Interview: Jonathan Sela, Cinematographer, 'John Wick'

Sela chose to work with ARRI Alexa XT cameras, combining anamorphic and spherical lenses and capturing in ARRIRAW to maximize image quality.
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Keanu Reeves plays the title character in John Wick, portraying a former hit man who is drawn back to his past life after being brutally attacked by a mobster and his henchmen. Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, the film features bold and distinctive visuals crafted by cinematographer Jonathan Sela. Sela chose to work with ARRI Alexa XT cameras, combining anamorphic and spherical lenses and capturing in ARRIRAW to maximize image quality.

What kind of a look did you and the directors want?

Jonathan Sela: Our main visual idea for the film was to achieve two different looks: one for John Wick’s normal life before the action begins and the other for the underground world he is drawn back into. We wanted the first look to be soft and clean, and the second to be grittier, darker and sharper. For cost reasons we were shooting with just the one camera format, so I used different lenses and contrasting camera work to create these two distinct looks. The first part of the movie is more static, and then when John Wick goes back to being a hit man, the camera never stops moving.

What were your lens choices?

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Photo by David Lee.

We had the idea of using both anamorphic and spherical lenses, so we got hold of a set of Hawk Vintage ’74 anamorphics and combined them with Cooke S4s. Originally we planned to use anamorphics for the first section and sphericals for the second, but once we were shooting we felt that the camera work was enough to separate those two worlds and we ended up using the anamorphics mainly for day work and the sphericals for night work. The Vintage ’74s are beautiful but they flare a lot and at night we thought that would become too much. In daylight they gave us a hazy look and reduced the contrast, which helped make the day scenes seem much more cinematic to me.

You were recording ARRIRAW, and for the anamorphic scenes you were using almost all of Alexa’s 4:3 sensor area.

Shooting in ARRIRAW and having that extra sensor area helps most when you need to manipulate the image. You’ll notice it when you have to adjust the color or contrast in a scene because you simply have more information to work with. I prefer to do everything in-camera, but the intentions for a scene can sometimes shift in postproduction and the ARRIRAW image will stand up to those kinds of changes.  

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