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ALEXA 65 and DNA lenses on Netflix’s “Rebecca”

Laurie Rose BSC shares a set of ARRI Rental Prime DNA lenses between an ALEXA 65 and ALEXA LF on Ben Wheatley’s new adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel.

“Rebecca” tells the story of a young woman who marries a handsome widower named Maxim de Winter after a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo. On moving into his imposing English mansion Manderley, the new Mrs. de Winter becomes increasingly traumatized by the oppressive legacy and mysterious death of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. Director Ben Wheatley and cinematographer Laurie Rose, BSC opted for a fresh visual approach to this new adaptation for Working Title Films and Netflix, shooting in 65 mm with ARRI Rental’s exclusive ALEXA 65 camera and DNA lenses. Rose speaks here about his equipment choices and experiences on the production.

Can you describe your working relationship with Ben and how you came to shoot “Rebecca” on the ALEXA 65?

This is our eighth project together. The first was “Down Terrace,” which was a 90-minute feature film that we shot in eight days for £6,000, back in 2008. A year later we did another one and the budgets grew, and we ended up doing four very similarly like that on the run, with about a year between them, during which we would go back to our day jobs – I was a TV cameraman and Ben was directing commercials. It was only after our fifth film together, “A Field in England,” that I gave up my day job!

“High Rise” was the first film where we used an ALEXA, and we haven’t used anything else since then. I feel I know how to light for it and where it performs best; it’s a bombproof system with creamy skin tones that does everything I need it to. When you have full confidence in the sensor you can concentrate on the lenses and the lighting – you can be all the more creative. It was a no-brainer to push for the ALEXA 65; I loved the idea of jumping to a very large version of the same sensor. Working Title were familiar with the ALEXA 65 and happy to facilitate that for us, especially as we wanted a single-camera feel for “Rebecca.”

So, you had one ALEXA 65 and your second camera was an ALEXA LF – what was the thinking behind that decision?

There were a few reasons. One was budgetary, so we weren’t doubling up on 65 mm equipment, and another was that the B camera would often be Steadicam, so a slightly lighter camera body made sense. The other factor was lenses, because with the endless support of Russell Allen and Simon Surtees at ARRI Rental UK, I had made a bespoke selection of Prime DNA lenses. Due to the nature of the DNAs, and what was available for me to choose from, we couldn’t necessarily have two sets the same, so by using an ALEXA LF we could share the lenses between the cameras.

Whilst I wanted to embrace the unique characteristics of the DNAs, I was a bit concerned about what was happening at the edges of the image being too different between the cameras. Our solution was to shoot full 4.5K on the LF, and crop to 5.5K on the ALEXA 65, which further helped with the amount of data we were likely to generate. So, I wasn't getting the full football pitch of the ALEXA 65 sensor, but I think it made economic and workflow sense, and it meant we were very interchangeable. The A and B cameras naturally cut together really well. 

How did you test the DNAs and why did you choose them?

Testing on a bench at a facility is never particularly indicative, for me. It's always good to test in a real situation, and the nearest real-world place to do that was the ballroom at Pinewood Studios. I’ve used it for testing a few times before, for period films, because it's wood paneled, the carpets are dark, and it's side lit with arched French doors. Simon set up a table full of DNA lenses and we steadily moved through them. I took a few lamps because it gives you a chance to light the scene a bit and it feels like you're working. It's almost a location.

So, we were shooting a period film on the latest digital technology and there's already something there that crashes up against itself. But what's great about the DNAs is the character, the creaminess, the robustness, and the beautiful contrast handling. It’s what all DPs drawn to vintage glass are looking for: real soul. The DNAs fitted the bill for me and they were functional; in terms of the usability experience I felt entirely at home. When you get to choose your lenses individually it’s like being in a sweetshop, it felt like a personal set just for me, which was lovely. I’d use them again tomorrow.

Were there particular DNAs that you gravitated towards, especially once you were shooting?

There were a few lenses that I really enjoyed. One was a 50 mm that was actually a great portrait lens—quite wide on the ALEXA 65, but detuned off the center spot so the focus just dropped off. Another was an 80 mm that they called a Red Dot variant and it was just astonishing; the way it fell away and the way it flared, the warmth of it. I asked Simon about those characteristics and whether they could be replicated, and that’s when I found out that DNA stands for Do Not Ask!

Usually you end up with a wide lens, mid lens, and long lens, and you keep coming back to them. It's not rocket science, but that's how you begin to develop a language for a film. For wides we tended towards the 28 mm DNA, for mids there was the 50 mm and we used the 65 mm T1.6 a lot, and then I would put on that 80 mm Red Dot whenever I could. Those focal lengths quickly determine the visual language because the field of view and depth of field become familiar. But what's always really cool is that, like any filmmaking rule, once you’ve decided on it you can also break that rule when you want to make an impact on the viewer. Then it becomes a proper storytelling tool.

Did the larger format affect your shot selection or camerawork?

I think when large format is well composed and you're really utilizing the depth of field, the beautiful spatial qualities of it, then it can inform the edit almost as much as anything else. You can generate a picture that is so dimensional, there is an argument that you need fewer shots for a sequence. You still need to story-tell, but there is so much more to look at and it feels so much more three-dimensional that you can reduce your coverage.

The landscapes obviously scream out for the larger format. There was amazing coastal stuff that was meant to be Cornwall, but we actually shot in North Devon, and the ALEXA 65 just soaked all of that up, it looked incredible. And the width of the format really worked for some of the grand interiors. We wanted to create a sense of the new Mrs. de Winter being overwhelmed by the interiors of Manderley. Often we shot on a very wide lens, slightly above the eyeline, so that it seems like the weight of the building is on top of her.

Overall how was your experience working with ARRI Rental on “Rebecca” ?

Russell and Simon made sure that I had everything I needed to make the show, and more. There was never a concern in my mind, even when we went abroad, about the day-to-day logistics. We had lots of trust, lots of support, and nothing was ever a problem. It's a brilliant personal relationship, and I think in a very busy world, those are really important to keep hold of and be able to rely on. 

"Rebecca" is streaming now on Netflix.