DP Eve Cohen on set of “The Other Zoey"

Crafting the look of “The Other Zoey” with DNA LF lenses

DP Eve M. Cohen combines the large-format aesthetic and small form factor of the ALEXA Mini LF with ARRI Rental’s exclusive DNA LF optics on Sara Zandieh’s romantic comedy.

Apr. 29, 2024

“The Other Zoey” charts the romantic progress of student Zoey Miller, who is mistaken for the girlfriend of university soccer star Zack when he suffers amnesia after an accident. Navigating an unusual situation with well-intentioned deceit, she finds herself balancing the attention of two suitors and questioning her scientific take on love. Inspired by classic romantic comedies of the 1990s, cinematographer Eve M. Cohen pursed a look that combines glamor with accessible realism, using ALEXA Mini LF cameras and DNA LF lenses supplied by ARRI Rental through Illumination Dynamics in North Carolina.

What inspired your visual approach to the film?

Director Sara Zandieh and I were inspired by high-concept, high-glamor rom-coms of the 1980s and 90s, where we were swept up in the world of meet-cutes, grand gestures, and mistaken identities. “The Other Zoey” is a rom-com about rom-coms, referencing motifs from classic romantic comedies in its construction and even in its dialogue. Besides these references, I was inspired by the films of Jacques Tati, so you can find a few nods to French farce in the framing and blocking of the movie.

There is a heightened glamor to the lighting and lensing of 90s rom-com classics: heavily diffused key lights, hard back-edge lights, colored light to emphasize mood, telephoto lenses, and stacked layers of optical filtration. I wanted to keep some elements of this in “The Other Zoey,” but make it feel present and accessible. I refer to this as my “understated glamor” look, referencing the heightened beauty of the 90s while keeping the visual language of the film grounded in reality.

On set with DP Eve Cohen for Apple’s “The Other Zoey” with director Sara Zandieh

Why did you choose ARRI Rental's DNA LF lenses?

Our “understated glamor” aesthetic updated the 90s rom-com look on a modest budget. An essential part of that is contrast control and softening, typically achieved with filtration, but I had no DIT or critical viewing environment on this film and it would have been too difficult to match the degree of diffusion consistently. Instead, I opted for a vintage lens set with uniform density crafted into the optics – the DNA LFs. This softening of the lens or natural diffusion, specifically at wide apertures, is a pleasing form of chromatic aberration and is wonderfully consistent across the DNA LF range.

Many large-format vintage lenses made from antique optics are not consistent with color, stop, barrel diameter, or close focus across each focal length of the range, let alone matching sets of focal lengths. I wanted a spherical lens set with consistently distinct flares, bokeh, and soft chromatic aberration – qualitative vintage with quantitative modern design. The DNA LF lenses stood out because they matched across the set, even down to the shape of the flares and consistency of the bokeh.

I had a nine-lens set of DNA LFs shared between my two cameras, ranging between 21 mm and 135 mm. Typically, high-fashion close-ups from heightened 80s and 90s films were done on a telephoto lens at a shallow stop, physically far away, but bringing the subject close to the audience. The geometry of the face is compressed in terms of ear-to-eye distance and eye-to-nose distance, with only a small, abstract slice of visible background, isolating the subject. It is an inherent separateness that is tied to this high-fashion, unattainable aesthetic of the glamor shot. I wanted to hint at this glamor, but make it attainable.

DP Eve Cohen with camera on sled at ski resort set

How did the lenses and the larger format help you achieve this balance between glamor and accessibility?

The ALEXA Mini LF with DNA LFs allowed me to create singles that felt like portraits, aesthetic in design, accessible in nature, and with an understated romance. The Mini LF sensor matches the depth of field from still photography and many of my references for Zoey’s character were from stills: the portraiture of William Eggleston, Collier Schorr, and Eve Arnold. These portraiture singles were part of the foundation for the understated glamor of “The Other Zoey.”

A 50 mm lens on a large-format sensor has the same field of view as a 35 mm lens on a Super 35 sensor, but with the depth of field of a 50 mm. It is this background separation that maintains the glamor, while the wider field of view shortens the subject-camera distance. As an audience member you might not be able to articulate what you are experiencing, but the facial geometry at this arm’s length distance mimics what it is like to be standing in front of someone; you could hear them whisper, it has a different kind of intimacy while still maintaining a gentle glamor. 

Behind the scenes at the ski resort

Which focal lengths did you gravitate towards, and for what kinds of shots?

At the beginning of the film, Zoey is staunchly against romantic love. When we first meet her, we approach from a slow Steadicam on a 29 mm lens that reveals her as she speaks up in class, settling about five feet away. Camera-to-subject distance is slightly removed, devoid of romantic feel and grounded in reality. As the film progresses, I slowly move the 29 mm lens physically closer to Zoey and then switch to a 35 mm at the same closer distance as she gradually opens up to the idea of romance.

I leant into high-romance photography by utilizing a more telephoto lens when referencing the meet-cute and grand-gesture tropes from 90s rom-coms. The memory loss motif in “The Other Zoey” allows for meet-cute moments to be echoed throughout the film. The first is when Zack accidentally hits Zoey on the head with a soccer ball, echoed later when he accidentally hits her in the head with a snowball. Time of day and blocking were essential to match these frames, filmed on a 50 mm with a sun flare pushing through the center between the two characters – a nod to the ultra-romantic moment where Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy share a first kiss in Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice.” I also echo this frame when Zoey falls onto Miles, her other love interest, on the ski slope.

When the story gets to Jam Fest, Zoey approaches the DJ booth and we see her on a 50 mm edged in rose pink on stage for her grand gesture moment, slowly moving the photography into the telephoto world. When she finds Zack, both of them are covered in their final scene on 50 mm and finally up to 100 mm close-ups, letting the background become an abstract slice of color and bokeh.

There were a handful of FaceTime scenes to film and the pairing of the Mini LF with the 21 mm DNA LF made this possible. We were not going to have time on this film to vertically rotate a camera for 9:16 over the entire sensor, and since the FaceTime would never occupy the entire frame in the edit, I knew the center extraction of the open gate frame would provide enough resolution. Working with the 21 mm and having the actors physically hold the matte box on the lens as if it was a phone brought a different kind of confessional intimacy without the facial distortion typically associated with a wide-angle lens. I also stopped down to about a T5.6 for these scenes.

Camera on tracking dolly behind the scenes for dinner scene for “The Other Zoey"

What characteristics of the ALEXA Mini LF made it the right camera to use?

A handful of our scenes took place in cramped locations and the larger format allowed me to play with depth of field to create singles that felt like portraits. One of my favorite shots is a nod to the portrait of a woman on a bed by Collier Schorr; I echoed this with Zoey face down on the bed staring barely off camera, it’s an intimate and telling frame. The small footprint of the Mini LF allowed me to fit two cameras into Zoey’s bedroom, which was less than 100 square feet, while still being able to create depth in my frames.

I have worked for years on every flavor of ARRI ALEXA and I trust the quality and color science of the sensors. On this independent film I did not have a DIT to rely on, but rather my light meter, a trusted sensor, and a calibrated monitor. We filmed at a lightning pace and I was making quick exposure decisions without a critical viewing environment. Working with ALEXA I am more confident in my ability to make those decisions under pressure. We all know time is precious on set, but it is also costly in post. With the Mini LF I know that as long as I nail my exposure with a meter on set, I won’t have to spend precious time in post trying to get usable color. Instead, I can use that time with the colorist doing creative work.

From a young age I loved the romantic poetry of Keats and Wordsworth and the late enlightenment idea of the sublime that can be beautiful and terrifying, but also beautiful and true, as Keats writes in “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” I feel film has lost some of its glamor these days in favor of a fast fashion aesthetic. I brought back a little of the sublime to “The Other Zoey” using tools crafted with the same precision as a Keats poem. To me, this is the design philosophy of ARRI: the design of well-executed filmmaking, the design of a Keats poem. I wanted to challenge myself to make something on this small scale that felt as pristine and beautiful as the rom-coms of the 90s that were multiples of this budget. I think there is truth in something that is beautiful and well executed; even if critically it is unnoticed, some can appreciate it as art.

Dp Eve Cohen behind the scenes looking at playback on director’s monitor