“The wide tonal range of color you get with the ALEXA 65 looks wonderful on faces.” Newton Thomas Sigel ASC on Reginald Hudlin’s courtroom drama film.
MARSHALL tells the story of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice, and centers on a notorious rape case in the 1940s, early in his legal career. The movie was shot by cinematographer Sigel with ARRI Rental’s exclusive ALEXA 65 camera, coupled with Vintage 765 and Prime 65 lenses.
What was your visual approach to MARSHALL?
Reggie and I defined the look of the film during prep and I think we were fairly successful in achieving it. Our biggest challenge was that we had over 40 pages in the courtroom and needed to keep that alive. What helped was creating an arc to the shooting style in the courtroom as the mysteries of the story unfold. It begins very classical and formal, but becomes handheld and very alive as truths come out and tensions rise.
What benefits did the ALEXA 65 bring?
The benefit of the ALEXA 65 was really an overall one. It helped give a period movie with limited budget and schedule a richness it would not otherwise have.
I’ve fallen in love with the way the ALEXA 65 provides amazing detail without being overly sharp. I tend to equate it with the difference between medium format and 35 mm in still photography. You have to remember that because of the large sensor, we are using much longer focal lengths; the 35 mm becomes a very wide lens, but it has a particular feel.
Why did you choose the lenses you did?
When we shot MARSHALL there were limited choices that would cover the large sensor, although there are more options now. At the time, ARRI Rental offered the Prime 65 and Vintage 765 lens series. I was looking for a particular softness and textural quality to describe the period of our story. I expected a significant difference between the two lens sets, but after testing I discovered the differences, however subtle, were more from lens to lens than the particular sets. I wound up using each Vintage 765 and Prime 65 lens for its personality, depending on the tone of the scene.
You mentioned a limited schedule. Were you and your crew able to work as fast as you needed with the ALEXA 65?
Honestly, the ALEXA 65 doesn’t impact schedule at all. It is no different than shooting with the ALEXA XT. The biggest challenge is for the focus pullers, as the format is very demanding. My 1st AC, Cary Lalonde, is pretty phenomenal, which made my life much easier. The movie was done in only 29 days.
What was your general lighting approach, and to what degree was it affected by the larger format?
I lit the movie the same as I would with the normal ALEXA. It’s a pretty naturalistic look, and I tried to be relatively organic and invisible. The camera sees into shadows even more remarkably than the regular ALEXA. Because its DNA is from the original sensor, the dynamic range and tonality feel very familiar.
The courtroom was a practical location almost 80’ in the air, but we managed to light it with Dwight Crane’s LRX 18Ks on lifts. Passage of time and different days were delineated through levels of diffusion and color.
How did you rate the ALEXA 65’s performance in terms of skin tones and color rendering?
It’s wonderful on skin tones. Since the beginning of digital, there have been difficulties with things like make-up and blemishes looking harsh and unflattering. The subtlety of detail with the ALEXA 65 gives a richness, while still feeling natural. It’s not just resolution, but also colorimetry; the wide tonal range of color you get with the ALEXA 65 looks wonderful on faces.
How was your collaboration with ARRI Rental?
ARRI Rental in New York were really outstanding on MARSHALL. There was no way we should have been able to afford this camera on such a small-budgeted movie, but they made it happen. Not just the camera package, but also the Codex vaults that allowed a financially challenged movie to download and process data efficiently.