“The ALEXA 65 is the look of this story.” Cinematographer Michael Fimognari chooses ARRI Rental’s large-format camera system for the Netflix psychological thriller.
Based on a story by Stephen King, GERALD’S GAME is a Netflix feature film that tells the disturbing tale of a woman left handcuffed to a bed in a remote cabin after the sudden death of her husband. Directed by horror regular Mike Flanagan, it was captured with ARRI Rental’s exclusive ALEXA 65 camera and Vintage 765 lenses by Flanagan’s long-time cinematographer Michael Fimognari, who speaks here about his approach to the project.
How and when during prep did your thoughts turn to the ALEXA 65?
Mike and I always go through creative prep before actual preproduction. On the second day of our sitting-around-the-table-talking phase, I was speaking to Jill Bogdanowicz, our colorist, about the look we wanted, and it dawned on us that this was ALEXA 65 territory. So I called Dana Ross, who I’ve known for almost 15 years, and he came to lunch with Jill, myself, Mike, and our producer Trevor Macy, and it became a collaborative team effort. Everyone at ARRI Rental and Deluxe said, “Let’s test this and figure it out.”
Why did you feel that this apparently very confined story suited such an expansive format?
We wanted the story to live in the extremes of our main character’s experience. The present-day narrative is certainly in a claustrophobic environment, because she is handcuffed to the bed and unable to move, but part of what happens to her is that her mind begins to bring forth experiences from her past that inform and ultimately assist her. She also begins to hallucinate, so what seems on the surface like a story that's confined, expands into a much bigger universe.
Within the confinement, what she has to go through to break free exists on a very small, micro level, and we loved the idea of telling a story on both a grand scale—those experiences in her past—and a tiny, detailed level: the precise movements required to break free of the handcuffs. The ALEXA 65 sensor and optics helped with the minute detail because of the depth of field—whether it was a bead of liquid on a glass or her fingertips on the handcuffs—and also the big, expansive, incredible detail you get when you’re looking at a vast body of water and a person, small in the frame, standing in front of it.
How did you go about planning and shooting the bedroom scenes?
Mike and I have shared an office for almost all of our films together. In this case we found an office that was the approximate dimensions of the bedroom in the film. We brought the bed in and played with how wide and high the headboard should be, and the shelf above the headboard, so we could be sure that all of our carefully planned shots would work. It was a fun exercise, because to figure out where the camera should go we had to actually put on the cuffs and explore the limitations of the space. In fact we had a rule that anyone who visited the office had to spend at least a minute in the cuffs.
When we came to shoot it, we were on a stage for the entirety of her time being cuffed in the bedroom, working off a 20-foot Technocrane, which allowed us to put the camera anywhere and move it freely. The way Mike works is to be very specific about how the camera evolves during a scene. There were some scenes that happen in real time and go on for 10 or 15 minutes, and there would be a full camera plan. It's not covered in a broad way; it's a very specific execution.
Why did you select the Vintage 765 lenses?
It’s important that the audience doesn’t quite know what is fantasy, what is terror, what is nightmare, and what is real. We didn’t want lenses that look too ordinary, too crisp and modern, yet something overly dreamy would take it too far the other side. We felt that optically the Vintage 765 lenses were the perfect balance of a shallow, cinematic depth of field, without being too dreamy, and when we projected our tests the level of detail and the color separation was incredible. It was a perfect combination of cinema and reality, which was ideal for not being sure what was in our main character’s head, and what was real.
How important is it for the ALEXA 65 system to offer a range of different lens series?
I think that’s essential because now that we've shot it, we’ve fallen in love with the format and see so much more potential in it. It’s critical for such a format to have optical options. Mike and I choose our lenses carefully for each project and I don’t think we’ve used the same lenses twice, because every time we start the discussion afresh and find what is best for the story. So for ARRI Rental to keep developing lenses with different optical qualities is perfect.
Is there a particular scene that illustrates how the ALEXA 65 allowed you to take a different visual approach?
In the film there is an eclipse and it was important to Mike that it starts as something normal and slowly becomes more threatening, almost like you’re inside the heat of the sun. We wanted to create a color that we would associate with the eclipse for the rest of the story, without making it feel like a simple filter. At ARRI we shot tests with different colors on the skin, trying to get into a ballpark of what felt right. The eclipse was a day exterior and where we arrived at was using a foundation of natural light, shot at the right time of day with the right shadow values, and adding HMIs with a double full green, so that in the grade we could extract whatever was lit with the green and separate it from everything else. What the ALEXA 65 allowed us to do, more than any other color experience I’ve had, was to really define the edges of those colors, because the resolution and the color depth was there to work with.
What are the benefits of the ALEXA 65 on a production destined for the small screen?
It’s true that GERALD’S GAME will be presented on Netflix, so there won’t be that big theatrical experience, but the benefits we felt by shooting with the ALEXA 65 are all over it. Viewers won’t know the difference between what we did and what we would have done without the ALEXA 65, but it’s there. I really believe that the eclipse and the whole visual language would have had to go in a completely different direction. The ALEXA 65 is the look of this story.