The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents May 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Cinema Verite
Prom
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Short Takes
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Arri’s Alexa makes its U.S. feature debut on Prom, shot by Byron Shah.


Photos by Richard Foreman, SMPSP, courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.
The new Disney movie Prom, a coming-of-age story about an ensemble of teens getting ready for the biggest night of their young lives, marks the U.S.-feature debut of Arri’s Alexa digital motion-picture camera. (The European film Anonymous, shot by Anna Foerster, was the camera’s first feature outing, according to Arri.)

For director Joe Nussbaum and cinematographer Byron Shah, the goal was a look “that felt real, raw and a little out of control,” says Shah. “The movie weaves together multiple love stories, and the look had to match the whirlwind intensity of teen love.”

“We created a digital look-book made up of stills from other movies, all of which had been shot on film; there were no references for a digitally shot movie that had the look we wanted,” notes Nussbaum.

Before production commenced, the filmmakers tested the Alexa side-by-side with a Red One MX and a Sony F35. “There was no studio mandate to shoot digitally, but Joe and I both were open to the idea provided we could find a format that worked for the project,” says Shah. “We didn’t test film because we knew what film looks like, and we wanted to judge the digital formats on their own terms. We set up an apples-to-apples test: same lens, same stop, same filters, same setup, same lighting, same settings and so on. We just switched out the camera bodies.”

Footage from representative scenes was taken through to a 35mm print and screened blind at FotoKem. Everyone agreed that the Alexa most closely represented the look they wanted. “It was really unanimous, from Disney’s head of production, Sean Bailey, on down,” says Shah. “The dynamic range was what sold us on the Alexa. We lit a scene at the main location, a school, that featured an actress walking through a hot splash of sunlight. It was 8 stops over key, but instead of clipping, the Alexa rolled off more naturally, as your eye would perceive the scene.

“Blown highlights are one of the real tells of a digital format, and you could never get away with such extremes of contrast on any other digital camera without it looking electronic,” he continues. “When I’ve shot with other digital cameras — Red, the F35, a [Panavision] Genesis or [Thomson] Viper — I’ve always had to protect those highlights like a fanatic. With the Alexa, we found a format that could capture the extremes of brightness and darkness necessary for a story about the extremes of the teen heart.”

Introduced in April 2010, the Alexa features a 3.5K CMOS sensor and a PL mount, and records up to 60 fps at 1920x1080 high-definition internally to ProRes 422 or externally to Arri’s proprietary ArriRaw format. The camera also outputs an uncompressed 1080PsF 4:4:4 RGB stream, suitable for uncompressed capture using external recorders.

“We found the camera to be very user-friendly,” says Shah. “It has great ergonomics and very clear onboard menus. Its viewfinder is the nicest electronic one I’ve seen yet. Of course, it’s not the same as an optical viewfinder. It wasn’t quite sharp enough to judge critical focus; that still has to be evaluated on a big reference monitor.”

Eager to see its new camera put through its paces in a feature-film workflow, Arri offered the production support that included access to Stephan Ukas-Bradley, the company’s U.S. manager of technical services. Otto Nemenz supplied the filmmakers with two Alexas, a set of Cooke S4 prime lenses and an Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm zoom lens; grip and lighting gear was provided by Paskal Lighting.

Of the S4 primes, Shah notes, “I’d tested Cooke Speed Panchros, thinking they’d give us their lovely low-con look, but on the Alexa they looked muddy, not at all the way they look on film. But the S4s looked fantastic on the Alexa, delivering open blacks with a lot of detail, and smooth skin texture. We shot most of the movie between T2 and T2.8, lending the characters a subtle separation from their backgrounds to heighten the intense emotions of the moment.”

Prom is set in Michigan, but the production shot the movie exclusively in Los Angeles. Shah’s key crew included 1st AC Ethan McDonald, gaffer Jack English, camera operator Paul Sanchez and key grip Patrick Heffernan.

Footage was fed at 1920x1080 24p from the Alexa’s HD-SDI port to an outboard Codex Digital recorder capturing to the Codex’s native RAW format. “The Codex files were transcoded by FotoKem to DPX and laid off to LTO tape,” explains Shah. “It was a bit of a challenge because I calibrated my monitor to the Alexa’s Rec 709 color space LUT, so I was seeing a lot less latitude than what the Codex was actually picking up. But I knew what we were truly getting, and I could also monitor raw to confirm if needed.”

“With a lens on, the Alexa is a little front-heavy, and the Codex recorder helped to act as a physical counterbalance, adding weight to the back of the rig,” notes McDonald. “We used an EasyRig backpack harness to make things easier. The complete package — camera, recorder and lens — was small enough and light enough to handhold comfortably.”

Shah used varying degrees of lens filtration, often a mix of Tiffen Low Con and Smoque filters. “Sometimes we combined them with ND/IR filters,” says McDonald. “In testing, we found that the Alexa has some built-in IR protection, whereas most digital cameras don’t have as much. We found that NDs alone weren’t keeping skin tones neutral, so we moved up to IR filters.”

One of Prom’s big sequences is a quintessential rite of passage, an elaborate “ask” to the prom. In this case, it’s a theatrical moment set, appropriately, on the school’s auditorium stage. “We shot that scene, between Justin [Jared Kusnitz] and Mei [Yin Chang], on our first day of principal photography,” says Shah. “With a Steadicam, we follow Mei running up to the stage, where Justin has lit up the word ‘Prom?’ in giant letters. We lit the letters with Source Four [Lekos] on irises that we hung amongst the theatrical lights already at the location.

“The theatrical lights had beautiful, vintage, amber glass stipple filters that we augmented with 250 diffusion,” continues the cinematographer. “Jack [English] followed alongside the Steadicam rig with a 500-watt ECT globe in a Chinese lantern on a boom pole. We backlit the auditorium chairs using two Blondes with doubles on them. We also used a Smoque filter, which can give you some crazy, intense flares.

“To create those flares, we used a 2K Xenon Super Trooper theatrical follow spot on the balcony and shined it just into the matte box, and a 27mm Cooke S4 and a Tiffen Smoque 1,” adds Shah. “It gave us some marvelously out-of-control but very spontaneous-looking flares. I was a little nervous about giving the studio dailies like that on day one because we’d pushed the look so far, but they were totally stoked, and we were off.”

Befitting a story about high-school students, many scenes in Prom take place in hallways and classrooms. “In those spaces, we swapped out the overhead fluorescents for daylight-balanced Kino tubes,” says Shah. “When there weren’t sufficient ceiling fixtures, we’d augment with Joker Source Fours for ceiling bounce and Kino Flo Vista Beams. As our key, we put a 400-watt Joker light with a Jem Ball on a boom pole that we’d dance around with.

“Since this was a digital show, we initially did a fair amount of ND’ing on windows, and it turned out we were a little overzealous,” he continues. “When we started seeing how those shots looked on the Alexa, we decided to not waste the gel. The Alexa holds hot windows really well, and we ended up using less and less ND gel in general as the shoot continued.”

 

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