Lighting a "Leo Abse and Cohen" claims commercial on the Arri Alexa

This commercial was my first job using the Arri Alexa back in 2014, so I thought I might share my experiences here as a post.

Lightworx Media rang to ask if I'd be interested in shooting a new commercial with them. Of course I said yes and was asked what camera would I like to shoot on? I had literally just finished reading American Cinematographer magazine all about Roger Deakins shooting the last James Bond film, “Skyfall”, on the Arri Alexa and so I said I thought it would be great to shoot on that camera.

The advert essentially is just one shot so it had to be good. Set in a hospital ward we start on a close up of a patient talking to camera and we slowly pull back to reveal the rest of the ward and background action/nurses/patients and finish on a wide of the patient's bed as his wife walks in to visit him. The brief was also to make him look a little ill. I thought we could achieve this not only with make-up but by the position of the lights and some careful flagging of the light source on the actor. I drew up some lighting plans and ordered the kit.

After blocking the scene we settled on a 32mm lens for the shot. We had a lovely set of Arri prime lenses in our kit and the 32mm was perfect for what we were shooting. Lightworx and the client “Leo Abse and Cohen” really spared no expense. I also had a set of Black Pro Mist diffusion filters of various strengths and found that an 1/8th just took the edge off the camera's sharpness nicely. What I didn't have which I now know to include was Neutral Density (ND) filters. Every camera on the market has some form of ND in camera - apart from the Alexa model we were using! So, this was something to remember for next time! I have since heard they are now being included in later models. This meant any adjustment in light levels had to be done on the lights themselves rather than with NDs on the camera. I chose to shoot at a stop of F4. I find this is a good stop to work with, gives a nice shallow focus yet still gives the focus puller a chance to keep things sharp. The focus puller on this job was Scott Waller, an old student of mine from a few years back, and did a wonderful job setting up and keeping everything sharp.

Taking the cues from the environment, the main light source was coming in from the window behind our actor. A 2.5kw HMI was bounced into an 8x8 frame near the window to give a nice constant soft source for back light and the background action. A 1.2kw HMI was also next to the 2.5k firing at the back of the actor to give him a little rim light. Both lights were gelled with ¼ CTB to give a cooler blueish feel. For the keylight another 1.2kw HMI was positioned camera left to hit the actor from the other side. This was pushed through a 3x3 frame of 216 diffusion to soften it a little. All lights were rigged and maintained by Gaffer Colin Holloway from Eyelights, Bristol. To aid our “ill” look I wanted the 1.2 key to hit our actor from the side of his face more to make us have a little more shadow on the fill side facing camera. On top of this we flagged the top of his forehead to cut the light off, to create a little more shadow. We also positioned a 4x4 daylight balanced kinoflo lighting the background action of another patient and nurse at the second bed. My light meter gave me a reading of F4 on the 1.2k keylight, the fill was F2.8 and the back light from the 2.5k was F4 also.

The Alexa recorded in Log-C which is a logarithmic encoding of the scene, meaning that the relation between exposure measured in stops and the signal is constant over a wide range. Basically, it looks very flat but gives the grader more to play with when it comes to colour correction. The Alexa can also record in REC 709 which basically shows you what you'll get colour and brightness wise when viewed on a normal monitor or TV. Recording media to this setting is okay but limits your options if you wanted to push or pull your colours later. But viewing your shots in the viewfinder or monitor in Log-C makes it difficult to light and see what your image might look like when finished. So, what the Alexa allows you to do, is record in Log-C but view all monitors in REC 709 which is what we did. As we also had the editor, Jon Lomas, on set with his Avid Media Composer, we could literally shoot and two minutes later have a rough idea of how the advert would look as Jon had already done a rough mock up in an edit. He's very quick is our Jon. Great guy.

We started the action in close up on a reverse third; having the unbalanced frame really helped sell the “unwell” angle of the patient. Then gradually as we pull back on the dolly we straighten up the frame making the patient more central. Grip, James Holloway, was riding the dolly for us and had to get his timing spot on so we finished the dolly move as the actor finished his lines. He got it right every time and is a true professional, I think he might have been doing this a long time... Editor, Jon Lomas, also began the shot in black and white and as we pull out we slowly turn into colour as the life comes back to the patient.

I found the Arri Alexa a wonderful camera to use, very simple and user friendly. Very heavy if you wanted to go hand-held for long periods of time but I'm sure you'll get use to that. The images were gorgeous and wouldn't hesitate to use it again if budget allowed.

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