ALEXA 65 on "The Great Wall"

Director Zhang Yimou and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh ASC, NZCS speak to ARRI about using ALEXA 65 on the epic US-Chinese historical fantasy.

Feb. 6, 2017

"The Great Wall" is a joint production from China Film Group, Le Vision Pictures, Legendary East and Universal Pictures. Set during the Northern Song Dynasty, the story sees European mercenaries join forces with a specialist Chinese army to battle fierce monsters known as the Taotie. Director Zhang Yimou and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (co-credited with Zhao Xiaoding) here share their experiences on the film, which was the first to use ARRI Rental's ALEXA 65 as its A-camera on main unit.


What led you to consider ALEXA 65 for this film?

Stuart Dryburgh: The very first Skype call I had with Zhang, I brought up the ALEXA 65 because it just seemed exactly the right tool for the job. Not only the scope and scale of the wide shots, but the heavy visual effects content required a high-resolution image.

Zhang Yimou: Before we started principle photography Stuart did tests and recommended the ALEXA 65 to me. I made the decision right after I learned about the camera. Later I found out that "The Great Wall" was the first film to be mainly shot with ALEXA 65. We planned to release the film in different formats, such as IMAX, 4K and 2K, which would benefit from ALEXA 65's large and high-resolution sensor. I believe high-end feature films should offer superior image quality over conventional content and that's something ALEXA 65 can definitely deliver.

Was it considered a risk, to be the first to use the system in this way?

SD: I spent almost a year observing the development of the ALEXA 65 and had shot tests with it at Shepperton, so it wasn't such a leap of faith. I came to realize, spending time with the development team, that although it's a brand new camera, it's based on ALEXA...It's not really a new camera system at all, it's an enhanced ALEXA, so I felt very comfortable in that way, as did all the post people.

One of the other things that gave me great confidence going to China with the ALEXA 65 was the support I was getting and knew I could rely on from ARRI. Obviously the development team and ARRI Rental were very keen that the camera performed well on its first major outing, so they sent two technicians with us for our preproduction camera setup and the first few weeks of shooting, and that was amazing. In fact we had very few technical issues...but having that level of support from ARRI gave me -- and the producers -- the confidence to take a small risk on a new camera.

What benefits did the ALEXA 65 format bring to this production?

ZYM: 65 mm lenses have a different angle of view compared with 35 mm lenses and they fit nicely in the visual storytelling of the film. The Great Wall of China is one of the most magnificent architectures in the world and we were able to take advantage of the large sensor to capture the sheer scale of the battles. Therefore I think ALEXA 65 was the perfect choice for this film. A smaller sensor and narrower angle of view would not be able to deliver the same level of visual impact.


SD: We had a set of the Great Wall built in a greenscreen enclosure that was something like 300 m long and we would often put 500 extras into it. We had CableCam shots 100 m above the wall, seeing the whole thing, and you could make out every individual character, which meant that for crowd replication and all those other things that would be happening in post, you're creating the highest possible resolution image.

How would you describe the look and feel of the ALEXA 65 image?

SD: When we saw ARRI's test films, the one that actually most impressed me was the faces, the close-ups, because it hadn't occurred to me that not only was this a great camera for epic wide shots, but that it would render faces as beautifully as film does...with the ALEXA 65 you get beautiful roll-off and skin tones. I would shoot a beauty commercial on it for sure...it's a terrific-looking picture, as are all ALEXAs, but this time with more fine detail.

ZYM: The images from ALEXA 65 have more clarity; the dynamic range and color reproduction are excellent. Despite being a digital camera, ALEXA 65 still manages to retain the organic smoothness from analog film. Many other digital cameras tend to be too clinical in terms of sharpness and detail. ALEXA 65 isn't like that -- the images look pleasing without being overly sharp. The tonal range, gradation and granularity also impressed me.

You had both the Prime 65 and Vintage 765 lens series; did you use each for specific things?

SD: To be honest we mixed the Prime 65s and Vintage 765s -- eventually without giving it much thought at all. A more techy person than myself could probably pick the difference, but I was very comfortable with both. If the right focal length for a particular shot was on the A-camera as a Vintage 765 and on the B-camera as a Prime 65, I felt quite comfortable in mixing them up. Any minor differences in resolution or lens color can be corrected so easily in post, particularly with frame data of that scale.

What influence do you think ALEXA 65 may have on the Chinese film industry?

ZYM: As a director I have high standards for image quality and aesthetics. Good visual storytelling is a result of the proper integration of technologies. I hope that shooting with ALEXA 65 on "The Great Wall" would bring the attention of Chinese filmmakers to this topic. The quality of films will ultimately depend upon the filmmakers' ability to take advantage of the tools.

Photos: Jasin Boland for Universal Pictures