ARRI Behind the Scenes of "The Wandering Earth"

China’s second highest-grossing release in history earned $700 million at the worldwide box office and is currently the third biggest global release of 2019. Still under the radar in many parts of the world, “The Wandering Earth,” shot and lit with ARRI equipment, is now available on Netflix.

May 31, 2019

“The Wandering Earth” is a sci-fi film produced by China Film Group Corporation, Beijing Jingxi Culture & Tourism Co., Ltd, Beijing Dengfeng Co., Ltd, and Frant Guo (Beijing) Co., Ltd. It was adapted from the novel written by Cixin Liu. Set in the far future, “The Wandering Earth” follows a group of astronauts whose mission it is to find another solar system in which to settle. The ever aging and expanding Sun is becoming a danger to mankind, however separating the Earth from its life source creates problems of its own. 

ARRI spoke with “The Wandering Earth” cinematographer Yin Liu about his work on this monumental science fiction film. Read what he has to say in our exclusive interview. 

How did you and your team want to make “The Wandering Earth” different from previous Chinese sci-fi movies?

Director Frant Guo is a sci-fi fan so making a sci-fi movie has always been his dream. I’ve been working with him for years and we always wanted to make one together. However, our demands were high; if we were to make a sci-fi film, it has to be stylistically Chinese. In preproduction, we decided that “The Wandering Earth” had to be created by Chinese people and that we must reach a certain standard with workflow and production that would resonate with Chinese audiences. The images must be of good quality and in good taste; all the sets, costumes, and props needed to look authentic. Moreover, we decided not only to make this film a regular sci-fi film, but we were also trying to reach the next level of production quality. I am very proud to be part of the team.

As the DP of this film, what visual references did you use in creating the look of “The Wandering Earth”?

The visual style is based on the original novel and was developed according to both “realism” and “formalism.” This is a film about the universe as a whole and mankind’s place in it. These are larger than life topics, so we naturally wanted to relay this “big” feeling. “The Wandering Earth” is also a disaster film. When a movie contains both sci-fi and disaster elements, I, together with the director, tend to make the characters the center of the story and use sci-fi elements and visual effects for supporting the background story. We want to focus on characters’ emotion and their relationships. We really hope the audience can not only enjoy the film visually, but also feel it emotionally, and relate the story to themselves.

For example, the underground city looks very typically Chinese. The story takes place during the Chinese New Year, so we decorated the scene with a lot of colorful lights and made the ground look a little greasy and dirty. We made it look almost like a typical urban pedestrian zone in China but with a cyber punk style. We wanted to make the audience feel a part of it all. We wanted them to be empathetic to the characters and not say “this is just a movie and I have nothing to do with it.” 

We had so many visual references, including “Ghost in the Shell,” “Blade Runner,” “Interstellar,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and so on. However, despite all these references, our goal was to make the film look Chinese and we tried our best to achieve it.

What was your basis for choosing the ALEXA SXT and ALEXA Mini to shoot this sci-fi picture?

I’ve been using ALEXA cameras for a long time and we’ve done a lot of testing in the past. I know exactly just how good the image quality is, so we didn’t need to do a camera test for dynamic range and performance under low light situations this time.

However, I did all kinds of tests before the actual production to find out how the image would look given the practicals we were using. We also did many tests using the SkyPanel to create different lighting effects and to match the various colors on set.

Many scenes in “The Wandering Earth” required that the cameras performed well in color and with lighting. ARRI cameras always produce great results. ALEXA can still capture good images even in scenes with low light and low contrast. We used ALEXA Mini mainly for the motion shots. Some of the sets had limited space, so ALEXA Mini, being small and handy, was great for these tricky angles as well.

In the history of motion pictures, many classic sci-fi films were shot with anamorphic lenses. Why did you choose to shoot with them as well?

Anamorphic lenses capture images much like the human eye; it is also a trend. We really wanted the images to make an impact on audiences; we wanted the images to feel real and impressive. I’m also a fan of the shallow depth of field that anamorphic lenses have. Master Anamorphic lenses transmit a new feeling to the audience, so there was no doubt in our minds about choosing them. “The Wandering Earth” has an aspect ratio of 2.55:1; it’s closer to the perspective of the human eye.

Moreover, I like images with a certain sharpness and a bit of an industrial look, but with no distortion. If we had a shot that had distortion in it, we fixed it in post. We wanted the images to look nice and neat, with no messiness. Sometimes, in an intense crisis situation, we would change the style a bit, but most of the time we just wanted all the lines to be vertical to the edge of the frame in order for the film to look more industrial.

Many scenes in “The Wandering Earth” were shot in a sound stage. Which focal length did you use for those scenes? Besides Master Anamorphic lenses, you also used ARRI Anamorphic Ultra Wide Zoom 19-36 mm, T4.2, an ultra-wide zoom lens. Was it easy to match these images with what was shot with Master Anamorphic lenses?

I wanted the audience to feel immersed, so I used lenses with shorter focal lengths more; 25 mm, 35 mm, 45 mm, and 50 mm were the ones I usually used. I used prime lenses when I could since I prefer them to zoom lenses.

One of the zoom lenses we used was ARRI’s Anamorphic Ultra Wide Zoom 19-36 mm T4.2. It gave us a wider angle which was perfect for big scenes. For example, when we wanted to show how small and helpless human beings are in nature, AUWZ gave us a very wide shot where the characters are only a very small part of the image. This is exactly what AUWZ can provide.

With Master Anamorphic lenses, the image quality stays pretty much the same even when using different apertures. To me, the various apertures give me a different depth of field. When you change aperture on some old lenses, the image quality also changes, but you don’t have this problem with Master Anamorphic lenses. Both MA lenses and AUWZ 19-36mm T4.2 lenses have a shallow depth of field and minimum distortion; they produce images that look similar, so it was easy to match and very suitable for what we were looking for.

What was the idea behind the lighting in “The Wandering Earth”?

The first rule we followed was to make sure all the lighting looked realistic. For instance, we needed to consider how the lighting was going to change according to the movements of Mars, the Earth, the Sun, and the engine. We also put some thoughts into color contrast. For example, the underground city where humans live was very crowded and messy. A high contrast, colorful image worked better than a clean one in these scenes. Here we used many different color lights and set them at different angles as background lighting. 

Cold, white, hard lighting is from the sun. Cyan-blueish lighting is from the engine deep saturation of blue indicates that the engine is working, the faster it goes, the less saturated the blue tone would be. When the orange/red soft light from Mars gets stronger, it signifies a crisis on the horizon. We mainly used the SkyPanels and a lighting control console on set to change color, saturation, and brightness. We also used a large amount of T4, T5, T8 regular light tubes covered by gel as practicals. This way lights from different angle, with different color and brightness went along with the environment. 

Even though we shot a lot in sound stages, we didn’t use a lot of lights. We tried to use environmental lighting as much as possible. For instance, I wouldn’t use a key light or fill light, instead, I used more practical lighting to make it look more real.

How many lights did you use while shooting “The Wandering Earth”? What kind of lighting do you prefer to use?

We used more than a hundred SkyPanels, including S30-C, S60-C, and S120-C. We could use SkyPanel with diffusion to make very soft lighting; we could also use them all around to create a lighting effect. The movie needed a variety of lighting scenearios, and SkyPanel really helped with that. We’ve tried the flickering effect, the color gradient effect, fast color switching, and the marquee lighting effect. In my opinion, without SkyPanel, the image would be missing something. This way of lighting will definitely become a future trend. It was actually my first time using so many SkyPanels in shooting “The Wandering Earth,” but the other project I’m working on right now actually requires more complicated lighting in preproduction.

We also used many ARRIMAX 18s and M-Series M90s. I turned 18K light to diffuse reflection for big areas. And with all the practicals on set, I could create lots of lighting effects. ARRI M-Series M90 lights are much brighter than 12K par and 6K par. The scene where everything was frozen in ice needed hard lighting, so we used a few ARRIMAX 18s to make it look like a spotlight. When we were shooting scenes with trucks, we mounted the M90 or ARRIMAX 18 along with controllers on three jib arms on a track. We then put shattered glass in front of them to make it look like a reflection from ice when trucks are moving.

In many circumstances, we used a lighting control console or lights on jib arms to change the lighting ratio and direction according to where the actors were. We also connected all practicals to a controller so we could adjust brightness and flickering according to their acting. We had so many lights that it seemed as though everyone around me had some sort of controller in their hand. Some of them had switches, some had controllers with knobs, some had iPads or control consoles. Pretty much everyone did some sort of lighting control for me, including the director, the VFX supervisor, and the assistant directors. 

Can you tell us about your daily workflow and shooting process?

We had very detailed storyboards and visual previews from preproduction. The directorial team, the camera department, and the VFX department discussed the shooting schedule and lighting design beforehand, so we were basically following our own schedule. We set up most of the lights before we shot and only made small adjustments while the actors were rehearsing. 

Since the actors’ costumes weighed around a hundred pounds each, it took a good deal of effort for them to be worn for a long time. We tried to make lighting adjustments as quickly as we could and used several cameras to get various angles of coverage at the same time. The lighting setup was also designed for this situation. We made the lighting work for multi-camera shooting and it became a style. We adjusted lights according to the actors’ movements using a control console. This way we solved the problem of mismatched lighting between shots.

What kind of footage did you capture for “The Wandering Earth”? How was the DIT workflow on set?

We shot open gate 3.4K ARRIRAW. The SJWORKS team was in charge of the DIT work for this project and they designed a very detailed workflow for us. There were three departments under the DIT: QTAKE Video Assist, Live Grade, and DMT. We had ten groups of monitors, which was about twenty monitors in total. QTAKE department managed to have a wireless video signal all around the sound stage. We could view the live videos from the cameras on iPads anywhere on the sound stage. The live grade department helped us to color grade the shots we needed to shoot differently on set. This made the color grading in post more efficient. ARRI cameras kept track of all kinds of data for the VFX shots and that was very convenient for our workflow. This data and the HDRI served as useful references for the VFX department. Besides that, our director also played an important role in color grading. 

It was pretty intense on set every day since we needed to shoot enough before the actors ran out of energy. Although we did some preset LUTs, we used Rec 709 on set for monitoring. We also did all the lighting effects during the shoot as well as lighting ratio and color contrast. This made color grading in post much smoother.

How did you manage the shots that required unusual movements?

Personally, I prefer using a techno crane for camera movements when we have enough space. We had a 45ft long crane, a GF16 crane, and a GF8 crane. We also had a remote head and handwheels system to control movements. Sometimes when we were in a narrow space, we used a DJI stabilized head or jib arm on a small dolly with a remote head to do the shot. However, all the handheld shots were done in the traditional way. I hope that I can use the ARRI Master Grips next time.

With an industry-standard production like this, what advantages of the ALEXA cameras or the ARRI SkyPanels do you think are essential? 

I began using ARRI products in 2004. I was an assistant cameraman at that time and we were using ARRI 535B and ARRIFLEX III film cameras. Ever since fiming “My Old Classmate,” I’ve used ARRI cameras. ARRI cameras are very stable which gives me a feeling of security. I can rely on them because they always work great. And of course, they have the best image quality and the most accurate color reproduction. As for the ARRI lighting equipment, I really like the SkyPanels and the lighting control console. With SkyPanels and their software, you can easily create lighting effects which were always considered very complicated in the past. For my next project, I have already arranged to use the latest SkyPanel S360-C LED light from ARRI. I tested the ALEXA 65 camera four years ago at CINEC in Munich, and I’ve always wanted to use it with DNA lenses ever since.

Another impressive point about ARRI products is their German craftsmanship. The products that ARRI makes are all reliable in form and function. I’ve visited the ARRI lighting production line where some jobs are being carried out by the same family across three generations. This kind of spirit make the products reliable; this is also something we should learn. 

Lastly, I want to thank ARRI and Beijing YouYuanYingShi Co.,LTD for providing equipment for this shoot. They gave us a lot of technical support during shooting. I also want to thank director Frant Guo for trusting me and the production team for supporting us. Thank you to all my colleagues; Zhang Linke in production; Zhang Quanming, Zhao Fei, Zhang Wuhua, Xiaoli for being in the camera crew; and everyone in the electric and grip department. I wouldn’t have been able to shoot “The Wandering Earth” without all their hard work.

Photos: China Film Group Corporation, Beijing Jingxi Culture & Tourism Co., Ltd, Beijing Dengfeng Co., Ltd, and Frant Guo (Beijing) Co., Ltd