Aug. 19, 2020

HDE reduces large-format data costs on “Shakuntala Devi”

Cinematographer Keiko Nakahara speaks to ARRI about shooting the Bollywood biopic of Indian mathematics prodigy Shakuntala Devi with ALEXA LF and Signature Prime lenses. By opting for an HDE (High Density Encoding) workflow, developed by Codex, the production reduced data costs by around 40% and made large-format fit its budget, while retaining full image quality.

Aug. 19, 2020

By the age of six, Shakuntala Devi was demonstrating her extraordinary powers of arithmetic at the University of Mysore. Leaving India for London as a teenager, she embarked on several decades of touring the world, giving performances that astounded audiences. In 1980 she multiplied two 13-digit numbers in 28 seconds, which is as long as it takes to say out loud the 26-digit answer, earning her a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

This new biopic, directed by Anu Menon and available now on Amazon Prime, focuses not just on the story of Devi’s remarkable life, but also on her complex relationship with her daughter, as well as feminist issues of women’s place in society. Cinematographer Keiko Nakahara spoke to ARRI by telephone from Mumbai about the choices and challenges she faced.

What guided your overall approach to shooting this film?

The movie goes back and forth between a lot of different time periods, and also between India and London. Since the story is not told chronologically, I didn’t want the audience to get confused, so I developed a distinct color palette for each era, using my own LUTs and also changing the color temperature in-camera. There is a big scene towards the end when Shakuntala and her daughter are in a London lawyer’s office. It is set in the year 2000, and for that I chose a much colder tone and soft lighting, with a cleaner look. This contrasts with earlier scenes set in India, when I used stronger backlight, warmer colors, and put haze inside rooms so we see shafts of light coming through windows.

We didn’t have a big budget and time was limited. Our only shooting locations were London and Mumbai, but there are scenes set all over the world. Often, we had to create two or three different setups at a single location, for example making the same place look like Los Angeles for one scene and London for another. It meant the director and I often had to be creative with focal length and depth of field, to not show too much when doubling locations, and rely on color and texture to give a sense of place.

Why did you choose to shoot large-format with ALEXA LF?

Before this movie I shot another Indian film called “Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior,” which was a period action film. It was the first time I used the ALEXA LF with Signature Primes, and I really enjoyed the combination. When I got the opportunity to shoot “Shakuntala Devi” I knew immediately that I wanted to do the same again.

I told production that I wanted to shoot ARRIRAW at 4.5K, but our line producer was worried that the data and hard drive space would take us over budget. I called Philipp Chudalla (ARRI’s Business Development Manager for the Middle East and India) to explain the situation and he told me I could shoot with HDE (High Density Encoding). He even flew from Dubai to India to teach my DIT the workflow. After testing, my colorist Andy (Andreas Brueckl) told me there was no quality loss with HDE, so I was able to go back to the line producer and say we didn’t need additional hard drives, and yet we would have the same high quality. It was HDE that allowed us to go ahead with the ALEXA LF.

Did ALEXA LF bring advantages beyond the large-format aesthetic?

The ALEXA LF helped me on set because I could shoot in low light situations, for example at real locations that limit what extra lighting can be put in. In London I sometimes couldn’t put lights on the streets, so I couldn’t have light coming in through windows and had to rely on available light, with a few practicals in the room. I generally shot at 800 EI, but was very happy to bump up to sometimes 1600 EI and knew I wouldn’t have issues in the dark shadows when it came to the grade. That was a big plus when shooting scenes at real locations, because it allowed me to work fast.

What do you like about the Signature Prime lenses?

I love the image from the Signatures. It’s a very clean look, but not too sharp; it has a softness that seems very film-like to me, and when I put flare in the lens it really looks beautiful. Often, I was at T2 or T2.8, but there were times when I closed the iris to see more of a location, and others when I opened it up to take advantage of the very shallow depth of field. The way out-of-focus areas look with the Signatures is one of the reasons why I want to keep using them.

I enjoy having the ARRI LDS (Lens Data System) information on the monitor. It shows me the depth of field at any setting, so my focus puller and I can see how much space the actor has to move around in, which is especially helpful for emotional scenes. In the old days we used charts in the American Cinematographer Manual, which we called the bible, but with LDS the information is right there. Now if that information isn’t on the monitor for whatever reason, it really bothers me!

How did the coronavirus lockdown affect your postproduction workflow?

Lockdown started in March in India, and when it became clear that our planned theatrical release in May would not happen, the producers decided on a digital release with Amazon. At that point the decision to shoot ARRIRAW 4.5K turned out to be very fortunate, because these digital platforms always want 4K resolution. But with all the offices closed, we had to come up with a remote postproduction workflow.

It was helpful that I had worked with Andy before, so we had a good relationship already. I couldn’t go along to his grading suite in the normal way, so he set up a system. Andy and I would discuss a tone for each scene, then he would go ahead with a grade and upload it to for Anu in the UK and me in Mumbai to review.

There were situations where Andy was able to do things that I could not have done on set. For a scene in London, he put an orange cast on the leaves of trees to make it look more like autumn, which helped differentiate it from India. For another scene set in a jazz bar he changed the overall tone from red to more of an amber color, which I loved. Andy really helped fine-tune the different color palettes for different parts of the story, so I’m very grateful to him.

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