ARRI ALEXA takes on MTV's TEEN WOLF
MTV describes TEEN WOLF, its modern take on the classic Michael J. Fox film, as a sexy thriller set against the drama of high school life, with a forbidden romantic love story at its core. The 12-episode series, which begins airing in June, is directed by Russell Mulcahy and stars Tyler Posey as the titles werewolf, Dylan OBrien as his friend, Crystal Reed as the mysterious new girl in town and Tyler Hoechlin as the more experienced werewolf.
DoP Jonathan Hall, a graduate of the Brooks Institute for Photography in Santa Barbara, cut his teeth on extreme sports videos and then went on to lens indie features (ASIAN STORIES, CHARLIE VALENTINE and GIVE EM HELL MALONE, the latter directed by Mulcahy) as well as operate on some Hollywood films, including AVATAR. When Mulcahy offered Hall the chance to shoot TEEN WOLF, the young cinematographer jumped at it.
When it came to picking a camera system for the show, Hall notes, "I still primarily shoot film. I had only shot one digital project before this, on the Sony F35." The ARRI ALEXA, however, was the digital camera he had been waiting for. "ARRI has always been a trusted name, from my school days all the way into professional filmmaking," he says. "The 16SR 2 and 16SR 3 have been workhorses for indies and documentaries for over 20 years. You can drop them down a flight of stairs, dust them off and do another take; they're also as light and compact as possible."
Hall says he "snatched up" the ALEXA in September and started shooting right away, directly to on-board SxS cards. "Russ and the producer Joe [Genier] and screenwriter Jeff [Davis] were into pushing the creativity as much as possible," he notes. "They were all about getting the camera smaller and using it to get coverage from handheld to cranes." Since TEEN WOLF, which is shot outside Atlanta, often uses nighttime exteriors as well as "low-light creepy sets," the ALEXA fit right into Hall's shooting plans. "The ALEXA can shoot with very little light," he says. "I'd normally be nervous to shoot with an ISO of 320; the ALEXA, out of the box, is a true 800. Last night, we shot scenes in 1280 ISO without any problem."
ALEXA's sensitivity helped Hall in other ways. "We're trying to keep away from shooting with prime lenses," he explains. "[Other digital cameras] tend to be coupled with primes so they can shoot with an open stop, but then you have to reset for every shot. It really slows things down and limits your focus puller's ability to chase focus." How much time does Hall save? "A ton," he says. "Not just logistically with the camera, but also with lighting. We can do half as much lighting; instead of broadly lighting everything and hoping it's consistent, we put up the key light and then look at where we need to add accents."
The production shoots ProRes 444 onto SxS cards. "MTV's single-camera shows have always been tape-based," says Hall. "They were a bit skeptical about tapeless. But I said that since turnarounds would have to be so quick, it would be silly not to take advantage of this pipeline. We can literally shoot the footage, download it onto a hard drive, send it to Chainsaw Digital in Los Angeles and the people can edit in full resolution on an FCP workstation...and simultaneously color correct it.
"There is no such thing as an online anymore," he continues. "That's one line item that came right off the budget, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in online material and time saved. You never have to duplicate everything and then go back to a full-res version. You can send the full-res version to visual effects; color; sound."
Hall has become accustomed to the advantages of shooting digitally with Filmlight's Baselight digital intermediate system on set. "We are running everything through the Baselight, so we can shape the look as we're shooting," he says. "We can cool off the picture, bring the blacks down...and we see in real-time what it would look like." That also saves time in postproduction, at Chainsaw Digital in Los Angeles. "We save the information on-set and send it over to Chainsaw, so the post people can get started on color correction with the look we've saved on set," he says.
The advantage of the tapeless workflow continues to storage. "Hard drives are very cheap," says Hall. "My guesstimate is that we used 40 terabytes for the whole 12-episode order. We doubled that and that's our system. So we're doing ProRes, uncompressed for fewer than 100 terabytes and shooting three or four cameras at times. Compare that with anything linear: $50 a tape for 40 minutes. Those elements can now be taken off the docket."
Saving time and money means nothing if the look of the camera is not satisfactory, but Hall says he was "blown away by the latitude of the ALEXA." He notes: "That's the only thing we cinematographers transitioning from film to digital wanted. We don't want to sit in a tent and look at vectorscopes to make sure we have data. I never wanted to contain my lighting to make it all look flat.
"The ALEXA shoots with a stop range of the Kodak 5218 Vision2 500T film that I've loved," he continues. "Out in daylight, if you open up the aperture to a baseline, you'd easily be able to capture the range of the 5218 without tweaking anything."
And Hall has put ALEXA through its paces. As Mulcahy and his producers hoped, the production has put the camera in nearly every shooting scenario imaginable. "We strapped Steadicams to an off-road vehicle as we flew through the woods," he says. "We've shot handheld; Technocranes; dolly; greenscreen; a HydroFlex bag; high-speed circle tracks; we'll have one on a helicopter in a week. The ALEXA has been everywhere with us."
Pioneers often get arrows in the back and since Hall took on the ALEXA when it was new, he "kept waiting for something not to work as well as we'd hoped." However, he notes, "We have yet to have any major problems. There has never been a roadblock; the camera has delivered. We've shot more than 1,000 cards without any hiccup - no dropped frames; no interruptions; no corrupt data. It's been shockingly flawless."
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