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Nov. 10, 2022

ALEXA 65, DNA lenses, and HEXATRON on "All Quiet on the Western Front"

Cinematographer James Friend ASC, BSC discusses his visual approach to Edward Berger's visceral new Netflix adaptation of the classic WWI novel.

Nov. 10, 2022

Erich Maria Remarque's searing anti-war novel of 1928 has been adapted for the screen twice before, in the 1930s and 1970s. A new German-language version, directed by Edward Berger and shot by James Friend ASC, BSC, is now available to stream on Netflix, having also been released at selected movie theaters. Berger and Friend, who previously collaborated on the Showtime series "Patrick Melrose," developed a look for the film that combined ALEXA 65 and ALEXA Mini LF cameras with DNA and Prime 65 S lenses. James Friend speaks here about his creative choices on the production, which was based in the Czech Republic and serviced by ARRI Rental Prague.

How did you decide on a look for the film?

The director and I spoke a lot about naturalism. We wanted the feel of a documentary camera on the battlefield, capturing what the young soldiers are experiencing and running alongside our protagonist, Paul, as bullets fly past. With that kind of approach your first instinct is to go quite low-fi with the cinematography, but when you're working in a very difficult environment, you need to embrace technology to fully engage the audience. So, the film has a mix of handheld and steady operating because camera movement can be as distracting as not moving a camera. It was about determining what was appropriate for the scene or for what was going through our characters' minds in each moment. 

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Director Edward Berger (left) and DP James Friend ASC, BSC on set

Did this also influence your choice of camera formats?

After reading the script it was clear to me that large format would lend itself to creating this illusion of a human being's point of view. Then it became a question of how large do we want to go? I proposed the ALEXA 65 to the director and he was excited by the idea, so I tested the 65 and the ALEXA Mini LF at ARRI Rental in London. I was already very familiar with the ALEXA sensor, which was a brilliant starting point because you know that even when you increase the sensor size, the technology is the same and the color science will work -- it's one less thing to worry about. Each camera in the ARRI ALEXA range is offered as a different paintbrush, and they all complement each other beautifully.

When testing the ALEXA 65, it became very apparent that the grammar of the format suited vistas. But I was also curious to see how it worked in confined spaces and just letting the actors move within a frame, and that's where the majesty of the format really came to life for me. So, although we certainly used it for vistas, most of the 65 mm sequences are in confined spaces that you wouldn't normally associate with large format. Compared to an ALEXA XT, it was amazing how immersive the ALEXA 65 felt as it moved down a trench. And when you adopt that as a visual language, it consciously or unconsciously makes you think about coverage in a different way.

Can you recall any specific scenes where the 65 mm format brought an advantage? 

There was a scene where the general and his second-in-command are sitting at each end of a huge dinner table. It was never supposed to be on the ALEXA 65, but when we came to block the scene, we didn't physically have the space to frame the shot with the ALEXA Mini LF; we couldn't get far enough back to fit both of the characters in the shot because there was a wall we couldn't move. I quickly asked for the ALEXA 65 and the extra width of the format allowed us to achieve the shot we wanted. Not only that, but we decided to continue shooting the whole scene on 65 mm. It's a simple two-hander with a static camera, but the ALEXA 65 hugely elevated the scene in terms of depth, composition, and reinforcing the grammar to the audience visually.

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The ALEXA 65 gave camerawork in the trenches an "immersive" feel

What motivated your lens choices for the film?

We used a set of Prime DNA lenses across the 65 mm and LF formats, and they were fantastic. They worked at the right stops for me to consider all sorts of environments, whether day, night, interior, exterior, studio, or location. Part of the DNA process is being able to add your own stamp to the image, but we actually found a set that I didn't have to tune, I just naturally responded to the images they were giving me. Obviously, it's quite a specific look, especially in high-contrast environments when you've got extremely bright elements within the frame -- you have to be on board with the way they flare and the way they operate. But it seemed like the right language for this picture, and they worked gloriously.

Towards the end of the production, as we were working into the spring and summer months, we wanted a slightly more optimistic feel. On a second visit to ARRI Rental during principal photography they optioned me the Prime 65 S lens range, which has a bit more bite than the Prime 65s. They flare differently and have a slightly different contrast level. We were approaching the sequence at the beginning of the picture with the group of kids who are about to go to war. They're unspoiled, still completely innocent, and after testing the Prime 65 S lenses, they just really felt right for that sequence. 

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Filming in the trench system with a Technocrane

What was the special 18.5 mm lens you used?

Our approach of putting the camera in amongst our characters naturally led us to wider lenses. We requested an extreme wide-angle lens for the ALEXA 65 and ARRI Rental came up with a custom 18.5 mm lens, which was not only quite fast, but also stunning to look at. It didn't distort nearly as much as I thought it would, and it covered the 65 mm frame, so it was a fun tool to have in the box. We used it for the shot of the general and his second-in-command at the table, but also for a lot of environmental shots. 

One of the opening shots of the film is on a Technocrane in no man's land, where we needed to start very high up looking down, and then take the audience down into the trenches. Various logistical issues meant that we couldn't use the longer Technocrane, so the only way to achieve that shot was with a wider lens, which wouldn't have been my natural standpoint. So, we used the 18.5 mm lens and, seeing it on the screen, it's actually quite cool. I don't want to say a happy accident, but we had no other alternative. It's one of those classic things where technology and creativity need to work hand in hand, and you're only as good as your rental house.

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Following the action with a handheld rig

Did the HEXATRON help with those kinds of crane shots in the trenches?

The HEXATRON was absolutely fundamental to our visual approach, and to achieving the schedule that production proposed to us. Maneuvering a Technocrane base around a muddy field could have meant extreme time pressure and a lot of manpower, but the HEXATRON enabled us to get from A to B painlessly, frequently arriving before members of the crew and allowing us to do extremely dynamic moves.

Overall, the ALEXA 65 and the HEXATRON gave us such technical and creative power as filmmakers that the film just wouldn't be the same without them. It would genuinely be a very different movie because we wouldn't have been able to achieve the cinematography that we did, and we wouldn't have been able to tell the story in the same way if we didn't have those tools at our disposal.

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The ARRI Rental HEXATRON enabled dynamic crane shots in challenging locations