We talk to Amma Asante and Ben Smithard, director and cinematographer behind period feature Belle, about how the F65 – rated by many as the best cinematography camera in the world – helped them make the most of their budget
In many ways 18th century costume drama Belle is an amazing achievement. Inspired by a 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race girl raised as an aristocrat in the 18th Century, this romantic drama was shot in just eight weeks on location in the Isle of Man, Oxford, London and at Pinewood Studios. It was also the first major British motion picture to be shot in true 4K using Sony’s F65 CineAlta camera.
All this was achieved on a pretty modest budget for a period feature, a film genre famous of soaking up cash.
Bafta award-winning director Amma Asante reveals that she was determined for Belle to have high on-screen production values despite the budget and that the choice of camera was crucial to achieving this.
“Many people thought that we wouldn’t be able to achieve the production values we wanted, but the F65 really helped us get great looking pictures, she recalls.
“What I wanted was to capture was the 18th century world of very grand architecture in a lot of detail. What I liked about the F65 shooting 4K was it gave us really high resolution. But using the Cooke lens with the F65 I also found that you get a great milkyness in the image – a bit like film. And you can play with the clarity when you get to the grade.”
“For me it was a combination of the clarity, the high resolution, the skin tones and that very velvety quality which we could see on screen which was what I really needed in terms of the beauty of Belle.”
In particular the camera’s colour rendition did an amazing job of picking out the detail and colour of the silk dresses and sumptuous costumes designed by Anushia Nieradzik.
Cinematographer Ben Smithard adds: “It’s impossible to pass off a costume drama to an audience without it looking expensive – they want that kind of luxury feel to a film.”
Smithard was persuaded that the F65 was the best camera for the job after tests at Sony specialist dealer Top Teks, the company which supplied the camera on the production.
Top Teks sales director Mike Thomas adds: “Ben put the camera and its workflow through its paces on Belle and the results have been outstanding.”
“It’s superior resolution, colour gamut and dynamic range make the F65 the ultimate digital cinematography camera: there is no other choice.”
Smithard adds: “I wanted to shoot at the highest possible resolution and I wanted the simplest approach to workflow.”
In terms of performance he reveals: “The F65 was the most reliable digital camera I have ever used. It did everything I wanted it to and didn’t go wrong once in eight weeks.” From a shooting perspective it was all very straightforward, he adds. The flexibility of the camera was demonstrated by the number of different configurations that the production team was able to use; from handheld to Steadicam rigs, dollies and cranes. The team was also able to rig the camera for shooting in the confines of an 18th century horse-drawn carriage.
“The F65 is built for filmmakers – the ergonomics make it easy to use regardless of how it was set up,” says Smithard.
The end results speak for themselves, he adds. “We created rich, soft looking images which really showed off the 18th century period setting.”
In post production Smithard found that the F65 offered a huge range of creative options. “There is a subtlety in film images where you could push and pull it and the image is quite elastic – a feature which digital film cameras don’t always have. But the F65 really does have this kind of subtlety too.”
Dark detail could be revealed in a part of a frame which was also holding a huge bright exterior.
Belle was graded on Baselight at post production facility Molinare by head colourist Gareth Spensley, who notes: “The camera performed fabulously well on set and gave us great rushes in the grade.”
“With the F65 it felt like there was a lot of creative choice thanks to the colour depth and dynamic range of the camera.”
“Both Amma and Ben wanted to use a lot of available light so the camera’s wide dynamic range was really useful. We were able to pull up and make choices with a lot of shadow detail.”
Spensley adds: “The capturing of the skin tones was fabulous. This was very important because it’s a film about the colour of someone’s skin and the prejudice that that brings. So it was very, very important that we saw separation between the actors.”
Spensley sees a big future for 4K in post production in terms of cleaner keys. “What’s great about 4K over 2K post is that with 2K you can add a little bit of blur to the edge of a key whereas in 4K you are pulling a clean key first time.”
Both Asante and Smithard are now lining up future projects on the F65.
“I’d use the F65 again for sure – it’s a great camera,” says Smithard. Asante adds: “I’d be really, really happy to shoot my next film on the F65 and probably will – in fact, definitely will.”