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Customizing the ARRI Signature look

Australian DP Alexander Leeway crafts unique ARRI Signature Prime looks by using the lenses’ magnetic rear filter holder on his music video shoot for Phondupe’s "Silo".

The music video for “Silo” by Sydney-based recording artist Phondupe visualizes internal angst through the interpretive dance of its performers and the sometimes distorted intensity of its images. Director and cinematographer Alexander Leeway turned to ARRI Austrialia for ideas about creating different looks with lenses, and was pointed towards the magnetic rear filter holder of ARRI Signature Primes. By experimenting with improvised materials in this filter holder, and using a prototype diopter, Leeway developed unique looks for different sections of the music video. He shot with ALEXA LF and Mini LF cameras and a TRINITY stabilizer, and spoke to ARRI about the experience.

Watch the music video for Phondupe’s "Silo"

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How did the concept for this music video evolve?

“Silo” is set in the desolate mindscape of a young man’s purgatory, where he is tormented by inner demons. At the brink of his precipice, the young man’s guardian manifests in the flesh to challenge him as he realizes his strength. Phondupe produced the song during a cathartic and challenging period of his life; it’s a raw and ethereal exploration of existential dread as the catalyst for triumph over adversity. Pulsing analog synths and a gritty breakbeat capture the essence of chaos, a sonic palette that resonates with anarchic despair and that inspired this otherworldly story, setting, and characters.

What made ARRI large format the right choice for this shoot?

The story of “Silo” is intimate and yet also epic. The larger format sensor allowed me to physically get closer to the performers and capture them on an emotionally engaging and intimate level, whilst still being immersed in the landscape around them. We used the ALEXA LF for studio scenes and the Mini LF on location at Bombo Headland Quarry in Kiama, Australia. 

I feel that the larger scope you get from the combination of these cameras and the Signature Primes really lifted our story. The detail and color and cadence that render out of ARRI products are true to what our eyes see, but when framed and pushed in a certain way, the visuals can be heightened into a new realm of reality. And that gets me excited as a filmmaker. 

What was your approach to the camerawork, and how did the ARRI TRINITY contribute to that?

I wanted the camera to move with the ebbs and flows of the character’s emotional states, from frantic moments to moments of peace. It was important to work with a camera and lens system that would allow for light work and quick adaptation for me and the TRINITY operator, whilst delivering the best image possible.

Max McLachlan, our operator, found the TRINITY a real treat. It particularly showed its value when operating over the uneven and slippery rocks at Bombo Quarry, which it handled with ease. Max was able to operate ‘Don Juan’ style (shooting backwards, walking forwards) while looking at the gimbal-mounted monitor, and the added control of the tilt head was crucial in maintaining healthy head room in the shot. We don’t think that we could have achieved the same shots with a traditional Steadicam system.

The dance choreography was roughly mapped out, but I allowed a lot of room to improvise and some of the movements were quite spontaneous. The TRINITY allowed us flexibility to pan and tilt and boom, adapting quickly to the choreography as it unfolded naturally, whilst keeping the camera movement absolutely precise and smooth. 

What are your thoughts on how the Signature Primes perform?

The images out of the Signature Prime lenses are beautiful. They have a painterly and almost hyper-realistic quality to them, rendering so much detail but in a soft and pleasing way. To me they’re true to what the human eye sees, but subtly pushed beyond reality. Faces and subjects roll off and blend into the background in an authentic yet heightened way with the increased depth of field you get from the large-format sensor.

Physically they’re built like a tank, but are so light. It made operating handheld and flying on the TRINITY a walk in the park, especially on the challenging terrain. The Signature Primes are probably my favorite lenses right now; they’re just quite versatile with the look they can produce. 

A key element of their versatility is the rear magnetic filter holder; how did you make use of it?

We were able to elevate the image into more of a surreal and mesmerizing style by utilizing the rear filter holder. You can magnetically place glass diopters and filtration of your choice, using whatever material you can think of. To me, it’s a groundbreaking concept. Essentially you have multiple lenses in one, with the possibility to push the already excellent look that you get from the Signature Primes in another direction. The creativity can be endless, and I’m keen to experiment with different looks in future.

For some of the scenes where we see the guardian character for the first time, we put bits of torn-off bubble wrap in the magnetic filter holder. It softened and warped parts of our images, almost like bending space and time, and it also bloomed our highlights, but the real reason why we did this was to make the lens flares sparkle out in a beautifully organic and asymmetric way, pushing the mystical and heavenly feeling that we were after.

Every bit of bubble wrap that you ripped and positioned behind the glass was different, or the placement would change when we swapped focal lengths, so we didn’t produce the same flare each time, making each shot kind of a once-in-a-lifetime shot. I think all filmmaking is about capturing unique moments, but this made the image-making process spontaneous and exciting. 

You also tried out a demo set of prototype diopters. How did you use it, and for which shots?

On all the shots, we used the -2.5 diopter behind the lens. Overall it gave a diffused quality to the image, increased our field of view slightly, and also softened and distorted the edges of the frame inwards – a bit like a Lensbaby, but without being too heavy-handed or distracting. I loved it; it added a new dimension to the image that I was excited to see in different frames, a subtle hint of dreaminess that I think helped us in this surreal world.

Were you conscious of the benefits of shooting with all ARRI gear?

I already loved ARRI gear, but this was the first time using the LF cameras, Signature Primes, and TRINITY, so my love and appreciation for ARRI has grown tremendously. “Silo” was a challenge for me as a director and cinematographer; it was an ambitious project that I couldn’t have pulled off without an enthusiastic, creative, and talented cast and crew.

With these labor of love projects, you want good people that support and push your ideas, bringing their love for storytelling into it. With camera gear, you kind of want the same thing: tools that are reliable workhorses, but also can help you creatively elevate your ideas way beyond your expectation. You get all that and more with ARRI gear.