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65mm is Reborn: ARRI Alexa 65 Digital Cinema Camera

ARRI Alexa 65 in action on set

Christopher Nolan’s dream (nightmare?) has come true. The ARRI Alexa 65 is a new 6.5K digital cinema camera with a sensor equivalent to 65mm 5-perf film.

Go big or go home!
65mm is reborn in the digital age. It has now become possible for mere mortals to achieve—at least in terms of resolution, if not “texture”— a look that is closer to the epic 65mm/70mm films from Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER. For a more recent reference, there’s INTERSTELLAR which Christopher Nolan and his DP Hoyte van Hoytema shot almost exclusively on 65mm IMAX film cameras.

The Revenant: trailer just in!


In fresher news, Alejandro Iñarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki partly filmed THE REVENANT, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, on the 6.5K digital large-format Alexa 65.

ARRI Alexa 65

Sensors Comparison: 35mm vs. S35mm vs. 65mm vs. VistaVision vs. Alexa 65

So why Digital 65mm over S35mm?

  1. Higher Resolution: The ARRI Alexa 65 sensor is slightly larger than a 65mm 5-perf film frame and is comprised of three Alexa digital sensors arranged vertically and seamlessly stitched together. The current Alexa XT camera maxes out at 3.8K with Open Gate ARRIRaw (ARRI had announced a 3.2K upgrade for the Alexa via software). Then there’s RED Dragon which gives you 6K off of a S35mm sensor, while the RED Epic does a respectable 5K. But that was basically all your high resolution options for digital cinema cameras. Up until now.
  2. Depth of Field: If you’ve shot with full-frame DSLRs such as the Canon 5D MK2/3, you know how gorgeous and impressionistic the depth of field can get at “wide open” apertures. In comparison, a giant 65mm sensor, by design, gives you even shallower depth of field and without needing to “open up” to ridiculously low apertures such as f/1.4 especially when you don’t need to. The practical advantage of the Alexa 65 is this: shallower depth of field at higher apertures (f/5.6, etc) during broad daylight. Great to isolate characters from the background or to get creamy bokeh, especially with anamorphic lenses.
  3. Smaller Form Factor and Reduced Weight: The ARRI Alexa 65 digital cinema camera is just slightly wider than the Alexa camera and weighs about 10kg/23lbs, which is less than half the weight of, say, that 20kg/42lbs beast called the IMAX film camera! The smaller form factor and reduced weight will ensure the DP or camera operator will not need serious chiropractic therapy! So, now, handheld operation and flying the 65mm camera on a Steadicam is a snap! Which means more creative possibilities for the filmmaker.
  4. Bonus! Matching With Other Digital Cinema Cameras: Alexa 65 will easily match the look and feel of the Alexa or Amira—and if you’re the ‘promiscuous’ type—as well as other digital cinema cameras such as the RED Dragon and Epic (with a great colorist, of course). Previously, if you were interested in capturing the highest resolution, you’d have to use 65mm celluloid film, and then intercut your footage with digital cinema camera leading to considerable DI or grading. (For the record, I’m a film lover, and still think celluloid can’t be beat when it comes to texture and feeling.)

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B&W Strikes Again: U2 Music Video, RED EPIC Monochrome and Mark Romanek

U2 Invisible (music video shot on RED Epic Monochrome)

Bono in mono? Apparently so! Irish rock legend (and sellouts?) U2 have a new song called INVISIBLE. And they got the mighty Mark Romanek to direct it. In black and white. On seven, yes, seven RED Epic Monochrome cameras! (I had written earlier about Romanek’s return to music videos after a 10-year sabbatical with JayZ’s PICASSO BABY, shot by Jody Lee Lipes. In keeping with Romanek’s growing obsession with multi-cam or—if you want to get all philosophical—capturing the ephemeral nature of an artist’s performance, no less than eight cameras were utilized on that project!).

So what’s special about INVISIBLE? Well, a couple of things. For starters, Philippe Le Sourd is the man responsible for the beautiful cinematography in this music video; an important fact that seems to have been lost in the ebb and flow of the Mark Romanek lovefest (don’t worry, I’m a fan!). Many months ago on CineBlog, I had discussed Le Sourd and his collaboration with Wong Kar-wai on GRANDMASTERS, for which he deservedly received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. Will he win? Whatever the outcome, it is a surety that more mainstream directors will be pinning for this talented French cinematographer, who rose up the ranks up from Darius Khondji’s camera assistant in the 90s to director of photographer with his breakout film A GOOD YEAR directed by a guy called Ridley Scott…

Philippe Le Sourd (cinematographer)

Philippe Le Sourd (cinematographer) on the set of Wong Kar-wai’s GRANDMASTERS

The second thing you ought to know about INVISIBLE is how it was made. Philippe Le Sourd and Mark Romanek used seven RED Epic Monochrome cameras to capture U2’s concert performance in pristine black and white and do justice to Marshmallow Laser Feast/ Prettybird’s light concept. Image wise, the Monochrome’s low-light capability and higher *practical* resolution did the rest. Eh? I will now explain the confounding details to you eager tech-heads!

What is this new RED EPIC Monochrome camera?
The 5K EPIC Monochrome has a 14-megapixel black-and-white Mysterium-X CMOS sensor with a 5120 x 2700 pixel array that is rated at a native ISO 2000. In comparison, the color version of the RED EPIC is rated at a native ISO 800 (which basically means that the EPIC Monochrome is over one full stop faster than its ‘color cousin’). The Monochrome can capture 24fps up to 5K, and 5K frame rates up to 120 fps. Frame rates expand to 300fps in 2K mode.  Continue Reading

Color and Texture: Cinematography of FIFTY 4

FIFTY 4, a fashion film shot by Adnan X. Khan

Mixing fashion, conceptual ideas and a fluid narrative, FIFTY 4 is a freaky little film that I shot in Dubai for director Moe Najati using the RED Epic and four different lens systems—Leica Summilux-C, Cooke Varotal, ARRI Master Zoom and Zeiss Macro (provided by the amazing Asif Limbada at LFP).

I had worked with the same director before on a Volkswagen commercial and Red Bull film. FIFTY 4 naturally became our ‘rebellion’ project! Here was Moe’s chance to explore themes he was interested in personally, and then as the film’s director of photography I could take those thematic abstractions and create a cinematic world wherein menace and beauty collide in explosive fashion! In our preparation of the visual design of FIFTY 4, I thought it fit to achieve this goal using two elements: color and texture.

Watch FIFTY 4:

COLOR
Even very early on as the director was developing the concept, I felt that color would set the defining look for FIFTY 4. This feeling was validated once he asked me if we could shoot some of the scenes in black and white! Why, of course! I was very interested in the elemental clash between color and monochrome! Style was always an important consideration for this project (wardrobe and fashion consultancy was provided by The cARTel in Dubai)…and we were also aware of the resurgence of black-and-white photography in the fashion world.  Continue Reading

Cinematography of Volkswagen Middle East’s RECOMMENDED RETAIL PRICE commercial

VW—Showroom Rep

How do you make a commercial for a famous car brand without actually showing the car? How can you portray three cities in three different countries without really showing any of them? Most importantly, how do you photographically tell a story of three characters with sharp wit and a restrained cinematic style?

These were some of the exciting challenges of making Volkswagen Middle East’s “Recommended Retail Price”, a wonderful, offbeat commercial directed by Moe Najati, which I shot on the RED Epic camera and world-class Leica Summilux-C lenses provided by Asif Limbada of LFP.

Watch the commercial:

I had previously used the same combination of camera and lenses on WAY OF THE WARRIOR. While that film uses a very baroque look (low-light, rich blacks, strong colors), I had something different in mind for the Volkswagen commercial—a crisp, clean aesthetic with three distinct color palettes and contrast levels to represent the workshops/offices in Riyadh, Doha and Dubai (cities we never show or identify explicitly!)  Continue Reading

Leica Summilux-C and RED Epic: Cinematography of WAY OF THE WARRIOR

WAY OF THE WARRIOR (adidas)

WAY OF THE WARRIOR is the story of a man who lives by the Bushido code. This man is a welder. He is also blind.

It’s a paradoxical premise for a commercial that puts a new spin on the classic slogan “impossible is nothing”. I served as the director and cinematographer on WAY OF THE WARRIOR which was photographed and finished in the new center of the world, the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

As the DP, I was able to make express use of the Leica Summilux-C lenses and RED Epic camera generously provided by Asif Limbada at LFP. I had actually used the same combination of lenses and camera before—for a Volkswagen Middle East campaign—but in this particular instance, it was possible to push things to new extremes. After all, it’s not everyday that you get to shoot with the most sought-after cinema lenses in the world, your camera of choice and total creative freedom! (When was the last time you heard the music of John Cage in a TV commercial?)  Continue Reading

Hip Hop and High Art Collide in Jay Z’s PICASSO BABY by Mark Romanek

Jay Z and Marina Abramovic (PICASSO BABY)

Once upon a time Shawn Carter aka Jay Z contacted his 99 PROBLEMS music video director Mark Romanek for PICASSO BABY, the second track from his new album MAGNA CARTA…HOLY GRAIL.

Romanek whose work in the music video realm is the stuff of legend—Nine Inch Nails’ CLOSER and Johnny Cash’s HURT—had not directed a music video in ten years. You see, he’s been busy making feature films (ONE HOUR PHOTO and NEVER LET ME GO) as well as turning them down (WOLF MAN and CINDERELLA which Kenneth Branagh is now directing).

Having reinvented the music video in the 90s and early 2000s (and gotten kinda bored with it since), Mark Romanek was not interested in directing just another music video. But what of his buddy Jay Z’s predicament?

Mark Romanek (director): “When Jay said, “I’d like to do a music video for this song,” my reaction was kind of twofold: I wanted to work with him again, because we had just made the Samsung stuff, but I didn’t want to make a traditional music video because it felt uninteresting to me. So I was trying to think of something that would feel more of the moment—more spontaneous, more uncontrived—and I presented this idea to Jay of this performance-art piece in the mode of The Artist Is Present.

Music video, art film or performance art? 
PICASSO BABY is inspired by performance art pioneer Marina Abramovic’s intense and spiritual THE ARTIST IS PRESENT. Romanek sought Abramovic’s blessing before commencing work on Jay Z’s own performance art. In fact, so flattered was Marina Abramovic that she not only granted her consent but also showed up during the Jay Z shindig, along with a slew of celebrities including directors Jim Jarmusch and Judd Apatow; and actors Alan Cumming, Taraji P. Henson and Rosie Perez.  Continue Reading

B&W is Back: RED EPIC Monochrome, David Fincher and Depeche Mode

DOWNTOWN Calvin Klein (featuring Rooney Mara)

David Fincher likes black-and-white. Like, a lot. After filming Justin Timberlake’s Rat Pack throwback SUIT & TIE in glorious monochrome, Fincher turned his pointed attention to direct current muse Rooney Mara (GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) who plays the faux-celebrity in CK’s Downtown fragrance 60-second spot.

While SUIT & TIE (shot by Matthew Libatique, BLACK SWAN) coasted on JT’s swagger and Fincher’s crisp stylistic precision, the DOWNTOWN perfume commercial (lovingly lensed by David Devlin) misfires as a pretentious and ponderously artsy puff piece. Featuring Runaway by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on its soundtrack, the song (released in 2009) feels awkward and contrived as Rooney Mara studiously portrays her character role of dreamy-downtown-girl-but-also-famous-celebrity in a carefully orchestrated tableau of slow-mo. Oh, how pensive!

Shot in black-and-white, Fincher once again makes express use of the new 5K RED EPIC Monochrome camera to capture the vintage 50’s cool in the DOWNTOWN commercial.

What is this new RED EPIC Monochrome camera?
The 5K EPIC Monochrome has a 14-megapixel black-and-white Mysterium-X CMOS sensor with a 5120 x 2700 pixel array that is rated at a native ISO 2000. In comparison, the color version of the RED EPIC is rated at a native ISO 800 (which basically means that the EPIC Monochrome is over one full stop faster than its ‘color cousin’). The Monochrome can capture 24fps up to 5K, and 5K frame rates up to 120 fps. Frame rates expand to 300fps in 2K mode.  Continue Reading

Salesman Steven Soderbergh and the State of Cinema

Steven Soderbergh (State of Cinema)

The aftershocks of Steven Soderbergh’s far-reaching speech on the State of Cinema—delivered last Saturday at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival—are still been felt. In his frank and often humorous self-described “rant”, Soderbergh vigorously inspects the meaning of art, difference between ‘movies’ and ‘cinema’, film as business, and the need for artists to remain hopeful no matter how bleak things get. It is the kind of pep talk young soldiers like to hear from generals.

Steven Soderbergh—allegedly retiring as film director after his last hurrah, BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, the HBO Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon—is not new to public grandstanding. He has done it before…before OCEAN’S 11, before the Oscar awards, before the highly cultivated public persona. Read his book Getting Away With It: Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw published in 2000 or watch the wildly inventive SCHIZOPOLIS (2003) to understand Soderbergh’s many skills as filmmaker, thinker, articulator of the obvious and master aggregator of the prevailing zeitgeist.

In my view, Steven Soderbergh is a salesman. An erudite, charming and useful salesman.  Continue Reading

An Artier Hollywood: Christopher Nolan picks Hoyte van Hoytema as cinematographer for INTERSTELLAR

Hoyte Van Hoytema

Director Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister’s creative collaboration began with Nolan’s second and best film  MEMENTO (2000). Nolan had shot his debut feature FOLLOWING (1998) himself, so he had never worked with a cinematographer until he hired Wally based on a screening at Slamdance. Following a legendary and long partnership, they parted ways when Wally decided to quit as director of photography after THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) and become a feature film director with TRANSCENDENCE starring Johnny Depp. This was done with Christopher Nolan’s blessing (he is after all producing Wally’s directorial debut), but it left the Hollywood auteur in a precarious situation: who will replace his old friend and beloved cinematographer?

Well, Nolan seems to have found his man in Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema whose credits include LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008), THE FIGHTER (2010), TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) and Spike Jonze’s upcoming HER (2013).

Let the Right One In

Secret member of the Fight Club in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008); directed by Tomas Alfredson, cinematography by Hotye van Hoytema

Hoyte van Hoytema belongs to a new breed of cinematographers whose reputation emerges from a small but very distinctive body of work. Hoyte’s style—precise framing, immaculate use of contrast and expressionist lighting—has finally found favor outside Europe. Born to Dutch parents in Switzerland and raised in Holland, he studied cinematography at the Polish National Film School in Lodz.  Continue Reading

Wong Kar Wai without cinematographer Christopher Doyle: Trailer for GRANDMASTERS

Grandmasters

The names Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle, among cinephiles and filmmakers at least, are synonymous with sensuous visuals, moody drama and cinematic orgasm (also, for cinematographers reading this, slo-mo and step-motion!). Yet for GRANDMASTERS, Wong’s new martial arts film, his libertine cinematographer and regular collaborator Christopher Doyle is conspicuously absent.

In Doyle’s place is Phillipe Le Sourd, a Frenchman who has been quietly racking up industry repute with his evocative cinematography (A GOOD YEAR, SEVEN POUNDS). Le Sourd and Wong’s relationship began with the 2007 short film THERE’S ONLY ONE SUN, which has now fully matured with the highly anticipated GRANDMASTERS.

Yet this is not the first time that Christopher Doyle has been missing from the Wong party. On his last feature MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS, Wong Kar-Wai had employed another Frenchman and master cinematographer Darious Khondji to lens the New York romance starring a chubby Norah Jones and confused Jude Law. This film didn’t exactly set hearts racing, but the mood, the visual invention (and the rain) were all well and there. It also established a precedent—no Christopher Doyle.  Continue Reading