Courtesy of Ed Lachman

Ed Lachman ASC drives development of ARRI Rental's exclusive ALEXA Mini LF Monochrome

ARRI Rental and cinematographers Ed Lachman ASC and Marko Massinger collaborate on a new black-and-white camera for the Netflix movie "El Conde," directed by Pablo Larraín.

Sep. 14, 2023
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What if Augusto Pinochet, the dictator who haunted Chile from 1973 to 1990 with impunity, never truly died? What if he were a 250-year-old vampire now bored of this world, worn down by familial strife and his own murderous misdoings, symbolizing a nation's unresolved pain and the allure of unchecked power? How can a filmmaker confront the captivating beauty emerging from such a malevolent metaphor tragically anchored in real trauma? These are the essential threads weaving through "El Conde," produced for Netflix by director Pablo Larraín's Fabula Productions and shot by renowned cinematographer Ed Lachman ASC.

Larraín is a native Chilean writer, producer, and director, best known internationally for his fictionalized portraits "Jackie" (2016) and "Spencer" (2021). Lachman recalls that when he got involved with "El Conde," Larraín talked about wanting to shoot in black and white right from the beginning. "The abstract and distant nature of black-and-white cinematography seemed right," says Lachman. "The film uses the vampire genre as a literal and metaphorical way of telling a story about political upheaval in Chile in the 1970s."


Director Pablo Larraín on set.

Lachman is well known for continuing to shoot on analog film for certain projects in the digital age, earning his second Oscar nomination for 2015's "Carol" (his first was for "Far from Heaven" in 2003), and an Emmy nomination for "Mildred Pierce" (2011), both captured on Super 16 with ARRIFLEX 416 cameras. "I would have liked to shoot 'El Conde' on black-and-white negative, like I did on 'I'm Not There' and 'Wonderstruck' for Todd Haynes, even though Kodak hasn't substantially improved the exposure range, contrast, or latitude of that stock in 50 years," says the cinematographer. "But, given the limitation that there were no film labs near our location in Chile, we opted for digital."

For some years, ARRI Rental had offered an exclusive black-and-white version of the ALEXA XT, stripped of its Bayer mask and infrared filter and therefore able to capture monochrome images with greater resolution, contrast, and sensitivity than regular ALEXAs. More recently it had also developed an ALEXA 65 variant, which, unlike the XT, did not fall foul of Netflix's native 4K delivery requirement. Lachman was intrigued by this option but knew that most of the film would be shot with a 15-foot Technocrane, so the black-and-white ALEXA 65 might not have been sufficiently compact.

"I reached out to my friend Marko Massinger in Germany, who always explores the extremes of technology in his art, to ask if he thought there was any way ARRI could implement a monochromatic chip in the lighter, smaller ALEXA Mini LF," says Lachman. "I had my doubts, because ARRI were coming out with their new ALEXA 35 camera, so I figured all their work and effort would be going into that. Marko spoke with Manfred Jahn at ARRI Rental in Munich, and he was actually able to give me some encouragement."


Jaime Vadell plays Augusto Pinochet - El Conde.

Marko Massinger is a German entrepreneur, cinematographer, imaging scientist, and associate member of the ASC. Having experimented with both analog and digital black-and-white capture before, he had a solid grounding in the science. When Manfred Jahn suggested that a monochromatic version of the large-format ALEXA Mini LF could theoretically be created, it was determined that Massinger would test the prototype in Germany and report back to Lachman.
While ARRI Rental is well used to developing custom solutions for its clients, the problem in this instance was time, or the lack thereof. With the start of preproduction only a few weeks away, a team of ARRI and ARRI Rental technicians in Germany and the UK began work on a prototype camera. "It came together amazingly fast," says Massinger. "From the initial idea to the moment where we started shooting tests, it was actually within two months. It was an incredible job by ARRI Rental." Lachman adds: "Kudos to the whole ARRI team, but especially to Stephan Schenk, Manfred Jahn, David Bermbach, and David Zucker, who all believed in the idea and made it happen."

Massinger travelled to Munich from his home in Stuttgart for a test day with the prototype as soon as it was ready. "Initially we did some lab tests to determine the ASA and the color response of the camera," he says. "Then we had about three hours of remaining daylight to go out in the wild and shoot filter tests, because that is what interested Ed the most - would classic black-and-white filters behave in the same way as he knew from black-and-white film? And they actually did."


DP Ed Lachman ASC (seated, left) oversees the cinematography from a monitor.

Lachman was thrilled with the news. "It was a big advantage for me that I could use my older black-and-white filters. Shooting with a color camera is different from shooting true black and white using yellows, oranges, reds, and greens. Furthermore, the black-and-white sensor offers a distinctly different tonal range and grain structure than a color sensor. I could go back to the way I expose negative film and control the look in-camera. Even with today's digital postproduction and AI technology capabilities, there's a unique value in capturing your vision in real time."

Massinger also believes that the essence of true cinematography transcends mere technicalities. He reflects, "These irreversible decisions have the potential to represent not only an artistic commitment, but also the embrace of a cinematographer's evolving role amidst a relentless technological evolution. While the allure of digital advances is undeniable, there's an unmatched authenticity, depth, and beauty in shaping a visual narrative in its rawest form on set - a practice that harmoniously merges the roots of cinema with its future. We're forging a bond, a guarantee that the initial vision remains pure, no matter how our tools evolve. This approach necessitates a ballet of trust: the production's belief in the director, the director's confidence in the cinematographer, and the cinematographer's trust in his crew. Through this, we don't just adapt to innovations, but recognize that they always have been and will be an intrinsic part of cinema."


Pinochet, a 250-year-old vampire, takes flight.

Larraín's faith in the project gave him the belief that black and white could shape and format the story. This wasn't merely a technical decision, but an endorsement of the vision shared by Lachman and Massinger. With some trepidation, Lachman had told Larraín that a brand-new black-and-white camera might be a possibility, but not knowing if it could be done, he didn't want to get the director's hopes up. Lachman found out only 10 days before shooting that the camera would indeed be available. "Then we had to get the production to agree that they were going to shoot it this way," he says. "In most situations, producers and studios want you to shoot in color and convert to black and white, so they cover themselves, but Pablo managed to get the commitment from Netflix in South America to really shoot it in black and white."

In seeking a visual approach, Lachman and Larraín were inspired by classic movies of the gothic and horror genres. "I was looking at classical black-and-white films by Carl Dreyer ['Vampyr,' 1932] and F.W. Murnau ['Nosferatu,' 1922], as well as Josef von Sternberg," says Lachman. "Their physicality of light and their use of textures in the sets supported the themes of their stories. We eventually came up with our own style, but I was definitely inspired by how ingenious they were with in-camera photography."


Paula Luchsinger plays Teresita, a visitor to Pinochet's household.

The sense of authenticity that Lachman wanted to bring to the black-and-white cinematography extended to his choice of lenses. "I sourced period leaded glass with similar design and single-layer coatings to cover the larger format, merging Baltar glass in the wider focal lengths," he says. "The 'Ultra Baltar' set, as I call it, comprises of 21 mm, 24 mm, 28 mm, 35 mm, 40 mm, 50 mm, 75 mm, 100 mm, 135 mm, and 152 mm focal lengths. This glass was legendarily used in 'Touch of Evil,' 'The Magnificent Ambersons,' and parts of 'Citizen Kane' and 'The Godfather.'"

Lachman stresses that he is "not talking about the Super Baltars created in the 1960s for reflex cameras, which were totally different in design and coatings, but the original Baltars, developed in the late 1930s and used in the 1940s to early 1950s for non-reflex rack-over cameras, primarily on black-and-white films." He continues, "So now, I had a monochromatic digital camera with real black-and-white lenses. We shot tests and it was beyond my imagination. I was getting things out of the camera that I never would have gotten out of a color camera, because every pixel is dedicated to illumination."

Massinger explains this technical aspect of the monochrome-modified ALEXA Mini LF: "It's down to the Bayer pattern in the camera - the color filter array. In black and white you don't have to subtract other colors. You don't have to interpolate in the de-mosaicing process and suddenly you just see more light. The luminance increases and you're also capturing more detail and texture, so it feels like higher resolution as well. It's much truer to analog film because you have fewer artefacts and there's no moiré because you're not de-mosaicing. It's really a very true and honest format."


The lightweight prototype ALEXA Mini LF Monochrome in a gimbal rig.

In his own tests, Lachman was particularly impressed with the increased sensitivity. "I was able to compare it with a normal ALEXA Mini LF, which we had for bluescreen work, and I determined that the native ASA of 800 was actually 1280 with the Monochrome camera, and the 1280 was around 2000," he recalls.

Another factor that helped to create the unique imagery of "El Conde" was the integration of the EL-Zone system using ARRI's Log C monitoring option in conjunction with SmallHD's latest generation of on-camera monitors. The EL-Zone system is an innovative exposure system, developed by Lachman and Massinger, that determines optimal zones of exposure in real time, ensuring that the dynamic range is preserved even in challenging lighting situations. By analyzing the scene's contrast ratios, EL-Zone guides cinematographers on the best exposure settings, essentially acting as a dynamic zone system tailored for digital sensors. It also provided an easy-to-understand, stop-based exposure heatmap, creating a common language and communication between Lachman, his DIT, and the crew.

In black-and-white cinematography, where the interplay of light and shadow is paramount, having the ability to define exposure with precision can make the difference between a functional shot and one that resonates. The EL-Zone system allowed them to approach scenes with confidence, knowing that the film's visual aesthetics would be captured optimally without the risk of losing detail in highlights or shadows. In essence, it brought a layer of sophistication and reliability to the digital shooting process, echoing the exposure methods of analog film days, but with the adaptability and immediacy required for contemporary filmmaking. Lachman remarks, "As a cinematographer, I felt like Ansel Adams, placing my exposure to set the range of detail in highlights and shadow areas, and define the image's latitude."


Windows on set in the studio had to match the exterior light on location.

The larger canvas of full frame was helpful to Lachman's visual storytelling, with sections of the narrative taking place in the expansive landscapes of Patagonia. "Also," he says, "this is a story about family, and I often had to compose many characters into the frame. Large format allowed us to have the image depth and width we needed to see near-far relationships." Depth of field played its part, too. "The tendency today is to shoot with very shallow focus, which to me just becomes another device of digital," continues Lachman. "Personally, I preferred deep focus on 'El Conde,' especially with the many characters I had in the frame."

One of the biggest challenges for Lachman was the scheduling, which meant he had to shoot studio scenes on a set in Santiago before travelling to Patagonia to match the exterior location work. He notes, "In the studio I had to come up with an approach of how I thought the light would be when we got to the location. I had scouted in Patagonia months before, but I had to imagine the way the light would be when we went back during their wintertime. This was somewhat easier in black and white because you're not at such a disadvantage to changing color temperatures during the day - it was all about utilizing contrast. The windows on our set had to match the exterior light on the location, so I had to study the direction and intensity of the light for the different times of day, and I also always asked Pablo about the time of day at which each scene unfolded."

While the absence of color made matching scenes slightly easier, it necessitated careful attention to detail when it came to choosing colors for costumes and sets. "A good example is the fake blood we used," says Lachman. "We did extensive tests with different colors and ended up with blue. Using red blood came out a rich black, but blue gave the blood more depth and a certain luminosity. The fact that we were looking at a true black-and-white image at every stage made it easier for all departments to make the right decisions about color, texture, and reflective surfaces."


Filming a Steadicam shot on location.

In the postproduction phase at Harbor Picture Company, Lachman collaborated closely with his favorite and esteemed Baselight colorist Joe Gawler. "Our discussions revolved around the use of black-and-white filters in many scenes," Lachman remarks. "Utilizing a monochromatic sensor and filters gave the scenes a dramatic contrast. Yet, when we lost light, I had to abandon my Harrison filters because of their loss of stop, leading to challenges in postproduction. Trying to push the contrast in post presented artefacts around the actors' faces and bodies against the sky, producing an undesirable edge glow. It was a stark reminder of the difference between on-set techniques and postproduction. This experience reinforced my belief in filming in black and white with filters over grading in post."

In an unprecedented effort, ARRI Rental was able to provide two prototype ALEXA Mini LF Monochrome cameras to the production just in time for the start of principal photography. Massinger concludes, "In the realm of black and white, we aren't just capturing images, but the very soul of storytelling, where every shade of grey can speak for itself. We put our trust in ARRI with this new camera, and they came through." The success of the project led ARRI Rental to roll out the model more widely, and it can now be rented from their facilities worldwide, alongside the existing ALEXA XT Monochrome and ALEXA 65 Monochrome models.

For Lachman, working with rental houses and manufacturers to continually expand the cinematographic toolset is vital. "It's the same reason why I always wanted to keep film around," he says. "Not every story should be told with the same language. The German expressionist artist Emil Nolde didn't paint the same way as the modernist Edward Hopper. They had different techniques and tools to create their images, so why shouldn't filmmakers?"


Director Pablo Larraín at the camera.