Roger Deakins: I first used the ALEXA on IN TIME (2011) and on that film I had a huge amount of night exteriors, so I needed a camera with speed and versatility. I did side-by-side testing and found that there was so much more latitude in the file from the ALEXA than in a 4K scan of a film negative. I was also drawn to the subtle fall-off to highlights and the enormous amount of detail in the shadows. It was the first digital camera I had seen where I thought the technology had crossed the knife edge and taken us into a new world. I knew we would also have a lot of low-light scenes on SKYFALL, so I said to Sam that he should look at what I did on IN TIME. I told him just to look at the actors' eyes and I think the clarity of their eyes is probably what swayed him more than anything else. For me there's just a snap to the eyes that you don't get with film. http://nofilmschool....i-alexa-at-ibc/
ARRI: How did you come to choose the ALEXA system for SKYFALL?
Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men) is arguably one of the greatest cinematographers of the last 20-30 years (if not one of the greatest all-time). His work is timeless in a way that is hard to describe, but much of it comes from his ability to paint with light. Deakins had shot all of his work on film up until Andrew Niccol’s In Time, which he lensed on a prototype Arri Alexa. We covered back in February of 2011 an interview with Deakins where he stated that “film had a good run” and that he wasn’t sure if he would ever shoot film again. Now he’s taken on a much larger project with the camera, the new James Bond film Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes. Mr. Deakins recently sat down with Franz Kraus, the Managing Director of Arri AG at this year’s IBC trade show.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. We talked about that very early on. I did the previous film [In Time] digitally, and I wasn’t necessarily thinking about using it for the Bond film. When we started talking about the script and what situations it would be, I thought, “Well, it seems to make sense to me.” I showed Sam what I had shot previously, and then we shot different tests ourselves. After that, we made the decision. When we were looking at LED screens for that particular sequence, we got an ALEXA to see how the screens reacted. That worked out on a technical level. After working with the ALEXA on In Time, what lessons did you learn from that film which you applied to Skyfall? Well, I realized the versatility of the camera, in particular on the night work. On In Time, I was working with quite a few practical sources and low-light levels. There was quite a lot of lights on that movie, but not a lot of light, if you know what I mean. I could see what the camera could do, which led me to using it on Skyfall. I wanted the saturated colors and to shoot a lot based in practical sources.
Did you do those tests on the Arri ALEXA? How early on was the decision made to shoot digitally?
[Laughs] You know, I get a lot of flack when I start talking it up so much, but I don’t really see much in terms of downside anymore, especially after seeing the movie at the premiere on a huge screen. I thought the image quality was great. I’ve seen it on an IMAX screen too. We shot for 128 days with the camera, and I can’t remember one problem. We put it through a lot of different type of situations. I mean, talk about the low-light night stuff, which is a very extreme contrast ratio in the Shanghai set. On the other side of the spectrum, we’re shooting the bright sun on the Mediterranean, and it looked great. That was unexpected. I thought shooting in such extreme, bright sunlight it would have had problems, but it didn’t. The camera behaved as well or better than it would have on film. Whenever a lot of directors are about to shoot digitally they say, “It’ll look just like film.” Your work with the ALEXA goes beyond that. It’s not trying to be film. Yeah, it just looks like what it looks like. I don’t care what it looks like, because I like the look [Laughs]. The thing that got Sam and I the most when we first starting shooting was just the clarity of an actor’s eye. He looked at it side-by-side with film, and we did a lot of comparison tests, and just that slight sharpness and subtlety of color…you’re right, it’s not film, it’s something else. I really like it. I like how it renders the real world. So, when you’re starting to work with the ALEXA, there is no questioning over whether wanting to make it look like film? You know, I don’t like doing the comparison thing. I do feel more comfortable with it now. I do love film, but it’s a different look. I think the advantages now definitely outweigh the disadvantages. I don’t know if you saw the documentary Side-by-Side. Yeah, yeah, it’s a good film, but that documentary is almost out of date already. There’s so many films being shot digitally on the ALEXA and the RED — and I like the ALEXA much better than the RED, but that’s enough of that — since that documentary’s been made. Hugo, for instance, was shot on the ALEXA. So much is being shot on it. [Laughs] The weight of the comparison now is changing, but I know people who absolutely swear by film, and that’s fine. I have no problem, but I don’t see why there’s such a problem when I say I like shooting digitally and probably won’t shoot film again, unless Joel and Ethan [Coen] want to shoot something else. Yeah, it’s just another tool in the paint box, as they say [Laughs]. Which is what the movie was saying, that they’re just for different kinds of stories. Say, if you were making another western, do you think 35mm would be right for that? That’s an interesting point. I was watching True Grit the other day, and I’m really glad I shot that on film. I mean, it’s the last film I shot on film. I don’t know why, really. Maybe I’m just nostalgic. If I was doing True Grit or something similar next year, I don’t know…I think I’d still shoot digitally, actually. Well, you seemed to have already shot a western digitally, with the final siege in Skyfall. Oh, yeah. When they’re waiting for the bad guys? We were rehearsing those sequences and Sam said, “Let’s start it simple, play it like it’s a western.” Gradually, it started to deconstruct, shooting it handheld, and it becomes rugged. That was definitely a conscious thing. Did you and Mr. Mendes at all look at the earlier Bond films as templates? The style of Skyfall seems to harken back to the earlier films. Yeah, we watched bits and pieces. All I remember is we’d watch action sequences from a variety of movies. A lot of it, I think, comes from the fact Sam hadn’t done action, so he wanted to see action sequences, get ideas, be guided, and whatever. We watched a lot, saying, “That’s how that looks, but we’re not necessarily going to do that.” I think we were just doing it and getting good talking points, but we weren’t looking at anything else as template. No way. I certainly don’t do that in terms of photography, and we didn’t do that with the general thing on the movie. It was its own thing. I think there are certain scenes where we go, “That’s like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch or something like that.” [Laughs]
Do you see any disadvantages in that camera?