Dec. 11, 2023

Jo Willems ASC, SBC on “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes”

DP Jo Willems uses ARRI ALEXA Mini LF cameras, Signature lenses, and the HEXATRON crane vehicle on the fifth “Hunger Games” film, serviced by ARRI Rental.

Dec. 11, 2023

Set 64 years before the original “Hunger Games” film, “The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” re-teams director Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems ASC, SBC, who have collaborated on all but the first of the series. Having worked with a variety of acquisition formats on the previous movies, including Super 35 film, IMAX, Super 35 digital, and anamorphic, Willems opted to shoot this latest installment in large format with the ALEXA Mini LF combined with spherical Signature Prime and Signature Zoom lenses. The production was serviced by ARRI Rental Berlin with camera and lighting gear, as well as a grip package that included the exclusive HEXATRON off-road crane vehicle.

You’ve done several “Hunger Games” films with director Francis Lawrence. How has your visual approach developed over the series?

Our first was “Catching Fire,” the second in the series, which we shot on 35 mm and IMAX film cameras, using spherical and anamorphic lenses. It mostly had a grounded, naturalistic style of lighting, with the districts having more of a period feel. We shot a lot of handheld and Steadicam, working at focal lengths between 35 mm and 50 mm. Then for the two “Mockingjay” films the ARRI ALEXA had become available, so we moved to digital and shot anamorphic, chasing a slightly grittier and more desaturated look, but still naturalistic.

In between “Mockingjay” and “The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes,” Francis and I started working with the ALEXA 65; first on the Apple TV show “See,” and then on “Slumberland” for Netflix. We fell in love with the format. We could shoot very wide lenses without distortion and get closer to characters while retaining a flat field of view. The resolution was amazing and it created a real intimacy between the audience and the characters.

So, the ALEXA 65 seemed a natural choice for “Songbirds & Snakes,” but we had a lot of action and Steadicam work, so were worried about the size of the camera body. I had to be flexible, which led me to the ALEXA Mini LF. It gave us the large-format feel but with a much smaller footprint and weight. You can use it in any situation, so we explored more expressive camera angles on this movie than on any of the others.

How did you decide on Signature Primes?

I didn’t want to go back to anamorphic, so we looked at a few spherical options but very quickly settled on Signature Primes. I like lenses that perform well in all situations without being harshly sharp or clinical. I also needed the lenses to work well for VFX. I never use diffusion on films, so I try and use a lens that is not too analytical. I’m not a big fan of lenses that have too many artifacts that are distracting.

Since we wanted to go very close to the actors and work in their ‘space,' the close focus performance of the lenses was very important, and the Signatures got us really close. There were times when the camera was just inches from the actors. I watched the movie again yesterday and the thing that struck me was how many close-ups we have. I think when technology opens up an opportunity, you explore it.

What were your “hero” focal lengths and what T-stops were you tending to work at?

The 21 mm and 29 mm were our most used lenses. Occasionally we'd go to 35 mm and we might have used the 40 mm a few times. There was a sequence during the opening fight in the arena where we used the 15 mm. For some of the close, intimate scenes I'd shoot wide open, with the shallow depth of field making the image a bit more abstract at times. Rafi General, our 1st AC on A-camera, was so in tune with A-camera operator Dave Thompson SOC that again, we could push this idea as far as possible. When you have confidence in your crew, you can push these creative ideas further.

Mostly, though, we shot at T2.8 and for some day exterior wide shots I was at T5.6. I’m not that obsessed with shooting at a consistent stop for a whole film. I do within a scene, within reason, but if a scene looks better a bit deeper, I'll go a bit deeper.

How long was your prep period and what were your main tasks?

I had about 10 weeks’ prep for a 17-week shoot. Prep is a period of discovery. I usually start a project after the production designer, costume designer, and locations department have started. I try and learn as much as possible about what they are doing; I visit their departments and see as much of their work as I can, because it influences my lighting. Francis and I go over the script and how he wants to visualize it. We visit all the locations, discovering their difficulties, and slowly you start forming an idea of the film.

Besides defining the look with Francis, I also spent a lot of time with our gaffer, Helmut Prein. For me, lighting is the essence of my job. It defines atmosphere, it defines character, and you have to be well prepared on a film this size. Pretty early on decisions have to be made on lighting packages, budgets have to be made, and availability has to be checked. We had to test a few lighting tools to see if they would work.

A lot of decisions I make on set are still instinctual and things can change, but broad strokes have to be in place early on because efficiency is important. We like to shoot with wide lenses and love to move around within spaces, so you can't have lighting equipment all around the actors. But you still want the lighting to contribute to the dramatic intention of the scene.

Did different parts of the story need different looks?

Yes, very much so. Like all the “Hunger Games” films, the story is set in the Capitol, District 12, and the arena. An added location for this film was the army barracks. Each definitely got their own feeling and look but were still part of a whole. The arena needed to feel gritty, dirty, dusty, and harsh. The Capitol always has a more formal, richer look. My favorite location in the movies was always District 12; it’s the place where I put the most nostalgia in the image, and I think that also applies to the production and costume design.

The Hob, which is the place where people meet to dance and drink and listen to music, was shot at Landschaftspark, an old steel plant in Duisburg, Germany. The lighting is very warm and inviting. It has soul to it, a bit of grit and yet it still feels real. There is a little dancing sequence that's one of my favorite moments in the film. I used very soft, warm top light. The aesthetic of the films has always had a period feel, even though they are set in the future.

How about the arena – was that a challenging location for you?

The arena was the most challenging location of the film and it's probably the set with the most screen time. The location was Centennial Hall in Wroclaw, Poland. It's a circular, domed building with hundreds of windows. The arena has a diameter of 95 meters. We wanted to see every inch of it, floor to ceiling, so there was nowhere to hide lights and it wasn't possible to light from the outside. We also shot nights in there. At some point in the story a hole gets bombed in the ceiling, which lets in a lot more daylight. Early on, we decided that VFX would need to help with painting out some fixtures.

The rigging team hung six-by-six-meter soft boxes on the north, south, east, and west of the building. They could be raised and dropped, all going through dimmers, so at any point I could create a cross light or a back light and turn the front light off. We rarely had to bring any lights into the arena floor, so we had full freedom to shoot anywhere we wanted. VFX painted the boxes out when needed. We planned the set and the blocking inside with the real position of the sun, so we would avoid front light as much as possible. We also put some ARRI M90 fixtures up on one of the top levels of the arena to provide some extra back light.

Where did you use ARRI Rental’s HEXATRON crane vehicle and why was it needed?

There is a scene where the characters Coriolanus Snow and Lucy Gray Baird meet, which we shot in the Polish countryside with these beautiful rolling hills and high grasses. It was very difficult to get equipment to the location because it was on top of a hill and the terrain was very uneven. I also didn’t want the whole crew trampling on all this beautiful grass. So, our only option was the HEXATRON. We didn’t really have a lot of high-angle shots, but the crane and the HEXATRON gave us all the flexibility we needed, allowing us to move very fast from shot to shot. I didn’t even bring any lights up the hill, just a few bounce cards. I prefer not to use any lights outside if I can avoid it.

You were supported by ARRI Rental Berlin; could you describe your relationship with the team there?

I really like all the people at ARRI Rental Berlin. I had a close relationship during the prep with Christoph Hoffsten, the Head of the Camera Department, in the choice and tuning of the Signature Prime lenses. I can waver a bit between choices in the prep period, so at times I want to look at things again and again, but nothing was ever a problem. They were always very supportive.