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Header image for article The State of Full Format Production

The State of Full Format Production

We all know the moment... when a film cuts to a close up and the depth of field is so narrow that we immediately lock onto the lead’s eyes. The character's emotions and place in their world are so clear to us, the audience, as we experience this moment with them. We are not bystanders; we are participants. The image is intimate, organic, and just like that, we get goosebumps.

There are many ways to accomplish this technically. A key role of the Cinematographer is to know their tools deeply and understand which cinematic solutions best fit specific stories. Capturing memorable moments with a large format camera can truly provide the audience with the immersive portrait we are often looking for, yet still portray a sense of the background in all its glory to support the story – something that isn’t as readily accomplished in Super35mm close ups.

Large format cameras are one of the many cinematic tools we can choose from. Yet when they were first announced, the assumption was that this captivating format would be reserved only for high-end feature production – big blockbusters like the Marvel franchise or Michael Bay films.

Thanks to the accessibility and portability of today’s production tools, such as the ARRI Mini LF with lightweight Signature Primes, we’re seeing large format production at all levels of the market. Let's take a look at how Cinematographers are using large format in unexpected places like commercials, music videos, documentaries, and short films.

 

COMMERCIALS

When preparing for a recent commercial for JP Morgan Chase Wealth Management, Cinematographer Adam McDaid saw the clients’ creative references and had a gut feeling that the ARRI Mini LF was the perfect fit for the campaign. Featuring a mix of actors and non-actors, the emphasis on medium format still portraits immediately spoke to him, so he suggested the Mini LF and Signature Primes as the format of choice.

McDaid hadn’t used the ARRI MINI LF before, and due to timelines he didn’t get a chance to test it. However, his extensive background with ARRI gave him confidence in the choice, believing ARRI’s look is the most flattering of cinematic tools for capturing faces. He also knew the look and feel of the sensor, as well as how to expose it and how much he could push it, which give him the technical confidence he needed to push for this format.

We also all know (and dream of) that moment on set when, after a tough load in and a time sensitive setup, picture is finally up. Rehearsal began, and McDaid’s dolly grip pushed the dolly slowly from a wide shot (47mm Signature Prime) to a close up portrait, and goosebumps were felt all around set. From that moment on, McDaid knew he had made the right choice. “It was just magic,” he said while recounting the experience. "Everyone got it."

Choosing the Mini LF and Signature Primes for both creative and technical reasons really allowed McDaid to aid Director Nanette Bernstein, a well-known documentarian with Hungry Man Producions, in telling the story. McDaid was “completely blown away with this format for shooting faces,” and how it allowed the characters to separate from the background while avoiding "mushy" fall off, creating just enough of the sense of space the campaign needed.

Another reason the ARRI Mini LF stood out to McDaid and his creative team was that it allowed the video campaign to match the stills campaign, working in parallel with similar formats to tell the same story. This type of situation comes up often, shooting a motion campaign alongside a stills campaign with condensed timelines and pressure to match.

McDaid settled on shooting 4.5K ProRes for the campaign to assist with quick turnarounds, revealing that one doesn’t have to shoot RAW to achieve the maximum effect of the large format look. This allowed McDaid to satisfy the 4K requirement while still meeting the timeline of the turnaround. Since the sensor is so much larger than Super 35mm, the depth of field can appear narrower for the same, or wider, field of view. He noticed that while on set, people would cringe at hearing a stop of 4/5.6, being that the trend and love for shallowest depth of field is so strong. Yet in full format, a 4/5.6 is closer to a 2.8/4 (using the math of dividing the stop used in full format by 1.4 to find equivalent in Super 35mm). This gave the project the right balance between shallow depth of field and a sense of the space.

McDaid worked alongside Director Nanette Bernstein to shoot the planned shots, but then jumped off the dolly with an EasyRig to play with portraiture. The form factor of the Mini LF and lightweight lenses allowed them to achieve the cinema verité style they were going for with these looser, organic portraits.

“This format is incredible for people and faces.” While McDaid stresses the importance to all cinematographers of testing, this is a great example of a Cinematographer learning how the Mini LF fits into their toolkit.

Stay tuned for sneak peak of the campaign, coming soon.

 

MUSIC VIDEOS

Another market where we are seeing large format being used is in music videos. As we all know, the creative possibilities are endless in this space, and shooting a music video in large format can be epic.

I spoke with Gevorg Juguryan, high end music video, episodic, and feature film Cinematographer, and ARRI Mini LF owner. During COVID safety protocols, Sarkisian’s music video market increased dramatically. This could be due to fewer actors and crew required than other mediums, allowing these productions to continue with safety protocols in place.

When paring the ARRI Mini LF with the style and creative freedom of music videos, Sarkisian finds what stands out to him the most is the three-dimensional nature of the look due to the larger field of view. The world we are watching becomes more three dimensional, more real, more natural. Normally, he says, DPs try to accomplish this 3D look and feel with lighting contrast ratios, adding dimension in order to connect with our viewers. Yet now we have the ARRI Mini LF as one of the optional tools to do so, which takes this look to the next level.

Due to the larger field of view of large format, you end up moving closer to your subject to achieve the same field of view as Super 35 mm, and now the world of the music video story is more intimate and less compressed, captivating the viewer. He feels there’s a slightly creamier feel to skin tones than with other formats, allowing him to capture the faces and emotions even more compellingly, a look music videos are known for.

JLO and Stevie "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" shot by Gevorg Juguryan with the ALEXA Mini LF and Cooke Anamorphic/i 1.8x Full Frame Plus lenses.

Since productions sometimes require 4K, the ALEXA Mini LF also provides Sarkisian a way to deliver the resolution requirement, while still sticking to the ARRI look. The ALEXA Mini LF sensor is actually two ALEXA ALEV-III sensors stitched together, keeping the same pixel size and giving you that same ARRI look, but in a larger format and with higher resolution options. For example, this means the camera is Netflix approved for 4K acquisition in both the Open Gate mode (4448 x 3096) and LF 16:9 mode (3840 x 2160).

Another technical reason Sarkisian often uses the Alexa Mini LF for music videos is what it can do for anamorphic applications. Due to the dimensions of the LF sensor in Open Gate mode (4448 x 3096), pairing it with anamorphic lenses allows you to use all of the photosites in the sensor. Whereas with 16:9 or DCI-format sensors, a lot of photosites go unused due to their shape.

For example, Sarkisian often chooses to pair the ALEXA Mini LF with Cooke's 1.8x Anamorphic/i Full Frame Plus optics. The 1.8x squeeze can produce a cinematic widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio when paired up with 4:3 sensors like the Mini LF in Open Gate mode. Cooke's Full Frame Plus anamorphics use a slightly different squeeze factor of 1.8x and a larger image circle to completely cover full format sensors.  With a 1.8x squeeze, the lens still maintains typical anamorphic characteristics with oval bokeh and uses about 90% of the photosites at 2.4:1. Shoot at 2.6:1 and you have all the available frame  and 100% of the photosites.

Each creative canvas calls for its own aesthetic, and Sarkisian often chooses the ALEXA Mini LF as his paintbrush of choice.

 

DOCUMENTARY and DOCU-SERIES

Since there was an assumption when large format was introduced that it was reserved for big budget features, documentaries and docu-series content might be the last place one would expect to see it being used. On the contrary, with the release of the small form factor of the ALEXA Mini LF, paired with the intimate feel of large format, documentarians are finding this tool one of the most compelling available to tell their stories.

I had the opportunity to speak with Cinematographer John W. Rutland about his experience with shooting large format for documentaries and docu-style content. Currently Rutland is shooting a brand new follow up episodic series to the documenatary film The Biggest Little Farm and chose the ALEXA Mini LF as his camera of choice. What stands out to him the most with this format is the relationship between field of view and lens compression.

Let’s take a look at an example. If we were to put a 24mm lens on a Super 35mm sensor in a close up, it would feel as if the lens is distorting the face, creating a noticeable, styled look. However, if we were to achieve this similar field of view on large format, we’d use around a 35mm. While there isn't a change in compression, there is a reduced depth of field. Yet it feels like there is a change in compression because of the reduced depth of field, yet the fields of view are exactly the same. This places the subject in their environment, giving us context, a technique that is crucial for documentary, whether the content it is interview or verité style, yet the narrower depth of field makes the person in the foreground stand out.

The Invisible Man
Still from The Invisible Man, filmed by Stefan Duscio on ARRI ALEXA LF and Signature Primes.

Think of an Annie Leibowtiz medium format still photograph, Rutland references. For example being able to have shallower depth of field for sit down interviews, where you would traditionally have a harder time using shallow depth of field due to the unpredictability of your subject, now with large format you can shoot at a deeper stop and still have the shallow depth of field for this intimate feel.

Yet this isn’t only helpful in close-ups or interviews. Another cinematic style often found in documentaries is the use of wide shots to reveal a character in their surroundings. On Super 35mm, when you film a wide shot a person can feel very far from their background, making the latter seem less impressive. However, on large format you can film this same scene with a 40mm or 35mm lens and achieve a wide field of view, yet the compression of the lens makes the background more present, more part of the story, more compelling.

Another application that made Rutland excited about the technology was two-camera shoots. He found that by using an ALEXA LF or ALEXA Mini LF as an A camera with a wider shot, say using a 35mm-50mm, and the same lens on an ALEXA Mini as a 3/4 profile B camera giving a tighter shot due to the smaller format (an equivalent field of view of about a 65mm lens on the larger format), he was able to match the depth of field of the two cameras. In this scenario, he is using the technology to create a consistent look for the edit. With a larger sensor on the A camera, and a smaller sensor on the B camera giving a tighter shot due to the smaller field of view, this creates two shots that can cut together with similar depths of field. If shooting the same scene with Super35mm cameras, different focal lengths would need to be used giving either different depths of field, due to the differences in compression, or different exposures due to having to use different aperture setting.

He also describes the opening credits scene as a place you wouldn’t typically think of employing large format. Utilizing a Lowell probe lens, Rutland used a dolly to move through a leather bound book, causing the book to feel massive and all-encompassing, setting the look and tone the creatives wanted for the show.

In listening to how Rutland approaches using the ARRI Mini LF, whether it be in a cinema verité documentary, two-camera interview, or a docu-style commercial, it is clear he sees this camera as a versatile storytelling tool.

 

NARRATIVE – EPISODIC, SHORT FILMS AND FEATURE LENGTH

It's no surprise to see large format being used in feature films (just take a look at the 2021 Oscar Nominees), but we’re currently seeing it in scripted episodic and short films as well. One of the projects where the format beautifully adds to the look of portraiture and audience immersion is Netflix’s End of the F****ing World. Cinematographer Benedict Spence, who shot the first four episodes of season two, used the ARRI Alexa LF Open Gate with a 16:9 crop. Not only did the camera meet Netflix requirements, it was a great fit for the creative style of the show.

End of the F****ing World: Season 2 Trailer

Shana Hagan, ASC just wrapped the first season of Jenny Bicks and Paul Feig's This Country series for Fox, based on the award-winning BBC Three series of the same name. Hagan chose the ARRI ALEXA Mini LF for this project in order to meet the requirements of the studio while still maintaining a small footprint for the show that is shot in docu-style à la Parks and Rec. By pairing it with the Canon Cine-Servo zooms and an IB/E 1.4x extender to allow the S35 lenses to cover the LF sensor, she was able to achieve the look and feel of the handheld documentary style she was going for while taking advantage of the beautiful imagery the ALEXA can deliver.

But what about short film? We all know the budgets of short films can be tight, yet when the story calls for large format, cinematographers are choosing it to tell their story.

Gevorg Juguryan lensed a short film/teaser called Malekon with the ALEXA Mini LF, paired with Leica Summilux C lenses. He chose to shoot this movie with the Mini LF because both he and the Director wanted the camera to be close to the characters for nearly the entire film, to give it more of a subjective feel. With large format, shooting close to the subject lets you use longer lenses and avoid potential distortion that some wider lenses on Super 35mm format would present. He also felt that shooting this film in large format would lend the images greater depth and a more expansive perspective.

Juguryan shot on the ALEXA Mini LF in Open Gate 2:39 4.5K sensor mode, sticking with 25mm+ focal lengths on the Leica Summilux C lenses to cover the large format sesnor. His production team plans to produce a feature from this short in the future.

Malekon, a short film shot by Gevorg Juguryan on the ALEXA Mini LF with Leica Summilux C lenses.

As technology continues to evolve, our camera choices, lens preferences, and formats will as well. At times this can feel overwhelming, but if you take a step back and think of it as your toolbox expanding, the creative possibilities suddenly feel almost limitless. Large Format is one of our tools and one of the few that can reliably capture immersive, captivating, and organic portraiture, environments, and stories.

Megan Donnelly
Technology and Education Development Manager, AbelCine LA

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