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Six Cinematographers Discuss Their Creative Use of ARRI Cameras

Barry Ackroyd, Anthony Dod Mantle, Anette Haellmigk, Matthew Libatique, Seamus McGarvey and Bradford Young talk about their Experiences

Barry Ackroyd

Ackroyd earned an Oscar nomination for his Super 16mm verite cinematography on director Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 Iraq war drama “The Hurt Locker,” and he and Bigelow planned to take the same approach with their new collaboration “Detroit,” a drama focusing on the 1967 race riots in the Motor City. But then his first assistant cameraman, Markus Mentzer, alerted him that ARRI had modified its Alexa Mini digital camera to take a Super 16 lens, and their plans changed.

“The fundamental difference between a 35mm camera and Super 16mm camera is the lens, and that’s what made ‘The Hurt Locker’ different,” says Ackroyd, who’s perhaps best-known for his work with director Paul Greengrass (“Captain Phillips,” “Jason Bourne”). “You’re hand-holding a lens that’s light, very flexible, very fluid; it can do wide shots and close-ups and incorporate my particular preferences, the kind of instinctive zoom that takes you to places that your mind would take you to. This needs that kind of approach.”

According to Ackroyd, shooting digital with the Alexa Mini gave the crew several advantages over 16mm film, including the ability to do longer takes. But they had to make sure that what the Mini captured mixed well with the 50-year-old archival footage used in “Detroit,” so Ackroyd had colorist Stephen Nakamura add a layer of grain.

As the industry pushes for higher and higher digital resolutions, a few directors like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino remain steadfastly dedicated to film, but Ackroyd says he’s doesn’t dogmatically advocate either format. Nonetheless, the DP has found himself increasingly working with digital on projects such as the Sean Penn-directed “The Last Face,” shot on location in South Africa, which used ARRI Alexas. Those cameras
“have the best film look for a digital camera,” he says.

— Todd Longwell

Anthony Dod Mantle

Dod Mantle’s first memorable experience with an ARRI camera was on a film school project in the 1980s, when he shot 16mm footage of an overweight, 65-year-old Danish film star as he jogged, huffing and puffing, around a park. “The camera was running so smoothly and so quietly,” recalls the British-born, Denmark-based DP. “He got back and I flicked the side open and, of course, I hadn’t put the film in.”

Three decades later, Mantle was better prepared to shoot with ARRI’s latest digital cameras, the Alexa 65 and the Alexa Mini, on director Oliver Stone’s 2016 film “Snowden,” a fact-based drama about NSA leaker Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Debuting in 2014, the large-sensor Alexa 65 quickly established a reputation for its ability to capture vast panoramic vistas for films such as “The Revenant” (lensed by Emmanuel Lubezki) and highly detailed vfx plates. When Dod Mantle first tested the Alexa 65 on the roof of ARRI headquarters in Munich, he was impressed by the lack of digital noise in its image as the sun went down and the light faded into the blue hour.

Anthony Dod Mantle won an Oscar for “Slumdog Millionaire,” shot with ARRI cameras. He used the Alexa for “Snowden.”

But when it came time to sell the Alexa 65 to celluloid devotee Stone, Dod Mantle — famed for his pioneering digital work on Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” (2003) and “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), the latter of which earned him an Oscar — focused on how its ultra-high resolution could heighten the film’s themes of digital information and disinformation.

“It was interesting to us to do some of the shots of the [computer] screens because you can get so much closer,” explains the DP. “It was a variation of exploring the technical world of military surveillance.”

Mantle was also looking forward to shooting on location with ARRI’s new small-form-factor digital camera, the Alexa Mini. “Literally, a few days before I left to go around the world with Oliver, I spoke with the R&D division at ARRI, and they were saying, ‘You’ve been with us a long time, you’ll be one of the first we give this Mini to when it’s ready,’” he recalls.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t ready until he returned to shoot interiors. He went on to use the Mini to shoot the entirety of the upcoming film “Kursk,” much of which takes place inside the cramped quarters of a Russian submarine.

Dod Mantle praises the Mini’s ergonomics as well as its light weight. “I often have the camera away from my body on rigs and stuff, and when you’re moving a kilo or two less, it makes all the difference,” says Mantle. “As I move into my senior years and still love handheld, everything helps.”

— Todd Longwell

Anette Haellmigk

Haellmigk began her longstanding relationship with ARRI as a young member of legendary cinematographer Jost Vacano’s camera crew on the iconic “Das Boot.” Vacano often worked closely with ARRI to design modifications, sometimes for a photographic-specific purpose, and sometimes to improve its cameras in general.

Haellmigk’s credits as a DP include “The West Wing,” “Insecure” and “Big Love.” Her work on “Game of Thrones” has been nominated for two Emmys and three American Society of Cinematographers Awards. “In a way, I grew up in the ARRI factory,” says Haellmigk. “I’d get equipment, and use the in-house lab. It’s a strong connection — like family.

When Haellmigk was shooting “Big Love” on film, digital cameras were making inroads on other sets. “I felt like the kinks were being worked out, and then ARRI came out with the Alexa,” she says. “We put the Alexa through the grinder, and there was never a problem. That camera is a very reliable workhorse. Once I could monitor my exposure on the set with a display, and see what the image could reveal without having to explain it to a colorist — that was it for me. That capability has made me a more courageous cinematographer.”

” We put the Alexa through the grinder and there was never a problem. It’s a reliable workhorse.”
Anette Haellmigk

Haellmigk is currently shooting the pilot for a TV series based on the film “Snowpiercer” that will in many ways be similar to Bong Joon Ho’s feature — it takes place on a train with radically unequal classes — but with a murder-mystery slant. Many scenes will be shot on a long train set with Alexas and Minis. She plans to carry several short zooms in the confined spaces while controlling depth of field.

“The people at ARRI in Burbank are helping me, as they have done throughout my career,” she says. “Marc Shipman-Mueller, who did so much important work on the Alexa to make our lives easier and better, was on my crew for the first project I ever shot, a CalArts student film. And Volker Bahnemann, who did so much to bring Arriflex to the U.S. market, has been a big supporter — my gratitude and respect go to him.”

— David Heuring

Matthew Libatique

Libatique just completed “mother!,” his most recent collaboration with Darren Aronofsky, shot on Super 16 film. Other credits with Aronofsky include “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain,” “Noah,” and “Black Swan” — the latter also a Super 16 film, which brought Libatique an Oscar nomination. His relationship with ARRI goes back to his student days at the American Film Institute.

The DP’s wide-ranging work with other directors includes “She Hate Me,” “Inside Man” and “Miracle at St. Anna” with Spike Lee; “Tigerland” and “The Number 23” with Joel Schumacher; and “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2” and “Cowboys & Aliens” with Jon Favreau.

“I think it’s ironic that around the same time digital was coming in, the ARRI 416 came out,” says Libatique. “It’s pretty much the best 16mm camera ever made. It was the first time a 16mm camera had a viewing system on par with a 35mm viewing system. The 416 is my favorite camera in use today.

“When I want to distinguish a movie from digital, I don’t shoot 35,” he says. “I would shoot on Super 16 for automatic atmosphere and texture. On some films, the very first image puts you into the world of the film. On ‘mother!,’ we were looking for something with impact on the very first image, so you would know that this is a world unlike the one that you exist in.”

Libatique should know, having done “Tigerland” on ARRI SR and SR-3s, “She Hate Me” and “Miracle at St. Anna” on SR-3s and “Black Swan” on 416s. Going all the way back to film school, he was well-acquainted with the SR-2. “The first camera I ever shot anything on was an ARRI M, and the first camera I ever owned was an ARRI S,” he adds.

Libatique used Alexa on “Money Monster” and “Ruby Sparks,” among others, and he opted for the Mini on “A Star Is Born,” a 2018 release directed by Bradley Cooper and starring Cooper and Lady Gaga. “It has the same kind of latitude and color science you get out of an Alexa, with a small body,” he says. “I think it’s an amazing camera.”

— David Heuring

Seamus McGarvey

McGarvey is currently scouting a new feature with director Neil Jordan titled “The Widow.” A two-time Oscar nominee (“Atonement,” “Anna Karenina”), McGarvey owns an ARRI Alexa XT and an ARRI mini, and has used ARRI film cameras on documentary or music video productions in the past.

McGarvey recalls the beginnings of digital cinematography. “We saw early iterations of cameras that were more of the consumer variety,” he says. “Because of ARRI’s development and work in the field, as well as consultation with cinematographers and filmmakers, the Alexa evolved as a true cinema camera. It has to do with the sensor and the way it records the image with a kind of gentleness, but also how it translates digital information in a very beautiful way.”

McGarvey has photographed two films with the Alexa 65, which uses three side-by-side chips to capture a large high-resolution image: “Life,” which takes place on the International Space Station, and “The Greatest Showman,” a musical inspired by the life and vision of P.T. Barnum.

DP Seamus McGarvey, left, and director Joe Wright used the Arriflex 435 for their Oscar-nominated film “Atonement.”

“I’ve been impressed with how the Alexa 65 records, and the sensor is so user-friendly,” he says. “I loved how the combination reminded me of medium-format portraiture. With the large sensor you might expect a surfeit of sharpness, but with the right lighting and the right LUT, the image is one of incredible roundness and gradation, particularly in the skin tones and in the detail in the eyes.

“In the case of ‘The Greatest Showman,’ the format was perfect for its epic capabilities, and for its color and depth,” says McGarvey, who gives full credit to his crew. “In some ways, it’s been a relief to know I have someone who can take care of what’s behind the sensor. It actually lets me focus more on the things that are the essence of cinematography.”

— David Heuring

Bradford Young

With “A Most Violent Year” in 2014, Young served up visual proof that in the right hands digital cinematography can deliver all the subtlety and power of 35mm film.

The previous year, he turned heads with his 35mm film lensing on “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” And in 2016, he was Oscar-nominated for “Arrival.” Of course, Young’s “overnight success” was built on dozens of films going back more than a decade. Other credits include “Selma,” “Pawn Sacrifice” and “Where Is Kyra?” He is currently shooting “A Star Wars Story: Untitled Han Solo Film” using the Alexa 65.

If he’s shooting film, Young uses an Arricam LT. “It’s a wonderful, ergonomic camera geared for low-budget filmmaking,” he says. “Making films and commercials and music videos in New York, you do a lot of handheld, and you often need to get into cramped locations, and get your body into tight corners.”

On the Han Solo project, Young is using specially adapted ARRI cine lenses with Alexa 65. “I was looking for something funky and dirty and sort of inconsistent,” he says. “We tested until we had lenses that were personalized for this particular film. It’s beautiful to adjust the lenses to perform with the Alexa 65 in a fresh way. And it hasn’t stopped — we’re past our 100th day of shooting, and I’m still making little changes. To have a company that’s willing to make changes on the fly like that is a wonderful opportunity.”

— David Heuring

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