The ARRI ALEXA 65 has opened the door to a new era of large-format cinematography. What at first may have appeared to be a digital version of a VistaVision camera
– useful mostly for specific applications like visual effects plates – is now being put to use for content of every description, including television series, commercials,
and smaller-budget narrative features.
Marshall, the biographical film about Thurgood Marshall due out this autumn, is one of the latter. Budgeted under $10 million and shot in 29 days, Marshall is a period piece without spectacular visual effects or breathtaking vistas. Yet, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel ASC chose the ALEXA 65 to bring the story to the screen.
Sigel’s credits include four X-Men films, Three Kings, and Drive – a movie that many cinematographers cite as a landmark in the use of digital for its own strengths, as opposed to a mere emulation of 35mm photochemical film. He says that “we’re now past the point of film-versus-digital arguments.”
“What’s more interesting is trying to understand what it was about the film aesthetic that we were hanging onto, and how to retain that special something without acting out of sentimentality,” he further states. “That’s why everyone is shooting with vintage glass and specially treated lenses. What attracted me about the ALEXA 65 was the additional fine picture detail without a harsh image. I think a good analogy for the difference between ALEXA and ALEXA 65 is the difference between shooting 35mm film and medium format film – perhaps not quite as dramatic as that, but that’s what I discovered on Marshall.”
Directed by Reginald Hudlin, the film focuses on an early 1950s case in which Thurgood Marshall, then an NAACP lawyer, defended a black chauffeur accused of raping his employer’s wife. Marshall was forced by the court to partner with a local lawyer – an indication of the incident’s racially charge subtext, but also a relationship that carries greater meaning as the story goes on. The majority of filming was done on locations in Buffalo, New York, where the production took advantage of a tax incentive and many large empty spaces.
Sigel says that shooting a character-based tale was refreshing after his previous assignment, X-Men: Apocalypse. “It was great shooting people in a room, talking,” he says. “At the same time, that was my biggest concern – we had more than 40 pages of courtroom scenes, and I was nervous about keeping that alive and energised, but not sweeping around with huge crane moves. In that way, it was similar to Drive, where I had periodic car chases and the question was how to give each one its own character. On Marshall, which is less stylised, there’s more of an arc. The courtroom stuff begins with a classicism, but it becomes more energetic and off-balance as the story goes on.”
The lens package included a mix of ARRI’s Vintage 765 and Prime 65 lenses. The ALEXA 65 sensor is essentially three times the size of the standard ALEXA image. Recording is handled by a Codex Digital workflow, including the Codex Vault Lab 65. The sensor boasts 6560 x 3210 photosites and a dynamic range of 14+ stops.
Sigel never worried about the additional resolution becoming unflattering to the many faces in the film.
“I feel that the ALEXA is generally kind of a soft camera, actually,” he says. “People have been putting diffusion filters in front of film camera for 100 years, after all. I didn’t find myself seeing every pore with the 65. I think that has as much to do with lenses and lighting as with the actual format. And not that differently from film, there is the issue of seeing more than you want to see. And also as in film, the format allows you ways to attack the image later if that is an issue.
“To me, the main difference between working with the ALEXA and the ALEXA 65 was the amount of memory we needed,” he says. “We had a lot of dialogue. But Capture Drive changes were so simple and fast. Codex was great about giving us all the media and technology support we needed.”
DIT Ted Viola worked with Sigel. The budget precluded much in the way of pre-production testing and LUT design. “I find that when you do testing in the abstract, with a couple stand-ins and random props, it’s a little bit fake in terms of what you’re actually going to shoot,” says Sigel. “I tend to use a relatively straightforward film emulation LUT to begin, and then we’ll do some tweaking on the set as a guide for where we want the end product to be. A lot of that can be influenced by the scale of the project. On X-Men, the images went right to a colour correction suite, and at lunch I could go in and use that. The director lives with it and gets used to it. When you don’t have those resources it’s much harder, but on the other hand, Marshall being a more straightforward drama meant it wasn’t as critical. Our dailies were fairly close to the final product.”
“WHAT’S MORE INTERESTING IS TRYING TO UNDERSTAND WHAT IT WAS ABOUT THE FILM AESTHETIC THAT WE WERE HANGING ONTO, AND HOW TO RETAIN THAT SPECIAL SOMETHING WITHOUT ACTING OUT OF SENTIMENTALITY”
Along with Yvan Lucas at SHED in Santa Monica, Sigel used post production tools to fine-tune some flashback sequences. “I brought him a bunch of photographs from the 1940s that I had used as inspiration while shooting,” says Sigel. “I also shared those with the production designer, Richard Hoover, to get some of those colours into the design. Yvan was really great at obtaining that period feel. It’s subtle. It’s not a very heavy-handed palette, but it’s definitely inspired by the photography of that period, in which you get saturated colours, but with a kind of dirtiness. It might be sort of a mustard-yellow instead of bright yellow, for example, and that’s a big part of the period flavour.”
Looking back on the project, Sigel says, “Sadly, the film is incredibly timely. Thurgood Marshall is famous for Brown versus the Board of Education, but this case was much more complicated in terms of ethics. Racist assumptions are made, but under a very different veneer in the supposedly integrated north. And there is the question of how women are treated in cases of sexual assault. I’ve done my share of escapist fare, so it was nice to deal with themes that are important in relation to what’s happening in our world.”
Open Road Films plans an October 13 2017 US release for Marshall.
Codex related product and workflows
Images courtesy of their respective owners.