Australian cinematographer Daniel Dunn has a long history with filmmaking that dates back to childhood. He grew up skateboarding in a small town outside of Melbourne and caught the bug shooting skate videos with handy cams and fisheye lenses. Like many other filmmakers at a young age, he didn't realize that being a cinematographer could be a career.
It wasn't until he saw The Cinematographer Project, a collection of artistically produced skate videos that turned the page for Dunn. He started to then recognize the art of cinematography and immersed himself into composition, lighting and studying different iconic films. Since, the 12-year kid who was editing skate videos in his room has gone on to DP large-scaled productions that include narrative and commercial work.
Recently, Dunn had a chance to reconnect with his skateboarding roots while testing the ARRI 12mm T1.8 Signature Prime. Pairing the wide angle lens with the ARRI Alexa Mini LF, he was able to put both through its paces, and the results are pretty impressive. No Film School caught up with the cinematographer to have him share his thoughts. Check out the interview below.
NFS: What was your first reaction to seeing the images produced by the 12mm Signature Prime?
Daniel Dunn: First and foremost, when you pick one up and put it on the camera, it’s so light. They look like they are built like tanks, and they are, but they are so light. And then when put it on a camera like the Alexa Mini LF – mind Blown. The roll-off is beautiful. The distortion and breathing are essentially non-existent.
NFS: The lack of lens breathing is something we noticed with the Signature Primes. It’s virtually unnoticeable.
Dunn: Exactly. After shooting with other modern cine lenses, the Signature Primes almost make them feel old. Which is odd to say. But when you think of modern cine lenses you just expect the breathing to be non-existent. As soon as you start comparing anything to the Signature Primes, everything else is put to shame a little bit
NFS: What did you put together for this camera test?
Dunn: We shot with the Alexa Mini LF in two different setups. One with the ARRI Maxima gimbal for more composed and considered shots. And the second one was handheld. More down and dirty. We added a matte box with a clear on the front – just to be safe of course.
NFS: Good call. Probably nothing more painful than ruining a $47,000 lens on a test shoot. Was the setup light enough though?
Dunn: I’ve been skating all my life and editing skate video since I was 12 years old. We were able to use it in the same way as the camera I grew up using, but the handheld rig did weigh a little bit more. It was challenging to use when compared to something like the Sony VX1000 back in the day, but we could still be nimble enough to operate handheld in that traditional skate filmer fashion. We could skate through groups of people and could turn around with the camera on the skateboard. You have to look where you’re going of course and have a natural instinct, but it’s possible.
NFS: What surprised you the most about the images the 12mm produced?
Dunn: The lack of distortion in the corners. You can create such a composed image with the 12mm. Not every scenario calls for one, but you can really create something cinematic that doesn’t make the image feel like a 12mm because there’s no distortion. Another thing was the way these lenses flare. It’s apparent yet unobtrusive, it's beautifully soft and never overwhelmed the image. Handy because when filming skateboarding, flaring is almost impossible to control.
NFS: You can really see the lack of distortion with all the buildings. It’s a good test.
Dunn: That’s really the reason why we wanted to create this clip. To test it with locations that challenge the lens in terms of lines and buildings. You normally always see that curvature in the corner. With this lens, you only see straight lines. Another consideration was exporting the clip in 4:3, partially to pay homage to the old skate flicks of the late ’90s / early 00’s but also by using the whole of the LF sensor we gave the 12mm nowhere to hide.
When you watch the clip, you’ll start to notice things in the corners of the frame you didn’t notice before. At about the 2-minute mark, in the top left-hand corner, there’s a plane. If there was distortion in the lens you wouldn’t be able to make that out. All the little moments and reflection in the building start to come out too. The more you watch it, the more you start to notice what this lens is capable of.
NFS: Ya, it spins a new perspective on a 12mm. Especially when it comes to distortion.
Dunn: When using a modern camera paired with a modern lens, you don’t necessarily want to see distortion unless it’s an artistic choice. The fact that there was no distortion when using the 12mm with the Alexa Mini LF is great. It doesn’t distract you from the image. The combination has such a unique look and the lens has something like a 2” minimum focus. It lets you be as creative as your imagination lets you.
NFS: And that’s really it. Having tools that allow you to create something unique.
Dunn: It is. The lens gives you a different perspective on location. You’ll usually have your go-to lenses. A 25, 32, 40, or 50mm. But you can chuck this 12mm on and get a new perspective of the world.
NFS: Well said. Do you see this lens becoming part of your workflow?
Dunn: On shoots that call for a wide-angle, this lens will definitely be in the kit. The DSLR revolution allowed many of us to push the mold and progress creatively, in part due to how lightweight and nimble the cameras were.
If you would have told me back in the early 2010’s I’d be skateboarding down a city street with an ARRI Alexa in my hand I’d have called you crazy and then called a chiropractor. Now, believe it or not, in 2020 it’s a possibility. With ARRI continuing to pack so much technology into their gear they’re constantly giving filmmakers new ways to approach things, and perhaps, this is an insight into where things might go next.