How an award-winning sitcom made the move from the small screen to the big screen with ALEXA

Following three highly successful seasons on television, award-winning comedy THE INBETWEENERS made a bold move from the small screen to the big screen during the summer of 2011, quickly becoming the fastest-grossing live action comedy of all time in the UK. The film follows the fortunes of the show's four adolescent protagonists (Will, Neil, Jay and Simon), who are 18 and on holiday in Malia, Crete, with no parents, no teachers, no money and little chance with the ladies.

THE INBETWEENERS MOVIE was shot on location in the UK and Magaluf, Mallorca, which doubled for Malia, with ARRI ALEXA cameras supplied by ARRI Media. Shortly after his return from shooting in Magaluf, cinematographer Ben Wheeler spoke to ARRI Media about his experiences working with ALEXA.

ARRI Media: What made ALEXA the right choice for this particular production?

Ben Wheeler: We knew we were going to shoot digitally, partly because the series had always been shot digitally and it was what everyone was used to working with: being able to see everything live and to play back very quickly – that kind of thing. I was very keen to use the ALEXA, to some extent because I’m an ARRI fan, but mainly for its latitude. I knew we were going to be shooting our daylight scenes in very bright Spanish sun and moving at an incredibly fast pace, so there wouldn’t always be time to control everything; I just felt the ALEXA would be able to handle that well. We took a camera over to Greece last year and shot lots of tests, and I was astounded by what I saw – the way it was holding highlights as well as lowlights. It just seemed to be miles ahead of anything else I’d worked with. We were also going to be shooting predominately handheld and I found the ALEXA to be very ergonomic and lightweight.

AM: You were shooting in bright daylight, but I understand you also shot a number of night scenes where the characters are out on the town experiencing the nightlife of Malia?

BW: That was another reason for choosing the ALEXA: because of its sensitivity. Before we did the tests we knew that we couldn’t really afford to light a vast street or huge areas, so we were relying on the neons and other practical lights of the surrounding nightlife to give us a fair bit of ambient light. Being able to shoot at 800 EI helped a lot and we very rarely went above that rating, as I found it gave us enough. With ALEXA the detail held at both ends.

AM: Your recording solution was ProRes 444 Log C to SxS cards; can you describe your workflow and how you were viewing rushes?

BW: We had a brilliant DIT called Mark Purvis, who dealt with the ALEXA and setting up a quick way for us to work. He would transcode to Avid DNX 36, the preferred codec of editorial, on a FrameCycler DI system with a LUT applied. The material was then imported into an Avid project and synched on set, so it was delivered to editorial, which was on location at our hotel, ready to cut. We’d also get an iPad at the end of the day which we were viewing dailies on, or we would go and view in the edit suite, and occasionally we did projections. With the iPads, the speed of the process was fantastic. We would do a number of takes and maybe by the seventh or eighth take we could be looking at the first take, just to double check things if we were worried about continuity or any sort of performance issue; we could view rushes incredibly quickly.

AM: So the ALEXA’s workflow really helped to facilitate the speed at which you needed to work?

BW: Absolutely, that was the amazing thing; it was all happening so quickly. We shot the film in six weeks and the post schedule was very tight – principal photography wrapped at the end of March and the release date was set for mid-August. With the edit suite at our hotel, the editor was able to cut while we were shooting, so at the end of the day we would often get back and view a sequence of something we had shot that morning. The director was able to return at the end of the shoot with half of the film rough cut on an iPad – the turnaround is phenomenal.

For me, the ALEXA looks the closest to film of any digital camera I’ve worked with...

AM: THE INBETWEENERS is a very successful TV comedy making the transition from the small screen to the big screen. How did you approach that transition stylistically?

BW: I think a lot of it came from the camera and the lenses, in terms of giving it a more cinematic look, but also from our compositions and the scale and quality of the locations. For me, the ALEXA looks the closest to film of any digital camera I’ve worked with and the set of Cooke S4s I used helped as well. I’m a big fan of Cookes and when combined with the ALEXA they produced a beautiful, slightly softer, more filmic image than I’d experienced before with digital cameras. And there was no need for any softening or low contrast filtration. We also used camera moves a bit more to introduce scenes and as transitional shots within the story. We had a rough rule of shooting handheld when things weren’t going so well for the boys and using Steadicam or dolly moves when things were looking up. The camera acts like the fifth friend in the group, putting the audience in the scene with the characters. There is quite a fine balance really: you don’t want the movie to just feel like a TV special – like an extended version of the series – but at the same time you’ve got to maintain a bit of the look that people are used to: as it’s partly what helped to make the show so successful.

AM: Do you think that by the end of the shoot you had proved your case for choosing ALEXA over other camera options?

BW: It didn’t take long actually. I think the cinematic look we were producing convinced the producers pretty quickly, and financially we could use smaller light sources, reducing hire and distribution costs. The speed that we could move at didn’t go unnoticed either. I had a fantastic crew and I think everyone was very happy; the director Ben Palmer was particularly happy with the results and I feel it was definitely the right camera for the shoot.