Sundance DPs turn to ARRI cameras and lighting

The Sundance film festival is a sweet spot for independent film makers and they continue to rely on ARRI to shoot and light their projects.

At the beginning of every year, all industry eyes turn to Park City, Utah, to catch a glimpse of what the world of independent film has to offer. ARRI cameras and lighting played a leading role behind the scenes of many films at the festival. According to IndieWire, two-thirds of the 37 scripted narrative features premiering at Sundance 2022 were shot on ARRI cameras. Sixteen were accomplished on the ALEXA Mini, and four on the ALEXA Mini LF. Four were shot on ARRI film cameras, and one on ARRI Rental’s large-format camera, the ALEXA 65.

What’s the story behind this dominance? Below, ten cinematographers with films at the festival discuss the thought process behind their creative goals and the equipment they chose to achieve them.

“Watcher” by DP Benjamin Kirk

“To me, the ARRI digital cameras have the most pleasing color reproduction of any digital camera,” says Benjamin Kirk. Film still from “Watcher.” Photo courtesy of Sundance.

The main character of “Watcher” is tormented by the feeling she is being stalked in a new city. Kirk’s approach was to give the audience a subjective sense of her isolation and uneasiness. “We wanted a balance between the beauty of discovering a new foreign city and her dread,” says Kirk. “The goal was heightened realism that would elevate the horror elements in the story and still keep them rooted in something real and authentic.”

Kirk combined extremely fast Hawk One4 spherical lenses with the ALEXA Mini LF. “To me, the ARRI digital cameras have the most pleasing color reproduction of any digital camera,” he says. “The large format sensor gave me a more shallow depth of field, which helped in isolating Julia from the background. It was also important to us that the way the camera portrays her was closely linked to her state of mind. Without the distortion of a wider lens, the large format sensor and the very close-focus abilities of the lenses helped me create a much more intimate connection between Julia and the camera.”

“For lighting, we used a lot of ARRI SkyPanels, both in studio and on location,” says Kirk. “In the studio, we used S120 SkyPanels with soft boxes through the windows to give a soft, even daylight in the apartments. I also used ARRI HMIs bounced onto the ceiling for the translight, and for night scenes both in studio and on location, I used SkyPanels to create the right sodium color that were authentic to the available streetlights in Romania. I love the ARRI SkyPanels—they have a beautiful quality of light, coupled with the versatility to dial in just the right color and output very quickly.”

“After Yang” by DP Benjamin Loeb

Film still from “After Yang.” Photo courtesy of Sundance.

Searching for the right tools to make “After Yang,” DP Loeb and director Koganada talked about layering different technical approaches for the different layers in the film. “It was a lot of testing and trying different formats and different lenses and lighting to get to a point where we felt like we hit number one—a texture that was familiar and comfortable for Kogonada, but also something that pushed ourselves a little bit outside,” says Loeb.

“After Yang,” which takes place in a high-tech near future, was shot using the ALEXA Mini, in part due to its versatility. “We ended up shooting 2.35:1 for the main part of the film, and 4:3 for certain scenes, and still others in 1.85 or with a Super 16 crop. “I found that the hunt for shallower depth of field almost felt wrong in my brain for this project,” says Loeb. “It’s not that it’s right or wrong in general. But I feel like, with the Mini in these formats, you retain so much more depth than you can see, which can feel more plastic to me. It’s an interesting look.”

“When I shoot digital, I’ll always shoot with a Mini,” Loeb continues. “I’ve never been a fan of the large format. That’s not to say that I won’t shoot it. But on previous projects, I’ve pushed the Mini so far and underlit to a point where the image really started falling apart, which I thought was really beautiful. For me, it’s really knowing where that sensor can be pushed or pulled in each direction, and essentially knowing what comes out of that and how you can work with that in post.”

"The Worst Person in the World" by DP Kasper Tuxen

Film still from “The Worst Person in the World.” Photo courtesy of Sundance.

For his twelfth feature film, director of photography Kasper Tuxen relished the opportunity to shoot 35 mm film. Director Joachim Trier has 35 mm film written into his contract. “We both see ARRICAM LT is the perfect film camera,” says Tuxen. “Framing for 1.85:1 is great for portraits, and that’s what this film is about. The movie takes place over a few years and contains all four seasons. I got to know the city of Oslo really well and saw it in all its coats. The beauty of natural light dictated the look, so whenever we needed to hold a certain moment of the day, I studied the natural light at the location. We used faster film stocks to maintain some grain, Cooke lenses, ARRIMAX fixtures to recreate hard sunlight and bounced SkyPanels for softer light. For me, it was a blessing to have a director who knows what it takes to shoot in magic hour, dusk and dawn, and what it means to the mood of the film.”

“When You Finish Saving the World” by DP Benjamin Loeb

Director Jesse Eisenberg and  DP Benjamin Loeb on the set of “When You Finish Saving the World.” Photo credit: Karen Kuehn.

In the case of “When You Finish Saving the World,” Loeb and director Jesse Eisenberg wanted an American indie that didn’t emphasize the style. “It’s really about the two characters and you don’t really want the cinematography to pop in the same way,” says Loeb. “When the visuals are too much on the forefront, you’ve failed in some way, because it takes away from the performance.”

For that project, the right approach was to shoot on Super 16 film. “There’s a level of imperfection that Jesse was looking for that we felt really was suitable for 16,” says Loeb. “We wanted it to feel contemporary, and not too clean. The film gives you a sense of nostalgia and a professional look.

“Personally, I try as hard as I can to not judge the movies by how they look and feel when they come out, but by the process that we go through making them,” mentions Loeb. “I think both movies accomplished what they tried to do in that regard. I’m super happy that they will be seen by more people because of the Sundance recognition.”

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” & “Am I OK?” by DP Cristina Dunlap

Film still from “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” Photo courtesy of Sundance.

DP Cristina Dunlap, who is juggling two films at Sundance, made “Cha Cha Real Smooth with director Cooper Raiff. For that film, they took inspiration from David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” “There is a kinetic energy in that film that we wanted to bring to “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” Dunlap says. “I also think it does a great job of keeping the lighting naturalistic while still being interesting. I wanted to be able to light the room entirely in order to allow the actors to move freely about the space, in and out of the light. Cooper told me that he wanted the movie’s beauty to come from what reminds people of their own life or reality, their fondest memories, so that was the ultimate goal.”

Dunlap shot on the ALEXA Mini, usually with Cooke S4i lenses. The file format was 4K UHD ProRes 4444 XQ. For lighting, she made extensive use of ARRI SkyPanels, HMIs, and L-Series fixtures.

“The ARRI ALEXA is always my first choice when shooting digital,” Dunlap says. “It has very good latitude and renders skin tones in the most organic way. There are many moments throughout the film of watching and being watched, and we wanted to translate visually how that feels. Cooper described wanting to think about the camera as drunk, focused, loving eyes. For this, we used an old Angenieux HR 25-250 zoom, usually at the long end, to capture the emotion of seeing someone you like across a crowded room—feeling as though they are the only thing in focus, and that you are being drawn toward them. I really wanted it to feel as though we are in Andrew’s world and that we are experiencing things along with him.”

“Call Jane” by DP Greta Zozula

“Call Jane” was shot by DP Greta Zozula. Photo courtesy of Sundance.

For “Call Jane,” DP Greta Zozula and director Phyllis Nagy chose 16 mm film in part to create images that belonged in the 1960s and ‘70s but went more modern with the camera and lenses to maintain quality through digital distribution formats. “We talked a lot about John Cassavetes and Claire Denis, who approached filmmaking from such an honest and genuine place,” says Zozula. “You can feel it in the visuals. We also took color and texture cues from Vivian Maier’s still photography. Her photos of Chicago in the ‘70s have this purity to them—a very honest glance into the world at that time.”

The camera was an ARRIFLEX 416, combined with ARRI/Zeiss Master Prime lenses. A 14 mm focal length lens was used extensively, especially in interiors. “The 416 is by far my favorite Super 16 camera,” Zozula says. “It’s incredibly quiet and straightforward in its design. It also helps to have an HD tap for modern-day monitoring standards. When presenting the idea of shooting on film, especially on indie movies, the questions of added time and reliability always come up as a big concern. This camera easily brings comfort and reassurance to those concerns.” 

Zozula used a wide array of ARRI lighting tools including S60 and S30 SkyPanels for interiors as well as HMIs and Fresnels. “We’re very happy with the final result,” she says. “The texture and look of Super 16 got us about 80 percent of the way. The lenses preserved that look and the lighting created the fine balance of tonal shifts throughout the film.”

“F˄¢k ‘Em R!ght B@¢k” by DP Tyler Davis

DP Tyler Davis on the set of “F˄¢k ‘Em R!ght B@¢k."

In “F˄¢k ‘Em R!ght B@¢k,” a public utilities worker tries to launch a career as a musician. As a result, Davis often worked in two completely different scenarios: dreary cubicle desks and glamorous music video situations. “A sense of heightened realism was very important, as we weren’t trying to re-invent any of our locations,” says DP of the film Tyler Davis. “The priority was to polish them for camera so there was enough room for the performances to breathe. Once we added some contrast and atmosphere, each take became funnier than its predecessor.”

Davis says his ARRI AMIRA allows him to work efficiently without having to second-guess what was happening inside the camera. Images were captured in ProRes 4444 with a 1.85:1 crop taken from the 1.78 frame in post. “The AMIRA is so easy to use and it’s just as comfortable on my shoulder as it is on sticks,” he says. “I’m also very hands-on with lighting, so having a reliable camera allows me to move freely and help elsewhere on the set. For lenses, I opted for Zeiss Super Speeds because they bake in a touch of softness without being distracting.”

The schedule was tight and the locations small, so the existing ambience was often the starting point. Office scenes often required gelling and shaping existing fluorescents, with the green dialed out in camera. One exception was the opening party scene. “For that, we spread some LED bulbs across the room in a shifting neon party pattern, which was a lot of fun,” says Davis. “Sometimes it was a little too much saturation, so a soft LED panel with a tight honeycomb grid helped balance our palette while granting an eye light.”

Looking back on the experience, Davis, remembers, “I had to breathe through my mouth so I wouldn’t blow any takes snorting with laughter. Being able to watch these hilarious performances unfold made the entire effort worth it for me.”

“Fresh” by DP Pawel Pogorzelski

Film still from “Fresh.” Photo courtesy of Sundance.

“Fresh” depicts the horrors of modern dating through the example of one woman whose new boyfriend turns out to have some disturbing appetites. Pogorzelski, who made his mark with “Hereditary and Midsommar,” does thorough testing on each project. In this case, his experiments led him to the ARRI ALEXA LF and Panavision 70 lenses, expanded for the larger sensor area.

“We went with the large format in part to isolate the characters, as well as some of the food,” says Pogorzelski. “For me, the LF also has a softness to the image. There’s an elegance that is really pleasing to the eye when you watch the big screen, and I think that’s why I’ve been geared more towards it recently.”

Some test time was dedicated to the food shots, but not much. “We did do tests with a chef, who prepared some really funky stuff for us,” says Pogorzelski. “When they went in front of the camera with one light, everyone was grossed out. But I was never too worried about getting the food right—I’m always more worried about getting the emotions of the characters to the screen.”

A significant portion of the film takes place on a built stage. Exterior locations included some forest scenes, which Pogorzelski describes as tough. “The actors were outside, and it was very cold,” he says. “Sometimes I had to move quickly, and it wasn’t lit perfectly. But I was able to recover nicely thanks to the LF. It was quite helpful to have this powerful tool, and it was fun to see the results turn out so well in the DI in spite of the circumstances.”

“Happening” by DP Laurent Tangy

DP Laurent Tangy filming on set of “Happening.”

“Happening” is an adaptation of a novel by Annie Ernaux, which in turn looks back at her experience with abortion, which was punishable by imprisonment in France in the 1960s. Directed and co-written by Audrey Diwan, the film won the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice Film Festival.

Tangy and Diwan envisioned imagery that would communicate the period but also felt timeless. “We talked about shooting celluloid, but eventually we went for the ALEXA Mini LF,” says Tangy. “The idea was to shoot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and the full frame had a lot of meaning and impact on the film. It allowed me to shoot with shallow depth of field to lead the audience’s attention by use of focus, with the help of focus puller Jissé Allain. I also really like the way the Mini LF is built—it’s very ergonomic for handheld.”

The Mini LF was paired with Mamiya lenses in 45 and 55 mm focal lengths, as well as a set of Canon K35s for exterior night scenes. Lighting was mostly from the top and from practical fixtures, and the crew often had to be ready to shoot in any direction, with long takes.

The EVF-2 finder of the Mini LF allowed Tangy to build the light in the eyepiece. “I’m very happy with the final result,” he says.

“You Won’t Be Alone” by DP Matthew Chuang

Film still from “You won’t be alone.” Photo courtesy of Sundance.

Director Goran Stolevski describes “You Won’t Be Alone” as a story about a witch—but rather than a horror movie, the storyline revolves more around the witch’s feelings. “All our creative choices were based on how things ‘felt,’” says DP Matthew Chuang. “We wanted the imagery to feel intimate, sensory and humanistic. Our actors were given the freedom to discover moments instinctually. As a result, the ALEXA Mini handheld, with the painterly quality of the older rehoused Cookes, felt right. The way that combination captured faces felt right to us. I was shooting against the sun quite often. I knew I could shoot in any environment that was presented to us, and the ALEXA sensor could always handle it.”

The filmmakers avoided anything that felt too designed or staged. “We never set marks for actors or camera,” says Chuang. “That placed a lot of pressure on the entire crew to adapt and to be incredibly focused. But everyone could feel we were onto something tangible. Our production designer, Bethany Ryan, created spaces for us that felt very real, and we didn’t want to mess that up.”

Natural light was embraced. “I would ‘light’ by the way the handheld camera moved with the actors,” says Chuang. “Any supplemental lighting we did do was hidden within the space, with fixtures coming through windows, with additional fire effect lighting on a flame bar for our night interiors. ARRI SkyPanels and Astera Tubes gave us the flexibility to dial in colors and color temp to enhance the scene.”

“Hallelujah” by DP Robert Hunter

Film still from “Hallejujah.” Photo courtesy of Sundance.

“Hallelujah” is a 14-minute short shot in director Victor K. Gabriel’s backyard in Compton, California. The tale touches on grievance and love of family. “Discovering our look became a balancing act between embracing what our natural environment was giving us and infusing our own grit to try and heighten the emotion,” says DP Robert Hunter. “We didn’t want to defy nature and distract from the story in any way. However, our collective lens and how we perceive the world around us was also pertinent to the story.”

“We knew we’d be relying heavily on natural hard sunlight,” continues Hunter. “So, it was important to have a camera with wide enough latitude to hold deeper shadows and brighter highlights all in one frame. I feel the ALEXA Mini’s highlight roll off on the shoulder of the curve is gentle and forgiving. It was also important to have a camera that could accurately reproduce the colors of our sky, environment and most importantly, give life to our skin tones—we had a wide spectrum to consider. The ALEXA felt right for this film.”

The lenses were Cooke Speed Panchros, chosen for their warmth and gentle focus roll off. “They’re also not overly sharp and hold contrast nicely, which I liked,” says Hunter. “I set the older lenses at T4/5.6, which provided us with just enough optical texture, which I felt took the edge off.

“Movies are really hard to make,” he says, “especially with limited resources. But we gave it everything we had, and the soul is there.”

Opening image:

DP Greta Zozula on the set of “Call Jane.” Photo credit: Wilson Webb

Photo credits:

  • Courtesy of Sundance Institute
  • Wilson Webb
  • Karen Kuehn

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