For The Ritual, a horror film that takes place mostly in dark and deeply forested exteriors above the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden,
cinematographer Andrew Shulkind and director David Bruckner knew they needed a camera that could see well in the darkness. On a previous project, they had
tested a variety of cameras and settled on Canon, since testing revealed another full stop of light and a superior noise threshold.
“We were really going for the nuance of shadow in The Ritual,” says Shulkind. “The idea was to expose the whole range of the sensor with the intention of crushing it down in post so we’d have as dark a movie as possible. Very early on, we grappled with what night really looks like, and how authentic we could make it, given the incredibly sensitive cameras and super-fast lenses we now have. The idea wasn’t to use all natural light or to avoid lighting, it was to light the night very naturally at very low, subtle levels.”
The story, an adaptation of Adam Nevill’s award-winning novel, concerns a group of college friends who reunite in almost completely natural surroundings. Eventually, a malevolent presence reveals itself, and the drama becomes an examination of how different characters respond under extreme circumstances. The tagline: “They should have gone to Vegas.”
The film was shot almost entirely in central Romania, using Canon C300 Mark II and Canon C700 cameras and Hawk T1 lenses. The image format was 4K RAW, captured with Codex Recorders. Colourist Matt Watson and the team at SHED in London and Santa Monica helped Shulkind achieve the look he envisioned.
“We were extremely fortunate to receive a prototype C700 about halfway through the shoot,” says Shulkind. “It gave us all the flexibility of the C300 Mark II, but in a more robust package - with internal Codex S recorders, which were very stable throughout the shoot despite the conditions. The C700 also allowed us to shoot 120 frames per second at 4K. Shooting the Canon at 3200 ISO, and times up to 6400 ISO, with a T1 lens – it’s more than your eye can see! ACES also proved especially valuable on the ritual for three reasons: 1) Because we shot with multiple camera formats (including Canon C300mk2, Canon C700, Alexa Mini, and Red), we needed to ensure that the dailies matched across the board, 2) We were shooting in Europe, shipping drives back to our colorist, Matt Watson, back at Shed in London, and 3) We had a lot of VFX integration with several vendors who were working in linear color space. ACES allowed us to seamlessly navigate this pathway. Our on-set wonderfully fastidious DIT, Alex Golding, was able to apply some looks that Matt had generated for us. It allowed us to work very closely with VFX guru Ron Ames to really keep the lines of communication open about how these assets would match. SHED supported us throughout the project and Matt was outstanding. Codex and SHED were really a dream team that helped assure our success.”
For the night exteriors, there was usually an approximately two-hour window in which to shoot, depending on the clouds. Shulkind kept a close eye on the waveform when possible and aimed to keep everything under 80 IRE. That gave him some insurance since he was seeing a linear image on-set. He built some custom battery-powered lighting to subtly underscore the deep forest while using silhouetted trees and the lack of visible horizon to emphasise the characters’ growing disorientation and unease.
The 4K RAW images helped when it came to visual effects, which were done by Nvizible. The motion capture performances were recorded at The Imaginarium, a unique independent motion capture studio founded by Andy Serkis, who also served as one of the producers on the film. The decision to shoot 4K would prove prescient when it came time to sell the film.
“The creature is hinted at throughout the course of the movie, and about halfway through we start to reveal it more,” says Shulkind. “We had some practical elements including a foam model, and we were always looking for ways to marry real on set elements into the photography. There was a lot of wire work, and a big practical fire scene. Legendary visual effects producer Ron Ames was instrumental in bringing all the elements and vendors together to create this mesh of believability.”
While the final color was done at SHED London, some earlier color passes were required to make sure that the visual effects elements would work. Shulkind, who is based in Los Angeles, could make some of the earlier passes remotely from SHED’s facility in Santa Monica. For the final two weeks, he sat with Watson in London to put on the finishing touches.
“SHED supported us throughout the project,” says Shulkind. “Matt Watson was outstanding, and they sent us Alex Golding, our wonderfully fastidious DIT. Codex and SHED were really a dream team that helped assure our success. We were running around in the woods at 8,000 feet on these mountainsides, building safety lines on very steep inclines, and working quickly. In most cases, under those less-than-ideal conditions, you’re just happy to make your day and move on. To be assured that not only did we have the footage with no issues, but with all the range and consistency we needed to achieve the movie we were trying to make – that’s a big deal.”
Shulkind says that while recent developments in filmmaking technology have lowered the barrier to entry, artful work is still the goal.
“I get to experiment with a lot of new technology before it gets released, like LEDs, plasma lights, new cameras, and lenses,” he says. “ Ours is a business of compromise and I like to look for shortcuts anywhere I can to save time or money or both. Inevitably, some tools will be worthwhile and some won’t. On The Ritual, we had a prime opportunity to marry highly sensitive sensors and superfast lenses with very subtle artificial light at very low levels, to create the same artful artifice of cinematography and production design that we’ve been using for 100 years of storytelling. We were able to activate the newest tools, on a modest budget, under difficult conditions, to tell our story in an efficient and unique way.”
“CODEX AND SHED WERE REALLY A DREAM TEAM THAT HELPED ASSURE OUR SUCCESS”
Efficiency is an important, if sometimes overlooked, aspect of cinematography, according to Shulkind. “Coming up as a young cameraman, the attitude was often a desire to use a certain piece of gear, in part in order to feel validated,” he says. “Today, in a way, the better you are, the less you need to make it good. What’s exciting is the opportunity to work collaboratively with other professionals who are advancing the art and the medium with this same attitude of minimalism. That’s why I’m thrilled to have done this movie with pros like the Codex team – Marc and Brian – and the SHED team – especially Matt, James, and Alex. It’s the idea of pros using the tools to create a really high-level product, no matter what budget or camera we’re using. ”
After positive reviews at the film’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere, The Ritual was quickly picked up by Netflix, reportedly for about $5 million – vindicating the decision to capture in 4K many times over, since Netflix insists on 4K RAW capture for its original content. It’s now available for streaming on Netflix.
Codex related product and workflows
Images courtesy of their respective owners.