Netflix's ALTERED CARBON
Cinematographers Martin Ahlgren and Neville Kidd chat with ARRI Rental about working with ALEXA 65 on ALTERED CARBON, the futuristic Netflix series.
Based on the cyberpunk novel by Richard K. Morgan, ALTERED CARBON is set in a world that has conquered death by digitizing consciousness and uploading it to new, perfect bodies. Ahlgren and Kidd were creatively involved from the beginning and together decided on an ALEXA 65 camera package, which was supplied by ARRI Rental's recently opened facility in Vancouver.
You were both onboard for preproduction; did that bring advantages?
NK: It's very rare for two DPs to come on at the same time, but it allowed us to do the world building together, which was a good idea because the ALTERED CARBON world is so huge. We shared an office and we car-pooled as well, so we actually saw more of each other than anybody else! It let us discuss a lot of issues and get to know each other, which was a real privilege for a DP, because we're usually on our own.
What kinds of things were you considering, with the world building?
MA: It's the logistics of the world that relate specifically to cinematography, things like: What practicals are there in the future? What kind of light do they emit and what other light sources are there? Are there holograms? What kind of mass transit system is there? Do people have cell phones?
NK: A lot of it is working with VFX to figure out what's going to be in-camera effects and what's going to be CGI, because obviously you can't have a limitless number of VFX shots. We wanted to spend the money wisely on VFX, to get the best possible, and then do as much in-camera as we could. We used black light Translites, which gave a feeling of depth for night time, then we backlit them with HMIs for day time; that saved a lot of money and let us spend more on shots that really needed the VFX–the mile-high skyscrapers and things like that.
At what point did you start talking about the ALEXA 65?
MA: The ALEXA 65 came up fairly early on. At first I didn't particularly imagine it being a possibility for us, because I knew there weren't many of them around at the time. But both Neville and I have a relationship with ARRI Rental going back a long time, and I actually ended up speaking to Lynn "Gus" Gustafson here in the US. It started sounding like it could be a possibility, and at the same time we were also finding out that ARRI Rental was opening an office in Vancouver.
The large-format aspect of it was really appealing and we felt it should be a big part of our look for the show. Gus was really accommodating in letting us know that they wanted to make this work for us, which meant we could go ahead and plan for it because we knew we were going to be doing fairly big camera units–we needed at least five of whatever camera we were going to use, but ARRI Rental made that possible. In the end we were able to shoot more than 95% of the show on the ALEXA 65, although each unit also carried an ALEXA Mini.
NK: We just wanted a cinematic scale, and for that kind of ambition the ALEXA 65 gave us all the answers. It's got such a fantastic fall-off on wide lenses because of the large sensor, and it also has a quality on skin tones that no other camera has, which I just find incredible. Martin and I joked that once you start using the ALEXA 65, it's hard to go back to anything else–that's the problem. It's like drinking the finest wine; you've got to keep going with it.
And the discussion then became about how much of the sensor area to use?
MA: When you're shooting an episodic show with multiple cameras, you record a tremendous amount of footage and the archiving costs become significant. The Netflix stipulation is 4K, so the producers were pushing us to go with a lower resolution than 6.5K, but we felt like the large sensor was an important part of our choice, so the compromise we made was to shoot a 5K crop, which still saved money in terms of storage and also meant we could assemble a set of fast lenses that allowed us to light to a lower level. We went with Canon CN-E Primes at the wide end, and then Cooke 5/i lenses covered the 5K area from 65 mm and up.
NK: It was a fantastic luxury to test so many lenses together in prep. The support from ARRI Rental was brilliant during that process, suggesting different optics; they understood the parameters of what we needed and it really felt like a collaborative team effort. Our eventual compromise of sensor area, data costs and lens choice allowed us to move fast in an episodic environment and ticked all the boxes for the producers, without losing the large-format sensibilities and the ALEXA 65 skin tones. It was the perfect combination for this production.
How was it working with the new ARRI Rental office in Vancouver?
NK: Sarah Mather at the Vancouver office was invaluable; she was fantastic because we had a lot of questions as we were testing. The new office meant things could be resolved very quickly; it worked really well for us. Sarah would also come on set and make sure everything was ticking over, but once we were running I don't think we had any problems at all. With the support of ARRI Rental things just get solved and if there were little issues, I didn't even need to know about them, because once you're on the front line you want to concentrate on your lighting, on the actors, and on telling the story.
MA: It was great having the Vancouver office there, absolutely, because things always come up during production, there's always things that change. It does make a huge difference, having support nearby to take care of any last-minute changes. It's about having a partner there on the ground, in a way.