Jul. 13, 2022

ARRI ALEXA LF, Mini LF, and Signature Primes behind the scenes of a Portuguese feature film

Cinematographer João Pedro Plácido aip talks to ARRI about choosing a Signature look for director Jeanne Waltz’s “The Wind Whistling in the Cranes.”

Jul. 13, 2022

Based on the successful novel by Portuguese author Lídia Jorge, “The Wind Whistling in the Cranes” (“O Vento Assobiando nas Gruas”) is a coming-of-age story about a girl who falls in love with a member of a family very different from her own. Set in southern Portugal, where a colonial past still sends ripples and rifts through 1990s society, it follows the girl as she discovers sex, love, marriage, and different ways of living. A co-production between CRIM Filmes in Portugal and Box Productions in Switzerland, it was directed by Jeanne Waltz and shot with ALEXA cameras and Signature Prime lenses by cinematographer João Pedro Plácido, who spoke to ARRI about his work on the film.

Why did large format seem like the right approach for this story?

Jeanne, our director, didn’t want a genre aesthetic; she wanted to create her own style. We talked through a lot of ideas and found a common language. We had all these landscapes and beautiful sets. Also, the story revolves around social class issues, and since backgrounds can tell a lot about characters, we needed to see them. But I also wanted to be physically close to the characters without having a wide-angle lens deforming their faces. So it made sense to use a wide field of view. This is what led us to large format.

How did you use the cameras you had?

Our budget was very limited, so for most of the shoot I just had one camera, an ALEXA LF, which I love. There was a second unit for around eight days, and we had a Mini LF as a B-camera for about three or four days, mainly for helicopter, crane, and gimbal shots—that kind of thing. Two or three times we had an ALEXA SXT as a B-camera, because the footage cuts together fine with the larger format.

What dictated your choice of lenses?

Early on we wondered about shooting anamorphic, and I was looking at Hawk lenses, but for budget reasons we came back to spherical. The story is set in the 1990s, so I then thought of the Ultra Primes, which I really love and are from around that time. But we were shooting large format, which limited our options. I tested some other large-format lenses from a different manufacturer but found them unbearably heavy and the look was too glitzy. When I tried the Signature Primes, they just felt natural, and that was exactly what I was looking for.

I tested the Signatures in the same conditions I knew we would be shooting in: a lot of backlight, the sun touching the lenses sometimes, or the actors in silhouette with the sun behind their heads. The contrast of the Signatures was just a winner for me, and Jeanne agreed. When we watched the tests, even my colorist said, “These lenses are awesome.” After a screening of the whole movie just the other day, the same colorist congratulated me for pushing the production to get the lenses. It was a battle, but I’m glad I fought it because everybody was so happy with the results, especially the skin tones.  

This was the first Portuguese movie to shoot with ALEXA LF and Signature Primes?

That’s right. The industry here simply doesn’t have the budgets for high-end equipment on long-form shoots; it’s really just commercials that can use this kind of gear. It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of PLANAR in Lisbon, and its conscious, generous owner, José Tiago, who is himself a DP. It came to a point where I had tested so many lenses and I was so sure I wanted the Signature look, but our budget wasn’t covering the equipment list. He made the effort to give me this opportunity and to help me grow professionally. He’s passionate to deliver the right tools for each project and wanted to see a Portuguese movie shot with Signatures.

How did you work with the Signatures? Were you shooting wide open?

In general, I tried not to go below T2.8 because it just makes life difficult for the focus puller. There's enough out of focus at that stop; I don’t feel the need to go further. In fact, most of the time I stayed at around T4. Sometimes at night I had to shoot wide open because I literally had no more lights. On those occasions I could really test what the ARRIRAW was giving me, and it was incredible; even if there was a bit of noise, the noise was totally normal for the light level and felt very natural. I had an amazing focus puller, an amazing grip, and an amazing gaffer, who all helped to elevate the visuals of the film.

What aspect ratio did you shoot at?

I chose 2:1, Univisium. Jeanne’s first instinct was to shoot 16:9, but I didn’t feel it would be cinematic enough. Then when I was looking at Hawks, we were considering a scope ratio, although Jeanne never liked the black bars top and bottom. In the end, 2:1 seemed like a good compromise between the two. For me, it feels like a very fair, well-balanced format where you can be close to the characters and still see enough of the background, and also you can easily frame two people.

What techniques did you use to help tell the story visually?

I'm a big fan of color psychology and the effects that color can have on viewers. I spoke a lot with the production designer and costume department to identify colors that would give us the right mood. For example, infertility is a theme in the story, and I used blue tones for that, whereas when the main character is at home or in a comforting environment, I used orange.

Also, this movie was shot in eight weeks in the south of Portugal, but the story goes through an entire year. I used different colors to create the illusion of four seasons. There's a really rich palette, because you start with the warmth of summer, you go through a bit of autumn, then you go to winter with rain and cold and blue, and you end up in the spring.

In terms of camerawork, I tried to be fairly unobtrusive. For the beginning of the story, I used more wide-angle lenses to give an impression of the main character being a bit lost in the environments she finds herself in. But as she matures and becomes more aware of herself and her sexuality, I moved towards mid and long lenses, so that she’s more separated from the background.