Why the ‘Straight Out of Compton’ cinematographer chose the RED Dragon

By | Published September 12th, 2015 | in Gear, Types of Video Production

Why the ‘Straight Out of Compton’ cinematographer chose the RED Dragon

What makes a cinematographer choose a certain camera?

Today I want to look at the thought process that went into the decision to use the Red Dragon by cinematographer Matthew Libatique. 

I went and saw “Straight Outta Compton” last weekend specifically to see why Cinematographer Matthew Libatique chose to shoot the film with the RED Dragon — and not on film. 

I will say that I have no idea if there were any politics involved with the camera decision, I’m simply assuming the choice was ultimately left up to Libatique. 

It’s an interesting subject though when considering his approach to a lot of his films in the past and the fact that Noah, the film he shot just prior to Compton, was shot on the Arri Alexa Plus.

 

Why didn’t he shoot on film?

Libatique is a master with film cameras. As most know, Libatique and Darren Aronofsky sort of broke through the mold together and have a close working relationship. His style has been something that has been on a lot of people’s radar for a long time, ever since Pi came out and it became an underground cult sensation. 

Not his best work, but overall, imaginative, coherent, and the 16mm matched the gritty dark world that the protagonist lived in. Not to mention, the guy was still getting his feet wet. 

When Requiem for a Dream came out, everyone knew that Libatique was special and that he had undeniable skill with composition and exposure. Up until a few films ago, he had shot all of his professional features on film.

The point being, he’s a DP you can trust to make the right decisions — So why did he go with the RED Dragon then and not film. 

In an interview, Libatique had this to say: 

‘Shooting anamorphic period is all about pulling back from that digital edge, particularly if you come from shooting film…We tried to keep the beginning of their stories as gritty as possible, using smoke and [for night scenes] changing out existing LED streetlights back to their original sodium vapor. That combination of the smoke, a dirty color palette and the anamorphic lenses introduces us to the first third of the story, before they make a record and go on tour.’

I think it’s safe to say that money wasn’t an issue and that overall workflow, accessibility, and the strengths of the camera had something to do with it. 

Libatique’s last two films he shot prior to Compton were shot on Arri Alexas’ which are the perfect candidate for a DP switching over to Digital from Film. 

Why did he choose the RED Dragon over the Arri Alexa XT?

There has been a lot of debate over which camera performs better in low light scenarios. I have seen terrible low light footage from both cameras and I have seen great low light footage from both cameras so at the end of the day it’s operator error. I will say that it seems we might have a qualified answer to this question if we pay attention. 

After viewing the film “Straight Outta Compton” and noticing all of the low light scenes in the recording studios lit with source lighting and all of the exterior night scenes, the powerful sensitivity of the Dragon sensor most likely had a part to play in the decision. 

In the same interview we referenced earlier, Libatique stated: 

‘When you strip [the RED Dragon] down, it’s as big as a Hasseblad, and you can customize exactly as you need,’ he relates. ‘Colin and Matt came up with a way to couple cables together so we had a single umbilical cord with full remote focus. We called the camera the ‘Mini Me.’ For example, we did a night exterior night party scene on Crenshaw Boulevard, where I stuffed myself into the back of a low-rider [car] and panned freely around with what was, basically, a box and a [Kowa anamorphic] lens.’

Not only that, there are a lot of Steadicam/Handheld shots throughout the film. The size and weight alone of the camera may have been a deciding factor as well. I know the RED dragon weighs significantly less than the Arri Alexa and with Libatique wanting to be behind the lens, it makes sense to go with a lighter option. 

Is it possible that he went with the RED because it had something to do with style? Of course, both cameras have very different internal designs and as a result, the footage captured has a different look to a keen eye. 

Whatever the case, it’s clear that he chose the RED Dragon over the Arri Alexa which is a favorite for a slew of veteran cinematographers. I think it proves some good points, that both cameras have their strong and weak points, both offer a different look from the other and that they are both equals at the end of the day. 

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Trenton Massey