Hall often shoots digital cameras on a range of commercials, where he has worked with high-calibre directors including Spike Lee, Guy Ritchie and Rupert Sanders on spots for clients like Nike, BMW and Gatorade.
Hall’s most recent commercial assignment was for Microsoft’s Halo 5: Guardians, a sci-fi shooter video game for Xbox One.
Hall, reteaming with Sanders, was intrigued by the possibilities of the ARRI ALEXA 65. Launched in late 2014, the camera features an image sensor that is slightly larger than a 5-perf 65mm film frame. Cinematographers say that the format captures a perspective that is closer to that of the human eye. Combined with 6K uncompressed ARRIRAW image files facilitated by onboard Codex recording, the result is intense and enveloping imagery.
“To me, the ALEXA 65 seemed like a very natural place to go for the commercial,” says Hall. “The Halo 5 game is an experiential video game with graphics that are hyper-real and so sophisticated. To show those images to an audience, you want picture quality that is that good or better. The larger format lends itself to that level of clarity. At the same time, as someone who has shot a lot of anamorphic, working with shallow depth of field was very appealing to me. Also, I’m a big fan of ALEXA because I like the way it renders colour.
The colour space has a naturalism and subtlety that is very pleasing, if lit correctly, for a digital camera. Because it’s an ALEXA, the camera felt very comfortable and familiar.”
The Halo 5 spot was shot in extremely bright, hot and dusty conditions near a disused mine in the Santa Clarita Valley, north of Los Angeles. The challenging environment made it a good road test for the camera. Because it was a brand new camera at the time, Hall shot simultaneously with a standard ALEXA XT. But the ALEXA 65 performed flawlessly. “Right off the bat, from the first frame, we just fell in love with the images that were coming out of the camera,” says Hall.
Hall chose older lenses with Hasselblad glass and an impressive pedigree – they were used by Vittorio Storaro ASC AIC for the 65mm sequences in Little Buddha (1993).
“Storaro used them for the meditational scenes in that film because he had the idea that they should be clearer than reality, in a way,” says Hall. “I thought that quality would be right for drawing people into this hyper-real video game experience. I also found that the older lenses smoothed things out in the production design and produced interesting orange and blue flares.”
Hall operated the ALEXA 65, often using an EasyRig to support the somewhat heavier camera while he clambered over the difficult, uneven terrain. He emphasised lower angles to lend gravitas and an imposing feel to the characters.
Iris control and focus were remotely controlled via wireless, giving Hall complete freedom of movement. Onboard recording was an advantage, in part because the movements of the character and the camera were designed to feel spontaneous and not overly precise.
“A video game is of course a very engineered journey, but it shouldn’t feel that way,” says Hall. “Halo is introducing a new dynamic to the characters. So the spot needed to be about reacting to a performance, and letting that performance have life. The camera needed to feel like it was capturing the action as it was happening, without being rigid or planned.”
Illumination was almost completely existing, natural sunlight. Front light was avoided. The shot list was carefully tailored around the position of the sun, with wide shots scheduled for low sun, and close shots that could benefit from overhead flagging and diffusion planned for the middle of the day.
The main character was generally centre-framed and often kept in dark shadows by overhead negative fill, while the environment he’s navigating is lit with strong sunlight, contrasted by hard-edged shadows that are softened by smoke and dust.
Surprisingly, the spot includes no green screen work. Skies and some deep background elements were added with rotoscoping techniques, but the foreground, mid-ground and fire and smoke elements were real and captured in the camera, for the most part. Initially, Hall checked a 4K monitor as he worked, but a couple hours into the shoot, he was working by eye.
“Even though we were not finishing in 6K or even 4K, the additional resolution was very useful for visual effects,” says Hall. “My idea was to utilise it in a similar way to how VistaVision is used in the effects world for plate work. I was intrigued by the idea and keen to test the process of scaling down in resolution. I love the quality of small old photographic prints that have been made from larger negatives, there is a level of detail there that is intriguing, that draws the eye in without feeling too sharp. I saw a lot of possibilities there and wanted to experiment.”
“IT WAS GREAT USING A SYSTEM THAT COULD STAY IN STEP WITH THAT IMAGERY WHILE ALLOWING US TO WORK WITH CREATIVE FLEXIBILITY”
With two days to shoot two entire spots, Hall had his hands full. He was ably assisted by digital imaging technician Alex Carr, who worked with Claudio Miranda ASC on Oblivion and Tomorrowland. Carr owns a Mercedes Sprinter van, which he prefers to use in place of a DIT tent when locations are brutal and unforgiving.
“The Halo set was perfect for the Sprinter setup,” says Carr. “There was constant wind and dust, which can make it hard for specialised equipment to work efficiently.”
Hall agrees. “With all the dust and smoke and everything that we had at that location, it was a brilliant idea,” the cinematographer says of the Sprinter van/DIT enclosure. “That gave Alex a little incubated environment to work in.”
Carr was intrigued by the prospect of working with the ALEXA 65. The experience, he says, was in some ways quite similar to working with a standard ALEXA XT – live grading, camera settings, reloading – but in other ways, quite different. Downloading, archiving and dailies prep of the high resolution files required some adaptation. All equipment was rented from ARRI Rental.
Carr used Codex Vault, a compact, secure, all-in-one workflow solution for download, backup, dailies, archiving and other near-set lab applications.
“I tested Codex Vault with the ALEXA 65 on an extra prep day and figured out how to maximise the download,” says Carr. “Once I was able to import media into ColorFront OSD, I knew any deliverables would be just like any other camera and its workflow.”
After receiving the Codex Capture Drive, Carr would ingest into Codex Vault and would process the material into 6K ARRIRAW files. After processing, he would download over 10GigE to his workstation, and copy to the production’s backup drives. Meanwhile, he worked on colouring and transcoding. Media was viewed in 4K resolution. Carr’s workstation has a 12TB SSD Raid, and distributes bandwidth to multiple processes simultaneously, giving him the ability to work on several pieces of media without waiting to access any media.
“I used ColorFront OSD to import, grade, then export editorial files,” says Carr. “It was interesting playing back 6K down-sampled to 4K. That took every bit of horsepower available in my custom PC system. Even transcoding to editorial files and VFX files used every bit of horsepower available.
“On set, the ALEXA 65 is very easy to use. With Jess, I try to stay very technical and provide a solid workflow to give him as much creativity as possible. I would watch exposure, then grade the ARRIRAW for Jess to come in to look. Overall, working on set with the ALEXA 65 was almost the same as working with an ALEXA XT.”
Carr adds that the 65mm format requires careful consideration in terms of lighting. “And I would highly suggest giving your focus puller plenty of time for marks!” he says. The Halo 5: Guardians spots started airing in late March, and have garnered millions of online views.
Looking back on the shoot, Hall says, “Working with a camera with such high resolution made sense given the video game graphics kids are exposed to. It was great using a system that could stay in step with that imagery while allowing us to work with creative flexibility. I’m looking forward to the right opportunity to use it on a feature.”