ALEXA XT on "John Wick"

Cinematographer Jonathan Sela captures ARRIRAW with ALEXA XT cameras and combines anamorphic with spherical lenses on the new Keanu Reeves action film.

Oct. 27, 2014

Keanu Reeves plays the title character in "John Wick," portraying a former hit-man who is drawn back to his past life after being violently attacked in his own home. Directed by former stunt coordinators Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, the movie contains more than its fair share of action, but also boasts a bold and distinctive look crafted by cinematographer Jonathan Sela, whose previous credits include "A Good Day To Die Hard" and "Max Payne." Sela chose to work with ALEXA XT cameras, combining anamorphic with spherical lenses and capturing in ARRIRAW to maximize image quality for a 4K cinema release.   

How and why was ALEXA chosen for this film?

Well, this was my first digital movie; all the commercials I've shot for the last couple of years have been digital, but this was the first feature. When we started talking about what kind of a look would be right for the movie I was pushing for a mix of ARRICAM and ALEXA, so a blend of film and digital. Everybody loved the idea but when you run the numbers of having two packages and also the cost of film, it gets too expensive, so we decided to work entirely with the ALEXA. It's the camera I've used on commercials so I knew I was comfortable with the ALEXA and I knew I liked it.

What kind of a look did you and the directors want?

Our main visual idea for the film was to achieve two different looks, one for John Wick's normal life before the action begins and the other for the underground world he is drawn back into. We wanted the first look to be soft and clean, and the second to be grittier, darker and sharper. For cost reasons we were shooting with just the one camera format, so I used different lenses and contrasting camerawork to create these two distinct looks. The first part of the movie is more static and then when John Wick goes back to being a hit-man, the camera never stops moving.


What were your lens choices?

We had the idea of using both anamorphic and spherical lenses, so we got hold of a set of Hawk's Vintage '74 anamorphics and combined them with Cooke S4s. Originally we planned to use anamorphics for the first section and sphericals for the second, but once we were shooting we felt that the camerawork was enough to separate those two worlds and we ended up using the anamorphics mainly for day work and the sphericals for night work. The Vintage '74s are beautiful but they flare a lot and at night we thought that would become too much. In daylight they gave us a hazy look and reduced the contrast, which helped make the day scenes seem much more cinematic to me.

Did having on-board ARRIRAW recording with the ALEXA XT cameras make the kinetic camerawork later in the film easier?

Yes, it makes a huge difference getting rid of the big recorder on top of the camera. Having the ALEXA XT with in-camera ARRIRAW is like going to back to an ARRICAM or an ARRIFLEX 435, which is amazing. We did a lot of handheld work in the second section of the film, so that was an important factor. We also had the ALEXA M and it was great having a small camera for car scenes -- being able to squeeze through the window or into restricted spaces.

You were recording ARRIRAW and for the anamorphic scenes you were using almost all of ALEXA's 4:3 sensor area; was that valuable for a film that will be released in 4K on the big screen?

Yes it was good to maximize our image quality by using the whole sensor area. I think on the big screen that makes a real difference, whereas in the commercials world you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Shooting in ARRIRAW and having that extra sensor area helps most when you need to manipulate the image; you'll notice it when you have to adjust the color or contrast in a scene because you simply have more information to work with. I prefer to do everything in-camera, but the intentions for a scene can sometimes shift in postproduction and the ARRIRAW image will stand up to those kinds of changes.

Photos by David Lee Copyright John Wick, PPNY, Inc