Interview: cinematographer Xiaofei Song

As a leading figure in the new generation of Chinese cinematographers, Xiaofei Song has shot a number of highly successful films, including COW, DESIGN OF DEATH, LOST IN THAILAND and BEIJING LOVE STORY. Most recently he worked with ALEXA and Master Primes on BREAKUP BUDDIES and then combined ALEXA with Master Anamorphics on TOMORROW WE ARE GETTING MARRIED and LOST IN HONG KONG, which broke the domestic 2D box office record within 10 days of its release. Here Song shares his experiences working with ARRI cameras and lenses.

Trailer for LOST IN HONG KONG, captured with ALEXA and Master Anamorphics

The phenomenally successful Chinese film LOST IN HONG KONG broke the domestic 2D box office record within 10 days of its release. Directed by Zheng Xu, it was shot by cinematographer Xiaofei Song, who chose to use ARRI ALEXA cameras and Master Anamorphic lenses.

When did you first get your hands on ALEXA?


LOST IN THAILAND was my first film with ALEXA; it was at a time marked by a rapid transition from 35 mm film to digital for Chinese cinematographers. The most important feature of digital acquisition is that what you see is what you get -- it's so straightforward. I like the fact that ALEXA is the closest match to 35 mm film; people are still nostalgic about the film look, so it's nice to get as close as possible. Cameras need to provide enough room for post and ALEXA did a lot better than the others.


Have you found ALEXA to be reliable?


I have had no worries about it, no matter how harsh the environment. On LOST IN THAILAND we shot during the hottest season and also in the rain, and everything was OK -- same with BREAKUP BUDDIES. Later we endured brutal sandstorms while shooting TOMORROW WE ARE GETTING MARRIED but ALEXA performed very well. On LOST IN HONG KONG we had shots where powders covered the entire room; the camera was simply cleaned after every take and it worked as usual. I like that ARRI cameras are weather and dust-proof. 

What are your thoughts on 4K?

It really depends on the requirements of the project. Most digital cinemas project 2K, so shooting 4K adds a lot of extra work in post. 4K will become a standard only when cinemas can screen films in 4K. The types of films we shoot today don't really need that extra resolution; it can accentuate pores and wrinkles on Asian skin and that's not what we like to see. Producers have to consider the practicality of shooting 4K, as well as the increased production and postproduction costs. 

ARRI cameras have an edge in extreme lighting situations because the color reproduction is so accurate.

What were your equipment choices on BREAKUP BUDDIES?


I used the ALEXA XT Studio with Master Prime lenses. Director Hao Ning likes to portray reality, like a mirror reflecting social issues into his films. So this film had to have a sense of realism, but not too much otherwise it would look like a documentary. I prefer an elaborate look so I picked Master Primes; the images just look gorgeous with those lenses, even plain and simple subjects. Also, this film is quite a masculine story about two men on a trip, so to cater for female audiences we had to make it look neutral, with lots of soft visual elements like long takes and soft lighting. The detail and smooth gradation of the Master Primes was exactly what I was looking for.


How does ALEXA handle scenes with challenging lighting?


The camera does a great job delivering perfect images under any lighting conditions. Other cameras are often OK under controlled lighting, but once you go extreme, some of them fail. For example on BREAKUP BUDDIES we had a scene with pure red-colored atmospheric light and ALEXA captured the color dead-on. With other digital cameras it may have turned out to be pink, purple or orange. ARRI cameras have an edge in extreme lighting situations because the color reproduction is so accurate; ALEXA did an amazing job recording the fine nuances of color.

Why did you choose Master Anamorphic lenses for TOMORROW WE ARE GETTING MARRIED?

It's a romantic story set along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which is like an endless horizon -- everything is stretched and spread out. The storyline is also quite parallel, so we needed an open and wide perspective. I believe the best way to visualize the linearity of this kind of road movie is with anamorphic lenses, especially for a love story. I experimented with almost all anamorphic lenses on the market and only the Master Anamorphics delivered the style I was looking for. I tested all of them from the 35 mm to the 100 mm and the horizon always remained a straight line; with anamorphic lenses from other manufacturers the horizon would distort when I tilted up or down. Geometric lines and compositions are very important for this kind of film, and the Master Anamorphics were the only lenses that kept distortion to a minimum.

The Master Anamorphics were the only lenses that kept distortion to a minimum.

Tell us about your latest film, LOST IN HONG KONG.


It's similar to LOST IN THAILAND, but the equipment has moved on and got better. That film was shot with ALEXA and SxS PRO cards in ProRes 4444 Log C, while LOST IN HONG KONG was shot with ALEXA XT, recording ARRIRAW 4:3 in camera. Again I used Master Anamorphics and it was a delight; the lenses are well balanced in terms of weight, so they work very well for shoulder-mounted shots. The focus ring also feels nice and smooth.


We ramped up all the fun stuff, as well as the look and the production quality. Because the story is set in Hong Kong, we included a lot of elements from Hong Kong action movies. I have to mention our action choreographer, Ka-lok Chin from Firestorm, who is currently chairman of the Hong Kong Stuntmen Association; he's a very impressive guy and did great work, so the film is well worth watching.