Keys to the City

Chris Menges, ASC, BSC, unlocks the fragile secrets of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Menges received the American Society of Cinematographers International Award two years ago, and the nod of respect from his peers underscored what has been a remarkable career for the U.K.-born and bred shooter. Beginning on documentary crews in Africa, and the Far East, Menges’ talents were later nurtured on a dozen independent films with director Ken Loach; with his skills reaching full bloom on two Oscar® winning projects for director Roland Joffe, The Killing Fields and The Mission. Other gems in this longtime indie’s chest include Black Beauty, Walter and June, The Boxer, Dirty Pretty Things, Local Hero, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, The Yellow Handkerchief and Stop-Loss. Additional Oscar nominations came for Michael Collins and The Reader, the latter of which he shared credit for with Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC.

The Reader was directed by Stephen Daldry, also the director of Menges’ most recent assignment, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. “Our collaboration works for a number of reasons,” describes Daldry, who also directed The Hours and Billy Elliot. “Not just because Chris lights so beautifully, and not just because he is brilliant at moving the camera. Everything [for Menges] is about the characters and the story. He is an invaluable partner in understanding the structure of the narrative, and worries about every aspect of production, not just camera. His friendship, along with his enabling guidance and suggestions, makes it a proper collaboration.”

Fans of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, whose first book Everything Was Illuminated, was turned into in a film by Liev Schreiber, will no doubt have high expectations for this screen version of Safran Foer’s popular follow-up novel, whose precocious and sensitive hero is a 9-year-old Oskar Schell (wonderfully played by newcomer Thomas Horn). After Oskar’s father dies in the 9/11 tragedies, he leaves behind a key that Oskar finds, triggering a quest to find what it unlocks. Overwhelmed by the brash city, and gripped with fear, Oskar learns some difficult, yet life-affirming lessons along the way. Matters are further complicated by a guilt-ridden family dynamic, and a fraught relationship with his grandfather, whose identity is at first a secret.

Daldry says that Menges’ background shooting World in Action documentaries was key to the project. “Chris’ incredible BBC work all those years ago was applicable here, in terms of capturing the child lost in the city,” the director states. “Finding the moment, finding what interested the boy, and plotting where we would place him, and what he might be frightened of, interested in, or recoiling against – this was the incredibly pleasurable exploration we shared. Having a flexible crew was of utmost importance. We weren’t locked into shot lists. We could improvise and move around with freedom.”

In addition to Menges, the top-notch crew included production designer K.K. Barrett, and Oscar-winning editor Claire Simpson (Platoon), and a cast with the likes of Zoe Caldwell, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman and Jeffrey Wright.

New York-based Harris Savides, ASC assembled a crew and began testing cameras for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, ultimately settling on the ARRI ALEXA. At the same time, Menges had been learning about the ALEXA in the U.K. with Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC. He had also visited Bob Richardson, ASC using the ALEXA on the set of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, shot in 3D. Savides withdrew before principal photography, and Menges, whom Daldry had originally asked to shoot the movie, came back into the frame, with the ALEXA remaining the rig of choice because as Daldry notes, “I was immediately taken [with the ALEXA] for the vividness and extraordinary clarity of the images that drew you closer to the characters.”

After a series of tests, and with the cooperation of ARRI and Deluxe Creative Services, the film became one of the first features to use the ARRIRAW format and the Codex OnBoard recorder to access the full sensor resolution of the ALEXA, and deliver uncompressed data. Previous ALEXA productions opted for the ProRes workflow using onboard SxS PRO cards.

Menges says he didn’t try to create a forced style for the film, other than a wee sense of heightened realism. “This is a story that’s set against a horrific event in recent history,” he explains. “And we needed to find a way that worked for Thomas Horn, who is a brilliant child, perfect for the role, but who had never acted before. We needed a sympathetic and simple way to capture his performance. That led us to lighting sets with practicals and using windows as main sources, and doing our best to keep lighting equipment off the set. Our focus pullers, Gregor Tavenner and Andy Harris, had an extraordinarily difficult task, as they worked successfully without marks to give young Thomas as much freedom as possible. The sharpness of the Alexa’s images meant that focus was even more unforgiving and critical.”

For the most part, the camera is observational, except for a couple of less objective scenes. “On the whole, the story is simply told,” continues Daldry. “There are a few moments where we get into the subjective world of the child, for example when he is frightened of the noise and tumult of the city, or when he is retelling stories. That subjectivity we worked hard at. We looked for a cinematic language that allowed the audience to get closer, into how the boy’s mind actually worked. A lot of it therefore is in extreme close-up.”

That objectivity translated into a lot of dolly work, with a few handheld scenes. The subjective scenes employed more visual effects to “twist” the images depicting careening ambulances and other disturbing urban elements. But Menges says that for the most part, the film takes place in the apartment of the boy’s family rather than on the city streets. Those interiors were constructed on soundstages at JC Studios on 14th Street in Brooklyn.

“The apartment designed by K.K. Barrett was a terrific set,” he describes. “It was intentionally built quite small to give a claustrophobic feeling. We lit using the external windows or with practicals inside, again to give it a sense of heightened realism, but also to keep equipment off the floor in order to give Thomas a comfortable space in which to perform.”

In one emblematic scene, Oskar plays the desperate, anguished answering machine messages his father left from inside the World Trade Center just before he died. The boy had heard them at the time they were left, but couldn’t pick up the phone. Even though Oskar has hidden these messages from his mother, he shares them with “the renter,” played by von Sydow, who is eventually revealed to be the boy’s grandfather.

Menges lit the scene with 4K and 6K sources reflecting off Ultrabounce units, and one 24K aimed directly into the room, thus keeping the lights off the floor of the set. “It’s a terribly simple thing, really, but very powerful because of the performances,” Menges says. “This approach kept the floor clear, which was a constant challenge, and it meant that seeing in eyes was sometimes a problem. But we managed to work on that in the DI.”

In another emotional scene, Oskar’s grandfather decides to leave because he is causing too much stress in the boy’s life. The boy confronts von Sydow’s character in the street. Here, Menges lit mainly with 5Ks gelled to match the color temperature of sodium vapor lamps. Rather than adding light to a scene shot on a moving subway car, Menges was able to create a more modeled, less flat light by holding back some of the existing fluorescent tubes.

“The ALEXA is good at that,” he shares. “It has a great ability at night, because you can boost the ASA so easily. It’s got a very good, vibrant color presence that you can use to advantage. But best of all, particularly when you’re dealing with a child actor, is the Codex hard drive, which can run for 50 minutes. You can keep rolling and shooting, and it maintains the concentration of the whole crew.”

First AC Tavenner had worked with ALEXAs on the Hugo shoot, and was a valuable member of the camera team, as was longtime N.Y.-based digital imaging technician Abby Levine. The workflow was such that loader Matt Howard would take Codex “mags” as they came off the camera and reconcile metadata to camera reports. [Future iterations of the ALEXA will be able to automatically record metadata.] Backup copies of the ARRIRAW files were made to hard drives on the set. The “mags” went to Deluxe for dailies color correction and editorial. Backups were made and verified.

Levine says the on-set process was designed to allow Menges to treat the ALEXA the same as he would film. “On day one [Menges] took out his meter, set it to 800 ASA, and metered fill and key very carefully,” Levine recalls. “Our goal was to give Chris that additional comfort factor, and over time, once we got into the daylight exteriors, he relied on me a little more, coming over the see the monitor. I was careful, as always, to make sure that the representation of what Chris was seeing on the set was close to what he was seeing in the DI theater where we saw dailies. During the first week, we stopped by Deluxe with some frequency to see how things matched up. If adjustments were needed, he made them with his lighting. He really did treat it as a film stock.”

Levine monitored both ALEXA units via Blackmagic HD Link Pro units, with a basic LUT provided by Deluxe Creative Services that emulated film. Levine occasionally added a bit of contrast, under Menges’ direction, but for the most part, kept things simple. That same LUT would be applied to dailies. “To spend too much time obsessing about on-set color correction is, to me, kind of a fool’s errand,” Levine describes.

Digital artist Stefan Sonnenfeld, founder of Company 3, which is under the Deluxe Creative Services umbrella, describes the look coming out of the DI as cinematic. “The images have a nice, strong contrast, but nothing contrived or obvious,” he says. “We’re trying to replicate what was there and what they shot, but at the same time, give it a little bit of energy.”

Sonnenfeld says that working with Menges, Daldry and editor Claire Simpson was “fantastic.” “Chris has great taste and aesthetics, and a good sense of what he wants,” the longtime colorist observes. “He is used to film’s properties, so sometimes we were playing around with the contrast ranges. It took some acclimating. But to me, the ARRI Alexa seems to be closer to that film feel. It’s a very streamlined process, and probably the least complicated and most efficient one out there. Chris was very pleased with the film-out, which has some texture and grain that makes it hard to distinguish whether it was shot on film or digital. Some features we are in discussions on are thinking of shooting film for one aspect, and shooting Alexa for another aspect, because of the different characteristics of each. Low ASA stock and Alexa footage marry well together. More flexibility and creativity is what filmmakers want.”

Bill Feightner, executive vice president of technology at EFilm (also part of Deluxe Creative Services), served as chief technical advisor for the project. Feightner says that aside from translating the ARRIRAW images to a format that worked with the company’s standard DI procedure, the workflow was well established. “The capture device and the way it was set up was the only thing that was new, so we didn’t have to do any custom-design work,” Feightner says. “It was the first time a Hollywood feature had used the RAW format, so we had a team of technical people and programmers available, as did ARRI, to change a few small things during testing. But once we had the handshake with this new format, it was seamless.”

Using a LUT from Deluxe’s library, according to Feightner, helped make the process work. “ARRIRAW captures every bit of information from the sensor,” he says. “It’s close to the kind of capture range you have with film. It’s still not there – but it’s close. There is so much information captured, that if you don’t have a whole robust system planned out, meaning if you just plug it into a color corrector and start twisting knobs it’s not usually going to work very well. The idea of this system is that you load up your dailies or DI, and without touching a knob, it’s going to be a beautiful, balanced picture. All of that baseline work is already done, and what’s left is the creativity.”

Feightner says he is often asked by cinematographers shooting digital for the first time, “What is the number one mistake people make?” “It’s forgetting all the experience you’ve gained, and thinking you have to do everything differently,” he answers.

In the DI, Menges says he discovered even more about the ALEXA. “I initially thought there was more information and latitude than there actually is,” he says. “Going through the DI process, one truly understands the dynamics of the camera. The really wonderful thing about the Alexa is the 50 minutes of recording without reloading. But with everything I know now, having done the DI, if I had it to do over, I probably would have chosen film. I think film still has better resolution and definition, and stronger blacks. That said, I’m still very pleased with what I’m seeing and what we accomplished.”

Menges is quick to credit the crew he inherited from Savides, which included Steadicam/B camera operator Maceo Bishop, key grip Tommy Prate, dolly grip Brendan Malone, second unit director of photography Pat Capone and gaffer Bill O’Leary. “This New York camera crew was absolutely terrific,” he concludes. “It’s a terribly emotional story and I think that made for a difficult shoot. It was quite tough to be working and contemplating what happened on 9/11. Good crews everywhere make good work possible. People who love film and care about their work will fall over backwards to make something work, and they certainly did on this project.”

By Joseph Donovan / photos by Francois Duhamel