Worlds and lenses collide on “3 Body Problem”

Cinematographers Jonathan Freeman ASC and Richard Donnelly ISC set the look on the first two episodes of Netflix’s sci-fi drama, combining ALFA anamorphic and DNA LF lenses.

Jun. 19, 2024
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In the Netflix series “3 Body Problem,” Earth faces an existential threat from an alien world where three suns cause endlessly unpredictable orbital chaos. Based on novels by Chinese author Liu Cixin, the series was created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the team behind “Game of Thrones,” as well as “True Blood” writer Alexander Woo. Recently confirmed for a second and third season, the first season is available to stream on Netflix now.

Having worked with cinematographer Jonathan Freeman ASC on “Game of Thrones,” Benioff and Weiss approached him about “3 Body Problem” early in development and asked him to take on the first two episodes, setting the look for the show. Due to scheduling conflicts, Richard Donnelly ISC was brought in to shoot sections that Freeman couldn’t undertake, so they are co-credited in episodes one and two, with subsequent episodes shot by P.J. Dillon ASC, ISC and Martin Ahlgren ASC.

Format and aspect ratio

The filmmakers quickly decided on large format and ARRI’s ALEXA Mini LF camera, both for the characteristic fall-off and depth-of-field of the large sensor, and the flexibility it afforded with the show’s considerable VFX requirements. Aspect ratio, however, was more of a debate. “Thankfully,” says Freeman, “Netflix are open to widescreen ratios, so we were able to think beyond the 16:9 of ‘Game of Thrones’ and consider 2:1, which is common now, but also 2.35:1 or even 2.39:1. We decided it by looking at our set pieces, not just in the first season, but beyond, and settled on 2.35:1. The VR [virtual reality] game in the show had huge landscapes that suited widescreen, and I think it effectively conveys the vastness of space by using negative space between objects.”

As well as vistas, Freeman had to consider close-ups. He says, “I do think that a big close-up in a wider aspect ratio can be more intense. There's a scene at the end of episode two where Ye Wenjie [Rosalind Chao] is contemplating a decision that will affect not only herself, but the whole world. Our director, Derek Tsang, landed on this beautiful, very tight close-up as she makes the decision, which is a critical moment in the series. It's simple filmmaking language, but somehow the framing in that wide aspect ratio just made it a little bit more powerful, so I think moments like that show we made the right choice.”

Two lens sets for two realities

Looking for a primary lens set that would blend vintage and modern attributes, Freeman tested many different optics. He says, “The glass you put in front of the camera is probably the most paramount decision of prep. Simon Surtees at ARRI Rental UK suggested I look at the ALFA anamorphics, which had been developed as prototypes for Greig Fraser [ACS, ASC] on ‘The Batman’ and were in the process of being productized. I must say that I was completely blown away by the ALFAs. They had the classic anamorphic bokeh associated with vintage lenses, and unique chromatic aberrations that made them feel almost other-worldly. They also had the advantage of an optical center free from distortion, which can be challenging with some vintage anamorphics, especially when shooting close-ups.”

Richard Donnelly was also pleased with the lens choice. He notes, “I found that, even close to wide open, the ALFAs were really beautiful and didn’t cause the kinds of issues and aberrations you might see with other anamorphics. Having worked with them for months and months, I got a good feel for what the camera and lenses could do, and was comfortable pushing them with very low light levels. I took it to the limit on the last day I shot, for a scene in episode one where the detective Da Shi [Benedict Wong] walks down a hallway and into a dark room to examine a dead body by torchlight. We just had the torch and a couple of practicals, and pushed a little bit of light through a canvas ceiling built into the set; the results were great.”

For scenes set in the VR game, which is based on alien technology, Freeman sought to establish a subtly contrasting look. He says, “We wanted to differentiate it from the rest of the series, so that when our characters enter the game it feels different, almost hyperreal. I decided to use spherical DNA LF lenses, also from ARRI Rental, because they were beautifully balanced – sharper but natural, and consistent across the frame.” Donnelly adds, “I hadn’t worked with DNAs before, but they were fantastic lenses. We tended to only use any kind of diffusion filters with the ALFAs, and kept all the VR game scenes completely clean; it was a slightly sharper image overall and gave it a separation.”

Defining looks for locations and time periods

In addition to lens choices, a few specific looks were created to distinguish different historical periods or to convey a sense of time and place. Episodes one and two jump back and forth between the present day and the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Freeman explains, “We wanted to make a slight distinction without being too heavy-handed. Derek Tsang visualized the Cultural Revolution through images created at that time using Ektachrome. As Ektachrome ages it has that wonderful quality of certain colors popping, like the reds and blues, but other tones fading away, like earth tones and skin tones. We created a LUT to suggest that kind of feeling.”

Another LUT was built for scenes that Donnelly shot in Spain, which needed to double for the Red Coast Base in the mountains of Inner Mongolia. He says, “We were shooting in April or May in Spain, but it was supposed to be cold in the story – the dead of winter. I decided to embrace the hard sunlight and worked with our DIT to create a LUT that had a cool, contrasty, winter look to it. The ALEXA Mini LF and ALFA lenses captured all the information in the really bright sunshine and the LUT performed very well. It was simple but it worked; the VFX team added some visible breath to enhance the feeling of cold, but everything else was just color and contrast.”

Building responsive lighting into the set

The VR game, played using a futuristic headset, transports characters into an immersive sensory experience of the alien planet Trisolaris, where the fluctuating gravitational pulls of three suns cause incredibly rapid climatic and lighting changes. Freeman explains, “A character might be wandering in the pre-dawn light and look at the horizon to see one sun come up, rise rapidly and arc down the other way, and then the world is plunged into a deep frost lit by starlight, with all three suns rising only a moment later. All this required interactive light, which had to coordinate with what would eventually be built virtually.”

Having looked into building or renting an LED volume and realizing that the scale required and the length of the shoot would make this prohibitively expensive, Freeman came up with a custom solution. He says, “We decided to create what we called a low-res volume, which was still quite expensive and a big undertaking. Basically, it was an array of over 1,200 LED panels wrapping around the stage in a curved wall more than 100 feet across and 20 feet high, with a Rosco scrim in front for diffusion. We also had some soft boxes above. After I designed scene looks with our brilliant board operator, we were able to simulate shifting changes in the overall ambience of the sky. We could transition from pre-dawn to sunrise, midday, sunset, magic hour, and starry night by morphing the looks together.”

Donnelly explains the process: “Once we’d worked out with Derek when the lighting change would happen in a scene and had it programmed, it was ready to go at the press of a button. The level of control was amazing. I shot the sequence in episode one when Jin Cheng [Jess Hong] first arrives in the VR game and meets the emperor and the little child. When they run and hide under rocks from the sun, we used the wall of light and mobile lights on wires to create real moving shadows. It's not like working with a greenscreen or bluescreen; the actors can see the light changes happening and react in real time, so it was hugely beneficial to the performances. Jonathan is a genius for coming up with that. You’d also get these incredible horizon lines reflected in the pupils of the actors. It was an extraordinary way to shoot; I really enjoyed it.” 

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A curved wall over 100 feet across and 20 feet high was built with over 1,200 LED panels to simulate shifting changes in the ambience of the sky.

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