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A Hollywood look for a low-budget love story with the Panasonic VariCam 35



At Codex we are always excited to hear about interesting projects being shot with limited budgets. We recently heard about a project being shot in Australia with cinematographer Don McAlpine ASC ACS (Moulin Rouge, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) with a very small budget and decided to find out more. We tracked down director Sasha Hadden and here’s what he told us.

My partner and I flew to Beijing mid-2015 to visit my friend Craig Wood, who was editing Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall. While we were in China, we watched Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home, which, along with Zhang Yimou’s strong sense of community that he portrays in many his movies, inspired me to write Liebe.

Japanese engineer Takahiro Mitsui, who built the Panasonic VariCam35 and who I met in Australia at around this time, also inspired me. Due to our enthusiasm and my relationship with Taka and Rob Myers from Panasonic Australia, I signed a camera deal with Panasonic many months before the screenplay for Liebe was actually written. Panavision also came on board well before the completion of the screenplay. So we started out with a really positive wave of support.

The story of Liebe is about an 81-year old woman called Liebe (the German word for love) who walks away from a 50-year long toxic relationship with an unsuccessful musician, after befriending a young Chinese fashion designer who reignites her passion for life.

Even though it is a simple story, we want people to feel like they are visiting a fresh new world with fresh new faces. And we ended up with a really wonderful cast, including our lead actress Maggie Blinco (who just won Best Actress at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival) and a genuine old rock star, Glenn Shorrock, to play her partner Duncan. (Glenn was the lead singer of The Little River Band and has sold millions of albums in the USA).

I think we attracted a lot of people to the project because of what the narrative of the film was fundamentally saying and because Don McAlpine and I had decided to make it in such an unconventional way.

Don McAlpine and I tested the VariCam35’s 800 ISO & 5000 ISO settings (at Panavision Australia) against cameras from ARRI, RED and Sony. The tests inspired Don to use the VariCam35 on the Match Box Picture Ali’s Wedding, which he shot 4K (although not RAW) for a 2K DCP.

After he finished shooting Ali’s Wedding we conducted further tests to see how the Panasonic VariCam35 4K V-RAW (using the Codex V-RAW Recorder) stacked up against ARRIRAW with the ARRI ALEXA. Don McAlpine and I were blown away by the results that we studied at Deluxe in Sydney.

The VariCam V-RAW image was far superior and sharper than the ALEXA’s image, in what was presented to us, and this was undeniable when we magnified the images. All in all, V-RAW was punching out on a whole new level. And Don was very excited.

Our colourist, Fergus Hally, reached out to Codex who also came on board to support the project.

Shooting 4K 5000 ISO V-RAW through Panavision glass for a 4K DCP may seem like an ambitious decision for a no-budget film, but for us it made sense and enabled us to cut massive corners in production while still producing a slick Hollywood image that could hold the creative integrity of our narrative.

Furthermore, when most Hollywood movies can’t afford to produce a 4K image because the special effects are too expensive, it turned out that we don’t have any special effects and can produce such an image; which really opens up a whole other market for the distribution.

3-time Academy Award Winner Conrad Hall ASC coined the phrase “the happy mistake” and we embraced his philosophy from the get-go in using what was available to our advantage. To give you some idea on this; we had one small LED panel that was used all the time, which we nicknamed “The Gaffer Truck”.

Our entire camera package was a flawless dream and we ended up shooting the movie for less than $10,000 cash.



The entire project has now been loaded onto the Baselight that was used for Mad Max: Fury Road, under the watchful eye of Bob Chorley from FilmLight. So we’re all set for the final grade.

And then we were very fortunate to catch up with cinematographer Don McAlpine. Here’s what he had to say about the VariCam 35/Codex V-RAW recorder combination.

I initially used VariCam on Ali’s Wedding based on comparison tests to the main contenders. The colour response and immense exposure latitude were an inspiration to use this particular camera. Of course its totally usable 5000 ASA equivalent put it in a class of its own. All these considerations caused me to be very happy when I was told we could get access to this camera to shoot Liebe.

This camera’s ability to shoot at 5000 ASA and intercut the result with its normal 800 ASA is a massive advance in cinematography. I never considered this as an excuse to avoid lighting. One area of the cinematographer’s art is to enhance reality and lighting is a major tool for this. It meant that I could use much smaller lighting units and quite often exploit the practical lighting fixtures and ambient light to create this enhanced reality. In true low-light locations you were not forced to use extremely wide apertures with their inherent problems. I also used this increased speed on many occasions to increase the depth of field particularly in shooting shots where a second or third person in the scene was distractingly out of focus. This enabled me to occasionally reduce the number of shots needed to cover the scene.

Since the development of good digital still cameras I have been correlating my own film results. This made my transition to digital cinema much smoother than many. Now the onset monitor replaces the still camera – computer combination. Fundamentally I assess that I have attempted to record the widest latitude available to the camera and that from this knowledge and the vision on the monitor I have the information recorded to produce the result I intend when I finally work with a good colour timer. From my point of view, it is much better for me to expend my energy on-set into the next shot than try to assess what it might end up looking like in the final film. On Liebe my arrogance should be reinforced by me having access to 4K RAW files, creating more flexibility in the result I can get from having so much more information in the original file. 

Images courtesy of their respective owners.

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