Prime DNA lenses shape the look of MARY MAGDALENE
Greig Fraser ASC, ACS collaborates with ARRI Rental to create a bespoke, cross-format ALEXA 65 lens set for Garth Davis’ biblical biopic.
Having worked together on the Academy Award-winning 2016 film LION, cinematographer Greig Fraser and director Garth Davis reteamed for MARY MAGDALENE, a bold re-examination of the titular character and the role she played in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
On LION, the filmmakers used 35 mm format ALEXA cameras, but for this new project they were looking for something more. Fraser had worked with ARRI Rental’s exclusive 65 mm format ALEXA 65 system on ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY, and was keen to do so again. “Originally I wasn’t sure if the ALEXA 65 would be an option for MARY MAGDALENE, but I shot some tests and presented them to Garth,” he says. “What became clear was that it would come down to making sure we had the right glass on it. Working with ARRI Rental quite closely, we were able to help develop DNA lenses that covered the sensor and had the right look and feel.”
Manufactured in-house by ARRI Rental, Prime DNA lenses are eclectic optics comprising vintage glass from a variety of sources and historical periods, re-housed in modern lens barrels. Many lenses in the growing DNA range are the result of direct collaboration with filmmakers and have been built or adapted for specific projects. Other DPs to have embraced them include Bradford Young ASC on SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY; Dante Spinotti ASC, AIC on ANT-MAN AND THE WASP; Robert Richardson ASC on BREATHE; Newton Thomas Sigel ASC on BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY; and Ben Seresin ASC, BSC on CHAOS WALKING.
The DNA concept is not about absolute optical consistency across focal lengths, it is about handpicking and tuning a bespoke selection of lenses, each of them bringing something unique to the visual storytelling. The emphasis is on character and emotion as opposed to optical perfection, and often the lenses display unusual characteristics.
“Back in my days as a stills photographer, when I shot large format I would try to find the dustiest lenses on the shelf, the ones that were a little bit broken or had fungus inside them,” says Fraser. “Because what I found was that when you go large format, and this is just my opinion, you have so much resolution that it can sometimes be a little bit distracting. When Garth saw the unusual focus qualities of some of the DNA lenses, he immediately had ideas for scenes that we could use them in. And we really did use them in those scenes; they got a nice run.”
The DNA lenses were chosen to heighten the emotional intensity of those scenes and pull audiences in, without making viewers overly aware of the optical attributes. “We didn’t really want the lenses to draw attention to themselves,” notes Fraser. “We wanted lenses that were quite subtle in the way they handled light, and where the focus fall-off wasn’t too sharp or too quick. I found that the DNA lenses have a nice, soft focus roll-off. Probably the standout DNAs for us were the 65 mm T1.6 and the 80 mm T1.9.”
Other Prime DNA lenses on the shoot included a 35 mm, 45 mm and 55 mm of a similar type to the aforementioned focal lengths, as well as a 58 mm and 85 mm of a different type and character. Fraser comments, “I used them in conjunction with some of my own 35 mm lenses, which I had previously used on BRIGHT STAR and ZERO DARK THIRTY. Adding these to the mix gave us a really nice rounded set of lenses that had the qualities we needed.”
Whereas the Prime DNA lenses fully covered the 65 mm format, these other optics brought in by Fraser—among them Cooke and Optica Elite lenses—did not. “We chose lenses that were right for the look of the movie, then we cropped the sensor to suit those lenses, because all of them covered at least 4K,” he says. “So if we had an amazing 50 mm lens that didn’t cover 6.5K, it covered 4.3K, we just cropped into that area because I loved the quality of the lens.”
Mixing lenses that cover different formats is becoming increasingly relevant in modern cinematography, with the release of the ALEXA LF widening access to ALEXA-quality large-format acquisition and mixed-format lens sets. It remains the case, however, that the ALEXA 65 has the largest cinema sensor available and offers the greatest flexibility in terms of inter-format lens choice. This will be especially true when ALEXA 65 cameras and proprietary ARRI Rental lenses are fitted with the same LPL mount as the ALEXA LF (a planned future feature), allowing quick and easy swapping of lenses across different formats.
“You know, 20 years ago you had to choose lenses that covered your film sensor because otherwise your contact print ended up with vignettes,” says Fraser. “I used to do a whole range of readings for that, but now you don’t need to; now you’ve got the ability to crop the sensor, or even to use different parts of the sensor. This is what I was experimenting with on MARY MAGDALENE—you might love the way the top right-hand corner looks with a certain lens, so you crop into the top right-hand corner and that could be your frame.”
Another advantage Fraser found in the large ALEXA 65 sensor was the possibility of delivering a single shot in two sizes. “We would do a mid-shot and deliver it to editorial it as it was shot, but also cropped in to a close-up, giving them double the amount of footage for a scene—an extra shot that we didn’t actually shoot and didn’t cost us time. The point is that the bigger format doesn’t just stop at higher resolution; more real estate of the sensor means more possibilities and I’m excited to see how other cinematographers are coming up with new ways of using it.”