Reflecting the clear advantages offered to 3D productions by the ARRI ALEXA digital camera system, filmmakers behind a major 3D adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' classic novel THE THREE MUSKETEERS selected ALEXA cameras for their high-end feature film. 3D rigs and ALEXA cameras were supplied by PACE, while lighting equipment was provided by ARRI Rental and postproduction services by ARRI Film & TV. A Constantin Film and Impact Pictures production in association with NEF Productions and New Legacy, THE THREE MUSKETEERS was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and shot by cinematographer Glen MacPherson, CSC, ASC, who recently spoke with ARRI about his work on the project.

ARRI News: Although you have shot 3D before, this was your first experience with ALEXA; how did it come to be used on the production?

Glen MacPherson: This was my third 3D film and you learn something new with every show. All three productions have used the PACE 3D rigs, because I was just very comfortable with the system after THE FINAL DESTINATION [2009], my first 3D movie. It was actually Vince Pace who recommended the ALEXA; he described it in an email to me as a game-changer. Really it was the sensitivity and the latitude of the camera; when you're shooting with a mirror rig you're losing a full stop of exposure right off the top, and I don't think there's any other camera that can keep up with ALEXA in terms of sensitivity. 

AN: Did you get to test the camera yourself?

GM: Initially there simply weren't ALEXAs available to test, though I was able to sneak a short peek at some tests Bob Richardson [ASC] was shooting for HUGO CABRET. Of course once we got camera bodies we did extensive testing, but by then we had pretty well committed to going with ALEXA. The testing definitely put my mind at ease. It was fantastic; there was clearly a big difference in terms of latitude and you just don't have to worry any more about exteriors or windows blowing out, or flames - we had a lot of flames, torches and candles. The camera was easily handling those kinds of extreme highlights.


Cinematographer Glen MacPherson, CSC, ASC and director Paul W.S. Anderson choose ALEXA for a major 3D version of the classic adventure story, starring Juno Temple, Logan Lerman, Matthew Macfadyen, Milla Jovovich and Orlando Bloom.

AN: Did your crew adapt to ALEXA quickly and easily?


GM: Oh yes, I think that took a matter of seconds. It's a pretty easy and intuitive menu system - even I was completely comfortable with it! There are some other digital cameras with menu systems so complicated that I just don't bother going into them.


AN: Paul often uses quick cutting in his films; did the two of you have to find an approach that combined his visual style with the demands of 3D?


GM: Paul adapted his style right away because he's a smart guy; he totally gets 3D and we have a lot of fun with it. When we were prepping RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE [2010] we talked a lot about how to use 3D in the action sequences and we wound up doing a lot of extreme slow motion. We didn't do as much of that on this one, but we did a fair bit of shooting at 50 fps with the ALEXA. 


It was great fun doing something set in the past, although this is quite a modern take on the story; it has a modern look, modern music and even the wardrobe is quite modern. There's an element of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE mixed into the classic THREE MUSKETEERS story, so I think the kids will really get into it. 


AN: Did that contemporary approach involve a lot of dynamic camera moves?


GM: Definitely: we had a Cablecam; we dropped cameras from descender rigs; we had them in helicopters; we put them underwater; we mounted them on cars; we'll do anything with them! The 3D rig is pretty compact so there are lots of options for keeping the camerawork fluid. We also had a Steadicam rig that PACE built for two ALEXAs and we used that quite a bit.

You just don't have to worry any more about exteriors or windows blowing out.

AN: What recording systems and on-set workflows were you using?


GM: We were always tethered to an HDCAM SR deck, rather than doing any on-board recording. With a PACE system you're tethered anyway, because there are cables for the 3D controls. 


PACE built some in-line color correctors that we got late in the shoot, allowing me to color correct every shot, save the settings and replicate them in dailies. But we also had our dailies truck with us on every location, with FUGU [a prototype on-set dailies tool made by Colorfront in Budapest] and Sid, which is like a mini version of [Quantel's] Pablo. That's something we've had ever since THE FINAL DESTINATION: a PACE On-Set Lab where we can ingest the SR tapes and watch projected 3D images at night, as well as make stereo and color corrections.


We had a set colorist - not a fully experienced colorist, but someone who could use screen grabs to color the dailies and I could make any adjustments I felt necessary before the material went to our editor. So we had total control, but that's the advantage of shooting digitally. 


AN: What lenses were you using?


GM: We were using Master Primes, which are a great combination with the ALEXA. A lot of people like to use zooms because they think lens changes will take a long time, but we had it down to three or four minutes and you have fewer problems lining up the lenses if you use primes. I just like the look of the Master Primes; everyone has their favorites. 


AN: Were you using the speed of the Master Primes, or is shallow depth of field generally incompatible with 3D cinematography?


GM: There are all sorts of 'rules' about 3D and I don't really know where they came from. I think it's only recently that we've been able to experiment and play around with 3D because you can instantly see what you're getting on set now. They say you don't want to shoot with long lenses; well, we shot with the 150 mm quite often. They say you don't want to shoot shallow depth of field; well, we did that too and it all works great. If you use a long lens or shallow depth of field for the right reason, then the shot won't look out of place, even if the 3D effect is slightly diminished. And of course if you keep everything on the wide end then it just becomes a movie about 3D, whereas if you approach it as a movie and 3D as one of the tools at your disposal, then you can do anything.


AN: Do you have to monitor the continuity of the 3D effect from one shot to the next, so it isn't too jarring for the audience?


GM: To a degree, but you can't be sure how it's all going to be cut. And it's not so much the volume of 3D that's jarring, it's more if your eyes have to converge on a different area with each shot and the cuts are quick that you can really tire out somebody's eyes and give them a headache. But if we were shooting an action sequence that we knew would be cut quickly, then we'd reduce the volume of the 3D. 


In any case it's good to vary the 3D; there are calculators out there that tell you where to put your convergence and IO for every shot, to get the same amount of 3D, which to my mind would be pretty boring. You want to be able to vary it so you have somewhere to go when the monster appears - or whatever it is - and you really want to hit the audience with some big 3D. Then if you're doing a dialogue scene you can tone it down and be more conservative.

AN: Did you stick to the base sensitivity of 800 EI, or did you try other settings as well?

GM: I tried to stick to the 800 EI as much as possible, although we got up to 1280 or 1600 EI at some points I think, in extreme low light situations. We had some night exteriors at Bamberg in Bavaria with huge expanses we had to light and I just don't think I could have shot it on film, with the equipment we had. I'd walk out of my tent and think there wasn't nearly enough light, but we'd be shooting at T2.8; it was amazing.

AN: Can you imagine ALEXA having an impact on the kind of lighting kit you need for a feature film?

GM: You can definitely have much smaller units; the ALEXA responds so well to low light situations. We had some very big sets on the film and at the start I was pre-rigging a lot of big lights up there, but we just wouldn't use them - it was too much. It meant that things like flame-based sources could provide a lot of the illumination and I could light to a really low level to make the candles look more realistic. 

We shot in a lot of castles in Bavaria, places that no-one had ever shot in before and there were all sorts of restrictions placed on us regarding the amount of light allowed in a room, or stating that we couldn't light through windows. Some places were just far too big to light; the Hall of Mirrors at Chiemsee is massive and we actually shot there with available light, mostly, and just a couple of small Kino Flos to fill in faces.

Many of the castles had very old paintings and tapestries, so we couldn't bring in large lighting units and that meant we had to be pretty inventive; but those were the situations where ALEXA really helped, because of its sensitivity. The idea that we could be in these castles and shoot with the available light coming through the windows - and yet still see detail out of those windows - was unbelievable, and the director loved it.