The ARRI Anamorphic Look: Interview with DP Bradford Young

For the last 50 years, the stretched anamorphic look has long been associated with huge Hollywood lavish epics, such as Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, and countless other classic films. The oval bokeh, the extra real estate utilised on the film plane, provided movie goers with a grandiouse experience in the cinema unmatched by simple wide screen cinematographic processes at the time. Today, very few digital cinema cameras have the capacity to utilise fully the Anamorphic lenses, and the ARRI Alexa XT being quite possibly the top camera used by Hollywood, not just for Anamorphic shooting, when paired up by ARRI's Master Anamorphic lenses brings a unique look to any film.

Talented DP Bradford Young, known for lensing incredible films such as Aint Them Bodies Saints, and Pariah, recently shot his latest thriller set in New York in the winter of 1981 entitled “A Most Violent Year”. Directed by J.C. Chandor, for the shoot, they decided to go with the ultimate image quality when it comes to digital cinema and the anamorphic look - ALEXA XT Studio, XT Plus and XT M cameras, as well as the marvellous ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphic lenses. Despite the fact, there were only three focal lengths available at the time of filming - the 35mm, 50mm and 75mm, Bradford Young shot the whole film with just these lenses. In the Lighting department, he made use of the latest ARRI HMI offerings - the M18, M40 and M90 HMI lights from the latest ARRI M Series.

He shared his experience with ARRI in the interview below, from which you can read selected excerpts and see photos from the set of “A Most Violent Year” currently playing in cinemas near you.

How did you and J.C. want this film to look?

When you think of New York in 1981 a lot of visual tropes come to mind, of a city that's suffering in terms of finance, infrastructure and aesthetics, but our film wasn't about that per se. It was about the inner workings of a more well-to-do demographic in the city during that period, so I felt that instead of a raw, abject look, we should pursue a sharper, more elegant and pristine feel, almost in juxtaposition to what the city as a whole was going through. I shared some images with J.C. that were about symmetry and balance, and we sought out spaces and pieces of architecture that would convey that sense of sharpness.

What led you to anamorphic capture?

When I read the script I definitely felt it should be shot in 2.35:1. I did consider 2-perf 35 mm with older spherical glass, but when we went with ALEXA I knew I wanted to combine it with anamorphic lenses. I felt it was important to be true to the scope format, so I didn't want to shoot 1.78:1 and crop to 2.35:1; I thought that would create an artificial tension to the framing and I preferred the idea of being locked into our compositions without a lot of room to adjust.

So the fact that ALEXA's 4:3 sensor was almost completely utilized by the anamorphic lenses felt like a 'truer' use of the format?

That's it, exactly. I felt that the tension of not being able to make a mistake and fix it in post would force us to construct really precise frames. Sometimes that meticulousness can get lost when you're cropping from a 16:9 frame, and of course a sense of precision was exactly what we were trying to achieve for the story.

Was it a given that you'd shoot ARRIRAW?

My preferred format has always been film and I felt that ARRIRAW was going to work in a way that was very similar to film, so for that reason ARRIRAW was mandatory; we owed ourselves that extra bit of room on the digital negative, and it also helped achieve the clean, pristine look we wanted. ARRIRAW at 800 EI has a very satiny quality, which was right for the film.

With the importance of symmetry and architecture in your compositions, was the corner-to-corner performance of the Master Anamorphics a crucial factor?

Yes, absolutely; the 35 mm Master Anamorphic was incredible in the way it held detail right into the corners. There wasn't any sort of barreling or wrap-around, and there wasn't a sweet spot like you get with other anamorphic lenses. So many of our compositions were about lines, and I wanted those lines to stay straight wherever they were in the frame. The precision of the Master Anamorphics helped me stay anchored to the aesthetic we had chosen for the film.

The fact that the Master Anamorphics are so fast at T1.9 was also significant. I like to shoot wide open and to use very little light, so for all of our day interiors, night interiors and night exteriors we were shooting at T1.9. In the past the limitations of anamorphic lenses have to some degree dictated the aesthetics of anamorphic films, but that isn't the case anymore. The Master Anamorphics are liberating because they allow you to shoot and light a scene in whatever way you like, without restriction.

At the time only three focal lengths were available; was that restricting?

I was trained in an environment where we didn't have a lot of resources, and I've shot films before where we only had one or two pieces of glass, so I wasn't really worried about being restricted with focal lengths. I was more concerned about having enough glass for situations where we needed to shoot with two or three cameras. It would have been nice to have had the 100 mm or 135 mm, which weren't ready at that time, but again it added to a framing tension that ultimately helped the visual language of the film.

You shot through a fairly brutal winter, didn't you?

It was the coldest, snowiest winter in decades, and we shot right smack in the middle of it. Mother Nature put the Master Anamorphics under extreme test conditions, but not one lens barrel got sticky, and the ALEXAs never gave up on us. In fact the cameras and lenses did better than the crew; people were bailing out just because it was so cold!

With snow on the ground, combined with T1.9 lenses and the ALEXA's sensitivity, we were lighting night exteriors with literally one light. I was able to work instinctually and respond to the moment without sacrificing image quality. In general the ALEXA lets me react to situations with my heart instead of my brain, which isn't true of other digital cameras. I don't want to be managerial on a film and spend half my time solving problems; I want to be instinctual and emotional, and do a lot with less.

What did you think of the ARRI M-Series fixtures?

Until the M-Series came out I was never really a big fan of HMIs, but the M18 was a revelation because it was the first time you could get that sharp, arc-like look from an HMI source. And it was mind-blowing to get that from a light you could plug into the wall. When the M40 came along it was even better because I could use it on night exteriors, flying it up in the air and lighting backgrounds without using up a lot of energy. Then came the M90, which we had on this film, and I honestly don't know how much I'm going to be using 18Ks in the future because the M90 is just so powerful. It's a 9K that feels like a 12K and that you can put it in places where an 18K wouldn't fit.

Over here at Visual Impact we are an authorised ARRI reseller, and offer the full lineup of ARRI professional cinema lenses, lighting equipment and the full range of ARRI Alexa and AMIRA cameras. Get in touch at 0208 977 1222 for all your ARRI needs.