“Boston Strangler” shot with ALEXA 65 and DNA lenses

Cinematographer Ben Kutchins brings the true crime story of the “Boston Strangler” to life with ARRI Rental’s exclusive ALEXA 65 camera and DNA lenses. 

Nov. 8, 2023

Captured in 65 mm with the ALEXA 65 and a mix of Prime DNA and DNA LF lenses from ARRI Rental, Hulu’s “Boston Strangler” was shot by cinematographer Ben Kutchins and directed by Matt Ruskin. It tells the story of the infamous early-1960s Massachusetts murder spree through the tireless investigative journalism of Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley), who with colleague Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) first suggested that the murders were linked and coined the name “the Boston Strangler.” Kutchins spoke with ARRI Rental about how he used color, lighting, and a curated selection of lenses to evoke the period and illuminate the struggle and strength of women reporters during that time.

You had previously worked with Matt Ruskin – what was it like collaborating again and what interested you in the script?

I’ve been working with Matt for almost 20 years now, starting with a documentary in 2006 and then we did “Crown Heights” together about seven years ago. Matt is an incredibly smart filmmaker; he understands that it’s all about character, and that if you attach the audience to a character they believe in, they will follow their journey anywhere. He’d been working on developing “Boston Strangler” for a few years, and I’d read a couple drafts of the script along the way, but the thing that always stuck with me was the main character, Loretta McLaughlin. She’s this powerhouse of a woman in the 1960s, breaking the glass ceiling and ultimately changing the history of female journalism in the Northeast.

What was the visual style you aimed for in “Boston Strangler”?

In prep, Matt and I looked at 1960s photojournalism, but also explored a lot of fine art photography from that era – people like Stephen Shore, Saul Leiter, Bruce Davidson, and Ernst Haas. We started sharing reference photos back and forth, discussing framing and the images overall, but mostly talking about ways that the color film stocks reacted to light. From the beginning of my career, I’ve been very influenced by photochemical processes; my first job in film was in the still photo department at ILM in the 1990s. Even though we were shooting this film digitally, it was important to me that our starting point was a strong look inspired by the most common film stock of the era, Kodak 5254. That stock naturally leaned slightly green or cyan in the blacks, which was the starting point of the LUT we ended up using. Our overall palette was fairly muted, with green shadows and golden highlights. In an emulation of pull processing, we severely limited highlights and slightly washed out the blacks. My goal was to create a strong look that brought out the darkness of the subject matter in an unsettling way, but always felt honest with the story.

With framing and how we moved the camera, the most important thing to me was that the camera blocking felt natural and the movement organic. I don't think that I approach the photography of a film to be pleasing to an audience, but rather to draw you in, to really get you to lean in, and then begin to tweak everything slightly when it serves the scene. I think the filmmakers that I admire know how to subtly pull the audience into the story and then play with perspective and perception to take you on a journey through a scene and over the course of the whole film.

What led you to choose the 65 mm format?

I was mostly interested in the ALEXA 65 because of the ability to play with depth of field. I loved the idea of Loretta being this solo protagonist against the world, in a wide shot – that we could still be focused solely on her and have the background falling off. Also, magic happens in 65 mm when you get close to an actor with a slightly wider lens. The face becomes a landscape, and I really wanted to explore that in this film. There was something that excited me about the idea of the character of Loretta being this lightning rod for an intense amount of information and disinformation. I wanted her to be the anchor for the camera, to feel the gravitational pull, the camera constantly pivoting around her but always resting in a close-up of her. The depth of 65 mm made every close-up feel like a unique new perspective on her.

The film is set in 1960s Boston. What was it like to recreate that period?

We were lucky to shoot in Boston, so we had the bones of what we needed, but only a few locations were totally untouched and period appropriate. We had a great locations team, and Matt was prepping even before preproduction started, but it was tough. It’s a challenging era to recreate because it’s not so far back as to need to build everything, but rather a bit of a puzzle to put together. There were a lot of semi-abandoned buildings where we used one section and then went to the other side of the building and used that as the reverse. So, it was about piecing together a world.

Collaborating with the production designer and costume designer on a period piece is challenging because if you're using an extreme LUT, as we were, you have to work with them in terms of imagining how the colors of sets and wardrobe will be translated by an intense LUT. We had a bunch of conversations with both the art department and wardrobe about the color palette of a scene, or of the movie as a whole. I would love to have done more testing but there is never enough prep time.

How did you use lighting to enhance the visual style?

For something this dark, I’m always careful to allow some level of detail in the blacks, and the LUT I use is slightly lifted in the blacks. I use a significant amount of negative fill but try to keep it as far away as possible to give a broader feeling, and it’s the same with lighting. I am sensitive to making actors feel comfortable and I like to focus on lighting the set instead of the actor. Part of making the actors comfortable is not having lights and gear right up against them or in their face, but instead working in a much bigger and broader way. So, my sets are not actually that dark, even if the end result is. It’s one of the reasons why I feel comfortable using soft light that’s set further back. I use big 12-by-12s or 20-by-20s, the largest source I can get away with, pushed as far back as possible.

What is your process for selecting lenses?

In the past, I would select one set of lenses for a project, but lately I’ve started to think about lenses in a much different way and I’ve embraced the idea of creating texture and layers scene by scene, or even shot by shot. By having two, three, or even four different sets of lenses, I can be more in touch with what each moment is asking for. Sometimes I'll pick one particular lens I love from a set and have a specific idea of what I will use it for. And then one day I will surprise myself and use it in a way I never intended, and it becomes my new favorite tool. One of the things I love about the ALEXA 65 is that you can shoot a wide shot with a lens that was originally built to be a portrait lens, and it ends up being a wide lens. There’s something incredibly freeing about working this way.

I will regularly set up the camera and put on the 50 mm, put on a 55 mm, put on a 65 mm, and go back to the 50 mm with a diopter. I’m looking at how each one of those very similar focal lengths, from different lens manufacturers, is responding to the light and what’s happening in the scene. Sometimes you want to simply document a moment and sometimes you want to be more impressionistic. I love to play with that when picking a lens; maybe there’s a little bit of a flare or ghosting, or a particular way it falls off – those are the details that I really love and that my team and I have a lot of fun with.

How did the Prime DNA and DNA LF lenses help achieve the look you desired?

The amazing thing about the DNAs is that they are all unique, and many of them have a unique look. I carried a detuned and regular version of most of the DNA lenses I was carrying, and used whichever one felt right on a gut instinct level. There is also the practical side, because if you’re framing up a shot and there’s a character right at the edge of frame, you don’t want them completely out of focus, so you’ll need to use a cleaner lens. But if you have a backup that’s detuned, then you can play with something more expressive when it feels right.

There’s a moment in the film where you’re from the killer’s perspective following a woman down the street, and for that I wanted to have a lot of softness around the edges and some flare to it, because for a rare moment in the film, you’re stepping out of Loretta’s perspective. Most of the things in the film from her perspective are pretty dark, so stepping into the killer’s perspective and creating this bright, idyllic-looking version of the world really helped me create a more powerful juxtaposition. I go into something with a clear idea of what I think we’re looking for, and then it’s important to me to have a great assortment of interesting lenses to play with and great collaborators to bounce ideas off. With all those options though, it’s vital to just trust your instincts about what the right lens is for the moment.