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DP Hillary Spera Chooses VariCam Pure for Netflix’s Alex Strangelove

Alex Strangelove is a high school romance film that was directed by Craig Johnson (Wilson, The Skeleton Twins) and shot by Spera with VariCam Pure cinema cameras. The Netflix feature film tells the story of Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny), a well-rounded high school student who plans to lose his virginity to his girlfriend Clare (Madeline Weinstein) during his senior year. Complications occur when he meets Elliot (Antonio Marziale), who makes him question his sexual identity.

Cinematographer Hillary Spera became involved with Alex Strangelove when producer Jared Goldman, (whom she worked with Richard Levine’s Submission) introduced her to director Craig Johnson at Sundance in 2016. “ One of the challenges that Craig and I talked about was trying to maintain naturalism while showing the surreal moments when Alex is realizing who he is. How bizarre and wonderful high school first love can be. The excitement, the heartbreak, the mistakes – all of it. We set out to show that in a way that unique but not over the top and specific to him and his view of the world, while maintaining a story that felt tangible, relatable, and grounded.”

With Netflix’s 4K mandate, Spera tested out the Panasonic VariCam and was immediately impressed by its colorimetry. “It seemed very natural in the way it rendered natural light and skin tones and felt familiar to the way I have worked in the past. I really wanted a look I could rely on and push comfortably, even though I had never shot with the camera before. I felt confident that it would be a great match.”

Alex Strangelove was shot with two VariCam Pure cameras. Spera captured 4K (4096 x 2160) VRAW files in 23.98-fps. During testing, Spera worked with her colorist, Alex Bickel, with both VRAW and AVC-Intra files and they decided that VRAW gave them more color information to work with, which was important to the look of the film. They also felt the VRAW files gave them extra dynamic range. “We also had some visual effects, so it was a good choice,” explains Spera. “I would do the same set-up when I shoot with the VariCam again.”

Because she was trying to reference older films, Spera used vintage Cooke Speed Panchro lenses (rehoused by TLS) because she loves how digital highlights roll off with older glass. “It was a nice choice for this film, it took the digital edge off without the use of much diffusion,’ she explains. “In general, the vintage glass helps the image have a more textured and softer quality. It doesn’t have that ultra-crisp sharpness of modern glass. They also have a great flare and I am able to play with the quality of the glass. We wanted it to look a little more natural, relatable, and human. It’s all about the glass.”

Since she was shooting at 800 ISO, Spera primarily used HMIs to replicate natural daylight, as well as LEDs for their speed. 

Unlike a lot of indie films, Spera did not implement handheld movement and shot primarily on two dollies for A and B cameras and then Steadicam when moving around with the main character. She reveals one of the hardest scenes to shoot was the prom, which she had only one day to shoot a lot of pages, mostly on Steadicam, operated by Steadicam operator Yousheng Tang. Since the camera had to move 360-degrees, Spera took all her movie lights off the floor and incorporated practical sources that would be typically used at a dance – from strobe lights to disco lights to lighting effects to haze.

Technicolor-PostWorks NY handled post for Alex Strangelove and was graded by Bickel. According to Spera, the grade was fairly simple and the look didn’t change drastically from their dailies. “I’m a big proponent of baking in certain looks in camera,” she explains. “If possible, I’m always trying to make the negative as close the ultimate direction we are going. The scenes that Alex and I worked the hardest on were those that involved the use of a lot of color and matching between the cameras, especially with the vintage glass. Alex was able to really heighten the look of the film and we embraced making it feel more colorful and open. The format really allowed us to have flexibility in the color space.

“There’s something that’s very finely tuned and cinematic about the VariCam,” says Spera. “It has a distinctive look that’s not necessarily that of an Alexa or RED, but more of its own thing and I think it worked well for the look of this movie.”

To watch Alex Strangelove, visit https://www.netflix.com/title/80168189 (Netflix subscription required to view.)

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