DIE HARD 5 - Interview with DoP Jonathan Sela

A good day to die hard is the fifth installment of the popular film series that began in 1988 with Die Hard. In this latest story, John McClane (Bruce Willis) travels to Russia to help his grown-up son out of a tangle with the authorities and gets caught up in a terrorist plot. Directed by John Moore, the film was shot on 35 mm film by cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who had previously collaborated with Moore on The Omen (2006) and Max Payne (2008). A comprehensive package of ARRICAM Lite, ARRIFLEX 435 and ARRIFLEX 235 cameras, along with grip equipment, was supplied by ARRI Rental Budapest. ARRI recently spoke with Sela about his work on the film.


ARRI: What is the benefit of having a well-established relationship with the director?

Jonathan Sela: Mainly that you have learned about each other’s comfort zones, so I know when to push, when to help more and when to step back. John is such a visual director and it really helps to have that existing relationship. I always try to understand the director’s vision and make it happen, so the more they let you into their heads, the better job you will do; and like any relationship, that takes time. This being our third film together, I knew what John would and wouldn’t like.

ARRI: What did you and John want to do with the look of this film, given that this is the fifth of a very well-known franchise?

JS: I hadn’t ever done a franchise or a sequel before, and I think the main thing that helped me was the fact that this is the first Die Hard movie set on foreign territory. They’ve always been set in the States before, with John McClane just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but in this film he takes the initiative and travels to a different country, which opened up new visual options for us. When I first met with John he wanted Moscow to feel like it’s rife with corruption; so I took that idea away and looked at all the architecture in Moscow, the textures and the colors, and I decided that instead of lighting everything perfectly and beautifully, I would literally corrupt the image by mismatching color temperatures and mixing things up, making things dirtier and less polished.

ARRI: What led to the choice of shooting on film for this project?

JS: The first conversation we had was simply about digital versus film, rather than specific formats or cameras. When I read the script I felt that the movie needed to have grain and texture, which is more difficult to do with digital and I like to do as much as possible in-camera. The other thing was the workflow: John has two small black-and-white monitors on the set and he doesn’t want more than that. He has the traditional attitude that he hires a DP and trusts the DP to light the image and shoot it; he wants to pay attention to the actors and he feels that monitors can be a distraction. And finally most of the movie was shot handheld, which for me is a little easier to do on film, especially if you’re working with multiple cameras. I didn’t want to be spending all my time sitting in a black tent.

ARRI: Your main unit used ARRICAM Lites, plus a 435 and 235 – how did you tend to use these different cameras?

JS: We had three ARRICAM Lite cameras as our main package because we were handheld most of the time. The 435 was there for high speed moments, crane shots, or crash boxes. The 235 was super lightweight and perfect for working in small spaces or getting very low to the ground; it was a great camera to have with us because it’s so compact. There was a moment where one of the actors was going through a construction trash shaft and the only way to film it was to send him down holding the 235 himself. We frequently had a lot of debris and smoke flying around the set, so the conditions were quite challenging, but I’ve always been a fan of ARRI cameras and we didn’t have any serious issues with them at all.

ARRI: With up to 10 cameras on set, did you do any operating yourself?

JS: I did do a little bit – I love operating, but on a movie of this scale there are so many things going on. We’d often have four or five cameras going and I found it worked much better if I stepped back so I could watch all the operators, keep notes and make sure everything was working. It was also challenging with the lighting because you want to make sure that every different camera angle works; it would be harder to oversee all of that if you were completely focused on just one of the cameras. John actually likes to operate as well, so he would often pick up a camera if we needed another one. He started his career as a loader in Ireland, so he feels very comfortable in the camera department.

ARRI: You had HD-IVS video assist for some of the cameras - was this an advantage?

JS: Having the HD-IVS made the lives of the camera assistants much easier. Even though John only wanted to see a black-and-white picture on the monitor, it was sensible to have as much image quality as possible to start with, and there were situations where we would switch to color to check something before switching back to black-and-white for John.

ARRI: Why did you opt to have 4-perforation movements in your cameras?

JS: The movie is 1.85:1 and at the beginning we talked with the visual effects department about whether we should go with 3-perf or 4-perf. They really preferred the idea of 4-perf because it would give them more opportunity to re-frame, especially with all the fast-paced handheld work. And then we didn’t want the complication of shooting 4-perf for some days and 3-perf for others – it made more sense to shoot everything 4-perf.

ARRI: You shot spherical, but you used blue streak filters to emulate an anamorphic look – where did that idea come from?

JS: I’ve used them many times before on commercials and music videos. When we started talking about this movie the original idea was to shoot anamorphic, but once we decided on an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 then anamorphic didn’t make as much sense and the workflow would not have worked so well. However, there is a sequence in the movie where they go to Chernobyl and go down into a dark vault. I used orange and yellow work lights and I wanted to enhance the flares to give a feeling of heat and radiation, with the sources streaking across the frame. Those filters allowed me to achieve anamorphic flare without actually having to use the lenses.


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