ARRI Rental adapts AMIRA for alien romance
Cinematographer Frankie DeMarco combines 16 mm and 35 mm capture with ARRI AMIRAs on John Cameron Mitchell’s punk-alien movie HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES.
First screened at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and now poised for international release in May 2018, HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES is an eccentric comedy romance set in 1977 London, where Margaret Thatcher rules the establishment and the Sex Pistols scream for anarchy.
This boy-punk meets girl-alien love story is the fourth film on which DeMarco and Mitchell have collaborated; the first was HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH in 2001. “John is one of the most brilliant and talented people I know,” says New York-based DeMarco. “I am grateful and thrilled every time he calls me to shoot one of his unique films.”
Initially, both director and cinematographer were committed to shooting on Super 16 mm film. But the movie was very ambitious for its relatively small budget; hectic 25-day shooting schedule at locations including Sheffield, London and Croydon; and numerous special effects shots, plates and animated sequences. “Everyone went out of their way to help us shoot film: producer Howard Gertler, ARRI Rental, Anne Hubble at Kodak and many others, but when the budget numbers came in at the end of prep, we had no other option than to switch to digital,” says DeMarco.
Whether it was film or digital, DeMarco wanted to work with ARRI cameras and with ARRI Rental. And through his close relationship with ARRI Rental UK, the last-minute switch to digital—originally a disappointment—turned into a wonderful creative opportunity for both DeMarco and Mitchell.
Drawn to working with ARRI AMIRA cameras, DeMarco became interested in the idea of shooting in both Super 16 and Super 35 on the same sensor. However, this was in the early days of the AMIRA, and a Super 16 mode was not available at the time. “ARRI Rental were fantastic,” says the cinematographer. “They really listen to their customers and help filmmakers achieve what they want. Simon Surtees and Neil Fanthom at ARRI Rental UK helped get the ARRI technicians in Munich to alter the AMIRA camera to accommodate Super 16 capture. They delivered us a prototype during the shoot, and now that feature exists on all AMIRA cameras!”
This modification allowed DeMarco to create a distinct look and texture for the punk world and the alien world in the story. He notes: “John had always envisioned South London to be gritty, grungy and real, and Super 16 film would have achieved just that, but the beauty of the AMIRA was that it allowed me to shoot the alien world on slick, glossy, beautiful Super 35 digital and the punk world in gritty, grainy, Super 16 digital.”
DeMarco photographed tests with different lenses at ARRI Rental before settling on the exact look he and Mitchell were after. Warmer, softer, vintage Cooke Speed Panchros were combined with crisper, sharper Zeiss Super Speeds, while Canon Super 16 zooms facilitated wide-angle shots of the Croydon exteriors and interiors of the punk club. All the different lenses were matched and balanced in the DI grade.
“John is a detail director and a consummate planner,” says DeMarco. “We created storyboards of all the difficult scenes—and there were many! It is always good to have a plan or a blueprint, because then you can go out and throw it all away and change everything at the last minute, and that is when the amazing, unexpected creative moments appear.”
He continues: “I shoot digital exactly the way I shoot film. I’m not the guy who hides away in a black DIT tent in the video village; I’m right there on the floor with the director and the actors, listening and thinking. For me, it’s all about the story, the narrative and the emotion. I actually detach myself from all the technical stuff and leave that to my team.”
Though its release was delayed, HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES was the first film to be photographed on a digital camera that can shoot both formats on the same sensor: an example of how ARRI Rental’s close, collaborative relationships with filmmakers lead to innovative, creative storytelling.
Edited from an article for the AFC by Madelyn Most