Tom Sigel ASC on how he shot Bohemian Rhapsody with the ALEXA 65

Cinematographer Newton Thomas (Tom) Sigel ASC recently shot Bohemian Rhapsody, a celebration of Queen’s music and the band’s extraordinary lead singer Freddie Mercury. Bohemian Rhapsody is an intimate exploration of the inner workings of the group, from Queen’s earliest days to arguably their greatest live performance at the historic Live Aid concert of 1985.

The highly-anticipated film will premiere at Wembley Arena in London on Oct. 23 for 7,000 people. It will then be screened in every IMAX theater across the U.S. Tom has shot such movies as Drive, Three Kings, and The Usual Suspects. I got a chance to ask Tom about his experiences shooting Bohemian Rhapsody and how he came to choose the ALEXA 65 for this project.

How did you originally get involved in the project?

Image credit: Alex Bailey (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

When Bryan Singer approached me with Bohemian Rhapsody, I was totally stoked. It has so many elements I love. I’ve done my share of music videos, but never a movie ‘about’ music. This one revolves around one of the most iconic bands in rock history – Queen. And then there’s Freddie – what a trip. From a Parsi immigrant to rock star to a tragic victim of AIDS to gay icon. Now that’s quite a story.

Are you a big fan of Queen?

Image credit: Alex Bailey (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

I enjoyed Queen as a kid, but at the time, was exploring jazz, latin and world music. When I took on Bohemian Rhapsody, I delved deep into their huge body of work and have come to appreciate the importance of their contribution to contemporary culture. One of the remarkable things about Queen is the massive reach their music has had to people who don’t even realize they are listening to Queen — such as witnessing “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” being played at sporting events all over the world. And without question, the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” changed the direction of rock music forever.

What was the brief you got about Bohemian Rhapsody?

Image credit: Alex Bailey (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

I think we were all on the same page, where the film was meant to be a celebration of the music of Queen. The decision was made early on that we would not fall into the cliche of the rock star’s descent into the hell of their personal demons. Having said that, we do not shy away from Freddie’s struggle with his sexual identity and eventual demise from AIDS.

How much creative input did you have from the start?

Image credit: Alex Bailey (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

I’ve done many films with Bryan Singer, and over the years, he has been generous enough to give me great creative freedom. Bohemian Rhapsody was no exception, and it was wonderful to try and discover a visual language that best portrays this crazy ride Freddie and the band took to the heights of rock stardom.

Had you shot any material for IMAX screens before?

Image credit: Alex Bailey (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Yes, and there is nothing quite like seeing your material on a real IMAX screen – especially when shot in a large format. In this age of binge-streaming and YouTube obsession, there is still nothing that compares to being totally immersed in a massive image in a dark room with other humans.

How did you come to choose the ALEXA 65 for this shoot?

Image credit: Alex Bailey (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

The Alexa 65 is a brilliant camera. It has the feel of a medium format camera in still photography. All this amazing picture detail without being overly sharp. It creates all these beautifully subtle half-tones and nuances that I luxuriate in.

Were you happy with the results from the ALEXA 65?

Very much so.

When shooting for IMAX delivery is there anything different you needed to do during production?

Image credit: Alex Bailey (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Whether shooting for IMAX or any large screen, you really need to do your testing and color correction on the largest screen and best projection possible. Just because something looks right on a 65” monitor or a small screen doesn’t mean it will hold up when projected 60’ across. But if it looks good in IMAX, it should be just fine on someone’s iPad, while they work out on the treadmill!

Did you have a specific style or theme to the way it was shot?

Image credit: Alex Bailey (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

The journey of Freddie, as well as Queen itself, from 1970 to 1985, drove the aesthetic of the film. The story begins (after a little Live Aid tease) with Freddie having just landed in London from Zanzibar in 1970. He is young, brash, idealistic and romantic. The look reflects this, but evolves as he finds success with Roger Taylor, Brian May and John Deacon. This takes us through the 70s and into the 80s with Live Aid. By then, the look is very different — it’s cleaner, sharper, with less of the golds and pastels of the previous period, reflecting Queen’s new place in the world.

The first act of the film was done with the Alexa SXT and vintage Cooke Speed Panchro lenses. The remainder with the Alexa 65 and the DNA lenses. There is an evolution in the cinematic grammar of the film that reflects the growth of both Queen, and the culture as a whole. The SXT Speed Panchro combination gave the opening a more nostalgic, romantic quality. The 65 DNA pairing brought about a cleaner look with more picture detail that still refrained from being overly sharp or saturated.

What was your biggest challenge on this shoot?

Image credit: Alex Bailey (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

On a film of this scale, with this much anticipation, there are always challenges. Actually, every movie has it’s challenges and Bohemian Rhapsody was no exception. We started production with the huge, climactic Live Aid sequence. If that wasn’t enough, the very first shot, on the very first day, started as an aerial over London flying over the crowd through Wembley Stadium toward the stage and ends with a 180-degree move around Freddie at the piano in close-up. Everything seemed easy after that.

Were you happy with the end results?

Image credit: Alex Bailey (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

I’m very proud of this movie. I believe it to be a respectful celebration of the life and death of Freddie without being morose or nihilistic. I think whether someone knows Queen’s music or not, they will be enthralled going on this wild journey with the band.

Is there anything you learned from working on this production?

Absolutely. I learn something every time I step on a set. Whether it’s a low-budget music video or a giant effects movie, if you aren’t learning something, you aren’t paying attention. It is the only way you grow as an artist. If you aren’t growing, you’re moving backwards.

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