The American Society of Cinematographers

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A fearless teen travels a treacherous path in the dark fairytale Hanna, shot by Alwin Küchler, BSC.

Unit photography by Alex Bailey, courtesy of Focus Features
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is fluent in numerous languages and proficient with guns, bow-and-arrow and hand-to-hand combat. She has been trained by her father, Erik (Eric Bana), a former CIA operative, to survive in a cruel world seemingly bent on killing her. And she is only 16.   

If that sounds like an unexpected turn for director Joe Wright, the filmmaker behind The Soloist (AC May ’09), Atonement (AC Dec. ’07) and Pride and Prejudice, it is. Then again, Hanna is filled with unexpected turns. According to the film’s cinematographer, Alwin Küchler, BSC, the goal was to treat this unusual coming-of-age story “like a fairytale, but with the darkness of the classic Grimm fairytales, which warn you about what might lie ahead when you venture out into the world.   

“Fairytale illustrations are mostly done in primary colors, and we worked with that idea, but we also wanted things to change as Hanna’s journey progresses and her view of the world shifts from naive to nuanced, from black-and-white to gray,” continues Küchler. “This was supported by Sarah Greenwood, the production designer, in terms of colors and location choices, and by Lucie Bates, the costume designer.”   

Küchler, whose credits include Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (AC Aug. ’07), Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 (AC Sept. ’04) and Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar (AC Sept. ’02), was collaborating with Wright for the first time, and his prep for Hanna included a two-week period that Wright devoted exclusively to working with him on the visual plan. “At a certain point in prep, Joe likes to lock himself away [with his cinematographer] to thoroughly discuss each scene,” he says. “It was like being in film school in the sense that we were dreaming up sequences before we had to confront practical issues like time and money. We were feeding each other ideas, discussing what each scene should feel like and how we could achieve it. We shot video, with Joe acting out many of the parts. What’s really great about this process is that it makes the cinematographer very much a part of the director’s creative process. It also saved a lot of time on set, because we were both very clear about what we needed to protect in order to make a scene work.”   

The story is presented mainly from Hanna’s point of view, and the Steadicam “was an important tool for this,” says Küchler. “We are always gliding behind or alongside her.” The production ultimately employed three veteran Steadicam operators on the A camera: Jörg Widmer (The New World), who covered most of the shoot; Peter Robertson (Atonement), who covered a week when Widmer was unavailable; and Tilman Büttner (Russian Ark), who stepped in after Widmer was injured on the job.   

The production covered so much ground — locations included sites in Finland, Morocco and Germany — that Küchler worked with two gaffers, Christoph Nickel and Reuben Garrett. “The film has many big set pieces in locations that were sometimes quite far from each other,” says the cinematographer. “Christoph was our main gaffer, and Reuben was the gaffer in Morocco and also helped us pre-light some of the other locations alongside rigging gaffer Janosch Voss. We exchanged a lot of digital photos over the Internet to plan the lighting.”   

Arri in Berlin supplied most of the production’s camera package, an Arricam Studio and Lite, an Arri 235, a full set of Cooke S4 prime lenses and an Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm zoom lens. (The filmmakers also used several Sony PMW-350 and HXR-MC1P digital cameras for select shots.)   

Arri Media in London supplied Küchler with two other lenses, an f/0.95 50mm Leica Noctilux and a custom-built 25mm Zeiss prime lens that had its front element reversed. “The Noctilux is the most beautiful lens I have ever used, and I wish there were a whole set of lenses made from the same glass,” says the cinematographer. “It does magic to flesh tones. We used it for Hanna’s flashback of her mother [played by Vicki Kreips], a scene we shot in the absolute last light of day. It was so dark I didn’t even bother to take a light reading, but I felt optimistic that something beautiful would come of it because of the Noctilux. Vicki was standing at a frozen lake, and we lit her with an LED ring light that we dimmed down during the shot. She just fades into the background like a distant memory.”    

Some of the opening shots in Finland were captured with the custom Zeiss. “The focus falls off dramatically toward the edges of the frame, which is meant to evoke the mystical quality of a fairytale land,” explains Küchler.   

Hanna opens in the frozen North, where Hanna and Erik have been living an isolated, frontier-like existence, hiding out from the CIA. Determined to keep his daughter safe from Marissa (Cate Blanchett), the career CIA agent who murdered the girl’s mother, Erik has trained Hanna to be the perfect soldier. Increasingly restless to see the world, the teen decides it’s time to set out on her own. It’s only a matter of time before Marissa and the CIA give chase.   

“The scenes in Finland are meant to represent something like paradise — life is simple and nature rules,” says Küchler. “All the colors are natural, and all the light sources are natural or quite simple, like homemade candles and kerosene lamps. The windows of Hanna and Erik’s cottage are covered with fur, not glass. The palette is soft, natural tones, with browns, blues and grays.”    

Principal photography began with these scenes, which were filmed over two weeks in Kuusamo, Finland, where temperatures could reach -35°C (-31°F). “I like physically challenging films, especially when the locations are so beautiful, raw and dramatic,” says Küchler. “In our location, the ice bends the tops of the trees over so they look like lollipops or a Tim Burton-style landscape.”   

The temperatures made it a challenge to achieve some of the fluid, mobile camerawork Wright and Küchler had in mind. “My key grip, Adrian McCarthy, had a very difficult job,” says the cinematographer. “It was so cold that when the camera was on tracks, the rubber wheels would freeze to the tracks within 20 seconds, so Adrian had to keep the dolly constantly moving.    

“For one particular shot, we put Vicki [Kreips] in a stand of trees and circled around her,” he continues. “Adrian put in a circular track, but the snow was about 4 feet deep, and he had to push the dolly around and around. I got carried away looking through the lens, and I kept saying, ‘Faster! Faster!’ After a little while, he was going slower and slower, and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I looked back and saw this panting figure. It was the first time he ever cursed at me!” That shot ultimately ended up on the cutting-room floor. “If I really like the shot, it’s going to end up on the cutting-room floor — that’s the rule,” Küchler notes wryly.   

The production used a locally sourced grip package and “some excellent local grips” in Finland, says McCarthy. The cranes included a GF-8 and a 30' Technocrane adapted for use in extremely cold temperatures, right down to a base equipped with skis. “Based on my experience filming in extreme environments, I fought hard to bring a Libra remote head with us,” says McCarthy. “As ever, it proved durable and kept working in the cold, even rigged on the back of a Skidoo being used as a fast tracking platform. Much to my surprise, we were able to leave the Techno outside overnight. Despite the extreme cold, there’s no moisture, so the crane never froze, a problem we often encounter in the damp British winters.”  

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