THE DARK TOWER
Cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk combines ALEXA 65 with Vintage 765 lenses on director Nikolaj Arcel’s take on the Stephen King classic.
Bringing together genres including fantasy, science fiction and western, THE DARK TOWER centers on the quest of a gunslinger to protect a mythical tower from the “Man in Black”, with the help of an 11-year-old boy from our own world. Rasmus Videbæk speaks here about working with the ALEXA 65 system, which was supplied to the production via ARRI Rental partner Media Film Service in South Africa.
What drew you to the ALEXA 65?
All of the films Nik and I have done together have been on 35 mm film, but this one was such a CGI-heavy project that in our first, early talks about what we were going to do, I said I thought we should go digital. He was a little bit hesitant, but said, “Okay, if you really think so.”
At around the same time I was hearing rumors about THE REVENANT being shot up in Canada with this new camera—word was spreading amongst movie people. THE DARK TOWER has a big, epic scope that I thought might lend itself to a format like that, so I suggested the ALEXA 65 to Nik and he got excited about it pretty much right away.
Were you interested in the 65 mm format for specific parts of the story, or specific types of shot?
What really interested me about it was not so much the resolution, but more the physical size of the sensor and what that would do to the compositions. The specific look it gives you is sort of hard to explain. I think the best way to describe it is that the balance between the foreground and the background in the image is different from what you get from a normal 35 mm ALEXA camera.
In the beginning we were thinking this is an ideal camera for the big exteriors, the kinds of shots you think of from back in the days of 65 mm film. We knew there was going to be a lot of that on THE DARK TOWER, but what I learned during the shoot is that the physical size of the sensor also makes it very interesting for close-ups. I think it’s because the ALEXA 65 image combines the qualities of a wide-angle lens with the qualities of a long lens, inside one frame. It makes the composition stronger and more interesting; in the case of a close-up on an actor you get a beautiful close view of a face, but at the same time you get a much wider angle of view of the background than you would with a 35 mm sensor. To me, this was probably the most effective attribute of the larger format.
What lenses were you using, and what depth of field did you feel suited the ALEXA 65?
ARRI Rental US helped us with some tests when we were scouting in New York. We tested the Prime 65 and Vintage 765 lenses, and I felt that the older ones gave us a slightly smoother and more natural feeling; the difference wasn’t huge, but I leaned more towards the organic feel of the Vintage 765s for this project. I felt that an f-stop around 4.5 or 5.6 was a sweet spot for those lenses. For early scenes of our protagonist—this little boy—in New York, we used shallow focus because it was great for isolating him in the city environment, but once we entered the fantasy world of the film, we closed down the lenses to give it more depth and vista.
More recently I have heard about what ARRI Rental is doing with the DNA lenses for the ALEXA 65, and I think it’s really interesting. It’s a brilliant idea, to work with cinematographers and create lens sets that have a lot of personality.
How and why were you combining the ALEXA 65 with 35-format ALEXAs?
The reason why we had a package of ALEXA XTs and Minis as well was because I knew we were going to have scenes where I might not have enough light to keep the f-stop I needed for the ALEXA 65. We had some huge night exterior setups where I knew we would need to be able to shoot between 2 and 2.8. So in those situations I could use a 35-format ALEXA and open up the lens, and it would be much easier to maintain focus.
The other thing was that we obviously wanted to shoot with two cameras in some scenes, but we only had one ALEXA 65. Usually we combined the 65 with a Mini, but overall we used the ALEXA 65 wherever we could—I would say that at least 60 percent of the final film was shot in the larger format. And of those ALEXA 65 shots, perhaps half were done handheld, on an Easyrig, so I had no problems working with the camera the way I wanted.
Did you learn anything more about the format while doing your final grade?
I would say yes, especially when it came to the skies. It was clearly easier with ALEXA 65 footage to go in and bring a sky down—and keep finding information in that sky—than it was with a regular ALEXA. The amount of information in the highlights was amazing; even in situations where you have exposed for the foreground rather than the sky, you’re still able to retrieve a lot of detail. It was something that both the colorist and I noticed.