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"You Mean That Was a Digital Camera?"

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Last fall, we wrapped our latest feature, Ruth & Alex, a romantic comedy directed by Richard Loncraine (Richard III, Firewall, Wimbledon), starring Diane Keaton, Morgan Freeman and Cynthia Nixon. We shot in New York City — an absolutely fantastic experience, despite its unique complications. We made one pre-production decision that resulted in a huge difference for the film: to shoot with relatively new cameras from Arri — the Alexa XT.

It’s common knowledge that the Alexa has become the quintessential workhorse for film and television productions. Working in such an intense, dynamic and cinematic city as New York, we needed the versatility, portability and overall quality that the Alexa is known for. So when Franz Wieser at Arri and Lynn “Gus” Gustafson at Arri CSC gave my line producer, Sam Hoffman, the choice to use their new XT technology, we jumped at the chance. We found that the XT all but negated the many challenges presented by the too-many Manhattan locations, tight spaces, quick changes in lighting and weather, not to mention working in and around the flow of the city itself. And when Produced by invited us to share a little about our experiences using the XT, we were only too happy to oblige. We were one of the early adopters of a previous Alexa model, using it to shoot Rob Reiner’s The Magic of Belle Isle, and now that we’re wrapping up post-production on Ruth & Alex, we’re excited to share the producers’ perspective on this camera with my fellow PGA members. In fact, it’s an honor. 


When it came to selecting the camera for Ruth & Alex, the Alexa was the only camera on DP Jonathan Freeman’s (Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Remember Me) short list. To say that the Alexa is the quintessential workhorse isn’t a sales pitch — the Alexa is everywhere. Our entire camera department had had extensive experience with this camera and was very happy with our choice. Furthermore, it’s post-friendly, a feature that producers take very seriously. Especially with the influx of production generated by the tax incentives, New York post houses work on Alexa projects daily. They’re very familiar and extremely facile with all the post options at their disposal. Under Jonathan’s leadership, we were able to flesh out our entire workflow process in prep, from image acquisition to DI to film-out, before we shot a single frame of our film. This in itself allowed us to work out any potential problems without the pressure of being in production and surely has saved us much time and money during our post process.                                                      

One of digital’s challenges (and a common argument against digital) is that it’s all but impossible to match the softness and richness of film. The most common complaints are either that the images are too sharp or that they scream “television.” As Jonathan explains, “Its highlights still don’t have the subtle curvature fall-off that film has, but it’s almost to the point where you can argue that it’s based on subjective taste, rather than a technical difference. Without a side-by-side comparison, it’s hard to know the difference, even to the trained eye.”

Our first assistant camera technician, Heather Norton, told us, “For an assistant, this camera was smartly designed for the accessories that we are accustomed to using in a traditional feature environment. It’s very intuitive in its menu structure and is ergonometric, which makes it great for Steadicam, handheld and studio use.” Familiarity like this greatly reduces the perceived learning curve, another argument commonly marshaled against digital. For our film, we were budget-constrained to capture the lower resolution ProRes format, but needed to capture our green screen shots in higher resolution ARRIRAW for vfx. Alexa XT was the perfect solution, as Heather noted that the new XT also has the ability to record ARRIRAW in-camera. “When the Alexa first came out,” she noted, “you had to attach an external recording device to capture uncompressed data.”


Advances in digital filmmaking have given us options that didn’t exist a few years ago. While in pre-production on Ruth & Alex, we were able to shoot multiple camera tests, run them through our data acquisition workflow, do color-grading tests and screen with a high-resolution projector, all within the space of a couple of days and with a very small test budget. Richard Loncraine had a very specific vision for the look and feel of Ruth & Alex and we were able to lock in this vision during prep by creating look up tables (LUTs). An LUT is like a filter that rests on top of the raw camera image, modifying the color, saturation and other parameters of the picture so it appears closer to the final product the DP is aiming for. “The visualization of the movie was almost immediate,” confirmed Jonathan Freeman. “Having LUTs allowed us to create the look of the movie pretty much on the set.” For a producer, what this means is that while we are shooting, we can see images that are very close to the images that the DP will finalize during the DI! It’s a time-saver: Your editor and director use the color-corrected images during editing and you can screen from the Avid with closer-to-color-corrected images than ever before.                                                              


From a production standpoint, there are two things we love about the XT. For one, it offers the ability to film in a variety of codecs with a quick in-camera menu change, from pristine ARRIRAW to the edit-ready ProRes. For shots where we needed the maximum latitude and zero compression (visual effects shots, background plates and green screen work), we went with the raw option. The rest we shot in ProRes. As Heather Norton explains, “The new larger sensor size [4:3] of the XT afforded us the ability to strategically switch in camera from shooting ProRes to ARRIRAW when we needed to give post the most latitude for green screen replacement.”                                                           

The second and, in my opinion, one of the most impressive aspects of the Alexa is its ability to capture a wide range of exposures in the same shot. “The camera needed to be able to capture a wide latitude of bright lights and extreme shadows under an elevated train in broad daylight, as well as intimate silhouettes of the actors in a romantic scene with the sun setting and sparkling over the East River,” Heather recalls. This latitude played a key role in our production given the dynamic nature of lighting in New York City. Jonathan Freeman adds, “We had to shoot on locations where we had only a minimal amount of control. We were shooting probably 10 stories up, and it’s hard to maintain consistency and balance for the inside and outside as the light changes, especially in Manhattan where the light in the canyons changes every 15 minutes.” ‘A’ camera operator Tom Lappin likewise testifies to the value of this feature. “Richard would always shoot the rehearsal,” he notes. “With the DIT watching and the HD monitors for Richard and Jonathan, we were always confident that Heather and I had gotten the take. There is a great sense of progress when you know you have the scene on the first take.”                                                                     


We discovered another surprising and welcome feature of the Alexa XT when an errant boom ended up in the frame of a take we absolutely loved. This could have ended up as an additional visual effects shot. But the XT has a 4:3 Super 35 Sensor that allowed us to shoot 4:3 at 2K resolution. It’s a feature that was developed for anamorphic lenses, but we used it to gather more pixels, which then allowed us to reposition and re-frame shots vertically and do seamless digital tilts in post. We saved our beloved shot simply by repositioning the frame, and it didn’t degrade our image quality.

An interesting byproduct of shooting digital in general is that the production design of sets tends to be less “staged” and more realistic, as the cameras (unlike film cameras) capture pretty much what you see with your naked eye. As an example, our brilliant production designer, Brian Morris, built a wonderful restaurant façade in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The day of our shoot, our clearance person called in a panic, informing us that an Internet search revealed that a “Rahim’s Sahara Café” already existed... right in Brooklyn, no less. We scrambled to find a replacement name, only to learn that this hot new eatery was, in fact, our set. As it turned out, Brian’s design was so convincing that a local resident, after walking by the set the night before, ran home and blogged about the “new restaurant” in the neighborhood. We were able to get back to work, but it reminded us that sometimes technology can have unintended consequences.

ON-SET DAILIES (OR, SHHHHHH!... SKIPPING THE LAB!)                                                    

One of the coolest tools we had was from our on-set dailies vendor, Light Iron: a new iPad app called TODAILIES (get it?), which wirelessly synced our dailies to iPads soon after we changed data cards (or as we used to say, “changed mags”). This means that whomever we gave access to (HODs, vfx, exec producers) could view HD dailies minutes after they were shot. This cuts both ways, so be careful to whom you grant access!                                                                      

Our talented on-set DIT, Keith Putnam, was our go-to technician on set for data wrangling, testing, LUT application and all dailies-related questions. He and the Alexa workflow complemented each other perfectly. Light Iron set Keith up with a turnkey system complete with high-definition monitors, waveform, vectorscope and on-set dailies processing capabilities. This system allowed us to monitor the ARRIRAW and ProRes footage straight out of the Alexa and make on-the-fly adjustments. “The video output of the camera is there for monitoring,” Keith explains, “and I use it to live-color the signal, putting a look on the image and sending it to the VTR person for monitoring on set.”

Creating our dailies while we were filming saved an immense amount of time and manpower and allowed editorial to get their hands on the footage much more quickly. “After downloading the media,” Keith continues, “I would bring it into Express Dailies, which allowed me to sync the sound, apply the look and generate dailies that look like what people saw on set. The live-coloring process is non-destructive. It maintains a consistency all the way to editorial and provides the final colorist an indication of what the original basic intent was,” said Keith.


With our original camera files transcoded into 2K DNxHD 36, a high-quality HD file for offline editing, we were ready to cut the film using an Avid system. Our editor, Andy Marcus (Step Up 3D, Can a Song Save Your Life?, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), and post-production supervisor Alexis Wiscomb set up shop first at Post Factory and then later at Harbor Picture Company, where we were also doing our online and color.                                                          

Offlining the film with the 2K DNxHD 36 files provided a good balance of picture quality, while also minimizing costs and maximizing efficiency when it came to working with the huge quantity of footage. It was a great help to be able to toggle on the LUTs that Keith had created during production. “Everything came into the Avid with essentially a first-color pass,” says assistant editor Gordon Holmes.

The codec maintained a level of image quality that allowed us to output directly from the Avid and onto an HDCAM SR tape for test screening in a theater. Once we lock picture, we will conform the film using the original raw files and finish it in 2K. One of the great things about the Alexa’s file options is that they are compatible with most online platforms. We selected the Avid Nitris for our conform and Autodesk Lustre for color-grading.

WE NEED TO FUTURE-PROOF DIGITAL                                                     

Shooting digital still leaves producers with unanswered questions about archiving and accessing our films in years to come. How will our 2K films look on the new 16K projectors? With film, we addressed that problem by inventing higher resolution film scanners to get better resolution for our projectors. But digital pretty much remains the resolution at which you capture it. It is a problem yet to be solved by our industry, although many smart people are attacking it. We encourage all producers to get into the conversation — this is as much our problem as anyone else’s in the industry!                                                         

Still, for our team, the overall ease of digital technology outweighed any downsides. As Richard Loncraine put it, “You mean that was a digital camera? It just did what it was supposed to do, every time, all the time.” Though ultimately, we all agree with Tom Lappin when he states, “Digital capture is only as good as the team that makes the settings.”



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