By Randi Altman
For the bibliophiles out there, you know Catch-22 as the 1961 book by Joseph Heller. Cinephiles might remember the 1970 film of the same name starring Alan Arkin. And for those who are familiar with the saying, but not its origins, a Catch-22 is essentially a no-win situation. The famous idiom comes from the book — specifically the main character, Captain John Yossarian, a World War II bombardier who finds himself needing to escape the war, but rules and regulations hold him back.
Now there is yet another Catch-22 to point to: Hulu’s miniseries, which stars Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler, Hugh Laurie and George Clooney. Clooney is also an executive producer, alongside Grant Heslov, Luke Davies, David Michôd, Richard Brown, Steve Golin and Ellen Kuras. The series was written by Davies and Michôd and directed by Clooney, Heslov and Kuras, who each directed two episodes. It was shot entirely in Italy.
We recently reached out to the show’s German-born DP, Martin Ruhe, ASC, to find out about his workflow on the series and how he became a cinematographer.
Tell us about Catch-22. How would you describe the look of the film that you and the directors wanted to achieve?
George was very clear — he wanted to push the look of the show toward something we don’t see very often these days in TV or films. He wanted to feel the heat of the Italian summer.
We also wanted to contrast the absurdity of what happens on the ground with the claustrophobic and panic of the aerial work. We ended up with a strong warm tone and a lot of natural light. And we move the camera as if we‘re always with our hero (Abbott). Very often we travel with him in fluent camera moves, and then we contrast that with shaky hand-held camera work in the air. It was good fun to be able to have such a range to work with.
Were you given examples of the look that was wanted?
We looked at newsreel footage from the period and at stills and benefitted from production designer David Gropman‘s research. Then I took stills when we did camera tests with our actors in costume. I worked on those on my computer until we got to a place we all liked.
Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3 did the grading for the show and loved it. He gave us a LUT that we used for our dailies. Later, when we did the final grade, we added film grain and refined our look to what it is now.
How early did you get involved in the production?
I spoke with George Clooney and Grant Heslov for the first time four months before we started to shoot. I had eight weeks of prep.
How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project?
A lot of the scenes were happening in very small spaces. I did a lot of research on smaller cameras, and since we would have a lot of action scenes in those planes, I did not want to use any cameras with a rolling shutter.
I ended up using Arri Alexa Minis with Cooke S4 lenses and also some Flare cameras by IO industries, which could record 4K raw to Q7 Odyssey recorders. We mounted those little ones on the planes whenever they were flying for real. We also used it for the parachute jump.
This is a period piece. How did that affect your choices?
The main effect was the choice of light sources when we shot interiors and night scenes. I love fluorescents, and they existed in the period, but just not in those camps and not in the streets of Rome at night. We used a lot of practicals and smaller sources, which we spread out in the little streets of a small town where we shot, called Viterbo (standing in for Rome).
Another thing I learned was that in those camps at night, lights were blacked out. That meant we were stuck with moonlight and general ambience for night scenes, which we created with HMI sources — sometimes direct if we needed to cover big areas, like when the air base gets attacked at night in Episode 5.
Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of or found most challenging?
In the end of Episode 5, Yossarian’s plane loses both engines in combat and goes down. We see YoYo and others escape the plane, while the pilot takes the plane over water and tries to land it. It’s a very dramatic scene.
We shot some exteriors of the real B25 Mitchell over Sardinia. We mounted camera systems in a DC3 and our second Mitchell to get the shots with the real planes. The destruction on the engines and the additional planes were added in post. The interiors of our actors in the plane were shot at Cinecitta Studios in Rome. We had a fuselage of a real B-25 on a gimbal. The studio was equipped with a 360-degree screen and a giant top light.
In the plane, we shot with a hand-held ARRI Alexa Mini camera. It was only the actors, myself and my focus puller inside. We never altered the physical space of the plane but instead embraced the claustrophobia. We see all of the crew members getting out — only the pilot stays on board. There was so little physical space for our actors since the fuselage was rigged to the gimbal, and then we also had to create the lighting for them to jump into within a couple of feet of space.
Then, when Yossarian leaves the plane, we actually put a small camera on a stuntman while another stuntman in Yossarian’s wardrobe did a real jump. We combined that with some plate shots from a helicopter (with a 3D plane in it) and some shots of our actor on a rig on the backlot of Cinecitta.
It all worked out. It was always our goal to shoot as many real elements as we could and leave the rest with post.
Stepping away from Catch-22. How did you become interested in cinematography?
I grew up in a small town in western Germany. No one in my family had anything to do with film. I loved movies and wanted to work on them as a director. After a little journey, I got an internship at a camera rental in London. It was then I saw for the first time what cinematographers do. I loved it and knew that was it. Then I studied in Berlin, became a focus puller for a couple of years and started working as a DP on music videos, then commercials and then, a little later, films.
What inspires you artistically?
Photography and movies. There is a lot of good work out there by a lot of talented DPs. I love to look at photographers I like as well as some documentary stills like the ones you see in the World Press Photo contest once a year. I love it when it is real. There are so many images around us every day, but if I don’t believe them (where they seem real to me), they are just annoying.
Looking back over the last few years, what new technology has changed the way you work?
Maybe LED lighting and maybe the high sensitivity of today’s digital cameras. You are so much more free in your choice of locations, days and, especially, night work because you can work with fewer lights.
What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
Keep it as simple as you can, and stay true to your vision.
Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
I’m not sure there is just one way to go. After reading the script, you have an idea of what it can be, and then you start getting the information of the where and in what frame you will work.
I love to spend time with my directors in prep — going to the locations, seeing them in different light, like mornings, noon or during night. Then I love to work with stills and sometimes also reference pictures to show what I think it can be and present a way we can get there. It’s always very important to leave some space for things to develop.
What’s your go-to gear — things you can’t live without?
I look for the right gear for each project. I like ARRI cameras, but I’ve also shot two movies with Panavision cameras.
I have shot movies in various countries, and the early ones didn’t have big budgets, so I tried to work with local crew and gear that was available. The thing I like about that is you get to know different ways of doing things, and also you might work with gear you would have never picked yourself. It keeps you flexible. When I start a project, I am trying to develop a feel for the story and the places it lives. Once I have that feel, I start into how and decide what tools I’ll use.
Photo Credit: Philippe Antonello
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.