A miniature world in the largest format
Cinematographer C. Kim Miles CSC shoots the new Robert Zemeckis film WELCOME TO MARWEN with ARRI Rental’s exclusive ALEXA 65 camera system.
Based on a true story, WELCOME TO MARWEN follows the recuperation of an artist named Mark Hogancamp after he is savagely beaten outside a bar by a group of neo-Nazis. No longer able to draw, he builds a highly detailed model world in his back yard, using dolls and a World War Two narrative to play out alternative interactions between himself, his friends, and his attackers, as a form of therapy. C. Kim Miles speaks here about his choice of the ALEXA 65, which he combined with Vintage 765 and Prime 65 lenses, and the aesthetics of the format.
What did Bob Zemeckis tell you about where he wanted to take the story of Mark Hogancamp, visually?
The biggest question he had was how to approach the two different worlds: the full-scale world in which Mark Hogancamp is a normal-sized human being, and the one-sixth scale world where his dolls come to life in his imagination. Mark’s real existence is somewhat bleak; he’s a recovering alcoholic and he’s also recovering from this severe trauma, so that world is more honest and somewhat more drained of color. Then when we go into his imagination, we applied a Kodachrome look. With the golden colors of Kodachrome you get that sense of nostalgia, which also bleeds into the Second World War nature of doll world.
There was an interesting opportunity to play with scale. A giveaway of miniature photography is depth of field and the relative size of the sensor in relation to objects you’re photographing, so one of our first instincts was to look at large-sensor cameras. I’m a long-time ALEXA fan; I knew the ALEXA 65 had been making the rounds and people spoke very highly of it, so I wanted to have a look.
The choice of ALEXA 65 was primarily for doll world?
In choosing 65 over Super 35, our visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie and I wanted to play up as much of that very shallow depth of field as we could, which is synonymous with model photography. In fact, all of the principles of shooting miniatures we kind of had to do in reverse, because we were shooting full-scale objects and trying to make believe that they were miniature scale. That gave the visual effects people a solid foundation upon which to build their representation of the depth of field in doll world. And because the 65 sensor is so beautiful, we ended up shooting the rest of the film in 65 mm as well, just with deeper stops. It’s such a great looking camera, we had to shoot the whole movie with it.
What was your general opinion of the camera and the aesthetics of the format?
The ALEXA 65 has advantages that only a sensor that large can provide; the capture surface is so big and the wraparound and fall-off are so flattering to actors. It’s all those things that bring people to medium format photography when you’re shooting stills.
What really makes the ALEXA 65 stand out is ARRI Rental’s commitment to maintaining a cinematic feel in the images and a dedication to dynamic range and the aesthetic quality of the sensor, rather than slipping down the perilous slope of pixel counting. I’m in this business to tell stories and to take advantage of the textures I’m familiar with, and the ALEXA 65 sensor really gives me an opportunity to embrace that.
How did you use the Prime 65 and Vintage 765 lenses?
We originally intended to shoot the real-world footage with Vintage 765 lenses and the visual effects components with Prime 65 lenses. I really liked the Vintage 765 look, but in the end we just used a couple of them for some portraiture shots. Our main lenses throughout were the Prime 65s, although we very rarely changed lens sizes. We were between 50 mm and 65 mm for the bulk of the show; they’re the most cinematic focal lengths in the 65 format, to my mind.
You were supported by ARRI Rental in Vancouver—how did that go?
The early prep work was at ARRI Rental Los Angeles, where Dana Ross and Matt Kolze were critically helpful in determining not only that we wanted to use the ALEXA 65, but also that we would be able to get through the process with minimal confusion and technical difficulty. Their expertise was very important in terms of putting at ease the minds of Bob and producers Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke about the robustness of the platform.
When we got to ARRI Rental Vancouver, Sarah Mather—whom I’d known when she was a camera assistant—was unbelievably accommodating of all our last-minute changes. It was my first time dealing with ARRI Rental and the experience as a whole was overwhelmingly good. The support was unparalleled—everything we needed, they just made it happen.