Behind the Camera: Feature Film DPs

By Karen Moltenbrey

The responsibilities of a director of photography (DP) span far more than cinematography. Perhaps they are best known for their work behind the camera capturing the action on set, but that is just one part of their multi-faceted job. Well before they step onto the set, they meet with the director, at times working hand-in-hand to determine the overall look of the project. They also make a host of technical selections, such as the type of camera and lenses they will use as well as the film stock if applicable – crucial decisions that will support the director’s vision and make it a reality.

Here we focus on two DPs for a pair of recent films with specialized demands and varying aesthetics, as they discuss their workflows on these projects as well as the technical choices they made concerning equipment and the challenges each project presented.

Hagen Bogdanski: Papillon
The 2018 film Papillon, directed by Michael Noer, is a remake of the 1973 classic. Set in the 1930s, it follows two inmates who must serve, and survive, time in a French Guyana penal colony. The safecracker nicknamed Papillon (Charlie Hunnam) is serving a life sentence and offers protection to wealthy inmate Louis Dega (Rami Malek) in exchange for financing Papillon’s escape.

“We wanted to modernize the script, the whole story. It is a great story but it feels aged. To bring it to a new, younger audience, it had to be modernized in a more radical way, even though it is a classic,” says Hagen Bogdanski, the film’s DP, whose credits include the film The Beaver and the TV series Berlin Station, among others. To that end, he notes, “we were not interested in mimicking the original.”

This was done in a number of ways. First, through the camera work, using a semi-documentary style. The director has a history of shooting documentaries and, therefore, the crew shot with two cameras at all times. “We also shot the rehearsals,” notes Bogdanski, who was brought onto the project and given nearly five weeks of prep before shooting began. Although this presented a lot of potential risk for Bogdanski, the film “came out great in the end. I think it’s one of the reasons the look feels so modern, so spontaneous.”

In the film, the main characters face off against the harsh environment of their prison island. But to film such a landscape required the cinematographer and crew to also contend with these trying conditions. They shot on location outdoors for the majority of the feature, using just one physical structure: the prison. Also helping to define the film’s aesthetic was the lighting, which, as is typical with Bogdanski’s films, is as natural as possible without large artificial sources.

Most of the movie was shot in Montenegro, near sun-drenched Greece and Albania. Bogdanski does not mince words: “The locations were difficult.”

Weather seemed to impact Bogdanski the most. “It was very remote, and if it’s raining, it’s really raining. If it’s getting dark, it’s dark, and if it’s foggy, there is fog. You have to deal with a lot of circumstances you cannot control, and that’s always a bit of a nightmare for any cinematographer,” he says. “But, what is good about it is that you get the real thing, and you get texture, layers, and sometimes it’s better when it rains than when the sun is shining. Most of the time we were lucky with the weather and circumstances. The reality of location shooting adds quite heavily to the look and to the whole texture of the movie.”

The location shooting also affected this DP’s choice of cameras. “The footprint [I used] was as small as possible because we basically visited abandoned locales. Therefore, I chose as small a kit — lenses, cameras and lights — as possible,” Bogdanski points out. “Because [the camera] was handheld, every pound counted.” In this regard, he used ARRI’s Arriflex Mini cameras and one Alexa SXT, and only shot with Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses – “big zooms, no big filters, nothing,” he adds.

The prison build was on a remote mountain. On the upside, Bogdanski could shoot 360 degrees there without requiring the addition of CGI later. On the downside, the crew had to get up the mountain. A road was constructed to transport the gear and for the set construction, but even so, the trek was not easy. “It took two hours or longer each day from our hotel. It was quite an adventure,” he says.

As for the lighting, Bogdanski tried to shoot when the light was good, taking advantage of the location’s natural light as much as possible — within his documentary style. When this was not enough, LEDs were used. “Again, small footprint, smaller lens, smaller electrical power, smaller generators….” The night scenes were especially challenging because the nights were very short, no longer than five to six hours. When artificial rain had to be used, shooting was “a little painful” due to the size of the set, requiring the use of more traditional lighting sources, such as large Tungsten light units.

According to Bogdanski, filming Papillon followed what he calls an “eclectic” workflow, akin to the European method of filming whereby rehearsal occurred in the morning and was quite long, as the director rehearsed with the actors. Then, scenes were shot in script order, on the first take without technical rehearsals. “From there, we tried to cover the scene in handheld mode with two cameras in a kind of mash-up. We did pick up the close-ups and all that, but always in a very spontaneous and quick way,” says Bogdanski.

Looking back, Bogdanski describes Papillon as a “modern-period film”: a period look, without looking “period.” “It sounds a bit Catch-22, which it is, in my opinion, but that’s what we aimed for, a film that plays basically in the ’40s and ’50s, and later in the ’60s,” he says.

During the time since the original film was made in 1973, the industry has witnessed quite a technical revolution in terms of film equipment, providing the director and DP on the remake with even more tools and techniques at their disposal to leave their own mark on this classic for a new generation.

Nancy Schreiber: Mapplethorpe
Award-winning cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, ASC, has a resume spanning episodic television (The Comeback), documentaries (Eva Hesse) and features (The Nines). Her latest film, Mapplethorpe, paints an unflinching portrait of controversial-yet-revered photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died at the age of 42 from AIDS-related complications in 1989. Mapplethorpe, whose daring work influenced popular culture, rose to fame in the 1970s with his black-and-white photography.

In the early stages of planning the film, Schreiber worked with director Ondi Timoner and production designer Jonah Markowitz while they were still in California prior to the shoot in New York, where Mapplethorpe (played by The Crown’s Matt Smith) lived and worked at the height of his popularity.

“We looked at a lot of reference materials — books and photographs — as Ondi and I exchanged look books. Then we honed in on the palette, the color of my lights, the set dressing and wardrobe, and we were off to the races,” says Schreiber. Shooting began mid-July 2017.

Mapplethorpe is a period piece that spans three decades, all of which have a slightly different feel. “We kept the ’60s and into the ’70s quite warm in tone,” as this is the period when he first meets Patty Smith, his girlfriend at the time, and picks up a camera, explains Schreiber. “It becomes desaturated but still warm tonally when he and Patti visit his parents back home in Queens while the two are living at the Chelsea Hotel. The look progresses until it’s very much on the cool blue/gray side, almost black and white, in the later ’70s and ’80s.” During that time period, Mapplethorpe is successful, with an enormous studio, photographically exploring male body parts like no other person has ever done, while continuing to shoot portraits of the rich and famous.

Schreiber opted to use film, Super 16, rather than digital to capture the life of this famed photographer. “He shot in film, and we felt that format was true to his photography,” she notes. Despite Mapplethorpe’s penchant for mostly shooting in black and white, neither Timoner nor Schreiber considered using that format for the feature, mostly because the ’60s through ’80s in New York had very distinctive color palettes. They felt, however, that film in and of itself was very “textural and beautiful,” whereas you have to work a little harder with digital to make it look like film — even though new ways of adding grain to digital have become quite sophisticated. “Yet, the grain of Super 16 is so distinctive,” she says.

In addition, Kodak had just opened a lab in New York in the spring of 2017, facilitating their ability to shoot film by having it processed quickly nearby.

Schreiber used an ARRI Arriflex 416 camera for the project; when possible, she used two. She also had a set of Zeiss 35mm Super Speed lenses, along with two zoom lenses she used only occasionally for outdoor shots. “The Super Speeds were terrific. They’re vintage and were organic to the look of this period.”

She also used a light meter faithfully. Although Schreiber occasionally uses light meters when shooting digital, it was not optional for shooting film. “I had to use it for every shot, although after a couple of days, I was pretty good at guessing [by eyeing it],” Schreiber points out, “as I used to do when we only shot film.”

Soon after ARRI had introduced the Arriflex 416 – which is small and lightweight – the industry started moving to digital, prompting ARRI to roll out the now-popular Alexa. “But the [Arriflex 416] camera really caught on for those still shooting Super 16, as they do for the series The Walking Dead, Schreiber says, adding she was able to get her pair from TCS Technological Cinevideo Services rental house in New York.

“I had owned an Aaton, a French camera that was very popular in the 1980s and ’90s. But today, the 416 is very much in demand, resembling the shape of my Aaton, both of which are ergonomic, fitting nicely on your shoulder. There were numerous scenes in the car, and I could just jump in the car with this very small camera, much smaller than the digital cameras we use on movies; it was so flexible and easy to work with,” recalls Schreiber.

As for the lenses, “again, I chose the Super Speed Primes not only because they were vintage, but because I needed the speed of the 1.3 lens since film requires more light.” She tested other lenses at TCS, but those were her favorites.

While Schreiber has used film on some commercials and music videos, it had been some time since she had used it for an entire movie. “I had forgotten how freeing it is, how you can really move. There are no cables to worry about. Although, we did transmit to a tiny video village,” she says. “We didn’t always have two cameras [due to cost], so I needed to move fast and get all the coverage the editor needed. We had 19 days, and we were limited in how long we could shoot each day; our budget was small and we couldn’t afford overtime.” At times, though, she was able to hire a Steadicam or B operator who really helped move them along, keeping the camera fluid and getting extra coverage. Timoner also shot a bit of Super 8 along the way.

There was just one disadvantage to using film: The stocks are slow. As Schreiber explains, she used a 500 ASA stock. Therefore, she needed very fast lenses and a fair amount of light in order to compensate. “That worked OK for me on Mapplethorpe because there was a different sense of lighting in the 1970s, and films seemed more ‘lit.’ For example, I might use backlight or hair light, which I never would do for [a film set in] present day,” she says. “I rated that stock at 400 to get rich blacks; that also slightly minimized the grain when the day interior stock was 250 that I rated at 200. We are so used to shooting at 800 or 1280 ISO these days. It was an adjustment.”

Schreiber on set with “Mapplethorpe” director Ondi Timoner.

Shooting with film was also more efficient for Schreiber. “We had monitors for the video village, but we were standard def, old-school, which is not an exact representation. So, I could move quickly to get enough coverage, and I never looked at a monitor except when we had Steadicam. What you see is not what you get with an SD tap. I was trusted to create the imagery as I saw fit. I think many people today are used to seeing the digital image on the monitor as what the final film will look like and may be nervous about waiting for the processing and transfer, not trusting the mystery or mystique of how celluloid will look.”

To top things off, Schreiber was backed by an all-female A camera team. “I know how hard it is for women to get work,” she adds. “There are so many competent women working behind the camera these days, and I was happy to hire them. I remember how challenging it was when I was a gaffer or started to shoot.”

As for costs, digital camera equipment is more expensive than Super 16 film equipment, yet there were processing and transfer costs associated with getting the film into the edit suite. So, when all was said and done, film was indeed more expensive to use, but not by much.

“I am really proud that we were able to do the movie in 19 days with a very limited budget, in New York, covering many periods,” concludes Schreiber. “We had a great time, and I am happy I was able to hire so many women in my departments. Women are still really under-represented, and we must demonstrate that there is not a scarcity of talent, just a lack of exposure and opportunity.”

Mapplethorpe is expected in theaters this October.


Karen Moltenbrey is a longtime writer and editor in the CG and post industries.


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