How ARRI technology helped to create four visual worlds in Netflix’s “Robbing Mussolini”
Shot with the ALEXA Mini LF, Signature Primes, and ARRI lights, Netflix’s feature film “Robbing Mussolini” is structured into four aesthetic worlds. ARRI talked to DP Gian Filippo Corticelli about his experiences on set in Italy and colorist Andrea Baracca about the finishing touches of the film.
A longtime collaborator with different Italian directors, cinematographer Gian Filippo Corticelli renewed his partnership with Renato De Maria for the Netflix film “Robbing Mussolini.” The heist movie is set in 1945, when a Milanese entrepreneur recruits a crew for an elaborate robbery of a legendary treasure belonging to Benito Mussolini. The film is structured into "four worlds, linked to four characters and four situations," explains DP Corticelli in our interview about the twelve weeks on set in Italy. Talking to ARRI about HDR grading, colorist Andrea “Red” Baracca explains how he brought the colors of this nuanced project to life.
Cinematographer Gian Filippo Corticelli created distinctive aesthetic worlds in “Robbing Mussolini”
Interview with DP Gian Filippo Corticelli
In which locations was “Robbing Mussolini” filmed?
In total, filming lasted twelve weeks. The first half of the movie was shot in and around Rome: at Italo Balbo's office at the Ministry of Aeronautics in Castro Pretorio, at Snia, or in the Soratte bunker. In Largo Preneste, there is an old abandoned industrial structure that, with the addition of some rubble, looked like a war zone. Then the set moved to a castle in the Viterbo area and other locations around there, before we advanced to Trieste, where we shot a rather long part in a location called the “Black Zone” within the film. For this, we recreated a suburb of Milan in the old port of Trieste, where the scene of the theft of Mussolini's treasure, the heart of the film, takes place. The last scenes were captured in Tarvisio, where the final chase ends. Additional sequences were shot in Turin.
What guidance did you receive from the director on the visual style of the film?
Renato De Maria gave me precise recommendations, and he did the same for the costume and set design departments. He divided the film into four worlds, related to four situations and four characters. The first was Cabiria, a nightclub where the protagonist Yvonne works. The nightclub is frequented by fascists, Nazis and partisans: a diverse humanity that comes together in a place where one forgets the war for a while. For this world De Maria thought of the color red, evoking blood and the flow of life. Then there is the world of fascist protagonist Borsalino, Mussolini’s right-hand man in the film. His is a cold world of ice and marble, marked by a somewhat aseptic white light and buildings with marble stairways. Then there is the world of Isola, the male protagonist, a world linked to the war and its scars, made of gutted buildings and rubble, in which the dominant colors are rust, brown, and green. Finally, there is the "Black Zone," in which the central scene of the film, the robbery, takes place. It is a dark, shadowy world, a super-guarded zone, illuminated only by control lights that scan the darkness for possible raiders. It is an almost black-and-white situation, with less color and more light and shadow.
Director Renato de Maria gave precise directions to the crew about the visual style of “Robbing Mussolini”
What specific references did you have in mind for “Robbing Mussolini”?
I was mainly interested in having different chromatic characteristics mixing in the frame: mainly cold and warm light. With Renato we thought of “Peaky Blinders,” “Inglourious Basterds,” and “1917.” The rust of the trenches seemed like a good reference to evoke the world of Isola and the war situation. We also wanted a bit of graphic novel light, so I deviated from my commandment, saying: Always make a real, natural light!
You used the ARRI ALEXA Mini LF. How did the choice come about?
We had three cameras: two ALEXA Mini LFs and one ALEXA XT as a third camera, with ARRI Signature Prime lenses. Of course, I have personal preferences on lenses and sensors, but I try to approach each film from scratch and figure out what system might be best for that individual film. Kind of like when you leave the house and you have to decide what shoes to put on: if you go jogging, you don't put on your boots. When I start a project, I like to do tests by comparing different sensors and lenses. Then, I discuss it with the director and find the right look. In this case, I tried other sensors, but ARRI seemed the most suitable for a period film set in 1945, as it has a certain roundness. Plus, wanting to use different chromatic characteristics within the frame, it seemed to me that the ARRI sensor better separated the warm color from the cold, while the others all tended to flatten a bit. “Robbing Mussolini” is a Netflix project, it had to be shot in native 4K. So I opted for wide format, also to experiment with the different depth of field compared to Super 35.
Being a Netflix project, “Robbing Mussolini” was shot in native 4K
What added value did ARRI Signature Prime lenses bring?
While I have my favorite ARRI series, I approach each project by conducting trials to find the best look for the specific film. Again, I tested with three or four types of lenses, and everything was leading me in the direction of ARRI Signature Prime. “Robbing Mussolini” is a war film, so I could explore vintage, raw tones to reproduce the year 1945. The round sharpness of these lenses was perfect for the purpose, a mean but delicate sharpness in a look with rust and green tones. In addition, there are some ever-present elements in this film: smoke, water, and blur. Blur is a feature I really love in anamorphic lenses, where it emerges more magical than spherical. However, the ARRI Signature Prime lenses have a very fascinating blur with the aperture all open. They are spherical lenses with a short depth of field, especially in wide fields, which is a special feature of large formats. Last but not least, I really appreciated the lightness of these lenses. Working with Ronin, drones, Steadicam, and handheld camera, the lightness was something that further shifted the balance in favor of ARRI Signature Primes.
How was the lighting handled?
Fortunately, the film had a large budget and I was able to work with the materials I needed. In Trieste—in the Black Zone—there was a 400-meter-long, dark street, in which I had to start from scratch to generate a high contrast light. As it is a war zone in the film, there were no streetlights, window lights, or store lights. Everything was totally dark. Discussing it with Renato, we came up with a type of light seen in war movies, in concentration camps: We illuminated the area with searchlights that cut through the darkness, reaching around the perimeter of the garrisoned area. My research brought me to Mole-Richardson floodlights, which, while modern, have a very vintage look. I needed that look because they had to be in the shot. The camera was going to see the searchlights as if they were army searchlights, oriented by a soldier. There were ARRI M-Series lights, with powers ranging from 1800 to 9000 Watt, and we had several LED lights and ARRI SkyPanels.
“The film had a large budget and I was able to work with the materials I needed,” says DP Gian Filippo Corticelli
What was the ASA setting?
I pushed the ALEXA Mini LF to 1600 ASA to close the ARRI Signature Primes half a stop and not put focus pullers in a tough spot. The lens was not working at full aperture, so it had more contrast and sharpness. Basically, I was running the camera at 1280 ASA, and at night I was trying to push the sensitivity both for the fires and for optimal lens performance.
Were there any other complicated situations to handle with regards to lighting?
Definitely the Snia. It was not the same size as the "Black Zone," but it was just as complicated because I had to illuminate a long road where a shootout was taking place. There I coordinated with chief electrician Felice Guzzi, who is used to working with big rigs and 60 meter cranes. We were in doubt whether to use the ARRI M18 or the SkyPanel 360-C lights, but since the distance was so long and SkyPanels work very well from a closer distance, we opted for the M18, while we used the SkyPanels in Trieste.
ARRI lighting helped to create the different visual styles of “Robbing Mussolini”
What kind of camera movements did you use?
There were many long takes. In fact, the two operators both had Steadicams with the Ronin. “Robbing Mussolini” has a lot of camera movements, mostly dollies, Steadicam, and Ronin. There were few handheld shots.
What monitoring did you use on set?
Working together with colorist Andrea “Red” Baracca, we created an LMT related mostly to the contrast we were looking for. We dirtied the blacks, cooling them, and created two or three things in the LMT that we felt went with the four worlds and could work throughout the film.
DP Gian Filippo Corticelli and colorist Andrea Baracca created an LMT related to the contrast they were looking for in the film
Interview with colorist Andrea “Red” Baracca
How did you handle color work in HDR for the four different atmospheres required?
We had a long list of war and action movie references and different situations to develop. It was forbidden to desaturate and, on the contrary, we were invited to play with very sharp and present colors in the different situations, such as in the scenes at Cabiria club, all in the red range, or in the night scenes in the Black Zone, all in cyan. We were obviously trying not to lose the “war look” requested by the DP and the director. In all this, the digital ARRI material was a valuable ally, because it responds naturally to every need during color correction. The rest was done by Gian Filippo Corticelli, who together with the set and costume department brought this nuanced film to life. I, after all, only put in the LMT.
How did the use of ARRI technology benefit working in HDR in this project?
Doing color correction in HDR with digital files from ARRI cameras is extremely simple and without compromises. Its extensive latitude and its ability to read and record highlights helps a great deal with choices in color HDR, almost making them obvious. It is amazing to see how much information the ALEXA camera manages and returns in all the color spaces in which it works. In my opinion, no camera on the market can match the ALEXA on this.
Can you tell us more about the LMT creation work done with the cinematographer?
There would be much to say about the LMT and its various applications. But in this case, I can only say that I am an old school colorist. With Gian Filippo Corticelli, we created a LMT with a color palette as close as possible to Kodak film, but without dominants that somehow interacted with the color temperature choices of the lights used on set. The contrast also had to be in line with Gian Filippo's choices on set. On the exposure range, on the other hand, we worked to have a darker LMT of two to three stops. We did that in order to work with a slight overexposure, which results in a much richer and "glazed" black, at least in my way of doing color correction.