Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky, BVK discusses his creative approach to using the ALEXA XT B+W on INFITINY BABY. The comedy about babies that don’t age premiered at SXSW.
ARRI Rental: What is the story of INFINITY BABY? Tell us a little bit about the plot.
Matthias Grunsky, BVK: Well the tagline says it’s about babies that don’t age but that's not really what it's about. It’s about a lot of things, it’s about relationships. The whole movie is staged in this very, very strange world sometime in the future with very extreme characters but in the end they have issues we all know very well. It's not really a one string story that I could summarize but rather consists of different overlaying stories that merge together somehow.
Tell us a little bit about the discussions that you and the director Bob Byington had from the start of the project regarding how this film should look and how did those discussions evolve?
MG: It's interesting, black-and-white crossed my mind when I initially read the script of INFINITY BABY. Somehow the visual of black-and-white seemed more direct to me and that's why I like black- and-white in general. Without color there is less information and the image can leave more room for the audience for interpretation and maybe keep their mind going that way. I always like to try to look for a new style in every movie and think about all kinds of different ideas. I consider what the story needs and how the director wants to tell it and start from that angle. Also, when Bob and I had our first meetings in Austin the challenges of not having a lot of money were very present.
I'm not sure who said the words ‘black-and-white’ out loud first, but I remember I immediately jumped on it and it stuck with me. While one of the arguments for black-and-white was to help production designer Jake Kuykendall, who had a very limited budget to work with, this weird comedy also made so much sense to me in black-and-white. Bob was saying that black-and-white is funny and I think he is right. It can be funny and it definitely is a funny element in INFINITY BABY because it's about this world that's very sterile and strange and somehow we were able to show this characteristic in a blunt way because of black-and-white.
The ALEXA XT B+W has a bit more dynamic range than a regular ALEXA. Were there situations in the movie where you got a sense of that?
MG: This is actually my third black-and-white movie. My first was shot on 16 mm Kodak black-and-white negative, which is a great stock. It's really contrasty and grainy and there aren’t a lot of shades of gray in between. My second, COMPUTER CHESS, was shot with a vintage black-and-white video tube camera, made by SONY in the early seventies. I got nominated for a Spirit Award, maybe for being so bold and crazy enough. And that's a total different quality because it's very soft and also contrasty, but the highlights explode. So those two are very extreme, and now I've got to shoot on, well I guess you could call it the holy grail of black-and-white cameras, the ALEXA XT B+W, with all this amazing latitude, and of course you get rich blacks and pure whites. But there are so many infinite shades of gray in between and I love how it wraps all around. I think that's really the main reason why I loved that camera so much. On INFINITY BABY I was able to get exposure in the brightest highlights in windows, which we had a lot of, and that was an amazing thing. Especially because we had a tiny crew and a very small lighting package, so I wasn't really able to bring up any light levels. In some of our huge locations I had to work with what was there, but I couldn't really do much so that latitude really helped.
The ALEXA XT B+W also has an infrared spectrum - did you work with that at all?
MG: Yes. Actually, that's something that I did not think about when I first considered the ALEXA XT B+W. I learned later that by changing the internal filter the camera can see infrared. It only takes a couple of minutes to swap the filter, which is amazing. We did go into the infrared mode a couple of times - whenever we shot a close-up of the infinity baby. It gave it this eerie look. The skin turned into a perfectly white surface and the eyes got dark. It’s not extremely obvious so it didn't feel like a gimmick. It made sense because it's a science fiction baby that doesn't age and that was a great way to make it look a little bit off.
How was the workflow?
MG: ARRI Rental in Atlanta were really helpful in advising us on the post workflow. I shot the pretest, which I always do on any movie, but here it was especially important to me, and my colorist Brandon Thomas at TBD post in Austin got involved early on.
We graded the test and created some ARRI look files with corresponding LUTs, which we then applied to the viewfinder, monitor and on the editing footage and dailies. I think I just had two of those look files, but it was really helpful because Bob and the editor were looking at it for many, many weeks in the editing room and if it wouldn’t have felt right to me if it had just been the standard REC 709, they would have been looking at the wrong thing the whole time.
Can you elaborate on your lens choice a bit more?
MG: With lenses it’s such an emotional thing. Of course you can break it down to the technical terms and charts and numbers, and this lens is sharper and this one is more contrasty and all that, but I feel in the end it's really like listening to music. You like this (music) in this situation and this (music) in that situation. It was also budgetary.
I like to use different tools as much as I can and for this project I picked the Cooke S4s because I liked them on the movie I did before and ARRI Rental had them available for us. I just like the Cooke lenses because they're very sharp, but feel very natural. We shot 90 percent of the movie on the 32 mm, sometimes switching to the 25 mm, and we put the actors really close to the camera. Bob and me loved how the actors leaned into the lens and how three dimensional that was. It worked really well for this weirdness we were trying to create.