ALEXA XT and 65 mm film on SUNSET SONG
Based on the 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, SUNSET SONG tells the story of a young woman growing up in rural Scotland during the early years of the 20th century. Adapted for the screen and directed by Terence Davies, it was shot by cinematographer Michael McDonough ASC. Equipment and support was provided by ARRI Rental, with McDonough using an ALEXA XT Studio with ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphic lenses to capture studio scenes in ARRIRAW, and an ARRIFLEX 765 to shoot exteriors on 65 mm film. Principal photography took place in early 2014, before the release of the ALEXA 65, although McDonough has since had a chance to shoot with ARRI Rental’s digital 65 mm camera on a separate project. He speaks here about his experiences with these different high-quality formats.
What kind of a look did you and Terence want for the film?
Terence has a very precise style. His frames are classically composed and he loves the camera to flow – to move elegantly and always with a clear justification. I knew going in that there would be no Steadicam or handheld shots; this would be classically lensed with tripod, dolly and crane.
Our production designer, Andy Harris, had introduced the idea of taking the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi as our main inspiration for the look of SUNSET SONG. The paintings are illuminated by a soft, directional, northern light; there was a coolness to them that suited our Scottish setting perfectly. The only variation from this was the summer harvest scenes, which were much warmer and more romantic in tone.
What was the decision-making process behind shooting both digitally with ALEXA and on 65 mm film with the ARRIFLEX 765?
The film had been in development for some time and when I came on-board the producers and Terence had already settled on digital capture for the studio work and 65 mm film for the exterior landscapes. Of course I wholeheartedly agreed with that decision and we also all agreed on the ARRI ALEXA as by far the best camera for the digital portions.
The landscape plays such a strong role in the film and the book from which it derives; the characters are very much seen as ‘part of the land’, and 65 mm film would be the perfect medium to capture the magnificence of the landscapes, rendering them with the clarity of the human eye. For this reason we shot with very deep stops to hold detail to the far horizon. It was almost three-dimensional in feel.
Where were you filming and what was the schedule like?
We started with four days of 65 mm in New Zealand because we needed to shoot scenes of harvest time in a rural landscape that matched Scotland, but in a southern hemisphere location where we'd find crops in March. New Zealand provided both. The production did not want to wait to shoot these scenes until late summer in Scotland.
After that we had a 20-day studio shoot with ALEXA in Luxembourg, because Iris Productions had invested in the budget and the facilities at Filmland Studios were made available to us. Then we ended with 13 days combining 65 mm and ALEXA in north-east Scotland, since this was the actual location of the story and the landscape was essential in capturing the authentic spirit of Terence's script, adapted from the novel of the same name by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (a.k.a. James Leslie Mitchell). The author was in fact buried in the churchyard at Arbuthnott, which was, aptly, our final shooting location of the film.
What measures did you take to match the look of 65 mm film to ALEXA?
Early on, an ALEXA recording ARRIRAW was tested side-by-side against 35 mm and 65 mm negative for a series of wide landscape shots, in order to gauge the perfect mix of mediums. It was surprising, or maybe not, that the ALEXA and the 65 mm meshed perfectly. When you think about it, the 65 mm is virtually grain-free; with some light filtration on both the film and digital, a really closely matched feel and texture was possible.
I spoke to Steven Poster (ASC) and Carey Duffy at Tiffen, and latterly to Dan Mindel (ASC, BSC), and through those discussions settled on using very light diffusion as an ideal way to mediate between the formats. I used Tiffen Pearlescent and Black Satin – depending on whether the scene was dark or romantic in tone – on both the 765 and ALEXA footage, in order to blend the two systems. And on the advice of Steven Poster and (the late) Andrew Lesnie (ASC, ACS), we almost always used a polarizer, given the high contrast of the sunlight in New Zealand. Always wear sun-block was Andrew's other suggestion!
How did you come to use the Master Anamorphics and what did you think of them?
My Luxembourg-based first assistant, Graham Johnston, is well known at ARRI Munich and it was with him that I first spoke to ARRI Rental about the Master Anamorphics, which were new at that time. They showed us the prototype 50 mm and it blew me away, but what really amazed me was the even-more superior quality of the 35 mm, 50 mm and 75 mm production lenses that we eventually used on SUNSET SONG. These were the only three focal lengths then available (there are now seven), so I had supporting anamorphics from another manufacturer to fill the gaps. However, once we were on set I could only use the Master Anamorphics because they were so pin-sharp, perfectly straight and square – all the way to the corners – that it was impossible to match them with the other brand.
My widest lens was a 35 mm, but there was absolutely no barreling out at the sides of the image. The Master Anamorphics looked great at any aperture, although our regular shooting stop was around a T2.8/T4, in order to help match with the deeper stops on the 65 mm exteriors. And although they don't have the horizontal flare response that a front-mounted anamorphic element might have, they handle general flaring really well. They are also surprisingly light and the matching front diameters are appreciated by the camera crew.
Since the SUNSET SONG shoot you have tried out the ALEXA 65 on a different project; what were your initial thoughts on this digital 65 mm system?
When I first saw our ALEXA 65 rushes it made me feel like we are in a beautiful moment when cinema is defining itself – like 1916 all over again. I had concerns about some really white diaphanous curtains we shot, but the ALEXA 65 dealt with the very high exposure so well – exactly as I saw it in my head. The curtains glowed but were full of detail, and the shadow detail in the room was also superb; it looked like well-exposed film to me. For a first pass at challenging the sensor with extremely high contrast, I could not have been happier.
ARRI is on the right road with the ALEXA 65 – please keep on! It is only by challenging the technology that we will advance the art-form and the technology in equal measure. It’s not called the ‘bleeding edge’ for nothing and it truly is hard work, but totally worth it. It’s the same chances that they took at the dawn of the 20th century. If you don’t take those chances, you don’t advance the art-form. I’m totally with you in that endeavor.