Master Anamorphics' Russian movie debut

Sasha and Ilya, a young couple in a struggling relationship, are spending New Year's Eve at a beach house in northern France when the carcass of an unidentified creature is washed ashore on the same day they meet Masha, a mysterious lost Russian girl with nowhere to stay. This is the plot of THE COLD FRONT, the first Russian feature film to be made with ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphic lenses. Directed by Roman Volobuev, it was shot by cinematographer Michael Khasaya, who combined the Master Anamorphics with ALEXA XT and recorded in ARRIRAW for maximum image quality. Khasaya speaks here about his work on the project.

THE COLD FRONT: first Russian Master Anamorphic feature film

THE COLD FRONT is the first Russian feature film to be made with ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphic lenses. Directed by Roman Volobuev, it was shot by cinematographer Michael Khasaya, who combined the Master Anamorphics with ALEXA XT and recorded in ARRIRAW for maximum image quality.

What was the background to this film and the ideas behind it?

 

This picture was a debut for almost all of us -- for Roman, the director, who until recently was a movie critic, for the producers, for much of the crew, and for me, as a DP. I saw the project as a chance to bring some ideas to life and to finally become a true co-author. I've been interested in playing with this format for a long time, to see a drama turn into a thriller and vice versa. We wanted to create a portrait of our generation -- 30-somethings -- and to show creative people who are trying to understand who they really are. The most appealing element was showing how a person's nature reveals itself in unexpected situations. 

Why did you decide to shoot anamorphic?

I think the anamorphic format lets the viewer become wholly immersed in the story, in the magic of the film. The look is entirely different from spherical lenses, which are more similar to the way people see the world. The expressive foregrounds, beautiful backgrounds and bokeh of anamorphic provide depth to the frame, creating a special, almost surreal atmosphere for the audience and increasing their sense of participation.

I think the anamorphic format lets the viewer become wholly immersed in the story, in the magic of the film.

What led you to choose the Master Anamorphics?

 

I was lucky enough to work with the Master Anamorphics on a project in Moscow directed by Rob Chiu and shot by Matias Boucard, who invited me to be on second unit. I fell in love with the lenses and an entire detective story followed, during which Matias helped me source them in France for this project of some Russian guys no-one had ever heard of, and I'm really thankful for his help.

 

When you're filming a low-budget film, with no significant art department, no different locations, or lighting, or costumes and sets, to make it work you need the right lenses, with their own character but without any artefacts. I actually prefer not to use too much lighting and to make the picture look as natural as possible; the Master Anamorphics were perfect for that and for balancing out our limitations. 

Where were you filming? 

We shot the entire picture in Normandy with a part-Russian, part-French crew.  We had a week of prep and 17 days filming, so time was short but we had to get used to the strict French schedule. A major bonus was the fact that everything was filmed in one location and we could move easily between exterior and interior scenes, which helped us to cope with the constantly changing weather. We wanted to shoot everything at 'magic hour', which required thorough planning and rehearsals.

You obviously shot many scenes handheld, which is unusual for anamorphic. Did the lenses allow you to do this comfortably?

From the beginning we knew we wanted to shoot handheld a lot. It gave us the freedom to move with the actors, responding instinctively to little changes, which intensified every scene and achieved the participation effect we wanted. Even long shots were handheld; only in the closing scene did we use a tripod, to draw attention to the characters.

We deliberately limited ourselves to three focal lengths, the 35 mm, 50 mm and 75 mm, which forced us to plan carefully and ultimately enriched the film artistically. As for operational comfort, yes, shooting was really nice, even handheld. All the lenses are the same size and weight, and put together perfectly, so you stop thinking about it and concentrate on creative work.

What did you think of the optical performance of the Master Anamorphics?

They're perfect. The aperture is large, the color rendering is natural and the brilliance of the picture is more like that offered by spherical lenses. There's no change in the size of the picture when the focus shifts, no optical distortion and no chromatic aberration, which prevents the viewer being distracted from the authors' ideas, while fully preserving the character of the anamorphic format.

The Master Anamorphics definitely helped us to be more creative.

What I love most is that, unlike other anamorphic lenses, you can work with a large aperture and not worry a bit -- most of the time we were at T2.2 or T2.8. There were many night scenes for which we wanted attractive out-of-focus backgrounds. For example in one long, important scene showing the characters walking on a beach in the evening, there was no film lighting at all -- only a reflector -- and the lenses coped with the task just fine.

 

Can you give an example of how the features of the lenses helped you creatively?

 

The Master Anamorphics definitely helped us to be more creative. When I was working with the 35 mm I was able to crop a character's face in half at the side of the frame, which I could never do with other anamorphic lenses because of the distortions and blurred edges they have. I've always wanted to put something in that part of the frame, to make it available. When there's no restriction, the creative work begins -- you start experimenting with the composition and with the camera modes. It was a big step forward for me.

Did the ALEXA XT make a good companion for the Master Anamorphics?

The camera coped with the pretty severe demands of the project wonderfully. I'd like to give extra credit to the integrated filters: shooting handheld it meant we could skip the matte box with external filters. We had been worried about changing filters on the shore, in the strong wind with sand flying around, but of course those filter changes were internal and there were no problems. The dynamic range of the ALEXA XT also helped a great deal, since we were on location and had a very limited lighting kit.