ALEXA XT B+W camera shoots a historical commercial in South Africa
Cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund FNF embraces the unique images of ARRI Rental’s exclusive black-and-white ALEXA for FATHER’S SHARE, a powerful Allan Gray commercial.
The ALEXA XT B+W camera from ARRI Rental is an adaptation of ARRI’s ALEXA XT Plus, featuring a modified sensor that delivers monochrome images with greater dynamic range, resolution and sensitivity than any other 35 format ALEXA. Rosenlund and director Peter Pohorsky combined the ALEXA XT B+W from ARRI Rental EU with Zeiss Super Speed and Kowa Cine Prominar lenses from Storyline in Oslo. These contrasting optics were used for different looks within the two-and-a-half minute commercial for investment firm Allan Gray, which tells a father-son story spanning several decades, starting in the 1950s.
How did you hear of the ALEXA XT B+W?
I used to be Co-Chairman of the Imago Technical Committee, and within the committee I remember talking to Philippe Ros AFC, a French DP who has a lot of experience with black-and-white image science. He had been exploring the Debayer process and we talked about how to achieve good black and white from a digital camera—how there are hardware elements you can get rid of, if you don’t need color. Between his input and my own research, I found my way to the ALEXA XT B+W, which captures amazing black and white because it has no Bayer mask and no optical low-pass or infrared filters.
What kind of a monochrome look did you want?
I think when you turn off the colors you have contrast left as your tool, and my goal was to get maximum latitude between black and white, to see every gradation between the black and the white. I had to learn what the camera could do—the extra two stops of dynamic range and the higher ISO rating. We had scenes where we wanted to show the source of the candlelight and still see a face one meter away from the candle, and you can’t do that with another camera.
When the director first started looking for a DP, his inspiration was a lot of Nordic films that had a softer palette, and even if they were color films, they didn’t have super crunched blacks, or super high whites. He was also inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s earlier films with Sven Nykvist ASC, which had a soft black-and-white look. So that was our starting point, to make it more realistic than the high-contrast black and white you often see. Of course, that can be very nice, but it’s a different look and it wasn’t what we wanted for this story.
What was the biggest advantage of shooting black-and-white in camera?
Especially these days when everything is possible, I think there is value in actually limiting myself, in making choices based on directions we decided on before starting. When you take away all the colors and there is no other output from the camera than black and white, people get focused. Everybody knew when we did preproduction and costume tests that there would be no compromise. All of the stills we took of locations we wanted to use were in black and white. It meant there was no discussion of having matching colors as a backup; we concentrated 100 percent on what the colors would look like in black and white, and nothing else. If you have 10 fingers you can play the piano, if you have four fingers you can only play certain things on the piano. Sometimes it’s important to only play those notes, and not always play a grand piano with all the notes, because it can be too messy and too overwhelming. So, deciding on the ALEXA XT B+W was a decision to focus.
Did you experiment with the fact that this camera sees into the infrared light spectrum?
I would like to have had more time to play with that, but we didn’t go very far into it. We also didn’t use red and orange filters, like I would with black-and-white film to darken skies and get deeper contrast in parts of the image. The reason was because we wanted the film to look very natural and not too commercialized. I don’t think Bergman and Nykvist would have used that kind of filter on PERSONA, it was a very straightforward look, so that’s what we wanted. But for another project I would love to see what I could get out of that aspect of the camera.
What kind of work did you do in the final grade?
I knew I wouldn’t have the time to sit in the final grade, so I did a lot of pre-grading using stills from our very talented digital imaging technician, Richard Muller. Also, because we used the Drylab Dailies system, we were able to make a 3D LUT in Silverstack and distribute dailies automatically from Silverstack to Drylab with a look we had developed during our test days, before we started. So the dailies were quite close to where I wanted to be, and I wasn’t afraid that the director would fall in love with a look that was not the intention, which can happen with bad dailies. We had good dailies with our pre-built look, and then I just gave some guidance for adding grain in the final grade, based on examples I made in Photoshop.