ARRI brings the president of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) to Australia and New Zealand for a series of two-day masterclasses – by Patrick van Weeren
Giving the launch of the Alexa Mini LF and the full range of Signature Primes a creative edge. Aimed to educate and inspire both the innovators and early adopters in the crowd of cinematographers.
Kees van Oostrum ASC shot more than sixty feature film, both anamorphic and spherical. He made recent headlines with his open letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which successfully avoided the cancellation of the live broadcast showing the Academy Award for Best Cinematography last March.
“The large format is sensational,” Kees explains in Auckland. “It’s a new experience because the depth of field is matching anamorphic, except you’re not ‘anamorphising’. It gives me a 2.40 format that is very calm and architecturally correct. I know that we all like anamorphic artefacts on screen but some of the aberrations I don’t like at all.”
With film it was important to maintain as much contrast in the negative so the print versions would still obtain sufficient detail and depth. If an original negative could render a definition equal to 6K in digital, the print in the theatre (third or fourth generation) would barely reach the equivalent of 1K.
Sharp and contrasty lenses are great for combining with a film emulsion but combined with the (early) digital sensors, sharp and contrasty were the last things we needed.
The ‘escape’ to old glass to calm down the digital sensors was the first logical response from cinematographers. Going back in history to find older lenses which weren’t as contrasty made sense. Cinematographers and directors love this vintage look and embraced all the artefacts that came with it.
Some of the more unwanted artefacts such as focus breathing and ramping (light loss) have been completely eliminated with the new lenses. Focus-breathing is an extra challenge for special effects and compositing work while the slight ‘zoom-effect’ of an image could also work against the creative storytelling of the moment.
According to ARRI’s optical systems product manager Thorsten Meywald, the current move to HDR makes the performance of contrasty glass a bigger issue, “What [contrast] looks right in SDR with old glass doesn’t look nice on HDR.” We are dealing with a more precise rendition of contrast with the new sensors.
Kees van Oostrum ASC mentions his experience with these lenses, “When I look at the human face it renders very nice, very even. Because we are shooting a lot of faces in movies it is an important thing to look at. The human face has a lot of reflections, we are shiny, we reflect a lot of things, it is not just a very even surface. It’s a new way of looking at optics. It’s up to you whether you like it or not and I encourage you to try this yourself.”
“We started working with the digital cameras about ten years ago,” Oostrum explains. “The new lenses, which were designed for digital, didn’t start coming into the market until the last couple of years. When you work with the new lenses you get a lot of detail back without losing the whole reason for choosing a certain style.”
The second day of the Masterclass we matched and graded test footage between a variety of S35 lenses and the new Signature primes. What was interesting (especially for producers) was that we used about eleven adjustments/power windows to correct contrast and aberration issues to ‘clean up’ some of the older anamorphic glass and only a few masks and power windows for the new spherical lenses to get closer to the ‘Anamorphic look’.
It is hard to calculate the extra time and cost to balance on set lighting adjustments for contrast issues and corrections in post-production when hiring a set of lenses. We never really have different glass on the same filmset. The Masterclass gave us the chance to see the effect side-by-side and was an easy reminder of how we developed our preferred looks based on history.
The new lenses can be detuned by the cinematographer. Different type of convex and concave lenses can fit the magnetic rear element holders. The size of the rear element holder is familiar for the high street optician and you can actually ask them to adapt lenses for your own look or needs. Meywald brought some detune and diffusion optics, nets, stockings and we even made our own with bubble wrap.
We set up different rear elements on set and left some artefacts to be done in the grading suite in an effort to match the beloved look of the classic lenses but created with the safety and contrast of modern glass.
“I had a lens with me from 1919 that I used for a commercial once and the interesting revelation is that this lens is just as sharp as any other lens, it’s just uncoated, very flare sensitive and therefore gets to be very soft and creamy,” says Oostrum. “So, optically what has changed over the years is not so much the sharpness, except maybe increasing the values in the edges. What they did over the years; they made very contrasty lenses.”
It will be interesting to see how cinematographers deal with the age-old definition of what a 35mm lens means for a portrait versus an 85mm, for example. How close will we be to the subject in large-format compared to S35? What will become ‘your’ new portrait lens? Just the equivalent focal length or will we move closer to the object as we maintain a certain historic preconception of mix between bokeh and subject and we stick to our old focal length? Time and story will tell.
During the Masterclasses, ARRI Australia’s Sean Dooley explained more about the technical changes, “The Mini LF isn’t just a change from S35 to Large Format. It is a 2.0 of the very successful Alexa Mini.”
First thing an operator notices is the new viewfinder. This has been a major upgrade. Although one of the new features – switching it left and right side of the camera – reminds me of the film cameras such as the 416 and 16SRIII. Even though we had a pre-production model, the menu seemed to be a lot faster than the Amira/Mini interface. Screens are bigger and brighter which is always nice. The viewfinder cable has a new connector which can be plugged in with no rotational alignment (there’s no need to find the red dot on the top) making it faster to plug in. The other advantage of the plug is that it just seems a lot more solid and better positioned.
The viewfinder cable comes in multiple lengths, giving you the option to place the viewfinder up to ten meters from the camera. Easy for remote operating. To make it easier when operating remotely it also includes a headset audio output. Talking about audio, the camera body has two scratch microphones. Switched off by default in case you gossip about the crew. To make sound recording easier there is a new six-pin audio connector giving the chance to power a wireless video receiver directly from the same audio-plug.
The card slot has been moved to the operator’s side of the camera, creating easier access when the camera is fully rigged up with cables and batteries.
The media it records on has changed from CFast cards (write speed max 450 MB/s) to Codex drives (write speed max 1000 MB/s). ARRI and Codex have also created a nifty workaround to minimise file size of ARRIRAW with the HDE encoding. It acts similar to a ZIP file which gives you smaller file sizes with lossless compression. It reduces the ARRIRAW file size by 40% making it easier and cheaper to choose ARRIRAW and opening up flexibility in the grading suite. The ProRes option is now available in industry standard .MXF instead of the .MOV container.
The new large-format cameras have twice the amount of photo-sites (the same size) and therefore less noise compared to the previous Alexas. Boosting the signal to noise ratio. The cinematographer has the ability to up his ISO resulting in similar signal to noise result at 1600 ISO with the LF sensor compared to the Alexa SXT/Mini sensor rated at its native 800.
One of the advantages of ProRes is that it already has some noise reduction in the compression process. Making it an instant pleaser but unfortunately it doesn’t have the flexibility and precision that you can add in the grade.
The camera is equipped with an updated, build-in noise reduction. This is switched off by default but available when needed. Most cinematographers, including van Oostrum, prefer noise reduction in post with ARRIRAW. The colourist can work with more precision – separate noise reduction by colour and density – from the same camera compared to a global automated in-camera noise reduction tool.
My own job at the Masterclass was to show how electronic stabilisation integrated in the analogue world of camera movement with ARRI’s Trinity.
Having been a Steadicam-operator for twenty-three years, I looked at the recent rise of gimbals with a reluctant eye. Having had control of all axes in any speed and combination you like, with the instant feedback called muscle memory, made the step to gimbals feel like a step back. I had to struggle with different acceleration speeds for all axes of camera movement.
This is now the closest the German’s ever came to inventing the Swiss Army knife of camera movement. It is a remote head. You can use it stand alone as a two axes gimbal and operate it with joystick or wheels. It is a classic mechanical stabiliser and it is a jib-arm. Combined with the operator’s movement you can even see it as a portable telescoping crane. Basically, the equivalent of a small grip truck.
With the Trinity/Artemis configuration you can have a short or long post, giving you the boom range of 2.5 meters. The Trinity created a smooth addition to the mobile camera and for me the first intuitive use of a brushless gimbal.
Patrick van Weeren is a cinematographer from The Netherlands who has recently moved to Australia. He is a former writer for Dutch photography magazine Focus.