Feb. 19, 2021

Luo Pan ASC behind the scenes on "The Sacrifice"

Using ARRI’s ALEXA LF and ALEXA Mini LF cameras with Signature Primes, DP Luo Pan ASC, CNSC and director Guan Hu shoot an epic war film on a tight schedule.

Feb. 19, 2021

“The Sacrifice,” released as part of China’s commemorations of the 70th anniversary of its entry into the Korean War, re-enacts the defence of Jingang Bridge by the People’s Volunteer Army in 1953. The bulk of the shoot was overseen by cinematographer Luo Pan ASC, CNSC and director Guan Hu, known for his previous historical war film “The Eight Hundred,” though other sections were helmed by directors Guo Fan, Lu Yang, and Tian Yusheng, with DPs Liu Yin, Han Qiming, and Gao Weizhe. This division of duties allowed the two-hour feature to be shot in less than two months. Luo Pan speaks here about the intense schedule, his visual approach, and working with ARRI large-format cameras and lenses.

This film was shot in an incredibly short amount of time; what was that like for you?

It was not only fast, but also sudden. I was contacted on July 3rd and told they wanted to start shooting on August 1st. I asked what genre the film was, and when they said it was a war movie by Guan Hu, I felt that if it was going to be anything like “The Eight Hundred,” then completing preproduction in only a month would be impossible.

The production company asked if I could go back to Beijing immediately, but the shoot I was on didn’t finish until July 10th, which left us only 20 days. On July 11th, I arrived in Beijing; on July 12th, I discussed the script with the director; and on July 16th, I went to Dandong for a location scout. Our start day was pushed to August 8th, which was still hectic, but overall this shoot was a special experience for me.

How did you decide on a visual style for the movie?

I did a lot of research. First of all, my instinct was to make it as real as I could. Unlike “The Eight Hundred,” which was very romantic, this script was more centered on realistic fighting scenes. However, being real does not mean making a documentary. Many people reference “Saving Private Ryan” as the safest way to make war movies look real, but this approach didn’t feel right to me. So how would I make it real? Most audiences have only seen black-and-white documentaries about the Korean War; they don’t have any idea what it looked like in color.

During my research I found some high-quality photos from The Library of Congress and other private institutions. Mostly they were taken by journalists with the US Army, because almost none were taken, or allowed to be taken, within the People’s Volunteer Army. There were just a few photos showing members of the PVA as prisoners of war. I noticed that most of the American journalists had used reversal films. This is a special kind of color photo: highly saturated and contrasty, but with low dynamic range and the exposure has to be judged very accurately.

Did these historical photos influence your look?

The photos definitely had their own style, and my first thought was to develop a LUT that looks like a 1950s reversal film, with emphasized greens and reds. I found that there were two main kinds of reversal film, one was Kodachrome and the other was Ektachrome. Kodak updated these stocks constantly from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Most of our reference photos were prints, many of them faded and with obvious grain, but that is how we view history. I told the director that there are two ways to shoot history, and the first is to shoot it as it is. If you think about it, there is no difference between the way a person’s eyes saw in the past and the way they see now; the mountain a soldier from the Korean War saw is the same mountain you see today. The second way is to make it look like it was shot in the past, which is more familiar to the audience.

And you were drawn to the second way?

Even though the first way looks real, it will make audiences feel strange, since it is so different from their cultural references. If this “reality” is different from the image in their mind, it feels fake to people. That’s why I prefer the second way; it lets the audience see how history was recorded at the time.

However, we were not able to use analog film, so how should we do it? The first key is grain, but digital doesn’t have that texture, and although you can add grain in post, it isn’t really good enough. When I shot “Under The Light” I set the ISO [EI] to 2000 or even 3200. When the ISO reached 3000 or more, the grain became more obvious in the midtones, but not in the shadows. Unlike grain added in post, this grain feels real because it is related to overexposure or high ISO, which is what I wanted.

So, I decided to achieve the look of reversal film by using a LUT and shooting at a high ISO. But if we wanted to focus on the characters, then we couldn’t just shoot regular documentary style. The photographers back then all shot with deep depth of field. There was no time for them to use ND filters on a battlefield, and the typical aperture of f/8 ensured that they could take pictures without having to adjust the focus. But for me, that’s not a good way to tell stories and develop character, so I proposed that we combined our reversal LUT and high ISO with shallower depth of field.

How did you create your LUTs?

Making a LUT is a very subtle process that involves both technical and artistic aspects. It is difficult to describe in words. I pulled out all the LUTs I had used in the past, and the colorist found other LUTs online, which we compared to historical photos. After some experimentation we made four LUTs and tested them at Dandong in different scenarios, including sunlit daytime, overcast daytime, magic hour, and night-time. Eventually I chose two LUTs for daytime, two for magic hour, and one for night-time. By then it was August 3rd and we started shooting five days later.

What did the short schedule mean for you on set?

Time was very limited, and we also had some bad shooting conditions. We had to complete so many setups before noon because after that it became too foggy to shoot any wides. Also we were shooting with multiple cameras, so we needed to light the scenes quickly and accurately. In general, my idea for lighting was firstly not trying to make it beautiful, and secondly using the simplest means to achieve the best effects. Night exteriors were the most time-consuming, because you have to change the lighting setup every time you change angle. We planned all our shots in advance, so we never spent more than 15 minutes changing between angles.

Could you talk about your camera and lens choices?

I shot with two ALEXA Mini LF and two ALEXA LF. I feel the image quality of the LF cameras is a dramatic improvement over the Super 35 sensor size. I used the 25 mm Signature Prime a lot. In large format, 25 mm has about the same field of view as an 18 mm in Super 35, but without distortion. People usually shoot close-ups with longer lenses like the 75 mm or 95 mm, but we shot most of our close-ups with the 47 mm.

ARRI Signature Prime lenses have a wonderful look for daylight scenes, and stay sharp during night shoots as well. The ALEXA Mini LF is a lightweight camera; it’s extremely comfortable on the shoulder, and is really well balanced from front to back. In addition, we also used an ARRI TRINITY camera stabilizer rig for many shots. Its ease of use and stability help me to expand the language of the lenses.

What can you do to make audiences feel involved in the story?

We all want the audience to get involved in the movie. The first thing should be establishing relationships between the characters and making the audience feel connected to those relationships. Cinematography is not as important as the acting and directing in these moments. And when it comes to action on the battlefield, with pyrotechnics and explosions, my main role can sometimes be to just make sure I record them. So in all these things, it’s about teamwork.

Go behind the scenes of "The Sacrifice" with ARRI's TRINITY