Cinematographer Luo Pan works with ALEXA XT cameras and M-Series lights on the award-winning new film from veteran Chinese director Feng Xiaogang.
I AM NOT MADAME BOVARY explores a bold storytelling technique by using circular and square framing for different parts of the narrative. Set in a riverside village in south China, the film follows the decade-long efforts of a woman petitioning the Chinese legal system for a divorce, after being swindled by her husband.
Cinematographer Luo Pan spoke to ARRI about his use of ALEXA XT cameras and M-Series lights on the film, which has won awards including the FIPRESCI Special Presentations prize at the 41st Toronto Film Festival and the Golden Seashell for Best Film at the 64th San Sebastian Film Festival.
How did you and Feng Xiaogang hit upon the idea of such unusual framing?
The idea of using circular framing was purely by accident. Feng Xiaogang told me he wanted something entirely different in terms of visual storytelling. I mindlessly said to him that circular framing could be an option and surprisingly he was fascinated by this idea. The next day we edited our location scout photos into circular framing and soon realized that with this technique, all of the standard practices of composition, color and perspective didn't apply. The circular images resembled traditional Chinese landscape paintings, which posed a series of challenges in shot design, camera movement and even blocking. Shooting close-ups was a problem because it looked like telescope vision; wide shots also didn't look right.
In terms of camera movement we avoided panning and dolly shots because they appeared too intrusive. We wanted to minimize the presence of camera, so most of the film comprises locked-off medium shots. The only practical camera movement was lateral tracking to follow the actors; it looked as if the actors were still and the backgrounds were moving, which again was reminiscent of traditional Chinese paintings. Despite these limits in camera movement, being able to experiment with such a unique approach to visual storytelling was totally worth it.
Why did you choose ALEXA for I AM NOT MADAME BOVARY, and what lenses did you use?
I have been using ALEXA for a long time; it's such a reliable tool. We had two ALEXA XT Studios on the film. Most of the time it was just one camera rolling, while the other was on standby. For lenses I chose a set of ZEISS Super Speed T1.3; I didn't use modern lenses such as ARRI Master Primes because they are optically flawless and I wanted something aesthetically different for this film. The Super Speeds date back to over 30 years ago and they render images with smooth texture and low contrast. Under certain situations the flares are gorgeous.
What was your general lighting approach?
I used mostly soft light without any backlight. We had full control of the lighting on set and I never had to worry about ALEXA's low light performance. For night scenes I shot at 800 EI, occasionally opening up the iris and switching to 400 EI for more shadow detail. There were no problems with noise. An example is the dining scene in the film; originally there was no power cut incident in the script, but because there are too many regular dining scenes in films, I decided to add the power cut, which brought some satirical effect to the narrative. After the power cut there was only a kerosene lamp on set and I didn't supplement it because I wanted to preserve the natural, low contrast look. Although that part of the scene was dimly lit, the images from ALEXA were clean and almost entirely free of noise.
Did you use any of ARRI's M-Series daylight fixtures?
I used almost all of the M-Series lights, including the M90, M40 and M18. There was one scene that I vividly remember; it's the opening scene where the lead character arrives at the dock on a bamboo raft. The winter landscape in south China still had a lot of green, so I wanted to create a warm tone. It was raining and I used tungsten fixtures to light the raindrops. An M90 was used to lift up the shadows and soften the contrast. In color grading I slightly darkened the dock so the brighter parts of the image -- such as the sky, water and skin tones -- really stood out. I also used M90s for many night scenes. M-Series lights are extremely convenient, with a smaller size compared to previous ARRI daylight fixtures. They are easy to operate, have high output and their daylight color balance renders skin tones beautifully.
Did ALEXA's build quality and post workflow meet your needs?
The south China winter wasn't too cold, but it was quite damp, although it definitely fell well within the operating capabilities of ALEXA and the cameras were extremely reliable throughout production. Postproduction was a breeze on this film. I managed to get most of the look on set, so there were very few adjustments in color grading, other than bringing out details in the sky and matching skin tones. I don't like to manipulate images too much because I believe good cinematography is the key and it's pointless to fix things in post. I shot in the ARRIRAW format, which retained maximum image details and the quality was more than enough for my adjustments.
Are any of ARRI's more recently released products on your radar?
The film was shot in winter 2015 and at the time, ARRI SkyPanel LED lights weren't widely available. I believe they would be far more convenient than traditional fixtures with filter gels, although equipment choices always depend on the film. I'm aware that ARRI has recently released its TRINITY stabilizer, which I got my hands on in September this year. The stabilizer was silky smooth and I plan to use it on my future productions; I can imagine it leading to a completely different look.