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The making of Altered Carbon with Canon's Cine lenses

Joel Kinnaman, who plays prisoner-turned-amateur detective Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon, is filmed on a light-filled set for the futuristic world of the rich. The speed of Canon's Cine prime lenses including the CN-E50mm T1.3 L F, CN-E24mm T1.5 L F and CN-E35mm T1.5 L F made capturing scenes in different conditions easier, says DOP Neville Kidd. © Katie Yu / Netflix

The futuristic cyberpunk universe of the Netflix series Altered Carbon is as visually stunning as it is colourful, due to the vision and skill of the show's Directors of Photography (DOPs) Neville Kidd and Martin Ahlgren. Here, Neville explains how they created the moody yet vibrant feel of the show, shooting in 5K with Canon Cine prime lenses.

Imagine what the world will look like 350 years from now. If it's anything like the premise of the sci-fi show Altered Carbon, the wealthy will inhabit the clouds, their palaces illuminated by beautiful natural light. They'll live for hundreds of years, yet look young and beautiful, regularly transferring their digitised consciousness to the best new bodies to come onto the market. Meanwhile, the other 99% will be stuck down below, in dark, dingy spaces lit by holograms, neon signs and moving traffic in the absence of sunlight.

This was the universe that Neville and Martin were tasked with visualising, based on screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis' interpretation of Richard K Morgan's 2002 novel, Altered Carbon. The two worlds, in the clouds and down below, required completely different approaches both in terms of the filming and lighting. In the clouds, they used remote-controlled telescopic camera cranes and soft natural lighting to portray the world of the wealthy. Meanwhile, on the ground, where the so-called Grinders live in gritty streets, they used handheld cameras and hard light to accentuate shadows and create a feeling of tension.

Two actors walk along a narrow wire bridge over a river and forest, being followed by a film crew.
Renée Elise Goldsberry, who plays Quellcrist Falconer, is followed by Trieu Tran, who plays Mr Leung, and the show's camera crew. © Katie Yu / Netflix
Christian Ziegler’s

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"We wanted to make the world believable and when you're dealing with the future, nobody knows what is going to happen," Neville tells us over the phone from Vancouver, Canada, where he is shooting upcoming show The Umbrella Academy. "We were trying to predict how lights would develop, based on current technology. So we based our predictions on LED technology and kind of took it as far as we possibly could."

Neville and Martin made a lot of their lighting units for Altered Carbon themselves, integrating light-emitting diodes into the sets and combining them with traditional light. "We were trying to find the lightbulb of the future, and LED became the answer for everything. But we also liked getting a mixture of new and old lighting, maintaining a little bit of the retro world as well," Neville explains.

To create the sense that the Grinders live at the bottom of the pile of society, the light had to come from above. Neville used movable LED panels on tracks to create the impression of flying cars moving back and forth above street level.

"We needed a combination of light sources coming from adverts and holograms," Neville explains. "We decided that in the future, a lot of advertising would come from holograms in the streets trying to lure you in and sell you stuff, so we needed to create the interactive lighting effects for the holograms.

"For us, there is a very close relationship between where all of the visual effects are going to be and where the tracks of light need to be. A lot of planning went into all of the shots so we could constantly sell the futuristic world of advertising and the glow of the rich people above, compared to the sort of darker world of the poorer people below."

Working at close range

A director’s clapboard says ‘Altered Carbon’ and shooting details.
Altered Carbon was filmed using fast Canon Cine lenses. The CN-E50mm T1.3 L F, CN-E24mm T1.5 L F and CN-E35mm T1.5 L F are all engineered to produce sharp 4K footage. © Katie Yu / Netflix

The 10-episode drama was shot in 5K using a variety of Canon Cine lenses offering focal lengths of 24mm, 35mm and 50mm. These versatile lenses are engineered to meet the high standards of cinematographers shooting high-quality 4K television and film.

Neville and Martin used the CN-E50mm T1.3 L F, CN-E24mm T1.5 L F and CN-E35mm T1.5 L F lenses for Altered Carbon, the latter most frequently. "The 35mm lens was a nice wide lens that wasn't too wide for faces, so there was no face distortion and it had a lovely quality to it. Plus, being a fast lens, fall-off was gorgeous," says Neville.

Another benefit of using Canon's Cine lenses was the ability to achieve focus at very close range. "The close focus of a 50mm Cooke lens on a 6.5K camera is 112cm, which is too far away. So we took advantage of the Canon primes' ability to give us close focus [of 30-45cm], which is your standard close focus range," Neville explains.

Getting the effects in-camera

Even for high-profile TV shows with lots of episodes, budgets tend to be more limited than for a feature film. This was also the case for Altered Carbon, which was 10 hours long. Neville and Martin aimed to save hours and dollars by getting most of the shots of the streets down below in-camera, saving the visual effects budget for the scenes set in the clouds. Instead of using green screens for the down below shots, which would have required hours of post-production, whole sets were designed using translight fabric with printed backdrops that could be backlit or illuminated from the front to create different daytime and nighttime effects.

"Our set designer found these black light translights that allowed us to use black lights to illuminate the paintwork, so it looked like neon at night," explains Neville. "We projected moving trains onto the back to give the impression of moving traffic slightly out of focus. It appeared real, and we could backlight the translight backdrops with HMIs for daylight or add lights on the front to create a nighttime feel. They were ever-evolving translights, which I think worked well.

"If we had green-screened everything, it would have ended up costing a lot of money over 10 episodes. The basic problem you have with Altered Carbon is you are not making a two-hour movie, you are making a 10-hour show. So you've got to consider the cost implications over 10 hours," he adds.

It was also beneficial to the bottom line that the Canon Cine prime lenses were able to open up to a wide aperture, allowing Neville and Martin to save on additional lighting. "The Cine primes are fast lenses, which helped us enormously," Neville says.

"Vista Vision lenses are slightly slower and when you are doing episodic television you need a faster lens so you can get the amount of lighting required. Typically, you shoot with a combination of T4, T2.8 and everything, and some of the Cine primes open up to T1.3. That's a lot more light, so that really helped."

Avtor Kathrine Anker


Neville Kidd's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Neville Kidd's kitbag

Lens

CN-E50mm T1.3 L F

A lightweight (1.1kg), compact fixed focal length lens designed for EF mounts, offering spectacular 4K image quality and a full frame image circle, plus great low light performance and fine creative control over focusing and depth of field.

Lens

CN-E24mm T1.5 L F

Offering 4K image quality, this wide-angle fixed focus prime lens also brings a broader perspective to capture grand vistas or small interiors. It is compact, lightweight (1.2kg) and easy to use and a f/1.5 maximum aperture allows hand-held shooting in low light.

Lens

CN-E35mm T1.5 L F

Great in low light with fine creative control over depth of field, this wide-angle Cine lens offers beautiful 4K image quality with full frame image circle in a light (1.1kg), compact EF mount body.

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