ALEXA 65 with DNA and HEROES lenses on “Five Nights at Freddy’s”

Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief discusses choosing exclusive ARRI Rental technology to transform the renowned video game into a chilling horror film.

Dec. 11, 2023

When security guard Mike Schmidt (played by Josh Hutcherson) takes a night watchman job at an abandoned restaurant called Freddy Fazbear's Pizza, he unwittingly steps into a dark and sinister story. As the nights progress, Mike discovers the unsettling truth about the pizzeria’s past, and with his young sister Abby (Piper Rubio), confronts the possessed animatronic creatures that haunt its desolate interior. This is the premise of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” directed and co-written by Emma Tammi. DP Lyn Moncrief was drawn to the 65 mm format when devising a visual strategy for this video game adaptation, shooting with ALEXA 65 cameras and DNA, HEROES, and Vintage 765 lenses that are all exclusive to ARRI Rental. The production was serviced by ARRI Rental New Orleans, with support from the Los Angeles branch.

Were you familiar with the video game, and did it inspire the visual language of the film?

I needed to familiarize myself with the game. Director Emma Tammi, who I'd worked with on three other films, knew I wasn’t a gamer. She handed me the screenplay and said, “This is the biggest game you've probably never heard of, but I’m not going to tell you about it; I want you to have your own response.” Once I’d read it, Emma guided me through the culture of the game. We decided that the feelings of the gameplay, rather than purely the aesthetics, should inspire our approach. The film had to have an arc, context, and emotional threads that tie into the visuals of our characters and narrative.

The game speaks to that pure core of horror, which is all about your mind filling in the gaps. You're hearing rather than seeing certain things, and Emma wanted to keep true to that ethos. The first thing we do when we break a film down is decide our rules for the movie. For example, the camera only moves when a certain threat appears, or we use specific lenses for a particular perspective. Emma wanted visual separation between life outside Freddy's, the world inside Freddy's, and the dreams and flashbacks. But by the end, they have all melded together.

What led you to the decision that shooting in the 65 mm format would be most suitable for the story?

We looked at the ALEXA LF and then we looked at the ALEXA 65, and what drew us to the 65 is that Emma does love this wide but close framing. What 65 mm does incredibly well, above all the other formats, is allow you to go wide and close without the same type of distortion. Once we decided that ALEXA 65 was a winner, it became a series of lens tests, which I did over several days at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.

The ALEXA 65 enhances a lens’ characteristics because of the large sensor size, and it took me a moment to wrap my head around how the focal lengths work on 65 mm; this was my first movie working with it. I came out of the tradition of a Super 35 sensor and those focal lengths, and my concern with such a large format was that you could easily over-exploit it by pursuing intensely shallow depth of field.

Did you test many different lenses, and what drew you to the DNA series?

We looked at various options but I was immediately drawn to the DNAs. I didn't have all the time in the world to prep, but I took DNA lenses to Jim Henson’s shop to try them out with the creature stuff they were putting together. Matt Kolze and several other techs at ARRI Rental were very informative in helping us assemble a lens package. DNAs are fascinating because some lenses have very different characteristics to others in the set. Some have a beautiful anamorphic quality on 65 mm that Emma and I loved. You can film very close without diopters and still have that broad scope, depending on your focal length, and this amazing drop-off. The tests were about understanding the focal lengths and the characteristics of different DNAs.

Around 80% of the movie was shot with only two or three lenses. For scenes with Mike, we generally used the 45 mm DNA at a stop of around T2.8. It had the sharpness, contrast, and wideness we needed, contextualizing him in the environment. ARRI Rental expanded a 21 mm lens to cover the 65 mm format, which let us get very close in for dream sequences. As the movie progresses, we move more towards longer focal lengths. I fell in love with the 60 mm DNA, which wide open at T2 has a magical quality that worked well for Abby, who has a magical view of the world. I used it a lot once we got to the final, climactic sequence.

How did you use the 57 mm LOOK lens from ARRI Rental’s HEROES collection?

We used that lens for two sequences. The first occurs when Abby regains consciousness after being knocked out. As well as lens motors for the focus and iris rings, we had an additional lens motor to adjust the tuning ring of the LOOK lens, so I could selectively tune the lens to capture Abby’s perspective as she drifts in and out of consciousness, which was slightly challenging for my focus puller. The second sequence is near the end when Mike is getting beaten up by a yellow rabbit and there are some moments from his perspective. Again, I was rotating through the tuning range; it's a very fun lens to use.

We utilized the 30 mm Vintage 765 lens for the point of view of Foxy, one of the animatronic animals. This lens gave a distinctive curvature, setting it apart from the DNAs. We intentionally included several Easter eggs or nods to the video game by replicating framing similar to the game. All the security monitor footage was shot using the ALEXA 65, employing the expanded 21 mm lens. This choice gave us the option to show the security footage not just on monitors, but also full-frame in the movie, without sacrificing image quality.

Did you use many LUTS, and how was the 65 mm image to work with in the final grade?

When working with LUTs, I aim to stick to only one or two. We ultimately settled on a LUT designed for most of the movie, featuring a distinctly filmic curve and some desaturation. Additionally, we created a dream LUT to introduce some contrast, incorporating softer tones in the blacks. Knowing the film was intended for theatrical release, I aimed to keep the exposure at 800 ASA to retain control over grain and noise levels in postproduction. With the ALEXA 65, the outcome exceeded my expectations. Seeing the film blown up on a 40-foot screen for the grade, the image appeared remarkably grain-free.

Did you feel supported by ARRI Rental New Orleans throughout the production process?

Kelli Bingham at the New Orleans branch was truly fantastic, going above and beyond to provide us with everything we needed. I conducted additional tests there, particularly on security monitors, and the support we received from ARRI Rental’s Los Angeles and New Orleans facilities was exceptional. They played a crucial role in realizing our vision and facilitating numerous tests for us.

There were instances when unexpected challenges arose and I needed equipment to be delivered the next day. Even if that equipment was currently in Germany, they consistently responded with a positive attitude, assuring us that they would figure it out, and indeed they did. Their commitment extended beyond the norm, helping us bring our story to life in the way we envisioned. Having worked on several movies in the city, I can attest that it's one of my favorite shooting locations. The tight-knit community creates a familial atmosphere, and this is exemplified at ARRI Rental’s New Orleans branch.