Timing Alexander

During postproduction on Alexander, Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC collaborated on the film’s digital intermediate with colorist Yvan Lucas at Éclair Laboratories near Paris. Prieto is well-acquainted with the DI process, having digitally graded Frida, 25th Hour, 8 Mile and some shots in 21 Grams. Nevertheless, he faced new challenges on Alexander, notably with infrared and bleach-bypass footage.

American Cinematographer: Yvan, you’ve worked with many top cinematographers. What do you think of Mr. Prieto?

Lucas: Rodrigo knows exactly what he wants. Usually I interpret what the cinematographer says and do my own little cuisine. But not with Rodrigo — he’ll call me on it and say, “Didn’t we say magenta, not red?” [Laughter.]

Just how big is Alexander?

Lucas: Huge. Last time we counted there were 3,300 shots. A normal film may involve from 500 to 2,000 shots. By the way, I was assisted in the grading by Isabelle Julien.

Rodrigo, why did you choose to go DI?

Prieto: We had a lot of day exteriors with many cameras and no control of when you shoot. It could be sunny, cloudy, you name it. Even in interiors, there were a lot of continuous Steadicam takes with 360-degree coverage, making it difficult to control contrast for every angle. So I let some things go on the set, knowing that I would be able to correct them later.

What do you like about DI?

Prieto: Beyond the windows and all these extra controls, I like the interactivity. For me, that’s the best thing about DI. Here in this suite, I can see the difference immediately between one and two points of yellow.

You don’t have to wait for tomorrow?

Prieto: Exactly, because by tomorrow my perception will have changed; I will have gone out to the street and I won’t notice the difference. I like to use DI for those very subtle changes. You might think digital grading is great for big manipulations of the image, but I think it’s best for the subtleties.

As a cinematographer, do you always want to use a DI?

Prieto: Not necessarily. I just finished a film with Ang Lee called Brokeback Mountain, and we won’t be using a DI because we don’t feel  it’s necessary. It was a much more controlled shoot. The shooting style was stoic and simple, like the cowboy characters.

What kinds of corrections are you doing to Alexander?

Prieto: Most of the time we’ve been dealing with the primary color correction. I prefer that, because sometimes when you push things too much, it looks electronic.

Prieto and Lucas pause in their grading to watch a reel of “digital dailies,” a short 35mm positive with selected images. Digital dailies are used throughout the grading process to check how the DI will look on film. 

There seems to be a slight difference between the same scene on the digital projector and on the digital dailies.

Prieto: The one thing you can’t see completely accurately on the digital projector is contrast. It lacks the blacks of the print. It’s sometimes difficult to tell whether the grading is correct until you see the digital dailies.

Lucas: We want deep blacks in projection, as with ENR. However, the contrast of the projected film is not created by the negative, but by the positive.

So you have to make a mental note that the image you see in DI will have more contrast on the print?

Prieto: That’s the most difficult thing about the process. The danger is pushing it too much. On 8 Mile I brightened stuff to see detail that was hard to see in the digital 1K projection during grading, but when I saw the print I found I didn’t need to because it was already there.

Lucas: That’s where you may get a surprise when you see digital dailies. The color match between film and the digital projection is very accurate, but it’s less so with the blacks. The contrast also has to do with the resolution of the digital projector. A 2K image will appear to be more brilliant than 1K because there’s more detail.

We look at an image with a subtle darkening around the edges, created by a soft-bordered Power Window at the center of the frame. The effect is similar to vignetting, a technical problem with some lenses that transmit more light in the center than on the edges.

Vignetting is usually considered a problem, but here you are actually adding vignetting to the image?

Prieto: Yes. We have sometimes put in vignetting with masks to enhance the sensation of darkness, while keeping the center of the frame the same density.

Prieto and Lucas grade Alexander’s Macedonian wedding. Lucas adds a mask to offset the soft shadow of the camera on the veiled bride’s face as the camera tracks out. Other shots have color changes.

What are you doing to the color in this sequence?

Prieto: The weather was very cloudy during the shoot, and we didn’t have enough exposure to use the chocolate filter I was using for that segment of the film, so we had to put it in afterwards.

Why use a filter at all, knowing that you could add a virtual filter in the grading?

Prieto: I wanted the filters to be incorporated into the image while Oliver was editing. I knew that if I didn’t use the filters, he might grow to like the image without a filter as he looked at the footage over and over. The same is true of bleach bypass. If you don’t do it on the negative, you can change your mind later.

Is it difficult to deal with bleach bypass in DI?

Prieto: Scanning the 35mm is very difficult. On 25th Hour we had to rescan several shots. The contrast is so great that sometimes the highlights were okay but we couldn’t darken it enough — we would darken but get no detail. So we had to rescan it and tilt the scale toward the darks.

Lucas: We’re using a Northlight to scan this film.

How are you grading the bleach bypass?

Prieto: Most of the time we’ve been adding saturation, like in the Indian palace, where the concept of the scene is the contrast of color as well as the contrast of light and dark. We used bleach bypass for the pure contrast, but we brought back the color with grading.

That’s a new approach to bleach bypass. With traditional film grading, bleach bypass has often been used to desaturate the image. Now, that is easily done in DI. What else do you like about bleach bypass?

Prieto: The grain comes alive. Perhaps the grain also becomes more apparent when you exaggerate contrast digitally, but I feel the grain structure is more organic when it’s integrated into the negative.

What print stock are you using?

Prieto: That’s a problem area. I find Kodak Vision Premier [2393] to be far superior to the 2383, particularly in terms of the blacks.

But it’s more expensive.

Prieto: Yes, it’s been a big issue on every movie that I’ve done a DI on; usually the studio doesn’t want to pay for a massive release on Premier. So I have to do a big negotiation, and sometimes I’m faced with doing some prints on 93 and the rest on another stock. I don’t know if a new stock should be created for DI or how else to resolve this issue, but it has become very frustrating.

Any final words on DI?

Prieto: Some people say that it’s not real photography. To me, that’s equivalent to saying that using a color or grad filter on the camera is cheating as well. For me, it’s the same thought process as doing it in camera; it’s just doing it at a different moment. DI is just an extra tool that you’re using for cinematography. It’s one more step in the photography of the movie.

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.