a revelation. I wanted to travel around him, but again I didn’t want it to be a refined, smooth move. With the support of Manfred Jahn at ARRI Rental I locked three ALEXA 65 cameras at about a 270-degree angle, just overlapping. In the After Effects suite I chipped them together and you have this strange, disturbing journey around a face.

A further example of how the ALEXA 65 let us do something a bit different was a scene showing a screen conference between two characters. To enhance the performances and allow improvisation I wanted the actor to actually control the camera pointing at himself, as if it was a webcam; the only difference being that it was an ALEXA 65. We hard-lined the image down to another set and projected it live onto a massive screen that enveloped the other actor, standing alone in front of it and reacting to it in real time. I loved the quality of this image, despite the fact that we could not project at the full 6K. It was an interesting experiment.

How did you use the Prime 65 and Vintage 765 lenses?

The first four or five weeks in Munich involved quite a bit of VFX, so I shot with the newer Prime 65 lenses and they performed perfectly. But then we were travelling to Washington, Hong Kong and Hawaii, with less VFX, and I instinctively felt that I needed a change. There wasn’t time to test the Vintage 765 lenses, but I took them because I knew they were beautiful and softer, and the wrap-around and fall-off would be different. It was a leap of faith and they are slightly more irregular in the colors, but it was an intuitive thing and I was very pleased I did it. 

What was the ALEXA 65 like on location?

Sometimes the resolution itself was helpful. At one very difficult nightclub location it was impossible to get a crane inside the building, so we replicated a crane shot by shooting certain tracking elements with a dolly and then reframing in post to give the impression of a track and jib from a tight close-up to almost a full figure.

At other locations the difficulty was a lack of electricity, but I wanted to catch places the way we see them. I didn’t push the ASA, I just exposed what I could, sometimes a couple of stops under and struggling in some areas of the picture; but the blacks were still solid and as you lifted the image up for the dailies, it was robust and peaceful, and that was incredible to work with.

I was shooting in natural light in a place called Tong Lau, a very poor area in Hong Kong that’s like an organic painting – there’s so much detail, so many little things you can see. If you hold the camera and take your time, letting the audience slowly feel this place, it’s like licking the windowsills of these slum buildings. So yes, it was an amazing advantage having the ALEXA 65 on the journey.