DP Craig Wrobleski CSC creates immersive horror with the ALEXA LF on Netflix's "In the Tall Grass"

Canadian DP Craig Wrobleski discusses his new film "In the Tall Grass," now streaming on Netflix. Wrobleski shares his experiences filming the supernatural horror, and his take on ARRI's large-format camera system.

Jan. 29, 2020

After making a splash with the superhero series "The Umbrella Academy," director of photography Craig Wrobleski returns to Netflix with "In the Tall Grass." Based on the Stephen King and Joe Hill novella of the same name, "In the Tall Grass" is a supernatural horror directed by Vincenzo Natali. The film follows siblings Becky and Cal DeMuth as they investigate the cries of a lost boy in a field of tall grass.  What follows is an immersive horror film, vivid with detail. ARRI caught up with Wrobleski to discuss everything from balancing the natural and supernatural, to his love of texture when capturing images.

Did you have any visual inspiration or a specific style you were going for in capturing "In the Tall Grass?"

Well, the critical thing was that it had to be immersive. The audience had to feel that they were in the grass with the characters. We did discuss "The Thin Red Line," a Terrence Malick film where the soldiers were fighting on a tropical island, dealing with visibility issues with the grass and not able to see the enemy, but we didn't really have any specific visual references. Vincenzo, the director, had a Japanese anime artist do a lot of pre-viz work, so I would say that the look of the film is fairly unique in the sense that we didn't specifically reference any other films.

The whole look drew from this notion that it either had to be natural or supernatural. If we ended up in the middle ground where it's stylized naturalism, it's not going to work when we get supernatural and things get really crazy. So, that was the overriding mantra for me. It was just about feeling very natural and very real.

The film definitely had an immersive feeling. You got a sense of being surrounded by that tall grass. So how did you go about achieving that?

That immersive quality was a big part of why I was pushing to shoot on a larger sensor. When I was approached, I was shooting "The Umbrella Academy," which was shot on the ALEXA 65. The ALEXA 65 is unbeatable as a capture medium because it is so incredibly immersive and incredibly detailed. It picks out every single nuance of the image and has so much to offer. But the reality of taking the [ALEXA] 65 into the field was overwhelming for this production.

I had previous experience with the ALEXA LF, and I thought it was a perfect fit. It offered that immersive quality and a larger sensor, which allowed us to shoot wide lenses but not "feel" the lenses as much. If we went in there with a conventional-sized [Super 35] sensor and shot with really wide lenses, you'd feel the lens and the grass bending on the edge of the frame. It would take some of that realism away. You'd start to feel you were in a supernatural world because it would have that fisheye look. The [ALEXA] LF was perfect for flattening the frame but still giving it that beautiful, wide perspective that made us feel like we were right in there with the characters.

Is that immersive feeling something that you feel large format film cameras provide versus their Super 35 counterpart?

Definitely. I always want my photography to support the story and I don't want to feel like we are inflicting ourselves onto the story. Sometimes when you get into wide lenses, you start to feel the lens. The larger sensor captures all of the details, the nuances and the way the focus falls off is so beautiful. You can get these beautiful layers of texture in the grass.

That's what the larger sensor helped with so that there were layers, and it was never just faces cut out against a mask of green. If we had a conventional sensor, we would've run the risk of everything feeling flat and one dimensional.

Can you talk about how much CG was involved?

I don't want to give away the exact ratio of what's real and what isn't, but we did spend an enormous amount of time in real grass. The majority of the film is real grass. We shot exteriors in a field in Stratford, Ontario (Canada). We did move into a stage for the interior work. That was only because the reality of shooting night exteriors in a field in summer, would've made it even more uncomfortable for the actors and crew.

Regardless of that, it is a truly challenging environment to work in. The grass is serrated, so it's like a knife. So, when you walk in it, it will cut you.

You can see it in the actors. In some of the early takes, you can see that the actors are visibly annoyed [by the grass.] You can see them walking through, and they are slapping the grass out of the way because it was so irritating. It really supported what we were doing. Working in that environment really made the film what it is because we were living what we were shooting.

What was your experience in filming HDR?

On "Tall Grass," the script requirements and the realities of the setting told us we would be dealing with bright, sunlit day exteriors and dark, "moonlit" night exteriors – all in the tall grass environment. Those situations can create quite a challenge for the HDR process, especially where the expanded dynamic range could make already bright highlights overwhelmingly so and could potentially reduce detail in the blacks where you wish to retain texture.

Our amazing DIT, Gautam Pinto, is well-versed the HDR process and was ever vigilant about protecting our digital negative by ensuring we always retained detail in both the highlights and the shadows so that we would have complete control throughout the process to modulate the levels and guide the audiences' eye in the right direction. With Joanne Rourke in the grading suite at Deluxe Toronto, the balanced negative we maintained on set gave us complete control to create the look we desired. We had both HDR and non-HDR monitors side by side and were able to compare the two images to ensure that we would be happy with the results in both versions. 

As an aside, one interesting visual side-effect of the brighter highlights in HDR is that eye-lights on actors require additional attention.  Multiple highlights reflected in the eyes or eye lights that are too bright in night work can become unnatural and somewhat distracting in HDR.  We were very careful to ensure that, whenever possible, the eye lights were round in shape as a large square or rectangular reflection of a light source could look very artificial, especially on extreme close work.