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"Rare Beasts" captured with ALEXA 65

Cinematographer Patrick Meller pairs ARRI Rental’s ALEXA 65 camera with Prime 65 S lenses for actress Billie Piper’s directorial debut.

British film "Rare Beasts" has been called an anti rom-com, an unflinching portrait of a troubled young woman in the modern world, trying to find love while holding together the unravelling strands of her disordered life. Written and directed by Billie Piper, who also plays the lead role, the film was shot by cinematographer Patrick Meller. After reaching out to ARRI Rental’s UK office during preproduction, Meller found himself with an opportunity to shoot with the exclusive ALEXA 65 camera system and Prime 65 S lenses. He speaks here about his experience using the 65 mm format for a tight, tense, low-budget drama.

How did you get involved in the project? 

I’d shot a short film called "Beast" for the BFI, where Billie played the lead; we met on that project and got on well. A year later my agent mentioned he’d got a copy of this very interesting script written by Billie, and she was going to star and direct in it. I was intrigued and wanted to read it. I wrote Billie an email asking if she would allow me to cast my eyes over it. It was a bit forward, I guess, but she sent me a copy and I loved it. We met up to talk about the project and things evolved from there.


Given that this was her directorial debut, how did you go about formulating a visual approach with her?

It was a really relaxed and exciting process. I love this stage of preproduction. Billie came into the prep with a very articulate understanding of how the film should make you feel. We sat in a room for a couple of weeks and just bounced ideas around – much time was spent constructing a visual landscape for the film that best represented the film’s commentary, characters, and foremost what Billie wanted to say. What I really appreciated was that Billie didn’t have too many preconceived ideas about the cinematography for the film. I had a lot of creative freedom to interpret her script. We had a blank canvas really!

How did you come to shoot with the ALEXA 65?

I met with Ed Jones of ARRI Rental UK for a beer in Soho to talk about the project. On a previous film I’d done in the Scottish Highlands, I’d used a smaller rental house, but this time around I was very keen to work with ARRI Rental, as the film was based in London and I wanted as much technical and optical support as possible. I thought ARRI Rental might be able to help with ALEXA Minis, but it so happened that there was a gap between other, bigger films, and they were able to offer me the ALEXA 65. I couldn't quite believe that it was going to be a reality; I was blown away to be getting the most innovative, exciting camera system on an independent film. I can’t thank ARRI Rental UK enough.


In what ways was it the right format for the story?

The story is from the perspective of Billie’s character Mandy: a modern-day woman who is battling all the time. She's a single mum, she's got a career, she's trying to find love with an obnoxious and misogynistic man, as well as living with her mother. There’s a lot going on in her life – it’s chaotic! I needed the camera to be as immersive as possible and sit amongst it all. 

With the full-frame 65mm, you can capture so much information, it was the perfect format to open up Mandy’s vulnerability, her emotions, her relationships, and her environment. I knew I was going to shoot lots of portraiture on this film, so I was excited at the prospect of utilizing that shallow depth of field. The fall-off is beautiful and it reads skin tones and colors very organically. 

What led you to the Prime 65 S lenses, and how would you describe the look?

I tested other lenses, but I didn’t want anything too sharp. I really liked the softness and smoothness of the Prime 65 S series. I paired them up with a Mitchell A filter just to soften them off even more. The lenses have a lovely wrap-around in soft light. I found the look to be quite natural.

I thought the 35 mm, the widest lens in the set, was spectacular. When you shot wide open and you had a subject that was relatively close to you, you'd get these graphic, cinematic wides with a little bit of depth, which was just amazing. The 75 mm was a beautiful portraiture lens, too.


A review after the Venice film festival screening mentioned energetic camera moves. Can you describe your approach to the camerawork?

In prep, Billie and I talked about wanting to shoot for as long as possible without interrupting the action with cuts or coverage. We wanted to give space to the actors and let the performances do all the work, essentially using blocking to edit the shot. So, we would choreograph long sequences or scenes that way. Billie wanted the camera to feel like a member of the cast. It’s a very fast-paced narrative, full of ups and downs, emotions and feelings. We wanted the camera to be frantic, in terms of speed, to reflect that, but it also needed to be sensitive and delicate to enjoy the calmer moments in the script. 

In terms of your long takes, is there a sequence that stands out in your memory for being especially challenging, or rewarding?

Well, I think generally, when you've got a smaller budget film with a very short, strict schedule, it can be challenging to retain your creative intentions. We fought really hard not lose any of our set pieces and just fall back on standard coverage. I was proud of all the scenes which played out in one shot. Billie, myself, and Tom Wilkinson, our A-camera and Steadicam operator, worked really hard to try and create dynamic and thought-out set pieces. The taxi sequence where Mandy is taking her kid on holiday stands out for me. I was chuffed with how it looked! 


Now that you've worked with the ALEXA 65, would you use it again?

Yeah, I mean, if I could get one. I would love to do a really big-vista western, anything with big landscapes. The wides you get with this format are just incredible, there’s nothing else like it, other than going back to the large film formats. So, yes, I would love to work with it again!