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Phedon Papamichael ASC is a versatile camera pro perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated black and white imagery in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. But his latest assignment takes place in a completely different realm: the dark fantasy world of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.



The project brought Papamichael to the U.K., where he spent a good chunk of 2015 overseeing cinematography for director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, whose resumé includes an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects on Snow White and the Huntsman, the progenitor of The Huntsman: Winter’s War.

The complex story contains elements of both prequel and sequel. At its heart is a cold-hearted young ice queen who raises a legion of deadly Huntsmen trained to eschew love. Two of them fail in this cardinal injunction, and they must fight their way back to each other while the queen fights for possession of the legendary magic mirror. The cast features Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Emily Blunt, and Jessica Chastain. Locations included Waverley Abbey in Surrey, Windsor Great Park and Wells Cathedral, but the biggest sets were built at Shepperton Studios, on stage and on the backlot.

Papamichael says that The Huntsman: Winter’s War is somewhat more romantic and less dark than the previous film, with more humour and a touch less stylisation. There’s also plenty of action. He shot with a combination of ARRI ALEXA XT and ALEXA 65 cameras, with occasional shots done with an ALEXA Mini. He had the 65 on hand every day, usually on a 50-foot Technocrane. The lenses on A camera were older optimised Panavision C-Series anamorphics similar to the set he used on Nebraska. A set of G-Series anamorphics and anamorphised Angenieux Optimo zooms were used on B and C camera.

Regarding the ALEXA 65, he says, “I used it whenever I could. We had the 65 on a 50’ Technocrane everyday of the shoot and rolled on wider masters or landscape beauty shots, coming down off of trees and finding our characters traversing the enchanted forest, with all its great detail. The visual effects people embraced it, because it gives them so much more space to play with.”

Among the many technical challenges of the shoot were the techniques used to depict dwarves, who play important roles. Nicolas-Troyan pioneered the techniques, which use a combination of rostrums, or elevated platforms, careful in-camera perspective adjustments with wide-angle lenses and lots of headroom, and varying degrees of post VFX manipulation. For wider shots and coverage, some actual little people stood in. In the resulting images, actors of more or less normal stature appear much smaller. Often the shots destined for VFX manipulation were shot with the ALEXA 65 and spherical Hasselblad lenses.

“Those effects shots are usually lock-offs because you have all this extra space on the sides,” says Papamichael. “You can reframe or build in a move. It adds lots of capability.”

Switching between the ALEXA XT and the ALEXA 65 was invisible to Papamichael, and that’s the way he likes it. “I’m non-technical, and I don’t think about what’s happening with file formats and the recording. To me, the important thing is that we are dependably capturing with the maximum image quality that the camera can deliver, which means ARRIRAW and Codex. We didn’t lose a single shot. The rest is irrelevant to what I do.”

DIT Ben Appleton had just come off of Now You See Me 2 with cinematographer Peter Deming ASC. His job was to handle the details so Papamichael could focus on creating the image with lighting, framing, movement and lenses.

“Ben was terrific, and really thorough,” says Papamichael. “He handled all three cameras, adjusting filtration, talking directly to the VFX people about smoke levels, and with the gaffer about cloud saturation. On day exteriors in England, the sky is constantly going into clouds and you’re pulling iris on the fly all the time, which he loved.”

Appleton came onto the project at the last minute, and his procedures and equipment evolved over the course of the shoot. He says his job, essentially, was to make sure that the “negative” was always as good as it could be for the project. Generally, he applied a 4000 degrees Kelvin look to the imagery to even out the skin tones for the dailies. In the camera tent, Papamichael and Appleton used OLED monitors and created a quick look using LiveGrade, which was saved to CDLs and passed along to the dailies house.

Later in the production, Appleton purchased a Codex Vault and incorporated it into the workflow. Vault provides a standard, secure and configurable workflow and fast backup solution on or near the set. Part of his rationale for the purchase was his forthcoming assignment, Assassin’s Creed, where cinematographer Adam Arkapaw was planning to shoot some scenes with three ALEXA 65 cameras at once, as well as using ALEXA XTs.

“I wanted to make sure that I would get the workflow that I wanted,” Appleton explains. “Codex was extremely helpful in merging the two systems and customising Vault to give me all the control and functionality I expected. When the ALEXA 65 became available, I was very knowledgeable on the data transfer we would use.


“We’re moving into a realm where data becomes so much greater,” says Appleton. “Codex Vault is a system that has proved itself. On The Huntsman, I was able to refine the workflow. At times on Assassin’s Creed, we were generating 20 terabytes a day, and the S-Series Vault was the only way we could actually make two copies at the same time and still be finished 45 minutes after shoot time. It’s absolutely incredible in the transfer stage to do that. That’s why I was really keen on purchasing a system. As far as I’m concerned, Codex is one of the most forward-thinking and most accessible companies. They listen to everything I say, and then they tryto customise around me.”

Looking back on The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Papamichael says. “I’ve done some big movies, but this was the biggest I’ve done so far. I learned a lot. It’s a fantasy movie, so visually, it should be fun and enjoyable. My eight-year-old daughter absolutely loved the trailer, so maybe we’re on the right track.”

Papamichael recently finished directing a short and is currently prepping for Alexander Payne’s next feature film.

Images courtesy Universal Pictures

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