MAKING THE GREAT WALL
Director Zhang Yimou, known in the West for visually stunning films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, has said that even the team of more than 100 on-set translators was impressive.
The tale is an action-adventure, with historical and fantastical elements including a greedy monster from Chinese mythology – a bit of everything, in other words. The cast includes Matt Damon, Andy Lau, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, and Willem Dafoe.
The Great Wall is also notable as the first full-length feature film to be shot almost entirely on the ARRI ALEXA 65. When filming began in March of 2015, the ARRI ALEXA 65 had been used on a few sequences, including underwater scenes in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. At that time, fewer lenses were available, and the camera could not accommodate high frame rates. Only 512GB Capture Drives were available, which limited run time to 10 or 12 minutes. But cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh ASC NZSC did not hesitate to recommend it.
“I pitched the ALEXA 65 to Zhang Yimou in our first Skype meeting, before I even got the job,” says Dryburgh. “I told him that if we’re going to shoot digital, this is the camera. The Great Wall is a film with great scope, a cast of thousands and big battle scenes. The 65 system would definitely be a help to us, and also for visual effects, given the resolution it would achieve.”
Looking back to the project’s early conception, Dryburgh says that the renderings of production designer John Myhre were one key to his approach.
“I thought his set designs and renderings were incredibly beautiful, and my first thought was, ‘Let’s make it look like these,’” Dryburgh recalls. “They were high contrast, with a rich but limited palette. That was the basis for our conversations. Because the story involves mythological creatures, the setting wanted to feel very real and very true to its 12th Century time period. We weren’t looking for a vintage look as such. In fact, we wanted to render the image honestly and basically and let what happens in front of the camera be recorded rather than be messing with it by using filters or strange CDLs or LUTs.”
The colour palette was tending toward earth tones, but complicating matters was the fact that four distinct divisions of the imaginary Chinese army had to be designated by colour. Testing helped find a balance between colors that were recognisably different and colours that popped out too much from the overall imagery. In some cases, costume designer Mayes Rubeo used dirt and wear to bring down the colours.
Given the costume and set design, Dryburgh found he didn’t have to control colour as much using photographic techniques. The metadata, he says, was pretty much left at the base LUT established for the movie. For high speed shots, he used an ALEXA XT with Master Prime anamorphic glass, which delivers depth of field and angle of view characteristics not dissimilar to those of the ALEXA 65.
In general, using the ALEXA 65 didn’t feel like using a completely new camera system.
“Everything worked extremely well,” says Dryburgh. “The ALEXA 65, being so closely related to the basic ALEXA camera system, was totally familiar. Everything about it looks, feels, and behaves like an ALEXA. It just has a much larger sensor. The full sensor, even when cropped for a ‘Scope frame, is over 6K, but based on Legendary’s post policies, we essentially down-rezzed as we went, backing up and storing at around 4K. But it’s like oversampling in a music CD. Given the huge number of pixels that you begin with, even when down-rezzed, it still looks really great.”
Dryburgh was wary of excessive or annoying sharpness. “The main complaint cinematographers have about digital systems concerns the unflattering edges that they put on people’s faces, bringing up lines and faults that you don’t really see with the naked eye,” says Dryburgh. “What’s great about the 65 is that when you shoot a close-up, it renders the skin tones and the details really beautifully and in a flattering way. It’s completely devoid of aliasing. That was to me an unexpected result. Once I saw that, I thought, ‘This is awesome.’ For my money, it’s the closest any digital system has come to truly matching film in its ability to render flattering detail in faces.”
The Codex Vault systems used on-set helped ensure a flawless shoot despite the significantly increased data rates. Dryburgh says that the Codex recording and data handling systems are industry standards. “It’s what we use,” he says. “I could go on for hours about their technical support, which is absolutely amazing, and has come through for us in a pinch on several occasions. I’m a huge fan.”
When the production was on the studio lot in Beijing, Dryburgh could check dailies on a large 4K screen. His DIT was Grace Guo. Her rig included two Leader waveform monitors and two Sony OLED monitors, all calibrated by ARRI Rental London. A TV Logic monitor was used for C camera, the XT. She set one of the ALEXA 65’s two SDI outputs for Log C colour space, and used the other, set to Rec. 709, for the first AC to judge focus. The camera signal goes through AJA Kumo and three HD-link LUT boxes controlled by Live Grade from a Macbook Pro to the monitors.
“I COULD GO ON FOR HOURS ABOUT THEIR TECHNICAL SUPPORT, WHICH IS ABSOLUTELY AMAZING, AND HAS COME THROUGH FOR US IN A PINCH ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS. I’M A HUGE FAN.”
“Then I could apply the special LUT that Stuart developed with the post production company from U.S.” says Guo. “Stuart would have a look at every scene before shooting and make any adjustments. Then I would balance the three cameras and send signals back to Stuart’s waveform. Having two waveforms was important when I couldn’t be close.”
Once the images were set, Guo saved CDLs to be applied at the dailies stage. The 512GB limit made quick offloads crucial. “ARRI Rental London and Codex provided the latest Codex S-Series Vault and one Codex XL-Series Vault for The Great Wall,” she says. “They were very fast for offloading footage, but we still prepared enough Capture Drives to be safe. We set the Codex Vault on a small cart near-set, and my assistant picked up every Capture Drive and offloaded them. Once full, the internal module could be removed and delivered to China Film Group. Sim Digital handled backups.”
Guo first used Codex in 2012 on Man of Tai Chi. She says the technology has evolved quickly. “Codex responds very fast,” she says. “And their technology is always upgraded. In only three years, cameras have become much lighter and flexible with internal recording. The ALEXA 65 has great colour and the 6K image is fantastic.”
The Great Wall was released in China on December 16, 2016, and in the United States, by Universal Pictures, on February 17, 2017.
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