‘The Expanse’ Reveals Dramatic In-Camera Visuals with Cooke 5/i Primes

The Expanse Cooke Benning Rafy

Photo Rafy Photography

In 2014, when Syfy committed to 10 one-hour episodes of 'The Expanse', it was and still is the most expensive series the channel has produced. Based on the best-selling book series of the same name, critics have often mentioned the episodes’ beautiful visuals, shot by Canadian DP Jeremy Benning, CSC. As the series continued to be well received, its third 13-episode season wrapped production on 5 December 2017, and is set to air in 2018.
Jeremy Benning has been the DP for all three seasons of 'The Expanse', and said, “I wanted a gritty, hard but human look for the show and chose Cooke 5/i primes from the very beginning. I’ve been a long-time user of Cooke’s S4, miniS4/i and 5/i lenses.”

Two-Camera Shoot

The Expanse Cooke3 NBC SyFy

Photo Credit NBC SyFy

The episodes are primarily shot with a two-camera set-up using ARRI ALEXA Minis at 23.98fps, recording ProRes 4444 UHD with a 16:9 aspect ratio. This arrangement is augmented with a third ALEXA Mini whenever necessary. “When you are using digital cameras, the Cooke 5/i lenses deliver something gentler that takes the edge off the crispness - it’s still super sharp, but I get rounder and more gentle faces, great defocus, and wonderful fall off between foreground and background. DPs always talk about ‘The Cooke Look’ and for me that means a creamier, softer, three-dimensionality with great bokeh,” Jeremy said.
He prefers not to use any filtering for 'The Expanse', having done some tests during season one, although he occasionally makes use of the Schneider Optics Classic Soft 1/16 filter. A majority of the show’s visuals are captured in-camera, relying on VFX for set extensions and exterior space shots. For example, in seasons two and three, very dark, almost cave-like environments needed to show bioluminescent particles and walls. Using practical ultraviolet pigment built into the sets with UV light to fluoresce and almost totally light the set, Jeremy was able to capture an ethereal look in camera that only needed VFX augmenting and adjusting in post.

The Expanse Cooke7 NBC SyFy

Photo Credit NBC SyFy

Studio Production

Meanwhile, this UV effect meant extremely low light levels on set, which the T1.4 Cookes handled well, helping to support the low-light ability in the 800 ISO ALEXA Mini cameras. “This series is visually different from a lot of the typical science fiction on television,” said Jeremy. “The series has a hard-edged look without being clinical. The sets are often super-technical and harsh, and the lenses help take some of that edge off and add more character, giving a sort of graphic novel look to the images.”

Production of 'The Expanse' is 90 percent studio based, with one location day per episode. The sets are mostly complete 360-degree environments with complete walls, floors and ceilings. Jeremy worked alongside the show’s production designer Tony Ianni to work lighting into the sets, selecting the type of lighting and the materials the light would pass through. The sets are almost entirely lit practically.

The Expanse Cooke Rafy

Photo Rafy Photography

“Primarily, we use LED ribbons mixed with various film-based and theatrical, performance style lighting,” he said. “We did quite a full range of tests to make sure we had no flicker or any other issues. During season two, we started making our own lights for our standing sets - it’s just so much more economical to build rather than rent, and in any case, we can replicate most things the rental fixtures can do.”

/i Technology Lens Metadata

Jeremy made use of the full 9-lens set of 5/i primes for the show, consisting of 18mm, 25mm, 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm, 75mm, 100mm, and 135mm with fast T1.4 speed, shared between the cameras.

He also used Cooke's /i Technology lens metadata protocol, which enables ARRI’s Lens Data System (LDS) in the ALEXA Mini to automatically record key lens data for every frame shot supply it digitally to the show’s visual effects vendors, mainly Spin VFX and Mavericks VFX. This includes focus, iris, and zoom data, so that visual effects used to extend the sets or add in a new background can be tracked in directly to match the in-camera element. This process can save up to a couple of hours of manual work per shot.

The Expanse Cooke4 NBC SyFy

Photo Credit NBC SyFy

“My goal is to keep the audience in the world of the show, making them believe that what they see is real,” said Jeremy. “I often shot the Cookes wide open, to take the edge off the 'set' aspect of the environments, keeping the focal point on the actors’ eyes. That takes the emphasis away from the artificiality of a space craft set. With a defocused background, everything blends, helping to sell the idea of being in a real place - that’s our main goal. Cookes make the background look more like a painting than a set."   www.cookeoptics.com