In 2015, director Garth Davis and cinematographer Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS combined their talents on Lion, resulting in one of the highest-grossing Australian films of all time. Lion’s success,
which included six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Cinematography, was all the more astonishing given that it was Davis’ feature debut.
Now the duo has completed a new project, Mary Magdalene. A story about the biblical follower of Jesus Christ who witnessed his crucifixion and, according to some accounts, was a repentant prostitute. Rooney Mara plays the lead role, with supporting cast Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Tahar Rahim.
For the visual style, Davis and Fraser emphasized a purely natural look, a decision that had ramifications throughout the project. Davis reportedly reviles the artificiality of sets and stages, preferring to shoot entirely on actual locations. In this case, it was Italy.
An early decision to shoot with the ARRI ALEXA 65 was augmented by Fraser’s lens package, which included more than 35 lenses in a wide array of brands and models.
“I’ve been very much enjoying exploring the new, larger format,” says Fraser. “Every movie is different, and if I had my way, I’d shoot every film in a different format to try to enhance the director’s vision. That’s the ideal scenario. Short of that, one of the great things about the ALEXA 65 is that the gauge makes everyone rethink their understanding of how to shoot. With 35mm film, the gauge is the size of the film, and the lenses cover that. That’s what you shoot, and you don’t deviate.
“Whereas on the ALEXA 65, you have so much resolution, you can elect to shoot different sizes and resolutions on the chip,” he says. “You can use one camera and be open to so many more lenses, even if the lenses don’t cover 6.5K. That effectively gives me, as a DP, more control. Whilst digital has been an amazing revolution, it’s also reduced some of our choices. With film, we had three manufacturers, each with ten or twelve stocks. With digital, that range of options was reduced. Now, having the ability to choose sensor size within a given camera feels like liberation.”
Fraser points out that images from the ALEXA 65 usually appear on cinema screens with the same physical size whether they were captured in 4K, 5K or 6.5K mode. “But changing the mode does change the size of the sensor, which therefore changes the feel of the shot. Imagine if you could shoot fine grain 16mm and fine grain 35mm and have the grain matched so no one knew the differences. Because of the field of view, they would still feel different – and that’s what happens with 65. You feel a bit more restricted in 4K, a bit more claustrophobic. We were using 6.5K to open the world up. We used medium lenses, but you see wider. There’s an intensity that is all-encompassing and enthralling. Resolution is a factor, but the larger sensor is the key.”
DIT/Colourist Christopher Rudkin was also a veteran of the Lion shoot. On Mary Magdalene, he served a hybrid role along with set DIT Dan Carling, who also had some B camera duties. Rudkin acted as dailies colourist, working with a more robust toolset to bring the images very close to their final state before they went to editorial.
“We had some headaches on Lion with the disparity between the DI and the dailies,” says Rudkin. “Greig was very keen to put a system in place to avoid that, so that’s what we built, and it worked very well. The existing structure of how a movie is graded is sort of a vestige from the days of film. You process the film, and then you colour time it. It’s very linear. Everything nowadays is more networked, and that’s the way it worked on this movie. The grade is happening as we start production. It makes a lot more sense.”
On the set, Carling worked with a Codex Vault S to upload from the cards to sleds, which then went to the mobile lab, where a Codex Vault XL connected to a big network server was used to generate work files. The ‘lab’ was usually in a nearby hotel, or somewhere close so that Fraser and Davis could have a quasi-dailies screening at wrap.
“We did a lot of grading in that situation,” says Rudkin. “Often there’s a couple of months of work that gets thrown away when you move into the DI, and it’s work that is often more informed by the whole process of making the film. You lose a huge body of knowledge about what’s right for the show. If I come in to do a DI and I don’t have that knowledge, I spend a hell of a long time just working on what things are supposed to look like. But if you’ve got that worked out, and can carry that along, you’ve got a very solid foundation. I did a comparison the other day between the dailies grade and the final, and it was quite amazing how close they were.”
The other benefits of maintaining an accurate dailies grade are numerous: If the DP can’t be present for the grade, or if the post house changes, his or her intent is more likely to survive. Test screenings, AVID and all subsequent versions of the cut are pre-graded to a high degree of quality, with more informed decisions the result.
“THERE WAS NOT A SINGLE, COMPREHENSIVE SOLUTION LIKE WE HAVE NOWADAYS WITH THE VAULT”
A normal day’s shoot generated between eight and twelve terabytes of data, with a high of 20 TB. The Codex Vault offers two methods for creating files. “You can generate media, or you can archive it,” says Rudkin. “Archiving is more secure but is slower. We found that there’s a lot more metadata available to us through archiving, so we adjusted some of the other parameters around verification to speed things up. Once it was offloaded into high-speed shared storage, we could sit with our dailies grading tools and access it at high speed.”
To make sure all of the information from the dailies grade was carried into the DI, Rudkin needed a system that could manage it. He used FilmLight Daylight with a P3-tuned monitor for dailies and Baselight for the grading, all provided by ARRI Rental in London. “We could create any number of layers, dynamite grading values, shapes, and scaling,” he says. “All that would go directly into the Baselight and link automatically to the edited conformed version of the show. We looked at a couple of other tools but they were either full dailies tools or full DI tools. FilmLight had both, and it just worked beautifully.”
Rudkin likes the principle of ACES, but in this case, he preferred to work from a log space, using LUTs creatively. “Greig and Garth were both adamant that all the images should be soft, natural and unprocessed,” says Rudkin.“If there was anything that would take away detail from the shadows, it was just not an option. Sometimes if we were in a sunny environment and looking the other way, the LUT would do strange things to the skin tones. I could just remove the LUT or key it out. In the online, I actually blended LUTs together for one look. Having the freedom to experiment a little was wonderful.”
The ability to dependably and easily track and carry on decisions in metadata is a game-changer for Rudkin. “Before, that was a closed door,” he says. “To augment the metadata and have that follow through is a first step to making things easier. We had a huge range of lenses, and each of them had a different colour bias and lens coverage. When I started grading for the day, I’d do a pass to create metadata that would produce a camera negative that was consistent, without being limited to a single exposure.
“That ability to get right under the hood and fix things is fantastic,” says Rudkin. “In the old days, the gear was so cumbersome and held together with duct tape. There was not a single, comprehensive solution like we have nowadays with the Vault. The portability, functionality, and speed mean that when you’re getting 10 TB of data, you don’t freak out. The Vault sets everything up downstream – it’s the first part of the chain, and everything else hangs off of that.”
Mary Magdalene will be released in late March 2018 by Universal Pictures.
Cameras: ARRI ALEXA 65
Lenses: ARRI Rental PRIME DNA lenses plus a wide assortment
Amount of data: Approximately 600 TB
Rental House: ARRI Rental London
Post Partner: Soundfirm in Melbourne
Codex related product and workflows
Images courtesy of their respective owners.