George Clooney's "The Boys in the Boat" uses ALFA anamorphics

Cinematographer Martin Ruhe ASC on his creative approach to telling the back story of America's entry in the eights rowing race at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Jan. 11, 2024

For the nine men selected to represent the United States in the coxed eights rowing race at the 1936 Olympics, hosted in Berlin by Nazi Germany, being on the team meant food on the table and financial support through college. Working their way up to an international standard through the struggles of the Depression, the University of Washington crew had to see off all domestic competition before representing the nation abroad.

Based on the best-selling book by Daniel James Brown, "The Boys in the Boat" re-teams director George Clooney with cinematographer Martin Ruhe ASC, following their previous collaborations on "Catch-22," "The Midnight Sky," and "The Tender Bar." Ruhe combined Sony large-format cameras with ARRI Rental ALFA anamorphic lenses and referenced 1930s film footage in creating dynamic camerawork for the race sequences. The production was shot entirely in the UK, serviced by ARRI Rental's facility near London.

When did George Clooney approach you about this project?

George has been fascinated by this story for a long time, after reading the book. It really is such a strong story - what happened to those boys and how they made it to the Olympic final. I think he first brought it up when we were shooting "Midnight Sky," and he wanted to tackle it sooner, but that was impossible due to COVID. We couldn't have done all the big scenes with lots of extras, so it got postponed. By the time it came together in 2022, I had known all about the subject for a while. I had seen the documentary and watched all the original footage of the boat races.


Cinematographer Martin Ruhe ASC (left) with director George Clooney on set.

What discussions did you have with him about a visual approach?

Very quickly we said it should be anamorphic. I think it was the shape of the boats, the length of them, and the look of the races, with the boats chasing each other on the water. It immediately made me think of anamorphic, and George was fine with it. Also, we wanted the story to be told on the biggest screen possible, and anamorphic has such a cinematic feel. We knew we'd have to work a lot on the water, and the flexibility of the Rialto system led me to the Sony Venice. I like the internal NDs, which are in the best steps possible.

How did you start investigating which lenses might be right for the film?

Early on, I visited Christoph Hoffsten at ARRI Rental Berlin and we tested various large-format lenses. I looked at the ARRI Signatures and found them amazing, but they were not anamorphic. Then he showed me the ALFAs and I was intrigued, because the squeeze factor and the fall-off are beautiful. We talked about maybe having one or two lenses that are a little bit softer towards the edges, which we called portrait variants, and they had a wonderful quality to them. We wanted to make a historical film without it feeling old-fashioned, and I think the larger format with ALFAs was perfect for that. I mean, the ALFAs are just beautiful, so I didn't hesitate to use them.


Director George Clooney oversees a Steadicam shot, with an ALFA lens on the camera.

Christoph sometimes tunes ALFAs for a unique look - was that talked about?

Yes, he spoke with me about that. We had previously worked together on "Midnight Sky," when I used ALEXA 65 with DNA lenses, so I knew how ARRI Rental can tune lenses. Christoph is very open-minded and a great listener. He told me the story of the ALFAs; how they were built for Greig Fraser on "The Batman." I liked what I saw a lot and didn't feel the need to tweak the lenses too much. Mainly we had a standard ALFA set, other than the 85 mm portrait lens, which fell off quicker at the edges. We used it quite often for close-ups. There's a beautiful scene when Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) meets his love interest Joyce (Hadley Robinson), and they kiss for the first time. Using that 85 mm variant for the close-ups gave them a very subtle, beautiful, and intimate feel.

Did you need telephoto lenses for the racing scenes?

The long oars of the boats keep you quite a distance away, so you often end up using longer lenses for the races. George wanted it to be really dynamic, with a lot of intense moments, so we used quite a few crash zooms for the races. We used spherical zooms for that, as it gave us the most amount of range; everything from the Angénieux Optimo 17-80 mm and 24-290 mm to a 300-600 mm Canon. We wanted to build up the excitement of the races every time a bit more. That's why we used zooms, because of the bigger range. We also had spherical lenses on the drone camera, which was an ALEXA Mini LF, because the ALFA lenses are too valuable to fly, and of course weight is a factor.


Callum Turner stars as Joe Rantz and Hadley Robinson as Joyce Simdars.

Were you able to shoot the races mostly on the water?

We always tried to shoot on the water and only shot from the shore if it was story-driven, for example from the perspective of spectators. We wanted to be with the rowers as much as we could. The challenge was that the rowing boats are incredibly fragile, so you can't be on a moving camera boat in front of them because your wake could sink them. If you want to shoot them from the front you have to be static or use the drone. It helped that the rowers face backwards, so if you're behind them you can see their faces. I tested every possible camera boat option and combinations of stabilizers and small cranes or Supertechnos.

Could you mount cameras to the rowing boats themselves?

That's tricky because you can't add much weight or you throw them off balance. We were filming on location at Henley and on the Queen Mother Reservoir, and the whole thing was a huge logistical challenge. For the big races there could be eight boats, so that's 64 rowers and eight coxswains, which is a lot of people to get ready, and we'd have up to three camera boats and a drone. There was so much coordination, and the athletes are trained to row hard for an eight-minute race, but we needed to film them for days, so we had to be careful with their energy levels.


DP Martin Ruhe and director George Clooney confer at the camera, setting up a dolly shot on location.

It's an interesting sport because it's very intense but the rowers are always in motion so it's very hard to see their facial expressions and get a sense of what they're going through. They don't tend to express very much and they're going in a straight line, doing very repetitive and monotonous movements. We had to come up with ways to keep it interesting and we wanted to ramp it up towards the final, making the last race the strongest one, visually.

So, what did you do different for the last race?

Well, we went back to the original footage, and actually the most interesting and dynamic footage was from Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia" documentary film of the 1936 Olympics. There are shots that seem to be handheld in the boat in front of the rowers, who go into the camera and back again with an almost vicious intensity. They also did a telephoto shot where they're tracking along and go from one rower to the next at speed, down the length of the boat. It was actually quite hard to figure out how they did that.


The long rowing oars meant camera boats had to keep their distance.

We simulated it by having our special effects team build a rig with a 60-foot boat, which was on the land, so I could be with the camera in the boat, handheld. We tried that on the water, but it was extremely shaky and not very good. With the rig we were also able to shorten the oars, so we could get in closer from the side. So, we spent lots of days on the water and we spent one day in that rig getting more intense shots of things like their hands and their faces coming into the camera and out again on a wide-angle lens. It allowed us to capture the energy of the movement and make it feel like you're with them in the boat.

Were you happy with the final result?

Yes, we were. We finished shooting in June 2022 and I did the final color grade in January 2023. They tested it and I went along to one test screening near Los Angeles; it was really beautiful to watch it on a big screen and see how the audience reacted to the final race.

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Director George Clooney watches the action from the shore.