ARRIFLEX D-21 shoots British thriller

The fourth movie from production company CinemaNX, THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED was effectively bankrolled by the government of the Isle of Man, where much of the film was shot. Directed by J Blakeson, it stars Gemma Arterton as the titular Alice, who is abducted by two men in the opening sequence and held to ransom in a heavily fortified apartment. The insular and claustrophobic kidnap plot evolved out of Blakeson’s idea of writing a feature film that could be made so economically that he might talk backers into directing it himself. The tactic paid off and Blakeson was handed the reins, taking on cinematographer Philipp Blaubach to help him find an effective visual approach to his tense, twist-riddled script.

“The whole project happened really quickly,” says Blaubach. “J wrote the screenplay in April 2008 and by November they were financed and in preproduction. CinemaNX hired Adrian Sturges to produce it and Adrian and I had known each other for about 10 years, mainly making short films through our student days and also a feature film called The Escapist two years ago. So Adrian introduced me to J; we had a good meeting and decided it would be nice to work together.”

As a new director, J was open to digital

With such a tight budget, the shooting schedule was limited to four weeks and Blaubach had little time to prepare. “Fortunately it wasn’t a massively complicated film to prep because it’s so contained,” he says. “In some ways of course that was also a concern, because on paper it reads as very theatrical; I came on board thinking: ‘How do we make this a cinematic experience?’ I was glad to hear that J had a lot of ideas and had prepared a scrapbook of visual references; it’s always exciting when you have a director who doesn’t neglect that aspect of filmmaking – it is a visual medium after all.” Having already made three features with first-time directors, Blaubach embraced Blakeson’s unfamiliarity with the territory: “I enjoy the dynamic and the energy you get from people who are willing to try new ideas,” he continues. “Often a lack of experience brings with it a readiness to do things differently.”

Inevitably, acquisition format was another aspect of the production that was influenced by its meagre budget. “As a new director, J was open to digital,” says Blaubach. “I love the look of film and I did propose Super 16 because I felt we could make it work in four weeks with a very mobile camera. 16 mm is a fantastic format because you can move so quickly, but J wanted this film to look very clean and slick. He didn’t want a gritty, realistic look, he preferred the idea of a stylised edge to it and that led to digital. Also, the 2.35:1 aspect ratio would have meant cropping 16 mm to a very small negative and if you’re not embracing the grain then it’s probably not the right choice.”

Once the conversation turned to digital options, Blaubach had little doubt about the camera he wanted to use. “I had previously used the D-21 on a lot of commercials and I liked the camera very much; it’s very well made and has a great look,” he says. “I hadn’t used it on a film but I had seen tests and I knew that, as digital goes, it’s pretty much one of the highest end options. So I suggested it and thankfully ARRI Media were able to make it happen. Of course the D-21 isn’t fast and lightweight like 16 mm, but we felt that because for the majority of this film we were on a dolly, it wouldn’t matter too much, and for the sake of superior image quality I felt we should use it.”

It's such a nice camera to operate.

For the first three weeks of the shoot Blaubach had a single camera body and chose to operate the D-21 himself. “It worked well being next to the camera with the director and talking about each shot,” he says “I think it’s a very important part of cinematography – to compose the shot and see how the lighting works as part of the composition. Apart from that I get a kick out of seeing the actors in front of me and seeing the performance through the viewfinder, which is again why I like to use the D-21; it’s such a nice camera to operate.”

A key sequence in the film takes place deep in a forest, where the two kidnappers arrange to collect their ransom and where they end up having a violent confrontation. “Everything in that forest had to be shot in one day, and in February you don’t get many hours of sunlight in a forest,” says Blaubach. “It was ambitious on every level and unfortunately we couldn’t get any FlashMags, so we ended up using the SRW-1 [HDCAM SR] decks, even for Steadicam and handheld work. The camera assistant made some backpacks and put the SRW-1s inside them; that way we could be mobile and walk around everywhere. We didn’t want any Magliners or monitor stands in the forest to slow us down. It was a challenge, but we got the whole day done.”

Although the bulk of the film was shot with Cooke S4 lenses, Blaubach deliberately requested a set of Master Primes from ARRI Media for the forest scenes. He explains: “We were shooting right up to the very last light of the day and the Master Primes meant we could go to T1.3. We shot in Log C and we had two LUTs – one for 200 ASA and one for 400 ASA. Even at T1.3 on the 400 ASA LUT we were still at the bottom end of exposure by about 3 p.m. in the forest, when the light was going. I was concerned about the exposure, but actually those shots turned out to be some of the most beautiful in the film; they had a wonderful texture in the skin tones and a lovely soft look.”

It was a big close-up on a 100 mm and when I saw that shot in the final cut I was worried, but after the DI grade it turned out to be one of the most beautiful shots.

This wasn’t the only occasion on the shoot when Blaubach took a risk with exposure and was rewarded with stunning images. During a scene that takes place in a dank, dark cellar to which Alice is moved in the lead-up to her planned exchange for ransom money, the cinematographer recalls that Arterton “stood up out of the key light and was facing away from the only window, so there was nothing on her face at all. It was a big close-up on a 100 mm and when I saw that shot in the final cut I was worried, but after the DI grade it turned out to be one of the most beautiful shots.”

A similar situation arose when Blaubach decided to frame a rancorous dialogue scene between the two kidnappers against a bright window in their fortified apartment, with no fill light. “In such a small space it gets harder to reinvent yourself in terms of blocking action,” he continues. “It’s a dramatic moment so we blocked that conversation against the window and didn’t use the same shot again. I looked at the waveform monitor and the window was clipped; you’re always told to protect your highlights so you can get detail back later, but I liked what I was seeing on the HD monitor – with the hot window and the dark faces – so I went with it.”

Many of the apartment scenes were shot with very shallow depth of field to heighten the dramatic tension and sense of claustrophobia. “We were often at T2.4 or T2,” says Blaubach. “You’re always told that big close-ups are for television not cinema, but on a couple of occasions we did shots on a 100 mm lens only a few feet from the actor so their face would fill the entire screen and it had a great impact; I thought it was actually very cinematic.” Blaubach opted for the Cooke S4s because “they have a softness to them and I think it’s very important with digital cameras not to let the image get too sharp. The other thing is that the Cookes don’t flare very much and we had a lot of practical lights in shot, so they worked very well with our sets.”

The DI grade was carried out at Ascent 142 in London, where the two LUTs had been developed during preproduction. Blaubach notes that “LUTs were a learning process for me because the commercials I had done with the D-21 were shot in 4:2:2 Linear mode, whereas ALICE CREED was 4:4:4 Log C. It took a bit of time for me to get my head around what a lookup table actually is. In many ways I liken it now to a film negative because the chip captures a certain amount of information, which is your Log image, and it’s almost like shooting a low contrast stock; you don’t necessarily want such low contrast, but that’s what is exposed. There’s no doubt that working with digital is a very different process though. My next feature is on film, so it will be nice not to be looking at monitors so much, but trusting myself a bit more instead!”