THE MONUMENTS MEN - Interview with DoP Phedon Papamichael

Phedon Papamichael, ASC, discusses combining ALEXA and ARRICAM cameras, as well as anamorphic and spherical lenses, on George Clooney's WWII comedy drama.

Directed, co-produced and co-written by George Clooney, who also stars in the film, THE MONUMENTS MEN tells the unlikely but largely true story of an Allied platoon tasked in the closing stages of World War II with finding and saving important artworks stolen by the Nazis. A co-production of Columbia Pictures and Babelsberg Studios, it was filmed almost entirely in Germany, with ARRI Rental Berlin providing the camera package and ARRI Film & TV providing lab and postproduction services. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, ASC, worked with both ALEXA digital and ARRICAM film cameras, and also combined anamorphic and spherical lenses. He speaks here about his experiences on the film.

Why did you decide to mix analog and digital cameras on THE MONUMENTS MEN?

It came out of the fact that we had quite a few day exteriors. We tested the ALEXA alongside Kodak Vision3 5219 film stock and determined as a group, with George Clooney and the producer Grant Heslov, that 35 mm would be advantageous for certain situations where we had a lot of white skies, white smoke and snow. It seemed that we got a better rendering on film for those things, although it was primarily a creative choice made by George Clooney and I personally didn't see that big of a difference.

Did mixing the formats present any technical or logistical challenges?

We did extensive testing with Utsi (Florian Utsi Martin, ARRI Film & TV Services) in Munich, adding film grain to the digital shots to match them with the film footage, and I thought the results were very good. Of course we knew from the beginning that combining the two formats might be challenging, but Ute Baron and the whole ARRI team in Berlin made it possible. My crew was also very competent in being able to switch back and forth between the formats, so it never caused any long delays, although we had both a loader and a DIT on set because we often shot digital and film on the same day. I would say that in the end maybe 60% of the movie is digital. All the day exteriors were on film, while night exteriors, night interiors and most day interiors were on the ALEXA.

 You chose the ARRICAM Lite and the ALEXA Plus with 4:3 sensor - what were your experiences working with these two cameras?

Well, the ARRICAM Lite is a very practical camera; we did a lot of Steadicam and handheld work on the film, and it's very good for that. And of course having the ALEXA with a full-size 4:3 sensor was necessary because we were using the anamorphic format. We recorded ARRIRAW and it gave us very good results - very high quality - so cutting between the two formats was seamless. They are both practical cameras, and the same is true of the support gear and accessories. It really did not hold up the production having to deal with multiple formats and multiple lens packages.

You also combined anamorphic and spherical lenses - why was that?

We had the Hawk Plus, V-Plus and V-Lite anamorphic lenses, but at the wide end of the range I felt the Hawks had a little too much fall-off at the edges, so for wider shots I used spherical Master Prime lenses. It was especially important for group shots with people standing head to toe, where I didn't want their legs to be soft below the knees, and I didn't want the people standing on the outer left and right edges of the frame to be falling off either. I needed definition from corner to corner and after seeing my test results I made the decision, only about a week before we started shooting, to use the 18 mm, 21 mm, and 27 mm Master Primes. Another advantage of having the T1.3 Master Primes was that they gave me a little more speed for the night exterior work. It meant that I could open up to T2.8 or even slightly wider, whereas I tried not to open the Hawks up any wider than T4 because the quality drops off. But the Master Primes I could use wide open without any problem.

Were there any issues with cutting together the anamorphic and spherical footage?

Angus Bickerton, our visual effects supervisor, shot the optical characteristics of the Hawks during preproduction and was able to apply some of those characteristics to the very sharp Master Prime shots in post, so they didn't stand out when intercut with the Hawk footage. I think we've accomplished a very smooth combination of all those optical elements, as well as of the film and digital elements. I recently completed the digital intermediate in London with my colorist, Skip Kimball, and it all flows together very smoothly. We think it's going to be hard for people to distinguish between the digital and film shots, and also between what is Master Primes and what is Hawks.

After filming finished you had the chance to look at the new ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphic lenses - what did you think of them?

They looked very good. My impression was that they are extremely sharp, without any fall-off and without the distortion you typically get with anamorphic lenses. Of course a lot of people want that kind of distortion when they do anamorphic shows, and I know the Hawks have a lot of fans, but I thought the Master Anamorphics were extremely sharp and consistent all the way across the frame, right to the edges. Their flare characteristics were also unlike other anamorphics; they basically flare like the Master Primes. My feeling is that you always want to record in the best quality you can, and then if you need to soften something or add distortion or flares, you can do that later in post, but it's always good to have the highest image quality to begin with. For that reason I would certainly have chosen the Master Anamorphics for THE MONUMENTS MEN if they had been available, and I'm looking forward to using them on another production.

Were you able to do things on set to help make the postproduction work easier?

Whenever we were filming day exteriors on 35 mm film, our DIT, Yoshua Berkowitz, always brought along an ALEXA and used its still-capture function to take a still image of each setup. This provided Steffen Paul, our dailies colorist at ARRI Film & TV, with a reference for the dailies timing. We took the still images with an ALEXA rather than a stills camera so that all the color information and other image characteristics would match with our digital footage.

What did you think of ARRI Rental's services?

It was all very smooth and the ARRI Rental team was very accommodating, working within a tough budget and making the whole process really easy. I very much appreciated having all this equipment because the approach we took was something that George Clooney wanted to do, and with ARRI's help I was able to provide that. So big thanks to ARRI Rental Berlin!

And were you pleased with the lab and digital services of ARRI Film & TV?

I was very happy with all the dailies that Steffen graded and they were extremely useful to have as a reference when I did my final DI. It was all very consistent and he was able to achieve exactly the look that we were creating on set with Yoshua. We had no delays and no problems throughout the entire shoot. Even when we went to England we were still sending our footage back to the lab in Berlin. All in all, my experiences in Berlin were very good. This was quite a big Hollywood production, with producers and a director who are used to a certain standard, but there were no disappointments and everybody was very satisfied. It was a wonderful collaboration with a top international team and I enjoyed having such a multi-national camera crew, with A-camera 1st AC Luc Pallet from Paris, B-camera 1st AC Lars Richter from Berlin, an Italian Steadicam operator named Alessandro Brambilla and many others from locally in Berlin and elsewhere. I was delighted to work with them all.




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