In order to concentrate on her career, a ballet teacher lives estranged from her young son, who grew up with her mother. When she meets him again after years, an affection develops that goes far beyond maternal love.
Arri Alexa Mini
Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera
Source resolution/Negative stock
There are those who argue “Only the final image that reaches an audience’s eyeballs counts. The process how you get there should be the shortest, safest road. Shoot a versatile intermediate image and make it look like whatever you want in post-production”.
But as an artist who supports other artists, I’m not always so convinced about that.
Cinematographer Constantin Campean called me up with whom I have collaborated 6 or 7 times. He was starting an exciting low budget feature – a transgressive sexual relationship between a damaged dancer and her teenage son. Constantin was buzzing with ideas but said he faced a challenge – director Isabelle Stever had only ever shot on film for all of her previous feature films, was not enamoured with digital and wanted to shoot film again. But a familiar plot twist – the budget couldn’t stretch to celluloid of any gauge. He said Isabelle was used to rough texture, saw digital as synthetic and had challenged him to come up with something compelling.
“What can we do? How can I make her feel at home with digital – that it’s not a compromise for her?” he asked, adding that from this artist’s perspective applying grain in post, even in dailies was artistically inauthentic and indicative of a “compromise”.
I said something like “OK, well this story is a lot about stress on an ageing dancer’s body. Maybe there’s a way we can take your Alexa as a kind of ageing dancer and really stress her signal until we get the kind of twisted, textured performance your director can actually start to get excited about. You like how Alexa noise looks, don’t you?”
So Constantin and I aimed to use only the Alexa signal and his lighting to create a textured, troubled look that complemented the story – aspiring to not need to add anything in post.
But getting something that worked purely in-camera was a challenge.
The look was developed from the HMU test and not before. So at the start of shooting I warned Constantin the look was unpredictable and could create surprises. Lucky for me Constantin doesn’t seem to feel fear and sees challenges as creative opportunities. But sure enough after 2 days there was that classic call where the cinematographer asks the colourist:
“Hey, can you dial it down a bit?” He told me it was going “really crazy” when it sees warm light.
I said sure we can dial it down but we can’t stop it reacting strongly to warm light as it’s all about the blue channel. Nervous about the whole approach we discussed quitting the whole endeavour but then concluded maybe Constantin could use the transform’s weird behaviour creatively – for example a flood of dirty sodium light could produce a flood of noise. Constantin just ran with this behaviour and did exactly that.
It’s maybe a cliché to say the goal was to do as little as possible in the grade beyond careful primaries. But here with the often very dynamic camera we didn’t want to ‘close’ off the frame with vignettes and make it all refined and painterly – but keep it very open and raw, something like an open digital wound.
So Grand Jeté has only a handful of masks/power windows and dynamic exposure adjustments throughout. Of course I had the original nodes for creating the noise in my grading stack so I could adjust the noise level if I needed (nice to have that security). This was only really needed on shots where there were only blue and yellow elements that made the look conspicuous (for example a swimming pool scene). Saying that, for one specific shot we actually had to invert how the noise was applied – so it was applied onto cold elements and stayed off warm ones as it was too distracting on a close-up of some hands under tungsten.
Could we have shot Grand Jeté conventionally, not underexposed everything and created it’s “noisy, stressed digital look” afterwards in post? Perhaps. More or less. But for sure the film wouldn’t look the same today. The process and the somewhat twisted behaviour of the in-camera look altered how Constantin lit and coloured his scenes.
And for everyone involved there’s the less visible yet very much artistically tangible satisfaction that everything we needed is squeezed exclusively from the camera itself. (The grain/noise you see on the titles is also from the Alexa).
For me as the colourist this project was a great chance to take some risks and make something of a homage to the Alexa. She might be getting a little older now but the beloved qualities of her image stream still make her capable of an endless variety of creative performances.