The latest Disney property to undergo a live-action representation is Winnie the Pooh – or more accurately, Pooh’s pal Christopher Robin. (Pooh himself is still CG.) There’s nothing make-believe about the box office receipts, which are approaching $150 million after about a month into release.
The story and characters led director Marc Forster and director of photography Matthias Koenigswieser to shoot partly on film emulsion and partly on ARRI ALEXA. The formats subtly underscore the contrast between the “modern” post-war world of London and the halcyon world of the Hundred Acre Wood, about whose virtues Christopher needs reminding.
There’s no fantasy world where terabytes of data flow untethered from an ALEXA. But with the Codex Vault XL and 8TB Transfer Drives, filmmakers can smoothly manage tremendous amounts of data, focus on filmmaking – and even learn from Christopher Robin that a relaxed family life is necessary and possible.
Forster and Koenigswieser had previously worked together on 2016’s All I See is You, a visually striking tale of a blind woman who regains her sight.
“My initial feeling for Christopher Robin was to 100 percent use film,” recalls Koenigswieser. “The story holds so much nostalgia, and with the available light and contrast in the forest, and various colours of green and red that are prominent in nature, film was my gut instinct.”
The studio argued for digital, however, and Forster had recently done a commercial on the ALEXA 65, which he favoured. Weeks of testing and further debate led to the hybrid approach, with the differences smoothed somewhat by Panavision G, C, and E Series anamorphic lenses.
“I felt that narratively there was a good opportunity to do mixed formats,” says Koenigswieser, “shooting the forest all analogue and keeping the London portion all digital. Finding a way to bridge them was important because I never wanted to draw attention to either format. I didn’t want people thinking how good the film looks and how sharp the digital was. We felt the ALEXA 65 was too revealing for this story. It’s a period film, so it was OK to embrace artifacts. Hopefully, the organic look lets you forget that you’re looking at an electronically or even artificially produced image altogether, and you just get lost in the story.”
The division was not absolutely strict – Koenigswieser used ALEXA Mini for some low angles on the diminutive critters in forest scenes. And for some wide shots in the natural setting, he went with 65 mm film and spherical System 65 glass.
“Basically, the 65 mm shots are nature’s point of view,” he says. “You’re seeing Christopher Robin as a small creature walking in that world. The 35 mm scenes are Christopher Robin’s point of view and the general view of the forest. I really wanted to keep the language as consistent as possible within each world.”
With the delicate balance of formats and the desire for an overall unified feeling, it was important for Koenigswieser to capture the digital imagery with the maximum resolution and color depth. The ALEXA cameras with in-camera Codex recording were set up to record in ARRIRAW format.
“The ARRIRAW format is massively important,” he says. “With the heavy visual effects, you have to have raw. Also, I live very much in the lower end of the exposure spectrum when I shoot digital, so it’s essential to have all the fatness of the data. I take it to the limit because I like digital when it’s getting into underexposure. In the forest, with dappled light, you’re dealing with tremendous exposure differences. You don’t want the image to fall apart.
I LIVE VERY MUCH IN THE LOWER END OF THE EXPOSURE SPECTRUM WHEN I SHOOT DIGITAL, SO IT’S ESSENTIAL TO HAVE ALL THE FATNESS OF THE DATA
“That gets me closer to the aesthetics of film because you’re really protecting the highlights,” he says. “I usually shoot 1280 or 1600 ASA in the daytime, and then 800 at night. In extreme cases, I go to 500 at night in low light. So I approach shooting digital like shooting reversal film. It’s a positive image, so you want to protect the highlights. Blown-out highlights I can’t stand. And I enjoy the noise I’m getting from the ALEXA. You don’t want to overdo it, but it’s nice to have a bit of texture.”
Master cinematographer Conrad Hall once said that the job of the cinematographer was to push film stock until it began to fail – that’s where the interesting images are. Koenigswieser agrees. “I realised that with early digital cameras, I had to step on it so hard and break the image to get something that could be mine, aesthetically. Each new camera that came out, I learned to change everything. It’s my point of view that you cannot use a digital camera out of the box – it’s a disaster that could not be any more boring.”
The ALEXA is Koenigswieser’s digital camera of choice. “The ALEXA is the best if you want quality pixels over pixel count,” he says. “With colour, it’s especially important – more important than resolution in my opinion. I never cared about resolution. Large format is intriguing because it allows us to use large format lenses and get that shallow depth of field – images with a different feel. So it’s not about the sharpness of the pixel. We’re actually now entering a new aesthetic realm, and that’s exciting to me. But how many pixels we’re squeezing onto a 35 chip, I couldn’t care less.”
Koenigswieser is conscious of the needs of his team-mates in making these decisions as well, including DIT Josh Callis-Smith, and Company 3 colourist Sofie Borup.
“Josh is extremely supportive of my way of working,” says Koenigswieser. “I’m a very analogue person and I don’t micro-manage the DIT’s work. I gave him his freedom and he gave me mine. The change from working on film to working digitally was sudden and extreme, but he is a very comforting person at that moment. He was great with helping me create the right LUTs when we were bouncing back and forth. Josh was key to the whole mission of creating a post-war world that wasn’t too modern, and he was very sensitive to the photographic style of what we did in the forest. And it was nice being able to trust him because I enjoy operating the camera, and I didn’t feel like I had to jump into the tent constantly to make sure everything was OK. I was very happy with the dailies.”
With more than 1400 visual effects shots, the camera team needed to work closely with visual effects supervisor, Chris Lawrence, and animation director Michael Eames. “It’s so important for the cinematographer, especially as our work continues to extend into the post realm,” says Koenigswieser. “You need a strong symbiosis – the integration of these animals, and getting them as real as possible, required lots of communication. I really think when you see the film, you’ll forget about effects and completely lose yourself in the story. It’s pretty incredible what they do.”
Cameras: ARRI ALEXA 65, ALEXA Mini
Lenses: Panavision G, C, E Series, System 65
DIT: Josh Callis-Smith
Post Partners: Company 3
Codex related product and workflows
Images courtesy of their respective owners.