Boy meets shark in a swimming pool: Italian cinematographer Ivan Casalgrandi utilized the ALEXA Mini LF and ARRI lights to shoot “Shark Teeth,” a feature debut “on the edge of reality.”
Oct. 24, 2023
Big-budget TV series and debut works, big productions, and small but ambitious projects: These are the cinematic playgrounds in which cinematographer Ivan Casalgrandi moves with ease. His work includes Italian TV series “Mafia Only Kills in Summer,” “My Brilliant Friend,” and “Miss Fallaci” which will premiere on Paramount+ soon. Casalgrandi also photographed the debut works “Without Pity” (“Senza nessuna pietà”) by Michele Alhaique and his most recent feature film “Shark Teeth” (”Denti da Squalo”).
In the latter, director Davide Gentile tells the story of 13-year-old Walter, who has just lost his father and, wandering along the Roman coast, has a close encounter with a shark living in a swimming pool. “With Davide, I hit it off right away; his enthusiasm pulled me in,” says Casalgrandi in the interview with ARRI. “I like to throw myself into things, and in ‘Shark Teeth’ I did everything: I jumped into the pool, did underwater filming, and tried to bring as many things to the story as possible.”
DP Ivan Casalgrandi (middle), director Davide Gentile (right), and the ALEXA Mini LF on set
How did your work on this very particular film begin?
I saw the director’s short “Food for Thought.” It was very American and glossy. Contrary to what I had imagined, for his first feature film, Davide Gentile immediately made it clear that he wanted a European, authorial look while telling an unrealistic story. At first, I thought finding this balance would be difficult, but I think the film managed to stay on the edge of reality, a reality treated delicately.
The ALEXA Mini LF is my favorite camera. I think I will continue to use it exclusively. I really like the color science ARRI used for the sensor.
Did the director give you precise visual references?
In many cases, directors bring up opposite references, and the cinematographer has to find the right synthesis. You always give yourself guidelines, but when there is no storyboard and the actors are improvising, maybe adapting to the sets, you cannot establish everything in advance. However, there was a strong indication of European cinema, and we looked at filmmakers like the Dardenne brothers, who are known for their realistic approach. We started from that cue and developed it. I am a camera guy, and, thanks to intuition, I can go in any direction the director wants.
What were the shooting conditions? Where did you shoot and for how many weeks?
The story takes place in the Roman hinterland, near the sea. We shot on the outskirts of Ostia. The main location was the villa and its pool where the shark was placed. The filming lasted seven weeks.
The main location for “Shark Teeth” was a villa and its pool, where a life-size, pseudo-remote-controlled shark was placed
With a story revolving around a shark inside a swimming pool, I imagine you had to find creative shooting and lighting solutions.
The big question was how to handle the scenes in which the little protagonist interacts with the shark. A life-size, pseudo-remote-controlled shark was made, and CGI was helping to visualize the interaction between the shark and the little boy, sometimes creating it from scratch. All of these scenes were created with a storyboard, then thought about and shot as we went along, in bits and pieces, during filming. A fragmented process, but one that produced a good result.
What camera did you choose for “Shark Teeth”?
The ALEXA Mini LF, which is my favorite camera. I have used it in all my last few projects and I think I will continue to use it exclusively. I really like the color science that ARRI used for the sensor.
ALEXA Mini LF on set for a scene at the swimming pool with protagonist Walter
How has ARRI’s ALEXA Mini LF supported creativity on set?
It’s a camera that I really like because it is compact and lightweight. We put it inside a diving suit to make it work underwater, and we shot scenes with a modular crane. One important feature of the ALEXA Mini LF is precisely its compactness. I shoot handheld a lot, and for me it is crucial that the camera is light and powerful, but also that the sensor can produce a result close to film. The DPs of my generation come from analog cinema, and for us to go digital was a loss as far as the result is concerned. Of course, there's a crazy increase in creative possibilities in postproduction, but I'm constantly looking for the texture of film, which is much more painterly. A lot of the pool shots we did with the arm, the crane, and the remote head, but the more authorial visual language pushed us to use handheld shots, allowing us to move faster and create a more documentary-like relationship with the viewer. This is a way of shooting that makes the result more realistic. In general, I use light as if I was working with film. I always look for a lit base. In low-budget films you never have enough light power to do extended shots at night, but the ALEXA Mini LF has a great sensitivity and I tend to choose very bright optics.
I really like ARRI M-Series lights, but I used everything, from LEDs to tungsten lights. With the new cinema revolution, LEDs, even if they don't reach the power of other luminaires, are very flexible and allow you to change color very easily.
How did you work with regards to camera settings?
At 500 ASA. At night we would increase a little bit, but basically, I don't go outside the ARRI parameters and stay on classic settings. I always try to work at full aperture to soften the etching of the electronics and have as little depth of field as possible, making the image more three-dimensional.
“An important feature of the ALEXA Mini LF is precisely its compactness,” says DP Ivan Casalgrandi
Were there any scenes that particularly challenged you and caused you to come up with creative solutions?
Definitely the one scene with the light at the turn of dusk and night in which the two main characters arrive at a little bar on the shoreline where there is dancing. It was a four-minute long take to be completed in the 15 to 20 minutes during which the light was good. In this scene, the kids arrive on motorcycles and ride up to a fishing platform on which the bar is located. We shot three takes back to back and it was complicated because of the interactions with the figures and because of the crane, which was lowered to coincide with the arrival of the motorcycle. From there, the camera was caught on the fly and moved by hand to follow the two figures, go up with them, and immerse itself in the party.
What recording format and what kind of monitoring did you use on set?
We shot in ARRIRAW 4K, with a 2:39 format. As far as monitoring goes, the real secret is to have a team of people who are better than you. In this case, I relied on DIT Andrea Cuomo who took complete control of the image. I could see what was happening through the camera, but he followed the monitor, took care of the LUT, and sent everything to the data manager, who finalized the files and sent them to the lab.
DP Casalgrandi comments: “I jumped into the pool, did underwater filming, and tried to bring as many things into the story as possible.”
For “Shark Teeth,” you used lots of special effects. How difficult was it to integrate them into the picture?
The producer of this film is Gabriele Mainetti, who knows a lot about the challenges. I followed the color correction, but in general, post-production of this kind of film often takes as long as the shooting, if not longer. In the story, the protagonist talks to the shark through a window from which you can see the inside of the pool. This was one of the most difficult things to manage. Clearly this pool does not exist, it was created with special effects, and you had to imagine in different situations, both day and night, how the light gets into the pool, how it illuminates the window, and how it reaches the character looking through the window.
Technical equipment provided by D-Vision Movie People