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DP Oliver Maier shoots ballet and a BMW with ARRI Signature Zooms

Working with international ballet dancers, a new concept car, and state-of-the-art LED walls, cinematographer Oliver Maier puts three of the new ARRI Signature Zooms through their paces.

With a focus on the automotive sector, cinematographer Oliver Maier has shot in challenging locations all over the world, delivering stunning images under the pressure of intense schedules. Frequently using gyrostabilized heads on Russian Arm vehicles for fast-moving camerawork, Maier relies on zoom lenses for their flexibility and on-set efficiency. When he got the opportunity to try out the ARRI Signature Zooms, which set a new standard in matching the optical quality of prime lenses, he jumped at the chance. 

On a ballet project titled “125 Years Carl Orff,” Maier used the 16-32 mm and 24-75 mm Signature Zooms on an ALEXA Mini LF, then on a shoot for BMW he combined the 16-32 mm and 45-135 mm zooms with a couple of Signature Primes. ARRI caught up with him after the shoots to see how he got on with the lenses.

Watch ARRI Signature Zooms at the Bavarian Junior Ballet for “125 Years Carl Orff”

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How much do you tend to work with primes, and how much with zooms?

Mostly I shoot with zooms, as they give me the freedom to react quickly to changing situations. Switching from one prime to another always takes too much of my time: fold away the motors, take out the lens, insert the new lens, put on the motors, calibrate—it's just torturous and is simply not feasible under certain shooting situations. For example, if it’s magic hour and the camera is in a rain or dust cover on a Russian Arm, I couldn’t even consider changing the lens. I have to clarify in advance which zoom I want to use.

How did the ballet project come about and what was the concept?

When I was given the opportunity to try the ARRI Signature Zooms, the first thought was to try them on an automotive shoot. But it so happened that I had got involved in a project called “125 Years Carl Orff” with the Bavarian Junior Ballet, and I realized that the demands of a car shoot were very similar to the challenges of bringing ballet choreography to the screen. You want the optical quality of prime lenses, but because of the time pressure of a semi-live shoot, you would prefer to never change the lens, instead to continue filming and subtly adjust the compositions to give the editor as many options as possible.

We were shooting the choreography "Unheaven" by Martina La Ragione, based on motifs from Carl Orff's Schulwerk. Together with our editor Jochen Kraus and art director Holger Geisler, we wanted to honor the liveliness and modernity of Orff's work. It was an ambitious project in terms of production and finances, but we were fortunate that Tobias Joeckle and Dennis Boleslawski from Hyperbowl in Munich offered us their virtual production studio. With this LED volume studio and the Signature Zooms, we got a chance to realize our project on the highest technical and artistic level.

Which ARRI Signature Zooms did you have, and how did you use them?

We decided on a two-camera setup and opted not to use the camera tracking of the Hyperbowl’s Unreal Engine, because we had less than six hours to shoot with the dancers. The A-camera with the Signature Zoom 16-32 mm was on a dolly, and the B-camera with the 24-75 mm was fixed on a tripod. My briefing was not to repeat any takes identically. If we repeated a take, we would shoot the same performance of the dancers from a different angle, with a different focal length and different camera height, in order to allow a lot of cuts in the edit, despite the limited shooting time. 

Of course, with an aperture wide open at T2.8 all the time, no markers, and permanently changing camera setups, it was challenging for my two focus pullers. Their experience, but also the light weight and compact size of the Signature Zooms, was extremely helpful for the successful shoot. 

What did you want to test and find out about the Signature Zooms on the shoot?

Apart from the purely optical properties such as distortion, vignetting, and edge blur, as well as the physical properties such as handling, weight, and size, I also wanted to learn the character of the zooms—how they handle flares, and what the bokeh looks like. Of course, the flares of a spherical zoom can’t be compared with those of an anamorphic, but I felt that there was a very nice effect when light falls directly into the Signature Zooms. 

I was curious to see how well the Signature Zooms would reproduce the skin tones on my shoot. This was one of the reasons why we decided that the dancers should be without makeup. I wanted to leave everything as natural, organic, and un-digital as possible in this technical environment, partly because I love the slightly shiny look of natural skin, but also to see how the zooms captured those skin tones. The original set of the “Unheaven” performance took place in a black room; the dancers dance on a carpet of swirling white feathers. I adopted that for our shoot at the Hyperbowl, using a soft base light and strong back light.

So, what was your verdict on how the Signature Zooms performed? 

The faces were wonderfully soft, vital, and velvety, while at the same time the image had a brilliance and a clarity. The feathers swirling around the dancers and the small particles of dust floating in the air against the dark background were super crisp! A lens that is soft and crisp at the same time sounds contradictory, but the Signature Zooms truly are smooth and gentle in handling the skin tones, and yet crisp when it comes to corners, edges, lines, or particles.

These two Signature Zooms harmonize and are very well matched, with no breathing and nice bokeh. I was pleasantly surprised by the lenses' distortion-free image. No matter what focal length I set, the lines were straight, with no edge blur or vignetting. And yet on the control monitor the image didn't look technical or digital, but organic and attractive. The combination of Signature Zooms with the ALEXA Mini LF is one that I will want to keep going back to.
 

And you have already, is that right? You also shot a car commercial with the Signature Zooms?

Yes, we shot a commercial for the BMW i Vision Circular concept car at the 2021 IAA show, for which I used the 16-32 mm and 45-135 mm Signature Zooms, combined with two Signature Primes: the 15 mm and 200 mm. For this shoot we had to consider frame lines in 16:9, 9:16, and 4:5 in a relatively cramped setup, with long strips of LED walls. For this reason, we decided to use the camera settings 3.8K LF 16:9 UHD. Here, the observation I made during my first shoot with the Signature Zooms was particularly clear: no noticeable distortion in the long vertical lines of the set.

Watch the CirCular Spot Clip of the BMW i VISION

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After my experiences with the Signature Zooms on these two shoots I no longer agree with the preconception that primes are sharp and zooms are soft. ARRI has provided a very good set of tools with the Signature Zooms, especially considering the fact that we are always looking for ways to make the technical, clean aspect of digital cinematography more organic, more approachable, and more tactile.