Newton Thomas Sigel on the Cinematography of “Bohemian Rhapsody”

The following article originally appeared on RedShark News in 2018.

Directed by Bryan Singer, of X-Men and The Usual Suspects fame, Bohemian Rhapsody charts the story of Queen from their formation in 1970 to their triumphant Live Aid set in 1985, with plenty of their classic rock hits along the way. Rami Malek (from Amazon’s Mr. Robot) turns in an Oscar-winning performance as larger-than-life frontman Freddie Mercury.

In his tenth collaboration with Singer was director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC. I spoke to Sigel about how he approached evoking an era, recreating the concerts, and lensing a legend.

“Every day was this wonderful trip back in time,” enthuses Sigel, who saw the movie as a chance to relive his own youth. “I love shooting music. There is this wonderful transition from the end of the counter-culture, through glam-rock into the hedonism of the eighties.”

Shooting digitally, Sigel employed both the Alexa SXT and Alexa 65. “I decided the movie needed to have a visual arc that best represented the band’s transition from idealists to rock stars, and all the issues that creates. To that effect, I did the first act with old Cooke Speed Panchro lenses on the Alexa SXT. As Queen is discovered, and begins to be known on the international stage, we transition to the Alexa 65.” Sigel later fine-tuned this arc during grading.

The cinematographer paired the large-format Alexa 65 with Prime DNA and Prime 65-S glass, testing all the lenses to find the ones with the most gentle fall-off in focus. “Each lens had its own personality, and was never really ‘perfect’. Our 28mm had a particularly crazy quality that, when used sparingly, had great effect.”

One thing that struck me immediately about the cinematography is the distinctly un-British, warm and glowing look, with lots of sun streaming through windows. This was all part of Sigel’s plan, which develops as the film progresses. “What begins as warm and golden, with its own special LUT, grows ever sharper and cooler, even desaturated,” he explains. “The beginning is all handheld and grainy, the rest much cleaner, with the camera on Steadicam and crane.”

Sigel took a down-to-earth approach to photographing Malek’s Mercury. “I always wanted Freddie to feel very real,” he states. “It is important that you sense his vulnerability at the same time as he is projecting the bravado of the consummate showman. Like so many great performers, Freddie exuded confidence and brashness on stage, and yet, had a terribly shy insecurity in ‘real’ life.”

The highlights of Bohemian Rhapsody are undoubtedly the concert scenes. To tackle these, Sigel began by watching every single piece of Queen footage he could lay his hands on, noting the development of the stage lighting over the years. “I wanted to be as faithful to that as I could, while still having it service our story,” he says. That meant eschewing the easily-coloured RGB LED fixtures so common in movies and concerts today, and going back to the traditional method of laboriously changing gels on tungsten units. “We stuck to period lights,” Sigel confirms, “predominantly par cans and follow spots.”

The sheer number of concert scenes was a challenge for the filmmakers, who at one point had to shoot four gigs in just two days. “We had so many concerts to shoot and so little time, I needed to develop a system to quickly change from one venue to the next,” Sigel recalls. “Because Queen’s lighting was based on large racks of par cans, we were able to construct a very modular system that would allow us to raise or lower different sections very quickly. By pre-programming lighting sequences, we could also create sequence patterns with different configurations of light pods to make it look like a different venue.”

The types of units change as the story progresses through the band’s career. “By the late 70s, Queen was among the first bands to adopt the Vari-Lite, which was championed by the band Genesis,” Sigel explains. “That opened up many more possibilities in the theatrical lighting, which also reflected the band’s ascendancy to the upper echelons of the rock world.”

Sigel notes that he embraced all opportunities to capture lens flares from the concert lighting. “There is a great moment during Live Aid where Freddie makes this sweeping gesture through a circular flare, and it almost seems as if he is drawing on the lens.”

The historic Live Aid concert forms the jubilant climax of the film. Queen’s entire 20-minute set was recreated over seven days of shooting. “We photographed it in every type of weather Great Britain has ever seen: rain, sun, overcast, front-light, backlight – you name it. We couldn’t afford to silk the area as I would have liked,” Sigel adds, referring to large sheets of diffusion hung from cranes to maintain a soft, consistent daylight. “So it was a constant battle and the DI [digital intermediate] certainly helped.”

Filming for Bohemian Rhapsody began in autumn 2017, but by December trouble was brewing. Twentieth Century Fox halted production for a while, with the Hollywood Reporter citing the “unexpected unavailability of director Bryan Singer” as the reason. Dexter Fletcher, who had been attached to direct the nascent film back in 2013, ultimately replaced Singer for the last leg of photography.

“A change like that is never ideal,” admits Sigel, “but Dexter was very impressed with what we had done so far. With only a couple weeks to go, he was happy to carry on in the direction we had begun. Obviously he brought some of his own personal touches, but what I noticed the most was the ease he had in communicating with the actors.”

Reflecting on his long history of collaboration with Singer, Sigel is very positive. “When you have done that many movies together, there is a shorthand that develops and makes much of the work easier because you know your parameters from the beginning. Bohemian Rhapsody was truly the ‘labour of love’ cliché for so many people involved; it was quite remarkable.”

Asked to sum up the appeal of Bohemian Rhapsody, the cinematographer declares, “The film has everything – a deep emotional core at the centre of what is otherwise an exuberant celebration of Queen’s music. I also think Freddie’s story of an immigrant outsider just trying to fit in has a resonance today that is very profound.”

Newton Thomas Sigel on the Cinematography of “Bohemian Rhapsody”

“The Little Mermaid”: A Tale of Two Cameras

As The Little Mermaid is leaving Netflix next week, I decided to go back to my production diary from 2016 and see if there were any more extracts that might be of interest. Tying in with my recent post about shooting with two cameras, here are a number of extracts demonstrating how we used our Alexa Plus XR (operated by me) and Alexa Studio XR (operated by Tim Gill). I definitely won’t say that we made the most effective and efficient use of two cameras the whole time, but I certainly learnt a lot about the pros and cons of having a B-cam.

 

Day 1

We start in a third floor bedroom… After we get the main coverage, we head out to the garden for the next scene, while the B-camera team steps in to pick up a couple of inserts.

As soon as we’re outside, the sun starts to dick around. Those clouds are scudding in and out faster than we can swap ND filters and fly in Ultrabounce to fill the shadows. Eventually we get the three-channel Preston (which only arrived this morning) hooked up so I can pull the iris remotely for our big jib shot. B-camera arrives and picks up alternate angles, and using the two cameras we’re able to wrap out the scenes by lunchtime.

Now we’re inside, on the first floor this time, in a beautiful little circular study. The electrical department have already set up the lamps, so it doesn’t take much tweaking to get us ready to go. Over the course of the afternoon we shoot out our scenes in the study, while B-camera gets various POVs out of windows and establishers of the house exterior. Although the G&E (grip and electric) crew are thinly stretched to support both camera crews, having that second camera is incredibly useful.

 

Day 2

This morning we’re in a church, shooting a montage scene in which Cam interviews a number of locals. We use two cameras to capture a locked-off wide of the interviewee (which can be jump-cut between characters) and a roaming CU simultaneously. Since Tim’s B-camera is doing the roaming shot, I spend the morning at the monitors, keeping an eye on both feeds…

 

Day 3

The forecast says cloudy all week, and we dearly want our exteriors at Lorene’s House to be sunny and beautiful. But actually the dark, overcast skies work in our favour when the AD has us spend the morning shooting a “sunset” exterior. Our 12K HMI, gelled with full CTS, has enough power to cut through the dim natural light and give the impression of a gentle sunset. Working with both cameras, we get a great tracking shot, a jib shot and some other coverage. Then we leave the B-camera team behind, under the direction of VFX supervisor Rich (for the above green-screen shot), while we move back inside to block and light other scenes…

 

Day 8

… We have planned our day to maximise our two cameras. We’ve only been getting about eight set-ups a day, and we knew that with the stunts and effects we have today we would be pushed to even get that many. So we planned six two-camera set-ups and an insert, and we stick closely to this plan. A-camera lives on the crane with the (Angenieux 19.5-94mm Optimo) zoom most of the day, getting the most out of the scale and height of the big top and the action, while B-camera – using the (Cooke S4/i) primes for a change – gets the closer shots. This leaves me free to look at the monitors, which is useful but often boring. (All the material from this day sadly hit the cutting room floor.)

 

Day 12

Our last day at the circus… For most of the day the B-camera is nearby shooting different stuff. This is great in principle, but in practice we tend to get in each others’ way, our lighting affecting their shots and vice versa.

 

Day 24

… After lunch we have a big fight scene to shoot, and the pace of work kicks up several gears. I light a small clearing so we can shoot 180 degrees with two cameras simultaneously. Some directions look better than others, but in an action scene no shot will be held for very long, so it’s not necessary to get every angle perfect.

Normally I open the Cooke S4s no wider than 2 and two thirds, as no lens performs at its best when wide open, but my resolve on this is slipping, and it’s really hard to get a decent amount of light through the dense trees at this location, so I go wide open (T2) for this sequence.

 

Day 25

Our last day on Tybee Island. We start with pick-ups in the woods for various scenes shot over the last few days, then move to the beach, a portion of which we’re cheating as a “river marsh” location. This is a night scene, so we have to go through the slow process of moving the condor (cherry-picker) around from the woods. This involves a police escort to get it across the highway…

Meanwhile B-camera are shooting a shot of a car driving along the road behind the beach. Since the G&E crew are all tied up, at (co-director) Chris Bouchard’s suggestion they use the location work-light and have to fiddle with the white balance to render it a reasonable colour on camera. More and more micro-budget cheats are being employed as the production goes on, and to most of the crew, who are used to big-budget stuff, it’s ridiculous. I don’t mind so much, but I feel bad for the B-camera team.

 

Day 26

We are back on the stage, in three different sets. I’ve lit them all before, but most of the lamps are gone and some require a new look because the time of day is different. Towards the end of the night we leap-frog from set to set, sending G&E and the B-camera ahead to set up while we’re still shooting. To my surprise it works. The sets are small enough that we have enough G&E crew to split up like that.

Top row: A-cam 1st AC Jonathan Klepfer, A-cam 2nd AC Kane Pearson, me, B-cam 1st AC Geran Daniels; bottom row: B-cam 2nd AC Matt Bradford Dixon, digital loader Alex Dubois, B-cam operator/2nd unit DP Tim Gill

For more extracts from my Little Mermaid diary, visit these links:

The Little Mermaid is currently available on Netflix in the UK – but hurry because it leaves on November 30th – and Showtime in the US.

“The Little Mermaid”: A Tale of Two Cameras

Why “No Time to Die” and Other Productions Still Shoot on Film

After many delays, No Time to Die hit UK cinemas a month ago, and has already made half a billion dollars around the world. The 25th James Bond movie was shot on celluloid, making it part of a small group of productions that choose to keep using the traditional medium despite digital becoming the dominant acquisition format in 2013.

Skyfall made headlines the year before that when it became the first Bond film to shoot digitally, captured on the Arri Alexa by the legendary Roger Deakins. But when director Sam Mendes returned to helm the next instalment, 2015’s Spectre, he opted to shoot on 35mm. 

“With the Alexa, I missed the routine of film and the dailies,” Mendes told American Cinematographer. “Watching dailies on the big screen for the first time is kind of like Christmas. Film is difficult, it’s imprecise, but that’s also the glory of it. It had romance, a slight nostalgia… and that’s not inappropriate when dealing with a classic Bond movie.”

Early rumours suggested that Bond’s next outing, No Time to Die, would return to digital capture, but film won out again. Variety reported last year: “[Director Cary Joji] Fukunaga and cinematographer Linus Sandgren pushed to have No Time to Die shot on film instead of digital, believing it enhanced the look of the picture.”

Charlotte Bruus Christensen believed the same when she photographed the horror film A Quiet Place on 35mm. “Film captures the natural warmth, colour and beauty of the daylight,” she told British Cinematographer, “but it’s also wonderful in the dark, the way it renders the light on a face from a candle, before falling off into deep detailed blacks. It is quite simply beautiful and uniquely atmospheric.”

The Bond filmmakers went one step further, making No Time to Die the franchise’s first instalment to utilise IMAX 65mm (reportedly for action sequences only). In this respect they follow in the footsteps of film’s most passionate advocate, Christopher Nolan, who mixed 35mm and IMAX for The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar.

“I think IMAX is the best film format that was ever invented,” said the celebrated director in a DGA interview. “It’s the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to, but none have, in my opinion.” For his most recent films, Dunkirk and Tenet, Nolan eschewed 35mm altogether, mixing IMAX with standard 65mm.

Nolan’s brother Jonathan brought the same passion for celluloid to his TV series Westworld. “Jonathan told me that he had already made up his mind about film,” said pilot DP Paul Cameron in an Indiewire interview. “We wanted the western town to feel classy and elegant… There’s something tactile and formidable [about film] that’s very real.”

Cameron and another of the show’s DPs, John Grillo, both felt that film worked perfectly for the timeless, minimalist look of the desert, but when the story moved to a futuristic city for its third season Grillo expected a corresponding switch in formats. “I thought we might go digital, shooting in 4K or 6K. But it never got past my own head. Jonathan would never go for it. So we stuck with film. We’re still telling the same story, we’re just in a different place.”

One series that did recently transition from film to digital is The Walking Dead. For nine and a half seasons the zombie thriller was shot on Super 16, a decision first made for the 2010 pilot after also testing a Red, a Panavision Genesis and 35mm. “When the images came back, everyone realised that Super 16 was the format that made everything look right,” reported DP David Boyd. “With the smaller gauge and the grain, suddenly the images seemed to derive from the graphic novel itself. Every image is a step removed from reality and a step deeper into cinema.”

“You really are in there with the characters,” added producer Gale Anne Hurd during a Producers Guild of America panel. “The grain itself, it somehow makes it feel much more personal.” Creator Frank Darabont also noted that the lightweight cameras can be squeezed guerilla-style into small spaces for a more intimate feel.

The team were forced to switch to digital capture during season ten when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. “The decision came about because there are fewer ‘touch points’ with digital than 16mm,” showrunner Angela Kang explained to the press. “We don’t have to swap out film every few minutes, for example.”

The pandemic also hit No Time to Die, pushing its release date back by 18 months and triggering the closure of the Cineworld chain, putting 45,000 jobs in jeopardy. But its reception so far has proved that there’s life yet in both celluloid capture and cinema as a whole.

Why “No Time to Die” and Other Productions Still Shoot on Film

6 Tips for Virtual Production

Part of the volume at ARRI Rental in Uxbridge, with the ceiling panel temporarily lowered

Virtual production technically covers a number of things, but what people normally mean by it is shooting on an LED volume. This is a stage where the walls are giant LED screens displaying real-time backgrounds for photographing the talent in front of. The background may be a simple 2D plate shot from a moving vehicle, for a scene inside a car, or a more elaborate set of plates shot with a 360° rig.

The most advanced set-ups do not use filmed backgrounds at all, but instead use 3D virtual environments rendered in real time by a gaming engine like Unreal. A motion-tracking system monitors the position of the camera within the volume and ensures that the proper perspective and parallax is displayed on the screens. Furthermore, the screens are bright enough that they provide most or all of the illumination needed on the talent in a very realistic way.

I have never done any virtual production myself, but earlier this year I was fortunate enough to interview some DPs who have, for British Cinematographer article. Here are some tips about VP shooting which I learnt from these pioneers.

 

1. Shoot large format

An ARRI Alexa Mini LF rigged with Mo-Sys for tracking its position within the volume

To prevent a moiré effect from the LED pixels, the screens need to be out of focus. Choosing an LF camera, with their shallower depth of field, makes this easier to accomplish. The Alexa Mini LF seems to be a popular choice, but the Sony Venice evidently works well too.

 

2. Keep your distance

To maintain the illusion, neither the talent nor the camera should get too close to the screens. A rule of thumb is that the minimum distance in metres should be no less than the pixel pitch of the screens. (The pixel pitch is the distance in millimetres between the centre of one pixel and the centre of the next.) So for a screen of 2.3mm pixel pitch, keep everything at least 2.3m away.

 

3. Tie it all together

Several DPs have found that the real foreground and the virtual background fit together more seamlessly if haze or a diffusion filter are used. This makes sense because both soften the image, blending light from nearby elements of the frame together. Other in-camera effects like rain (if the screens are rated weatherproof) and lens flares would also help.

 

4. Surround yourself

The back of ARRI’s main screen, composed of ROE LED panels

The most convincing LED volumes have screens surrounding the talent, perhaps 270° worth, and an overhead screen as well. Although typically only one of these screens will be of a high enough resolution to shoot towards, the others are important because they shed interactive light on the talent, making them really seem like they’re in the correct environment.

 

5. Match the lighting

If you need to supplement the light, use a colour meter to measure the ambience coming from the screens, then dial that temperature into an LED fixture. If you don’t have a colour meter you should conduct tests beforehand, as what matches to the eye may not necessarily match on camera.

 

6. Avoid fast camera moves

Behind the scenes at the ARRI volume, built in partnership with Creative Technology

It takes a huge amount of processing power to render a virtual background in real time, so there will always be a lag. The Mandalorian works around this by shooting in a very classical style (which fits the Star Wars universe perfectly), with dolly moves and jibs rather than a lot of handheld shots. The faster the camera moves, the more the delay in the background will be noticeable. For the same reason, high frame rates are not recommended, but as processing power increases, these restrictions will undoubtedly fall away.

6 Tips for Virtual Production

Undisclosed Project: Experimentation

The main event of last week’s prep was a test at Panavision of the Arri Alexa XT, Red Gemini and Sony F55, along with Cooke Panchro, Cooke Varotal, Zeiss Superspeed and Angenieux glass. More on that below, along with footage.

The week started with Zoom meetings with the costume designer, the make-up artist, potential fight choeographers and a theatrical lighting designer. The latter is handling a number of scenes which take place on a stage, which is a new and exciting collaboration for me. I met with her at the location the next day, along with the gaffer and best boy. After discussing the stage scenes and what extra sources we might need – even as some of them were starting to be rigged – I left the lighting designer to it. The rest of us then toured the various rooms of the location, with the best boy making notes and lighting plans on his tablet as the gaffer and I discussed them. They also took measurements and worked out what distro they would need, delivering a lighting kit list to production the next day.

Meanwhile, at the request of the producer, I began a shot list, beginning with two logistically complex scenes. Despite all the recces so far, I’ve not thought about shots as much as you might think, except where they are specified in the script or where they jumped out at me when viewing the location. I expect that much of the shot planning will be done during the rehearsals, using Artemis Pro. That’s much better and easier than sitting at home trying to imagine things, but it’s useful for other departments to be able to see a shot list as early as possible.

So, the camera tests. I knew all along that I wanted to test multiple cameras and lenses to find the right ones for this project, a practice that is common on features but which, for one reason and another, I’ve never had a proper chance to do before. So I was very excited to spend Wednesday at Panavision, not far from my old stomping ground in Perivale, playing around with expensive equipment.

Specifically we had: an Arri Alexa – a camera I’m very familiar with, and my gut instinct for shooting this project on; a Sony F55 – which I was curious to test because it was used to shoot the beautiful Outlander series; and a Red Gemini – because I haven’t used a Red in years and I wanted to check I wasn’t missing out on something awesome.

For lenses we had: a set of Cooke Panchros – again a gut instinct (I’ve never used them, but from what I’ve read they seemed to fit); a set of Zeiss Superspeeds – selected after reviewing my 2017 test footage from Arri Rental; a couple of Cooke Varotal zooms, and the equivalents by the ever-reliable Angenieux. Other than the Angenieux we used on the B-camera for The Little Mermaid (which I don’t think we ever zoomed during a take), I’ve not used cinema zooms before, but I want the old-fashioned look for this project.

Here are the edited highlights from the tests…

You’ll notice that the Sony F55 disappears from the video quite early on. This is because, although I quite liked the camera on the day, as soon as I looked at the images side by side I could see that the Sony was significantly softer than the other two.

So it was down to the Alexa vs. the Gemini, and the Cookes vs. the Superspeeds. I spent most of Thursday and all of Friday morning playing with the footage in DaVinci Resolve, trying to decide between these two pairs of very close contenders. I tried various LUTs, did some rough grading (very badly, because I’m not a colourist), tested how far I could brighten the footage before it broke down, and examined flares and bokeh obsessively.

Ultimately I chose the Cooke Panchros because (a) they have a beautiful and very natural-looking flare pattern, (b) the bokeh has a slight glow to it which I like, (c) the bokeh remains a nice shape when stopped down, unlike the Superspeeds’, which goes a bit geometric, (d) they seem sharper than the Superspeeds at the edges of frame when wide open, and (e) more lengths are available.

As for the zoom lenses (not included in the video), the Cooke and the Angenieux were very similar indeed. I chose the former because it focuses a little closer and the bokeh again has that nice glow.

I came very close to picking the Gemini as my camera. I think you’d have to say, objectively, it produces a better image than the Alexa, heretical as that may sound. The colours seem more realistic (although we didn’t shoot a colour chart, which was a major oversight) and it grades extremely well. But…

I’m not making a documentary. I want a cinematic look, and while the Gemini is by no means un-cinematic, the Alexa was clearly engineered by people who loved the look of film and strove to recreate it. When comparing the footage with the Godfather and Fanny and Alexander screen-grabs that are the touchstone of the look I want to create, the Alexa was just a little bit closer. My familiarity and comfort level with the Alexa was a factor too, and the ACs felt the same way.

I’m very glad to have tested the Gemini though, and next time I’m called upon to shoot something great and deliver in 4K (not a requirement on this project) I will know exactly where to turn. A couple of interesting things I learnt about it are: (1) whichever resolution (and concomitant crop factor) you select, you can record a down-scaled 2K ProRes file, and this goes for the Helium too; (2) 4K gives the Super-35 field of view, whereas 5K shows more, resulting in some lenses vignetting at this resolution.

Undisclosed Project: Experimentation

“The Little Mermaid”: Prep Diary Part 2

This is the second part of my flashback to spring 2016 and the pre-production for The Little Mermaid. Part one is here.

 

Weeks 3 & 4

Nothing much seems to happen the third week of prep. After the Shirley shoot finishes on Monday, I take Tuesday off. I’m so exhausted I can barely move, which bodes ill for the 26-day slog of principal photography that’s coming up! Things are quiet in the office on Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday is Good Friday so it’s a holiday. The three-day weekend is enjoyable but also frustrating given how much prep there is still to do.

Next Monday I go scouting with Anthony, the new locations manager. He takes us to a quarry ten minutes down the road from the office, where we finally find the cliff we’ve been searching for since prep began. The location has a lot of potential for many scenes, so we’re very pleased. (Ultimately it went unused because of safety concerns.)

On Tuesday there’s a page turner, which is like a table read only without the cast. We spend five hours going through the script, asking questions and addressing issues that might come up. I try to clarify certain things in the script and make sure everyone knows how Chris, the director, wants to approach things. (He’s just a talking head on my iPad right now, due to visa delays.)

Gaffer Mike and key grip Jason have arrived in town for the page turner, and on Wednesday morning we get down to the business of writing a lighting list. It’s difficult for me to get my head around the crew structure here in the States. The gaffer is the head of the electrical department, so they only deal with lamps and distro. Flags, cutters, nets, black-out, bounce boards and so on are handled by the grip department, led of course by the key grip… who also handles the camera grip, like cranes and dollies.

Most of the rest of the week is spent visiting locations with Anthony, Mike and Jason, while the latter two finesse the list and get quotes. On Wednesday evening I convene the camera department to debrief from the Shirley shoot and discuss what can be done to improve the crew structure, equipment package and workflow.

By the weekend it stills feel like there is much to figure out, and there is only one week left before principal photography begins. Still, I won’t be sorry to say goodbye to office work and get back on set.

 

Week 5

It’s the last week of preproduction and we should be spending it doing tech scouts and production meetings. But unfortunately many HoDs have been hired late, and there are lots of locations left to find, so it’s a frustrating week for me, waiting for stuff to happen. I try to nail down the grip and electrical items which are only required on specific dates, but it looks like some of that will have to be done as we go along.

I spend more time location scouting with Anthony, during which I realise just how time-consuming it is to drive around, spot possible places, make friends with the owners and just get to the stage where any of the crew can check it out.

We visit a possible beach location, a nice little spot on the same island we did the Shirley Shoot on. Chris, still unable to enter the US, participates by video call. He wants me to roll up my trousers and test the water, because the principal cast will have to spend hours in it. It’s nice enough for a paddle, but I don’t think I’d want to spend a day up to my waist in it. (Actually, that’s exactly what I and several other cast and crew end up doing.)

As the week goes on I spend less and less time at the office, because there simply isn’t much left I can do. I occupy my evenings swimming in the pool and binge-watching season one of Outlander, which Starz have made free for a couple of weeks here in the US. The cinematography in the first couple of episodes is utterly stunning, in fact it’s the most beautiful cinematography I’ve ever seen. It’s very inspirational, and I have a couple of good ideas for lighting A Little Mermaid as I watch it. (Recently I had the exciting chance to ask David Higgs BSC about lighting the Outlander pilot, for an article in the January issue of British Cinematographer.)

Chris finally arrives on Saturday, two days before the shoot. In the evening there’s a “pre-game” party by the pool. It finally feels like we’re making a movie. The equipment has all arrived, and there are trucks and trailers parked outside the production office.

On Sunday we do the closest we’re going to get to a tech scout. It’s great to be able to walk around a location with the directors at last. (Writer Blake has joined Chris as a co-director.) I try to use Helios, a sun tracker app, to work out when the sun will hit the back of the house, but in the end I trust my own estimation better. I whip out my light meter to check the contrast ratio between sunlight and shade; it’s 8:1 (3 stops), well within the Alexa’s dynamic range, but setting up an ultrabounce to fill in the shadows, as the key grip suggests, will make the image much more pleasing to the eye.

I figure out the broad strokes of the lighting for the interiors and let the G&E (grip and electric) team know the plan. With Larry, the 1st AD, I discuss how we’re going to maximise our two cameras in order to make our day.

I can’t believe we’re about to start principal at last. Five weeks is by far the longest prep time I’ve ever had for a movie. It’s feels like I’ve been here forever! But I’m only halfway through my time in Savannah…

Here are links to my diary entries from the shoot:

The Little Mermaid is currently available on Netflix around the world.

“The Little Mermaid”: Prep Diary Part 2

“The Little Mermaid”: Prep Diary Part 1

I’ll soon be starting five weeks of prep for a feature, and it’s got me thinking about the five weeks I spent in the spring of 2016 prepping The Little Mermaid. I published a number of entries from my production diary when the film was released, but the entries from pre-production have gone unseen… until now…

 

JANuary 12th, 2016

It is four or five months since Chris, the director, first mentioned the project to me. In that time he has been developing the script with the writer and producers, and I’ve read a draft or two. Last week I was introduced to the producers by email, and today Chris and I get together to start chatting about the film.

It’s just broad strokes today, nothing structured, nothing firm. He talks me through the next round of script changes and we watch some bits of DVDs I’ve brought. I’m not thinking photographically yet, just tone and genre, so we watch parts of The Rocketeer and Big Fish. I start to get some basic ideas of what Chris does and doesn’t like.

Yesterday I went to the library to get my head around the geography of the state our story is set in, and bit of the history and culture. I found a book called Photographing America and it has some interesting plates from the Deep South in the 30s and 40s. They set the stage for me in terms of architecture, landscape and clothing, but their gritty black and white photography is not appropriate for this film.

Chris and I Skype Fabio, the line producer, and later have a brief conference call with producers Armando and Rob. At this stage it is just about introductions. Chris enthuses about me to them, and curates some stills from Ren: The Girl with the Mark to wow them with. Armando responds positively – it’s just the look he’s after for this. Well, this is the second feature job Ren’s got me. Cheers, Kate!

 

Week 1

Since that day in London with Chris, I’ve done bits and pieces of prep around finishing up post on Ren. The script went through a few more drafts, I joined in a few conference calls with members of the team, and started a shot list.

But on March 5th I fly into Savannah, Georgia and I’m straight into full-time prep, living and breathing A Little Mermaid.

On Sunday I wake early, my body still five hours ahead of US East Coast Time. After talking to Chris, who’s still in the UK due to visa delays, I take a ten-minute walk through the sunny streets of Savannah to meet David, the storyboard artist. We eat blueberry pancakes with maple syrup and he shows me his boards for the movie’s finale. Chris Skypes in and we discuss the priorities. We need about 15 more sequences boarded – at least key frames – ASAP so that production designer Jay can be sure to accommodate our needs in the sets he is already starting to build.

At noon I head over to an apartment complex where Jay and line producer Fabio are staying. This place has a pool so I’m getting myself moved here as soon as I can. We spend seven or eight hours, with Chris on Skype, going through the schedule line by line, making sure everything is doable and everything is in the most efficient order.

Poppy Drayton is playing our mermaid. Back at the apartment I watch a trailer for The Shannara Chronicles and screen-capture all her close-ups. I analyse the lighting in each one, labelling them accordingly in a folder. Her time on this production is limited so I probably won’t get to camera-test her; I need to figure out how to light her based on what other DPs have done.

Monday is my first day at the warehouse. It’s an old supermarket that’s been gutted. There are four or five small offices and then a huge open space, part of which is occupied by the bones of the “rocky pool” set.

The week soon settles into a blur of video calls with Chris, interviews with potential camera assistants and gaffers, and lots of discussions about sets and locations. It’s really exciting to be shown around the space by Jay as he describes all the sets he’s going to build. For some scenes there is a lot of back and forth about whether they should be studio or location. We are working with a child actress and Chris is very keen to get the best performances, so the level of control we could get in the studio is very appealing, but that must be balanced against our art department budget.

I’m assigned an office that’s just 6ft square but is very cool because it has a sort of camera obscura in the door so I can see a little projection of what’s outside. Of course the door doesn’t really close properly (particularly once I’ve run an extension cable in to compensate for the lack of functioning power sockets in the room) but never mind. By mid-week I have a monitor to hook my Mac Mini up to and I’m properly in business.

I task the PAs with printing out the script and taping it in a long line of pages along a wall along with the corresponding storyboards. Eventually we will add reference images and concept art, if I can ever get access to a functioning colour printer!

A little bit of location scouting takes place during the week. We check out a nice rustic field behind the studio where we’ll set up our circus, we visit a fort in the hope that it might work for a scene near the finale (it doesn’t) and I take a look around the beach house we’ll be shooting the film’s present-day book-ends in on March 20th and 21st. (Principal photography starts April 11th.)

Another issue to be decided is which camera to shoot on. Initially we discussed having lots of cameras, which meant going with Reds for budgetary reasons. The Panasonic Varicam is suggested, and I’m almost flown to Atlanta to test it, but in the end we decide to go with Alexas, thank God. (With hindsight, I really should have gone and tested that Varicam. I was irrationally against all non-Alexa cameras at this time.) We’ll have two bodies, one for me and one for a B camera operator who will sometimes splinter off into a 2nd unit. The glass will be Cooke S4s with a half Soft FX filter, the exact same recipe as Heretiks. I know this will give me the organic, period feel that A Little Mermaid needs, as well as the magical quality. We’ll also have a couple of Optimo zooms in the kit, a luxury we couldn’t afford on Heretiks.

By the end of the week I’ve pretty much locked down the camera kit, finished the shot list for the whole movie, and hired 1st and 2nd ACs and a 2nd Unit DP. We still don’t have a gaffer, which is worrying. The crew pool in Savannah is not huge and we’re struggling to find people with enough experience.

On Saturday, aside from a couple of hours in the studio, I chill out. I’ve now moved to the same apartment complex as the rest of the crew, and I’ve just had a very nice dip in the pool. I think I might just have the best job in the world.

 

Week 2

At the end of this week we have our two-day “pre-shoot” with Shirley MacLaine, to capture the contemporary bookends to what is otherwise a 1930s story. Peter Falk’s scenes in The Princess Bride are an inevitable reference for these.

Director Chris is still having visa issues, so writer Blake will be on helming duty for the pre-shoot. He gives me Maggie Smith’s storytelling scene in Hook as a reference. I haven’t seen the movie in ages, so I rent it and watch the whole thing, delighting in the beautiful cinematography. I love the candy blues and hot pinks of Wendy’s London home, and will aim to emulate them.

A lot of this week is taken up with locking down equipment and personnel for the pre-shoot. The biggest issue as the week opens is that I still don’t have a gaffer. With my options limited – and despite a brief panic during which flying my UK gaffer out here seems like a very real possibility – I pick someone on a trial basis. If they do a good job for the pre-shoot they’ll get hired for principal.

Because the gaffer is hired so late, putting together a lighting list is my responsibility. I hate doing this, because I always forget stuff and piss everyone off at the last minute by making additions or changes. Like forgetting to check whether the HMIs are pars or fresnels. (I always want fresnels because they produce better shafts of light.)

With equipment and crew in place, my attention turns towards principal for a little while. The VFX supervisor, Rich, has flown in from LA, and together we scout some locations. Unfortunately none of the locations are locked yet and the options we are given to look at are far from ideal. But we have a good session going through the shot list together, checking that there aren’t any VFX requirements that he missed in his breakdown.

We also discuss shooting format, which is generally going to be 2K ProRes 4444. He wants me to shoot green-screen shots in Arri Raw, but after he’s gone I realise that we don’t have the right Codex on our cameras for that. 3.2K ProRes will have to do. Another good tip Rich gave me is to expose the green-screen at key (i.e. the same light reading on the green-screen as on the talent’s face) or up to half a stop over.

I’m glad I invested in a light meter, which arrived at the studio this week. It also comes in handy during another scout of the pre-shoot location. We have some night shots on the beach, which will have to be shot at dusk because it’s too big an area to light artificially. During the scout I take light readings on the beach at dusk, and determine that we have until 7:50pm, 20 minutes after sunset, before it is too dark to shoot.

If you want to follow the chronology, my diary entries about the “pre-shoot” are here.

Tune in next week for my diary entries from the remaining three weeks of prep. The Little Mermaid is still on Netflix if you fancy checking it out.

“The Little Mermaid”: Prep Diary Part 1

The Hardest Shot I’ve Ever Done

It is night. We Steadicam into a moonlit bedroom, drifting across a window – where a raven is visible on the outside ledge, tapping at the glass with its beak – and land on a sleeping couple. The woman, Annabel, wakes up and goes to the window, causing the bird to flee. Crossing over to her far shoulder, we rest on Annabel’s reflection for a moment, before racking focus to another woman outside, maybe 200ft away, running towards a cliff. All in one shot.

Such was the action required in a scene from Annabel Lee, the most ambitious short I’ve ever been involved with. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, the film was the brainchild of actor Angel Parker, who plays the titular character. It was directed by Amy Coop, who had already to decided to shoot on an Alexa Mini with Cooke Anamorphics before I was even hired.

Working with animals has its own difficulties, but for me as director of photography the challenges of this particular shot were:

  1. Making the bedroom appear moonlit by the single window, without any lamps being visible at any point in the Steadicam move.
  2. Lighting the view outside.
  3. Ensuring the live raven read on camera even though the shot was quite wide.
  4. Making Annabel bright enough that her reflection would read, without washing out the rest of the scene.
  5. Blocking the camera in concert with Annabel’s move so that its reflection would not be seen.

I left that last one in the capable hands of Steadicam op Rupert Peddle, along with Angel and Amy. What they ended up doing was timing Angel’s move so that she would block the window from camera at the moment that the camera’s reflection would have appeared.

Meanwhile, I put my head together with gaffer Bertil Mulvad to tackle the other four challenges. We arrived at a set-up using only three lights:

  1. A LiteMat 1 above the window (indoors) which served to light Annabel and her reflection, as well as reaching to the bed.
  2. Another LED source outside the window to one side, lighting the raven.
  3. A nine-light Maxibrute on a cherry-picker, side-lighting the woman outside and the cliffs. This was gelled with CTB to match the daylight LEDs.

Unfortunately the outside LED panel backlit the window glass, which was old and kept fogging up, obscuring the raven. With hindsight that panel might have been better on the other side of the window (left rather than right, but still outside), even though it would have created some spill problems inside. (To be honest, this would have made the lighting direction more consistent with the Maxibrute “moonlight” as well. It’s so easy to see this stuff after the fact!)

Everything else worked very well, but editor Jim Page did have to cut in a close-up of the raven, without which you’d never have known it was there.

The Hardest Shot I’ve Ever Done

The Cinematography of “Chernobyl”

Like many of us, I’ve watched a lot of streaming shows this year. One of the best was Chernobyl, the HBO/Sky Atlantic mini-series about the nuclear power plant disaster of 1986, which I cheekily binged during a free trial of Now TV.

In July, Chernobyl deservedly scooped multiple honours at the Virgin Media British Academy Television (Craft) Awards. In addition to it claiming the Bafta for best mini-series, lead actor Jared Harris, director Johan Renck, director of photography Jakob Ihre, production designers Luke Hull and Claire Levinson-Gendler, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, editors Simon Smith and Jinx Godfrey, composer Hildur Gudnadóttir, and the sound team all took home the awards in their respective fiction categories.

I use the phrase “took home” figuratively, since no-one had left home in the first place. The craft awards ceremony was a surreal, socially-distanced affair, full of self-filmed, green-screened celebrities. Comedian Rachel Parris impersonated writer/actor Jessica Knappett, and the two mock-argued to present the award for Photography & Lighting: Fiction. Chernobyl’s DP Jakob Ihre, FSF gave his acceptance speech in black tie, despite being filmed on a phone in his living room. In it he thanked his second unit DP Jani-Petteri Passi as well as creator/writer Craig Mazin, one of the few principal players not to receive an award.

Mazin crafted a tense and utterly engrossing story across five hour-long instalments, a story all the more horrifying for its reality. Beginning with the suicide of Harris’ Valery Legasov on the second anniversary of the disaster, the series shifts back to 1986 and straight into the explosion of the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Soviet Ukraine. Legasov, along with Brosi Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) and the fictional, composite character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) struggle to contain the meltdown while simultaneously investigating its cause. Legions of men are sacrificed to the radiation, wading through coolant water in dark, labyrinthine tunnels to shut off valves, running across what remains of the plant’s rooftop to collect chunks of lethal graphite, and mining in sweltering temperatures beneath the core to install heat exchangers that will prevent another catastrophic explosion.

For Swedish-born NFTS (National Film and Television School) graduate Jakob Ihre, Chernobyl was a first foray into TV. His initial concept for the show’s cinematography was to reflect the machinery of the Soviet Union. He envisaged a heavy camera package representing the apparatus of the state, comprised of an Alexa Studio, with its mechanical shutter, plus anamorphic lenses. “After another two or three months of preproduction,” he told the Arri Channel, “we realised maybe that’s the wrong way to go, and we should actually focus on the characters, on the human beings, the real people who this series is about.”

Sensitivity and respect for the people and their terrible circumstances ultimately became the touchstone for both Ihre and his director. The pair conducted a blind test of ten different lens sets, and both independently selected Cooke Panchros. “We did a U-turn and of course we went for spherical lenses, which in some way are less obtrusive and more subtle,” said Ihre. For the same reason, he chose the Alexa Mini over its big brother. A smaller camera package like this is often selected when filmmakers wish to distract and overwhelm their cast as little as possible, and is believed by many to result in more authentic performances.

When it came to lighting, “We were inspired by the old Soviet murals, where you see the atom, which is often symbolised as a sun with its rays, and you see the workers standing next to that and working hand in hand with the so-called ‘friendly’ atom.” Accordingly, Ihre used light to represent gamma radiation, with characters growing brighter and over-exposed as they approach more dangerous areas.

Ihre thought of the disaster as damaging the fabric of the world, distorting reality. He strove to visualise this through dynamic lighting, with units on dimmers or fitted with remote-controlled shutters. He also allowed the level of atmos (smoke) in a scene to vary – normally a big no-no for continuity. The result is a series in which nothing feels safe or stable.

The DP shot through windows and glass partitions wherever possible, to further suggest a distorted world. Working with Hull and Levinson-Gendler, he tested numerous transparent plastics to find the right one for the curtains in the hospital scenes. In our current reality, filled with perspex partitions (and awards ceremonies shot on phones), such imagery of isolation is eerily prescient.

The subject of an invisible, society-changing killer may have become accidentally topical, but the series’ main theme was more deliberately so. “What is the cost of lies?” asks Legasov. “It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all.” In our post-truth world, the disinformation, denial and delayed responses surrounding the Chernobyl disaster are uncomfortably familiar.

This article first appeared on RedShark News.

The Cinematography of “Chernobyl”

How is Dynamic Range Measured?

The high dynamic range of the ARRI Alexa Mini allowed me to retain all the sky detail in this shot from “Above the Clouds”.

Recently I’ve been pondering which camera to shoot an upcoming project on, so I consulted the ASC’s comparison chart. Amongst the many specs compared is dynamic range, and I noticed that the ARRI Alexa’s was given as 14+ stops, while the Blackmagic URSA’s is 15. Having used both cameras a fair bit, I can tell you that there’s no way in Hell that the Ursa has a higher dynamic range than the Alexa. So what’s going on here?

 

What is dynamic range?

To put it simply, dynamic range is the level of contrast that an imaging system can handle. To quote Alan Roberts, who we’ll come back to later:

This is normally calculated as the ratio of the exposure which just causes white clipping to the exposure level below which no details can be seen.

A photosite on a digital camera’s sensor outputs a voltage proportional to the amount of light hitting it, but at some point the voltage reaches a maximum, and no matter how much more light you add, it won’t change. At the other end of the scale, a photosite may receive so little light that it outputs no voltage, or at least nothing that’s discernible from the inherent electronic noise in the system. These upper and lower limits of brightness may be narrowed by image processing within the camera, with RAW recording usually retaining the full dynamic range, while linear Rec. 709 severely curtails it.

In photography and cinematography, we measure dynamic range in stops – doublings and halvings of light which I explain fully in this article. One stop is a ratio of 2:1, five stops are 32:1, thirteen stops are almost 10,000:1

It’s worth pausing here to point out the difference between dynamic range and latitude, a term which is sometimes regarded as synonymous, but it’s not. The latitude is a measure of how much the camera can be over- or under-exposed without losing any detail, and is dependent on both the dynamic range of the camera and the dynamic range of the scene. (A low-contrast scene will allow more latitude for incorrect exposure than a high-contrast scene.)

 

Problems of Measurement

Before digital cinema cameras were developed, video had a dynamic range of about seven stops. You could measure this relatively easily by shooting a greyscale chart and observing the waveform of the recorded image to see where the highlights levelled off and the shadows disappeared into the noise floor. With today’s dynamic ranges into double digits, simple charts are no longer practical, because you can’t manufacture white enough paper or black enough ink.

For his excellent video on dynamic range, Filmmaker IQ’s John Hess built a device fitted with a row of 1W LEDs, using layers of neutral density gel to make each one a stop darker than its neighbour. For the purposes of his demonstration, this works fine, but as Phil Rhodes points out on RedShark News, you start running into the issue of the dynamic range of the lens.

It may seem strange to think that a lens has dynamic range, and in the past when I’ve heard other DPs talk about certain glass being more or less contrasty, I admit that I haven’t thought much about what that means. What it means is flare, and not the good anamorphic streak kind, but the general veiling whereby a strong light shining into the lens will raise the overall brightness of the image as it bounces around the different elements. This lifts the shadows, producing a certain amount of milkiness. Even with high contrast lenses, ones which are less prone to veiling, the brightest light on your test device will cause some glare over the darkest one, when measuring the kind of dynamic range today’s cameras enjoy.

 

Manufacturer Measurements

Going back to my original query about the Alexa versus the URSA, let’s see exactly what the manufacturers say. ARRI specifically states that its sensor’s dynamic range is over 14 stops “as measured with the ARRI Dynamic Range Test Chart”. So what is this chart and how does it work? The official sales blurb runs thusly:

The ARRI DRTC-1 is a special test chart and analysis software for measurement of dynamic range and sensitivity of digital cameras. Through a unique stray light reduction concept this system is able to accurately measure up to 15.5 stops of dynamic range.

The “stray light reduction” is presumably to reduce the veiling mentioned earlier and provide more accurate results. This could be as simple as covering or turning off the brighter lights when measuring the dimmer ones.

I found a bit more information about the test chart in a 2011 camera shoot-out video, from that momentous time when digital was supplanting film as the cinematic acquisition format of choice. Rather than John Hess’s ND gel technique, the DRTC-1 opts for something else to regulate its light output, as ARRI’s Michael Bravin explains in the video:

There’s a piece of motion picture film behind it that’s checked with a densitometer, and what you do is you set the exposure for your camera, and where you lose detail in the vertical and horizontal lines is your clipping point, and where you lose detail because of noise in the shadow areas is your lowest exposure… and in between you end up finding the number of stops of dynamic range.

Blackmagic Design do not state how they measure the dynamic range of their cameras, but it may be a DSC Labs Xlya. This illuminated chart boasts a shutter system which “allows users to isolate and evaluate individual steps”, plus a “stepped xylophone shape” to minimise flare problems.

Art Adams, a cinema lens specialist at ARRI, and someone who’s frequently quoted in Blain Brown’s Cinematography: Theory & Practice, told Y.M. Cinema Magazine:

I used to do a lot of consulting with DSC Labs, who make camera test charts, so I own a 20-stop dynamic range chart (DSC Labs Xyla). This is what most manufacturers use to test dynamic range (although not ARRI, because our engineers don’t feel it’s precise enough) and I see what companies claim as usable stops. You can see that they are just barely above the noise floor.

 

Conclusions

Obviously these ARRI folks I keep quoting may be biased. I wanted to find an independent test that measures both Blackmagics and Alexas with the same conditions and methodology, but I couldn’t find one. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Alexas have a bigger dynamic range, in fact that’s widely accepted as fact, but quantifying the difference is harder. The most solid thing I could find is this, from a 2017 article about the Blackmagic Ursa Mini 4.6K (first generation):

The camera was measured at just over 14 stops of dynamic range in RAW 4:1 [and 13 stops in ProRes]. This is a good result, especially considering the price of the camera. To put this into perspective Alan measured the Canon C300 mkII at 15 stops of dynamic range. Both the URSA Mini 4.6 and C300 mkII are bettered by the ARRI Alexa and Amira, but then that comes as no surprise given their reputation and price.

The Alan mentioned is Alan Roberts, something of a legend when it comes to testing cameras. It is interesting to note that he is one of the key players behind the TLCI (Television Lighting Consistency Index), a mooted replacement for CRI (Colour Rendering Index). It’s interesting because this whole dynamic range business is starting to remind me of my investigation into CRI, and is leading me to a similar conclusion, that the numbers which the manufacturers give you are all but useless in real-world cinematography.

Whereas CRI at least has a standardised test, there’s no such thing for dynamic range. Therefore, until there is more transparency from manufacturers about how they measure it, I’d recommend ignoring their published values. As always when choosing a camera, shoot your own tests if at all possible. Even the most reliable numbers can’t tell you whether you’re going to like a camera’s look or not, or whether it’s right for the story you want to tell.

When tests aren’t possible, and I know that’s often the case in low-budget land, at least try to find an independent comparison. I’ll leave you with this video from the Slanted Lens, which compares the URSA Mini Pro G2 with the ARRI Amira (which uses the same Alev III sensor as the Alexa). They don’t measure the dynamic range, but you can at least see the images side by side, and in the end it’s the images that matter, not the numbers.

How is Dynamic Range Measured?