ALI WALKER’s AJA CION Films for Asprey
Ali Walker is a British filmmaker and artist. In addition to photography and traditional art, he’s worked in 3D modeling, animation, set extensions, rotoscoping, tracking and camera mapping. “I like to dabble in lots of different things to create visuals,” he said. “I started off working in concept art. As a kid, I always messed about with filming and photography.” (www.alijwalker.com)
Asprey London was founded in 1781 by William Asprey. Their jewelery and luxury products continue a grand tradition of craftsmanship, quality, and design. Their workshops and flagship retail store is located on New Bond Street in London. Queen Victoria awarded Asprey a Royal Warrant in 1862. Asprey has supplied crowns and sceptres for royalty worldwide.
JON FAUER: Tell us about the AJA+Asprey job.
ALI WALKER: Asprey is well-known for the blue pendant that Kate Winslet wore on the “Titanic” film. It’s one of England’s most distinguished jewelers, a very respectable brand. The company was founded in 1781. They had never done anything film since they founded. Not too much pressure on me! We started with a series of films and fashion shoots and it’s an ongoing project.
These are commercials?
They are brand films about the company, and small films about the different workshops- silver and leather workshops, and the various aspects of Asprey. The beautiful 40,000-square-foot flagship store, designed by architect Norman Foster (at a cost of $50 Million), is quite well known. It is a very iconic company to people in the fashion and jewelry business. Aprey is the only company that has workshops in Mayfair, above the store. That’s very rare these days.
Your camera choice, and why?
My camera choice for the black and white and the shorter films was the AJA CION.
“Pursuit of Perfection” was shot on the top floor at Asprey. The music is by Max Richter, who’s worked on Ridley Scott films. It was shot entirely with CION, in color, and the black and white was done in post. I used mostly rehoused vintage Macro lenses.
I chose the CION, number one, because of its form factor. It’s very easy to carry about. In the workshop, there were tons of people constantly walking around. I didn’t want to have something too big or too heavy. I had to move quickly because the craftspeople were working there and I had to be fast. I wanted something that I could quickly set up. A “what I could see on the monitor was what I would get” sort of thing. And shoot as much as possible.
There is a shot where a guy is sitting down and it looks like it’s on a dolly. But it was actually hand-held and unstabilized, but looks smooth because it’s quite easy to hand-hold the CION. The hand-held shots actually mix well with the ones on sticks.
You mixed in scenes from other cameras as well?
“Pursuit of Perfection,” was all CION, as was “Unique Piece of Beauty.” “Asprey The Film” (brand film) was shot with CION and RED, and the recent brand film I just finished shooting was with Amira, Alexa Mini and CION.
How did you decide which camera to use?
I was using both at the same time. All cameras have their niggles. I think every camera has little constraints and benefits. But you can get around them once you get familiar with the camera. Above all, the CION is a really easy camera to use. It’s a really nice camera to handle. It has a very filmic look.
Actually, it surprised me how cinematic your CION footage really looked compared to what I’d seen before, which seemed more contrasty and had more of a Kodachrome look. Did you notice that?
Yes. The Asprey films looked different, didn’t they? I think with any camera, it’s really the lighting. Lighting is probably the most important thing.
Right now, everyone’s obsessed with resolution. But actually low light is really useful. If you could light something with a couple of matches it would be great, wouldn’t it? It would be fantastic rather than having to set up massive numbers of heavy lights. It would be great if the film industry went low light.
I think that’s where it is heading.
It would be amazing to have a pitch-black room and have tiny fixtures that could light the room. You could fit all your lights in a bag. Put the ISO up really high and that would be such a revolution if the low light capability was really clean and that could work.
I think it’s coming. What ISO did you rate the CION at?
I rated it between 320 – 800 ISO. You just really have to concentrate on the highlights and not overexpose them. You can bring them up in post. CION has a very clean picture.
And you get what you see, which I really like. I think it’s quite underrated.
A leading question then. Why did you choose CION and why do you think it’s underrated?
To be honest, because it is a really fantastic camera. It’s a multi-purpose camera. I think there are too many people going on about highlights, low light, and dynamic range. That’s complete rubbish. There are too many people who are tweaking, putting it in a non-working environment. If you put it in a working environment and shoot a project with it, it’s fantastic.
The form factor is very ergonomic. You can shoot quickly with CION. It is great for documentaries. It’s built like a tank. But it’s lightweight, it’s really durable. The body is magnesium.
It was designed by guys who were documentary cameramen, and that design really comes through. It’s definitely user-friendly. How did you record data?
I shot in 4K and recorded in ProRes 4444 and 422HQ. For the jewelry, I used the highest quality encoding. For the documentary scenes, the quality difference of recording in 422HQ is minute, but the data storage that you save is massive.
Your lighting was gorgeous. What did you use?
I used lots of Velvet Light panels. (LED lights made by The Light Company in Barcelona.) They provide very pretty, soft, diffused light and a K5600 Joker Bug with a medium Chimera.
For the Macro shots and the workshop, I used Velvet Lights, lots of reflectors and bounce cards, polyboards and set of flags. I shot as close as I could to the windows for soft natural light.. It was an environment where you really could not put many lighting fixtures. I wanted to use as much soft light as possible. And just bounce it about a bit. The set-ups had to be quite quick because I had to catch the people making the jewelry at a certain time, without disturbing them.
This was documentary style fashion and beauty?
In a way. Really quick lighting set-ups. Light, shoot, move on, the next set-up, etcetera. I quite liked doing it.
What kind of crew did you have?
Oh, it was just me.
Just you? Are you kidding?
Amazing. You did all the lighting, directing, shooting, your own focus pulling?
Yes, the whole thing.
What about the dolly shots?
Many of the moving shots were done by hand-holding the CION and I stabilized them in After Effects. The “dolly shots” were on a slider. I just edited it so it’s not near the start or the end when I’m accelerating or decelerating. Some of the panning shots were done by mounting the camera on a vise that they had in the workshop.
Grip department from the hardware store. Tell me about the editing and grading.
The great thing about CION, and this is a really amazing thing, is what you see on the monitor is a complete and accurate translation of what you can edit with. For documentaries, short films and features, this is very helpful. I edited on Premiere. I did some stabilization and other bits in After Effects. It was really quite simple.
There wasn’t a great deal to grade. I did as much as I could in-camera, which I like to do. I think people get over-excited about dynamic range too often. If my exposure is good, there’s very little I had to do in grading.
What kind of viewfinder did you use?
I used a 9-inch on-board monitor supported by a Magic Arm for viewing. And a proper 19-inch Panasonic reference monitor.
You seem to be specializing in fashion and beauty?
At the moment, yes.
Tell me more about the lenses you used on the Asprey commercials.
We used a set of Cooke S4s on one of them, and a set of ZEISS Ultra Primes on the other, as well as Macros and vintage lenses. I like messing about with older lenses, old Leicas and Lomos and things like that. I think they’ve got a really nice look. The lenses and equipment came from ProCam and Aimimage.
How would you define the look of CION?
I think it’s completely a matter of personal opinion. The CION is a camera that you need to get to know to get the best out of it. And once you do, you get something that’s very amazing. I think the look is very filmic, maybe a little gritty, with a bit of warmth. The CION is truly a 4K camera.
I know we don’t like to talk about dynamic range, but it seems to me you got quite a bit of exposure latitude between the flaming fire highlights and the rich, deep shadows. It didn’t look contrasty or noisy.
Oh, it’s all there. It’s a matter of knowing the camera. And lighting.
CION is a camera that, if you took it out of the box and you went down the street and hit “Record,” you might be disappointed in the stuff until you actually got to know the camera better. A few days later, after knowing the camera, you’d set it up differently, you’d understand that actually there’s quite a lot of data there.
What is the Ali J. Walker tutorial for setting up a proper CION that most of us don’t know about?
Mostly get to know it and experiment with the lighting. Don’t shoot something with it commercially for a little bit until you’ve got the hang of it. Later on, you can go on and fiddle around with the extended gamma and the settings. Practice will bring the best out of it. Be careful with the highlights, because if you’re clipping, obviously there’s no coming back.
Were you judging exposure with the monitor?
Yes, with the onboard and the reference monitors. I had a laptop there, so I looked at the footage to see what I actually had. I saw I had quite a lot more in the blacks and the dark parts of the pictures than I actually thought. That made me realize I actually had to protect the highlights instead. I used a bit of bounce in the really dark areas of some scenes.
How do you create the deliverables for Asprey?
The output came directly from Premiere as Apple ProRes 422 HQ and H.264. It’s interesting because shooting with the CION in 4K and scaling down to 2K/HD gives a really nice picture.
The one we’re shooting at the moment is going to have a 4K theatrical run in cinemas as well.
How did you get this Asprey job?
I finished a commercial with a lingerie brand called Gossard, and before that I did a lot of music videos. I did a lot of concept artwork. And then I pitched some ideas. Most of my work comes from word-of-mouth. I don’t remember how I met them actually but I went and pitched my ideas and it took two years to come to this point.
Two years! Well, the company’s been in business since 1781, so no need to rush.
But it’s worked out really well. They commissioned a second one which I’ve just finished filming and I’m in post on that — doing a lot of set-replacement and some crazy landscape concept art. It’ll be a really sci-fi net-noir film. I’m also doing a lot of smaller films and also 3D animating a lot of their jewelry. It’s a great project.
For more information about the cameras: aja.com