Lost in Russia

“Lost in Russia” shot with ALEXA 65 and Prime 65 S lenses

Cinematographer Liu Yizeng discusses his use of ARRI Rental’s exclusive ALEXA 65 camera and Prime 65 S lenses on director Zheng Xu’s comedy film.

As the third in a series of highly successful “Lost in” films that started in 2012, “Lost in Russia” was set to be a box office hit around the time of the Chinese New Year. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was instead sold to online content providers and was streamed an amazing 180 million times in its first three days of release. Liu Yizeng speaks here about his choice of the 65 mm format, his visual approach, and the importance of realism.

How did you and Zheng Xu decide on the visual style of the film?

When we began to prep for the shoot, Zheng got the key crew together to read and discuss the script together several times, spending lots of time and energy on the creative process. He also invited me to join the actor rehearsals in Shanghai, which allowed me to think about the camera design and plan everything in advance.

Zheng had a pretty clear idea of the acting, camera movement, visual feel and texture; he knew exactly what he wanted. Most of all, he wanted the film to look realistic. An example is the train set we had to build in the studio; we looked at several reference films, but all the train sets were artificially large for the sake of visual aesthetics. Zheng didn’t want our train to be significantly different from the real K3 train, so we built it almost to actual size.

As for the visual style, I think being meticulous is the most important thing. It’s very lucky for a DP to work with great actors and a great story. Most of the time, just concentrating on following the actors and really capturing their performances is the best choice. Less is more.

What led you to choose the ALEXA 65?

Initially, we planned to use 35 mm film and did some tests, but the developing and postproduction would have been complicated and risky, especially for a film shot in multiple countries (Russia, China, and the US). We used an ALEXA Mini to test the costumes and makeup in different contrast and lighting conditions. Later, we tested with ALEXA 65 and the look was amazing; it was ideal for us, so we chose it as the main camera throughout.

We liked that the ALEXA 65 captures so much information and the resolution is still good even if you zoom into the image. For “Lost in Russia,” a big advantage of the ALEXA 65 was that it combined the perspective of a longer focal length with a wide field of view. A lot of people associate the ALEXA 65 and its large-format look with big landscapes or epic scenes, but I think it really shines in intimate settings. When we shot in a small space on the train, the ALEXA 65 captured at least twice the information that a Super 35 camera would have with the same distance and perspective, which gave us more freedom.

In terms of camera movement, we were using the ARRI TRINITY stabilizer for almost all our sequences because it’s really flexible and convenient. Our TRINITY operator, Junior Lucano, captured lots of impressive moments, moving around the actors and also being able to move up and down very easily. The TRINITY offered us many creative possibilities.

Were visual effects much of a consideration?

Yes, “Lost in Russia” has more than 1,000 VFX shots, but we didn’t want the VFX to distract the audience from the acting, so the effects had to be invisible. This meant the camera and VFX departments had to work together very closely.

There was a scene that really moved me in the script, of the mother character taking off her wig in front of a mirror, and it is like a release from all of the pressure and burdens she has to bare. The idea of “letting go” is a big theme of the film, and for this moment with the wig we designed a long 360-degree shot. It required some compositing to look like a single shot, which we wanted to be invisible to the audience, so we had to break it down in detail and make sure we were on the same page as the VFX team. Our VFX supervisor, Sup Xiang Fei, was great; he designed some details to make the transitions between takes look seamless.

What lenses did you use with the ALEXA 65?

Our main lenses were the ARRI Rental Prime 65 S series. In a full shot, you can see several layers of detail from the foreground to the background, and the transition from in-focus to out-of-focus was natural and smooth, which gave an immersive feeling to the audience. In a close-up shot, you can feel a very subtle transition from the actor’s nose to her eyes and ears, almost like a stereo image; the actors seem to be just in front of you, instead of on a flat-screen.

For some special scenes, we used anamorphic lenses. For example, we chose the Panavision T Series for scenes in the US because they were good at capturing the cool colors we wanted as the main tone for the US sequence. We also used some other anamorphic lenses for the theater sequence, in order to give a vintage feel to the environment, characters, and song. The texture was more like an oil painting, to express the strong emotions.

Can you describe your approach to lighting?

Firstly, the lighting design should be based on the reality of the scene; the sources and changes all have to be logical. Secondly, adjustments can be made according to emotional and visual optimization requirements, to have different layers of lighting. In preproduction we programmed ARRI SkyPanel LED lights with lighting effects for different locations and emotions, deciding all the lighting changes before shooting. This helped communication between the camera and VFX departments and also simplified postproduction.

In many films that have a train sequence, the window shots are very pretty but unrealistic, especially the exposure, with darker highlights outside the window than inside. In reality, there is a big contrast between the light levels inside and outside a train. So in our film, we wanted to create a realistic, believable look. In preproduction, our gaffer Zhang Cunhua and I rode the K3 train to shoot footage of the real lighting changes along the way. We found that some lighting changes might not be consciously noticeable, but had a surreal texture and feel that I wanted to recreate in the studio.