DYING TO SURVIVE hits big in China with ARRI

Already reaching close to $200 million dollars at the box office after its opening weekend, DYING TO SURVIVE is poised to become one of China’s biggest hits this summer.

Based on real-life events, DYING TO SURVIVE tells the story of Yong Cheng, a cancer survivor and drug store owner, who started helping leukemia patients by selling unapproved pharmaceutical drugs underground. DYING TO SURVIVE premiered in Chinese theaters to record crowds and rave reviews. The critically acclaimed comedy-drama was produced by Hao Ning and Zheng Xu and was directed by first time feature maker Muye Wen. DP Boxue Wang captured this piece with ALEXA XT Plus and ALEXA Mini, and chose ARRI SkyPanels and M-Series luminaries for the film’s lighting. ARRI caught up with Wang, who shared his thoughts on shooting the film.

How were you chosen as DP for DYING TO SURVIVE? Could you tell us about the production schedule?

In 2014, I worked with Muye Wen on CITIES IN LOVE. By the summer of 2015, while we were doing the post, Muye got a call from Hao Ning and was offered this script. Both of us are greatly inspired by Alejandro González Iñárritu and his long time working buddy, DP Rodrigo Prieto. For DYING TO SURVIVE, we didn’t discuss the overall style too much in advance, but in terms of the general direction, we studied neorealism and Bazin’s idea of plan-séquence. In short, we followed the rule: “Less is more.” The director was very clear about the storytelling, and we discussed in detail the visual and sound components of some of the scenes. It was clear from the very start that we were all on the same page; we had this chemistry.

Screenwriter Jian Han wrote the first version of the script. But after we received the financials, Muye Wen and Hao Ning spent a year adjusting the script and it officially started prepping at the end of 2016. Part of the film was shot in India and we went location scouting after the lunar new year. We started shooting in March 2017 and after about 80 days we wrapped, in June. We finally finished grading one week before the media release.

“Films like DYING TO SURVIVE, realistic but commercially oriented, are rare in China,” mentions Wang.

Did you make any conscious references to other genre films in this picture?

There are many films that are based on real events in China, but they are often stereotyped as low-budget, and are often only screened at film festivals. Although DYING TO SURVIVE is a realistic feature film, the director didn’t want to follow the traditional route. Market attention and audience reception was what he was aiming for. So, it was tuned to be a little bit like commercial films. He made adjustments to the script and the pace of storytelling is very clear; from exposition to resolution, the action and comedy elements are very genre-like.

It was actually a very big challenge for us, because films like this--realistic but commercially oriented movies--are rare in China. So, what we were doing here was to keep the basic tone of the film realistic. Neorealism is used to convey a stylistic beauty with common subjects, to find the “beauty in normal life.” By using close shots and close-ups, individuals are isolated from the whole, creating a strong visual impact. We didn’t give actors marks, which allowed them to relax, and act naturally. And with the lighting we stuck to the naturalistic principles as well, but we also made some stylistic and dramatic adjustments based on the script. Bazin’s plan-séquence theory is born out of neorealism. Bazin hoped that filmmakers could understand the raw power of the film image itself. These theories are used as genre elements in the film.

“By using close shots and close-ups, individuals are isolated from the whole creating a strong visual impact,” explains Wang

What tests did you complete before making the picture? And why did you choose ALEXA?

There were two parts of the test. First, we had technical tests like camera stability and capability. The other part was test shooting for image style. I trust ARRI: its stability, color science, dynamic range, and highlight/lowlight roll off are always very good. I’ve used ARRI ever since I started shooting digitally. I did a test every time I had a shoot, so I’m quite familiar with ARRI cameras. For the image, we tested some lenses and different lighting set ups. DYING TO SURVIVE is set around the year 2002, so you cannot make it too “vintage,” like in the 90s, but you can’t make it too modern, either. After I gave up on some old lenses that were not optically up-to-date, I chose lenses that looked neutral.

DYING TO SURVIVE has an every-day sort of plot and the ALEXA’s color is very true to life, so it’s a perfect match. I trust ALEXA with its dynamic range and low light capability. I have shot a lot of low key scenes in the past with ALEXA, and I’m very familiar with its performance. There was a scene when Yong Cheng was locked outside of his drug store and had to climb in from the window, so he took a torchlight to find the phone number that Shouyi Lv gave him. I only put a very small LED tube on the roof to light up the background, all other light was from his torchlight. If I remembered correctly, I raised the sensitivity to 1280 with the aperture wide open. The image may be a little bit grainy, but the texture was outstanding.

Wang mentioned: “I trust ALEXA with its dynamic range and low light capability.”

Did you shoot with both ALEXA XT and ALEXA Mini to adhere to the schedule?
Did you use any multicam set up?

Yes, schedule was, of course, something we had to consider. But choosing to shoot multicam was not meant for catching-up. We were shooting non-stop, by which I mean we didn’t cut during the process; the actors would continue their acting and the director wouldn’t interrupt them. So, we had to use shoulder mounted multicam setups with several cameras to capture the performances of each individual character. We let the camera participate in the acting in order to record fleeting details.

Personally, I also like shooting shoulder mounted, so I like ALEXA XT. ALEXA XT, as well as AMIRA, are both cameras that are suitable for shoulder mounting. The ergonomics were designed specifically for it. The XT was heavier than ALEXA Mini, but it still felt good. I used ALEXA Mini for the spaces which were small and hard to maneuver around. Some sequences were done with Steadicam, and for these the ALEXA Mini was very flexible. Most of the time we shot with an ALEXA XT and an ALEXA MINI.

Wang and his team used shoulder mounting multicam setups with several cameras to capture each actor’s individual performance.

How did you cooperate with the gaffer? In which type of scenes were M-series and SkyPanels used?

I worked with a gaffer named Weiliang Mao. Although it was the first time we had worked together, it was apparent that he had seen many more films than any other gaffer. I was surprised that after giving him the script, he talked about a lot of films that I had in mind. He was very clear about the final image of this film. We discussed in detail the lighting, position, and the mood we were trying to create in advance. So, when it came to actually working together on set, everything went very smoothly. However, since we needed to shoot 360 degrees, there were some losses in shaping the light at some angles. We had to change on the fly.

SkyPanels and the M-Series are both very convenient and saved us a lot of time. They are both revolutionary in the history of light fixtures.

We mainly used lights from the M-Series and SkyPanels from ARRI, we also used some Chinese balloons. The largest light we had was an ARRIMAX 18K, which we used for the night scene at the pier. It was a large area, so we used the 18K with a Chinese balloon to light the background. For other, smaller areas, we used M90, M40, M18, and similar. I love the M-Series. When we were shooting the main scenes in the drug store, a lot of the shots were keyed with a M90 outside the window with a diffusion. By adding some SkyPanel or fluorescent lights for the background, the atmosphere was just what we were looking for.

Regardless of indoors or outdoors, I basically used M-series as the key light. They are very bright and can be used to simulate the sun. It’s small, so it’s easy to handle- that’s why I liked it so much. In the scene which features Changling Zhang selling fake drugs and fighting with others, you may feel there’s a big light used outside; but actually, it was just a M90 or a M40. SkyPanels were used as a fill for some characters, and we also used them as the key light if we were adding some diffusion. Their biggest strength is that they offer adjustable color temperature.

I think SkyPanels and the M-Series are both very convenient and saved us a lot of time. They are both revolutionary in the history of light fixtures. It’s a huge step forward in fixture miniaturization and provides so much more versatility.

Wang appreciated SkyPanels and the M-Series for their ease and versatility.

Which format did you record on? How about the grading process? How do you feel about the footage quality of ALEXA and its ability to work in post?

We recorded Open Gate 3.4K in ARRIRAW. I had a moment of doubt about for that choice, because I was worried it might take too much disk space. But it’s a film about people, so I wanted to highlight the relationship between man and his surroundings. So, I always used a wide aperture with Open Gate, trying to achieve shallower depth of field. The total storage space for all shots was around 280T, and the total hours of raw footage was around 230 hours. The shooting ratio was very big, and few films can match. It was a real challenge for our DIT team in data and color management. They have to backup and transcode all the footage, and everyone was working in shifts.

ARRIRAW offers huge room for adjustments—it’s like a second creative chance for us. Because DYING TO SURVIVE was conceived to be commercially-oriented, it needed to be rich in color. The latitude of ARRIRAW is very good, and there was no de-noising used. I even added some particles in some shots, and some typical scenes were marked with color. The shots in India were richer than the ones we did in China. I’d decide the color in some key scenes with our colorist, and then fine-tune it before showing it to the director.

“I also like shooting shoulder mounted, so I like ALEXA XT,” comments Wang.

I think ALEXA LF may be the most revolutionary camera in recent years and will become the mainstream production tool for the upcoming years.

What is your opinion of ARRI products after using them on this film? Are there any new ARRI products that you would like to try out?

I shot my first film in 2012 using ALEXA. Back then, the ALEXA had to be used with an external recorder, but after that we had ALEXA XT, AMIRA, ALEXA Mini, and ALEXA SXT. I pay close attention to every new ARRI product, and I’m keen to try them out once they are released. When the ALEXA LF was launched earlier this year, I didn’t have the chance to be among the first to witness this newly-born camera because I was filming in Hong Kong. But in April, I went to NAB and was able to try it out with the Signature Primes there. I think ALEXA LF may be the most revolutionary camera in recent times and will become the mainstream production tool for the coming years. LF is very workable, not only do we get a larger image, but also superior resolution, and a better field of vision. It gives directors and editors more room to work with. I also like the Signature Primes; they’re very lightweight and I like shooting shoulder mounted. That’s a plus for me. I also like its color, a little on the warmer side; the image was gentle and rich.

From a technological standpoint, do you think that large format offers a new visual style?

I think large format is definitely a new visual style. It’s just like 10 years ago when we were switching from film to digital, and there were a lot of the digital cinema cameras in a chaotic battle. But a lot of them failed to reproduce the color that DPs were looking for. It wasn’t until the arrival of the ALEXA that famous DPs like Roger Deakins started to switch to digital. As for ALEXA LF, it offers better image quality and spatial relationship within a shot. It’s very intuitive and this can be directly seen in the images, which is important for all creators. I’m now preparing for my next film, and I cannot say too much right now, but I will be using ALEXA LF and the Signature Primes.

I’m new to the industry and I hope that each one of my films is different and that I will continue to try new things in different shoots. We’re all trying to find our own creative space from the script. Cinematography has to be rooted in the script, and with a deep understanding you can find your own unique style.

Wang at work with his ALEXA XT.

Photos: Ying Li (7), DYING TO SURVIVE (1)