Into the Dark – with ISO 5000
DoP Matthias Bolliger about his work on the feature film "Nur Gott kann mich richten"
It was last autumn when DoP Matthias Bolliger shot the feature film "Nur Gott kann mich richten" by "Chiko"-director Özgür Yildirim on both the Varicam 35 and the Varicam LT. The DoP spoke to us exclusively about his experiences during filming with the high-performance Panasonic cameras and his artistic approach to the dark story about guilt, atonement and morality.
Photos by Adopekid
"And why are we not using real street lights for the lighting?" This was the question put to me by chief lighting technician Jochen Kratzheller in the Hamburg street café that summer. I had been getting all worked up about the look and feel of the upcoming genre motion picture as we discussed the colour contrast of sodium-coloured and green-blue metal halide street lamps for outdoors/night time. A brief pause ensued: "Have you done this before?" He said: "Nope!""I said: "Right so – let's try it out!" But there was still three months to wait until we knew definitively that it would actually work.
The movie project was carried out without the involvement of a TV station and TV editorial office. The responsible producers were Christian Becker from the Munich-based production company Rat Pack Film Production in collaboration with Hamburg-based Paloma Entertainment GmbH run by Moritz Bleibtreu and Emek Kavukcuoglu. The film was thus also the début for Moritz Bleibtreu as producer and leading actor at the same time. Constantin Film was brought on board as the film's distributor and "Hessen Film und Medien" and "Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein" as funding partners. It was therefore obvious that apart from Frankfurt, the other filming location would be Hamburg.
VARICAM: FROM TV TO CINEMA
Visually we wanted to distance ourselves in general from a semi-documentary-type, desaturated look. In terms of style, the focus was on using clearly structured cinemascope images with framings that allow calm observation of the central character without the "Dutch Angle" as it is known, which was so popular in our recent projects, as well as slower-paced camera movements. The intention was that this creative approach combined with a cinematic-cum-atmospheric light and shade concept would allow the love of colours to shine through again since colour contrasts were desired. In other words, the concept centred on clearly defined colour worlds with recurring, sodium-yellow sodium lighting (NDL) and blue-green halogen metal vapour street lighting (HQI). Ever since the meeting in the street café we had the idea in our minds to use real NDL and HQI burners for outdoor/night lighting. We drew on visual references such as "Sicario" (2015), "Prisoners" (2013), "No Country For Old Men" (2007) and "Gomorrah – The Series"(2014–15).
Having already filmed two "Tatort" series with the Varicam 35 ("Zorn Gottes" and "Fünf Minuten Himmel"), it occurred to me at the time that the experience from these two filmings could also be drawn on to make a motion picture. Apart from the native recording capability in 4K, the dual native ISO offered by the Varicam was a further key feature of the camera for me. This feature allows you to switch between two native basic chip sensitivities of the camera, that is to say 800 ISO and 5000 ISO, while maintaining visually consistent picture quality. I used the increased light sensitivity of around 2.5 stops in my recent projects to give me more creative freedom so I could also film with zooms at night time for example. Then there were experiments with shorter shutter times and polarising filters for low light, creative freedom in playing with increased depth-of-field and frame rates in poor lighting conditions and naturally use of defined practicals as primary light sources. The LUT management of the camera also impressed me, allowing me to load LUTs created beforehand in DaVinci Resolve directly for monitoring so I therefore already had the look of the rushes in the camera.
It's not so easy though to integrate a new camera into established workflows of a major distributor like Constantin Film. After replacing the first material, the issue of a mandatory test shoot had to be addressed. I only wanted to do this before the actual filming however as a screen test with the final actors and tried to avoid it with three months still to go to filming. The compromise ultimately involved taking test material I had shot in Spring 2016 with the Varicam LT for the European launch of the camera in Barcelona (see Film & TV Kameramann 5/2016) and not grading it for the web, rather in a new dedicated way for the big screen and creating a DCP in the DCI-P3 colour world for cinema screening. Two weeks later and we got the go-ahead from Constantin Film in Munich. The Varicam it was.
Preparations for filming began in Summer 2016 with tech scouting and breakdown. Özgür and I had got to work around two months before filming started with set designer Anette Reuther from Frankfurt. Attention focused on conveying the defined colour concept to the production design and subsequently the costume design. Frankfurt, Offenbach and Rüsselsheim surprised us with fresh, stylishly murky locations, which Anette and her team unearthed for us. For the first time I used a Ricoh ThetaS for the pre-production stage when inspecting the locations so I could take 360-degree tech recce photos straight away. Tricky questions that invariably came up afterwards could then be answered quickly and efficiently: "Is it still even possible to see the entrance door from this angle?"
As with previous projects, we took around ten days to prepare shot lists for almost the whole picture before filming began. We made intensive use of the "Shot Designer" blocking program from HCW for the breakdown. Equipped with tech recce photographs, floor plans, Shot Designer software, Playmobil figures from our children and coffee/Red Bull, we were ready to start the breakdown of the whole picture.
Cast, sorted – locations, pretty much agreed – visual concept, developed. It was time for the screen test in the MMC Studios in Cologne. Our objectives for this half-day were:
– Look and feel of the main characters
– Tattoo test with pasted pictures
– Optics/filter/colour world test
– Flick test NDL, HQI, HMI, FL, LED at 50 & 100fps
We also used the sodium-coloured NDL and blue-green HQI street lighting proposed in the summer. The MBF Frankfurt team had secured real street lights for us, which could be adapted to film-lighting grip equipment. The lamps were intended more for wide exterior shots, since they could not be regulated or dimmed either in terms of focus or light intensity. But since the lamps were convincing thanks to their realistic grimy street appearance, we now also decided to use a filter package for smaller lamp units to match the lighting quality of real street lights. With shutter speeds of 1/50 sec, however, the real gas discharge lamps with their monochromatic light were second to none. We compensated for the almost complete colour desaturation from only using gas discharge lamps for lighting by simultaneously using the two colour worlds (NDL and HQI lamps) in the same picture.
OPTICS AND CODECS
In regards to optics, I had achieved very exciting results for the "Tatort" series with old Cooke-S2 optics (sets). I wanted a somewhat higher resolution however for the motion picture without losing the look & feel of the Cooke set completely. I opted for Cooke-S4 prime lenses combined with Angénieux Optimo lightweight zooms (Angénieux Optimo 15-40mm, T2.6 and Angénieux Optimo30-80mm, T2.8). The zooms were further adapted to the Cooke set using Black Promist filters.
Normal scenes were shot in AVC-Intra 444 format in 2K and in 4K for effect shots and VFX footage. Production excluded the possibility of end-to-end acquisition and processing in 4K for this project for financial reasons. Multiple data volumes and complete post-finishing in 4K still seems unusual today, but there will be no alternative in future to Amazon's and Netflix' "Native 4K Request".
For the test grading of the screen test in the "WeFadeToGrey" post production house in Cologne, four standard LUTs were defined straight away based on the test footage in three contrast ratios each and exported again as vlt files that could be read by the Varicam. The screen test grading thus also defined the required look of the rushes for the subsequent filming at the same time. I was then able to assign defined LUTs to the video output from the Varicam on the set and use the look of our rushes as a preview and reference for exposure and white balance on the set. 12 LUTs were therefore available during filming, which could be alternated quickly. The particular LUT that was used in each case for recordings was determined automatically in the metadata of the camera. DIT Clemens Wolfart was able to examine the data copied with Pomfort Silverstack in this way in DaVinci Resolve together with the associated playback LUTs in each case. Accordingly, the rushes were then exported directly by the DIT without any further corrections.
HERE WE GO
Filming began on 13 September 2016 in Frankfurt. The Hessian metropolis was home for the next 23 filming days. The second filming phase involved another eight days with the crew in Hamburg. We had general support on around 15 of the 31 days from camera operator Florian Raasch who was often called on to cover parallel set-ups. We switched cameras here on the fly depending on which lens was currently inserted on the Varicam 35 or LT.
Following documentary footage with the LT, I was now working for the first time with the Varicam LT as the first camera for a feature film. It differs primarily from its bigger sibling in terms of form factor, weight and price. While the Varicam 35 still shoots 4K footage with up to 120 fps in Super35, its smaller sibling achieves max. 60 fps. It has an exchangeable mount (EF/PL) for this purpose and infrared recordings. The last two options were of less importance for "Nur Gott kann mich richten". I reckon however that it has an almost 50 percent lighter camera body for hand-held camera footage and gimbal shots. A MöVi M15 was then introduced by key grip Joscha Jenneßen. Between the design of the Varicam LT combined with the relatively heavy-duty Cooke-S4 prime lenses and the additional PL mount of the camera, the Freefly system was pushed to its limits. We couldn't take the Cooke S4i 12 mm wide angle because of its weight so there was no chance to use it with the MöVi gimbal. The MöVi system was supported by an EasyRig and an external MöVi controller, so that the grip physically guided the camera, while as DoP however I panned the camera myself on a remote head from the control panel. For me it was really great to be able to blend the latest technology with personal stylistics. We not only used the MöVi as an alternative to the Steadicam but also as a remote head for individual crane shots and mounted as a stabilised camera head on the car. The MöVi was therefore used for the opening shot of the film on a GF16 crane (Version 15), which also worked flawlessly.
RISKY PANNING SHOT
It was during preparations for shooting in the summer that we came up with the idea to film the meeting of two of the lead characters and their shoot-out, which ends up fatal for one of the two, in one planned sequence without cutting. The camera was to be mounted at the height of the passenger seat in a car, with filming first through the windshield with the driver in the car hurtling towards the firing shooters, then panning with the camera 180 degrees to the passing shooters, also capturing the approach of the last firing of the weapon, and then panning ahead to the fatal hit on the driver. This collapses, the car rams a barrier and comes to a standstill.
So that was the plan. The execution of the scene was a real challenge, what with the combination of real stunts, bullet holes produced live in the windshield by the SFX machine, the breaking glass as well as the gunshot wound to the head. We first of all tested the mechanics of the MöVi camera again to determine if was suitable. Although we were able to control the camera in the moving car from outside, a precise whip-pan of almost 180 degrees was not possible.
What if I were to operate the camera from a small moving platform and pan it manually? The stunt department thankfully dismissed the idea. The SFX shooting machine mounted on the passenger seat for making the bullet holes (which were shot from inside out) was too big a risk for the crew and cast nearby. The driver was also a stuntman, good thing though he was wearing a balaclava. A different, high-grade remote head was therefore needed. The decision was made in favour of a Micro Scorpio Head. Somewhat surprisingly for me, this radio-controlled head also demonstrated a certain latency in terms of its response, and while by no means as severe as the overloaded MöVi, still enough to make the whip-pan risky in a take that couldn't really be repeated.
Amid rising tension, everything was in place after three test runs: the actors' guns, the radio-controlled shooting machine in the car, remote radio head, radio-controlled video, radio-controlled sharpness, radio-controlled sound ... our stage set street was a radio-controlled smog zone, then finally "Action!". Everything worked perfectly, only the machine for shooting the bullets at the windshield did not mirror all of the gunshots played out by the shooter as bullet holes in the windshield. Having consulted the playback in detail and following discussions with the VFX supervisor, it was decided to go with this take and to digitally insert two additional bullet holes using the VFX while the second unit was then able to film bullet holes in the windshield for the rest of the night "in front of black" (for VFX compositing).
ON THE EDGE
The advantage of the Varicam's higher light sensitivity also meant that operational changes had to be made. On one hand, it was always critical to have complete control of the light intensity of practicals. More intense contact was needed in advance between the lighting and production design departments especially when working with self-luminous objects as primary light sources. The new LED flashing beacons on the police cars in our BMWs on set were so bright for our low-light shots, for example, that we had to curb these with ND 0.9 gels. Despite the light sensitivity of the cameras, my lighting package in the truck for daytime scenes remained the same as before. Only the leeway in the low-density range was extended considerably by the cameras. However, this also meant having to work intensively with negative fill, in other words the contrast definition of the shadows with flags, floppies and teasers. This was as critical as installing and working with electric lamps. I also increasingly used the light sensitivity of the camera, however, to capture a meaningful exposure in the first place with mirroring and reflections. Various glass, plexiglas and metal plates were always on standby from the art department.
We also used two large Varicam 35 cameras on one of the final two days of filming in Frankfurt in order to capture a high-speed sequence of the final showdown in a bar in 100 fps. While the smaller Varicam LT can also record up to 240 fps, it can only do this from 60 fps in a 2K crop mode, which utilises the inside of the chip exclusively. But we wanted the best recording quality in Super35, also in high-speed mode thus the switch to the Varicam 35.
It is important here to note that the Varicam 35 forfeits one stop of light sensitivity in high-speed mode. For 100 fps this means then that the two native sensitivities of 400 and 2500 ISO can be chosen. Although we were filming daytime/indoor shots, the exposure at 2500 ISO was precisely on the edge owing to recording with 100 fps and in combination with the rather gloomier light set-up and the zooms used. I was particularly pleased that day not to have to illuminate the bar further. The filming day was tight, involved various viewing angles, five lead characters, various stunt, SFX and VFX shots and therefore also went on into the evening twilight. It was extremely handy for me that we could work throughout the entire shooting day with one defined lighting set-up and only had to fine-tune details shot-by-shot.
It also proved useful to be able to swap the camera configuration and LUTs used between the two Varicam 35 and the Varicam LT by means of an SD card. The SD card is also really useful for quickly switching between different resolutions and frame rates, thus avoiding multiple camera restarts. It should be noted in general when naming the LUTs that the camera only displays eight letters of the name internally – if there are more letters, the name is shown in shortened form. Moreover, the display order is determined by the chronological order of creation and not the alphabetic designation. To correct this, I used the on-board text editor (txt) on my laptop in the end and shortened the name to fewer than eight letters so that I could also see the particular LUT in question cleanly on the display.
The grading of "Nur Gott kann mich richten" is planned for Cologne from the middle of May. The dark genre film will be released in German cinemas on 7 September 2017.