Julien Hirsch chooses ARRI’s ALEXA Mini LF, Signature Primes, and SkyPanels for Xavier Beauvois’ “Drift Away”

Despite inclement weather conditions and a variety of indoor and outdoor settings, DP Julien Hirsch was able to “discover the flexibility and simplicity of the ALEXA Mini LF” on one of his latest projects.

Jun. 2, 2021

Winner of a César Award for Best Cinematography for “Lady Chatterley,” Julien Hirsch AFC was one of the first DPs in France to use the ALEXA Mini LF and ARRI Signature Prime lenses. He chose this combination, along with ARRI SkyPanels and ARRIRAW recording format, for “Drift Away” (original French title: “Albatros”) by director Xavier Beauvois which was filmed this past winter in the famous seaside town of Étretat in Normandy.

ARRI sat down with Hirsch to discuss how the equipment performed during the shoot.

Could you tell us about your collaboration with director Xavier Beauvois and how it went?

It went very well. I was familiar with his films and had seen him work on “Don't Forget You're Going to Die” when I was Caroline Champetier's assistant. He is a very instinctive filmmaker who reinvents his film while shooting. For “Drift Away,” he wanted us to stay as close as possible to the daily reality of the main character, a policeman, whose private and professional life is being portrayed in the film. We, therefore, shot in many natural settings but also at places like the police station in Étretat and in a real police barracks. Xavier wanted a rather naturalistic look, but he is also an aesthete. We took many walks around Étretat during the preparation. He showed me the places and the light atmospheres he liked. This allowed us to get to know each other and find a common language.

Why did you choose to shoot with the ALEXA Mini LF?

I worked with the classic ALEXA as soon as it was released in France, for “The Minister” by Pierre Schoeller. I really liked its image rendering and since then it is the only digital camera I have filmed with. I naturally switched to the ALEXA Mini when I discovered the Stabe-One, a stabilizer that I can no longer do without for frame shots. I unfortunately couldn't use ALEXA LF when it came out because it was too heavy for the Stabe-One. However, when the Mini LF became available, 15 days before “Drift Away” began shooting, I obviously jumped on it. We did a day of testing in Normandy, especially on the sea because a significant portion of the film takes place on a sailboat. Xavier was able to see what this camera was like in different light atmospheres, with many shades of grey, green, and blue. He liked the image offered by the Mini LF a lot. For my part, these tests convinced me that this was the camera I needed on the film.

Could you give us some more details as to why the ALEXA Mini LF was such a good fit?

First, I noticed that the ALEXA Mini LF separated colors better than the classic Mini. It was visible in the rendering of the skies. But it was especially obvious in the interior settings lit with tungsten; these lights are quite golden and I really like to work with them. Sometimes, I have noticed that the original ALEXA Mini tends to create flat spots on the skin. I don’t see these with the Mini LF. Also, on very wide shots, the image seemed sharper. This aspect was important because Xavier likes to shoot wide shots. For him, a medium shot is already a tight shot. I don't think I did more than four or five close-ups during the entire shoot. Lastly, the large format of the ALEXA Mini LF helped me a lot in very cramped settings.

Could you elaborate on that point?

We shot in 2.39:1 format with ARRI Signature Prime spherical lenses. But two of the main sets in the film—the police station at Étretat and the police barracks—were very cramped. Under these conditions, the large sensor of the ALEXA Mini LF allowed me to do wide shots without going below 29 mm. This is specific to the large format sensor—at the same focal length and distance, I am able to film a wider field than with a normal sensor.

Why did you choose the ARRI Signature Prime lenses?

I wanted to use the most recent ARRI package that was available, and this was a combination of the ALEXA Mini LF and Signature Primes. I really liked these lenses. They are very transparent at the level of color and light, like the Summilux, that I have used a lot before. And the Signature Primes' rendition of out of focus areas is very precise. Even with little depth of field, backgrounds are still very legible. On “Drift Away,” this allowed me to break the depth of field on wide shots and to stay focused on the characters while keeping the landscapes present, albeit out of focus.

How did you light “Drift Away”?

The difficulty with this film was that we shot from October to January so I could only count on four or five hours of daylight. So, I organized myself accordingly. For the daytime interiors, I mainly used ARRI SkyPanels, which I systematically placed outside the sets. That way I could vary the power and color of the light quickly throughout the day. For the exteriors, I added very little light. First of all because Xavier likes to shoot in natural settings and often integrates them into his directing. Also, the proximity of all the sets offered us effective cover sets. 

For the scenes on the 9 m sailboat, which we shot on the open sea, lighting was out of the question. But the ALEXA Mini LF's sensor copes well with large differences in brightness, which was also the case with the classic ALEXAs. This allowed me to maintain the details in the highlights when I was shooting offshore, inside the cabin of the sailboat.

Were you shooting in ARRIRAW or in ProRes?

In ARRIRAW. But since the camera was brand new, I had a limited number of cards. That's why I decided only to record the scope part of the sensor. This allowed us to almost double the card recording capacity. I did 90% of the film this way and it worked out really well. Only part of the scenes shot on the sailboat were recorded in full frame. The seas were quite rough, quite bad, and I wanted to be able to correct the frame using the reserve in postproduction. My assistants made the backups in HDE (Codex), a lossless compression format, so that the backups were lighter and faster. M141 decompressed the rushes and recovered the original ARRIRAW. This was my first time using this workflow and it performed really well.

Have you pushed the sensitivity of the ALEXA Mini LF?

For some of the night watch sequences I went up to 1600-2000 ASA. I also did this for a big night-time sequence on a farm where I used a mix of artificial moonlight and a few tungsten light points. On this film, I had all possible light atmospheres indoors and outdoors, with very inclement winter skies. We also shot a lot by car and boat, day and night. This is where I found the flexibility and simplicity I previously had with the ALEXA Mini. I was on familiar ground. In fact, the ALEXA Mini LF is like an improved ALEXA Mini, with increased image subtlety and an exceptional viewfinder.

Opening image: crew on “Drift Away” (original French title: “Albatros”) by Xavier Beauvois
DP: Julien Hirsch
First assistant: Raphaël André
Second assistant: Marie Deshayes