The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents February 2014 Return to Table of Contents
The Monuments Men
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Dean Cundey, ASC
Edurado Serra, ASC, AFC
Richard Rawlings Jr., ASC
Presidents Desk
Filmmakers Forum
ASC Close-Up

Phedon Papamichael, ASC creates a period look for the World War II story The Monuments Men, in which intrepid art experts save priceless treasures from Nazi destruction.

Unit photography by Claudette Barius, SMPSP, courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Lighting diagram courtesy of Tobias von dem Borne.

Soldiers and civilians are the foremost casualties of war, but in times of conflict, some of humankind’s most important achievements, its great paintings and sculptures, are also threatened with destruction. It is estimated that during World War II, the Nazis stole more than five million artworks from the countries they vanquished. Some were to be displayed in Adolph Hitler’s proposed Führermuseum, some were divvied up among the top brass, and some were sold to fill the Third Reich’s coffers. When Germany began losing ground in the war, the fate of this looted treasure was thrown into question, so the U.S. government created the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program and sent the architects, artists and art historians comprising it — a.k.a. “the Monuments Men” — to the front to rescue as many artworks as possible before the Nazis could destroy them.

This is the subject of The Monuments Men, a feature drama based on the book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel. The project’s director, George Clooney, also co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced the picture with Grant Heslov. Clooney tapped cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, ASC to shoot the project after working with him on The Ides of March. Heslov, who has directed commercials Papamichael has shot, says, “Phedon checks off all the boxes George and I look for: He’s a great shooter, he’s fun and easy to be around, and he’s fast. George has a strong opinion about how he wants things to look, and Phedon quickly figures out the best way to achieve that. He is a great collaborator.”

Immediately after wrapping Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, just before Christmas 2012, Papamichael hopped a plane out of Omaha to Berlin to do preliminary scouting. He began 10 consecutive weeks of prep in early January; this phase largely involved firming up locations with production designer James D. Bissell and conducting camera tests. At the time, Clooney and Heslov were busy collecting prizes for their production of Argo (AC Nov. ’12), but the day after the Academy Awards, they flew to Berlin for the rest of prep.

Papamichael, Clooney and Heslov screened World War II documentaries that included The Rape of Europa, which was coproduced by Edsel, for historical context and to get a feel for physical details such as the Monuments Men’s appearance. They also reviewed World War II dramas from the 1960s and 1970s, including The Guns of Navarone, The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen and A Bridge Too Far (AC April ’77). “Those are the movies George and I grew up on, and those are the ones that influenced us the most,” says Heslov. “But we also wanted our film to feel vital and new and fresh, not like a museum piece. We also wanted a very rich look; we wanted it to feel almost painterly because it’s a film about art.”

Papamichael also watched Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (AC Aug. ’98) because The Monuments Men features a Normandy landing scene, too. However, when the landing craft’s gate opens and the Monuments Men jump out, all is quiet; the fighting has ended, and nearly everybody has moved on. “I think [Spielberg’s crew] shot three or four weeks doing that sequence, and we shot ours in three hours,” Papamichael says with a chuckle.

Made on a budget Heslov describes as “less than $70 million,” The Monuments Men began 70 days of principal photography in March. Filming was done mostly in Germany on location and at Studio Babelsberg. Berlin stood in for Paris, with the 19th-century war memorial the Neue Wache doubling for France’s Jeu de Paume, which the Nazis used as a clearinghouse for stolen art. Existing Berlin buildings were modified both physically and with CGI, which allowed for the addition of swastikas, which are illegal to display in Germany. Shooting also took place in the mountainous northern Harz region, which provided mines similar to the ones where the Nazis stashed artwork and gold. The production moved to England for a couple of weeks, shooting in locations that included the former Duxford Aerodrome, a Royal Air Force base in Cambridgeshire. In the film, it’s where the Monuments Men touch down in Europe and endure basic training before being briefed on their mission. The Camber Sands, near the small East Sussex town of Rye, doubled for Omaha Beach. 

The filmmakers decided to use both 35mm and digital capture, and both anamorphic and spherical lenses. “George and I love to shoot film — we love the look of it,” Heslov notes. “We know it’s dying and we’re definitely swimming upstream. We figured this could be our last shot.” However, Papamichael wanted them to be open to shooting digitally, and prepared tests comparing the Arri Alexa Plus to 35mm for day exteriors in open sky and snowy conditions with white smoke. “We had scenes set at Patton’s camp in a winter forest, with snow everywhere and white smoke coming from dozens of tents, and that, in combination with the white sky, seemed to render better on film,” says the cinematographer.

“In all day-exterior situations, digital is very sensitive toward secondary bounce sources, especially green trees and green grass,” Papamichael continues. “This creates a tricky balance with skin tones, which still feel more natural on film. But when we shot tests of low-light interiors lit by lanterns or flashlights, or big night exteriors, it was pretty hard to distinguish digital from film. It gives you a great advantage to be able to shoot at 800 ASA or 1,000 ASA with the Alexa. Plus, George likes to work extremely fast. We never did full night shoots; sometimes we only did five hours of shooting, with minimal setups or coverage, and the Alexa helped facilitate that.”

In the end, most interiors and all night exteriors — about 60 percent of the picture, according to Papamichael — were shot on the Alexa. Day exteriors were shot on 35mm using an Arricam Lite. Digital footage was captured simultaneously in ArriRaw (to a Convergent Design Gemini 4:4:4 recorder) and in ProRes 4:4:4:4 (to Sony 64GB SxS cards). Joshua Berkowitz, the production’s digital-imaging technician, explains, “The Gemini mags were sent to the lab, and we downloaded the ProRes material on set as backup. We did not use it, though, because the ArriRaw was really stable.” 

From the get-go, Clooney liked the idea of shooting with anamorphic lenses. Papamichael usually works with a Panavision package, but because he was gearing up out of Berlin, he instead chose a combination of Hawk V-Lite and V-Plus 2x anamorphic lenses (procured from Arri Rental). “The Hawks are not as crisp as some of the more modern anamorphic lenses — they have an older feel,” he observes. “They take off the curse of digital sharpness and help give the image a more filmic look, but I thought they fell off too much on the edges when they got wider than 50mm, so for anything wider than that, I used 18mm, 21mm and 27mm [Arri] Master Primes. We had to change the gates on the Arricams when we went from anamorphic to spherical or vice versa, and that was a bit of a hassle, but the camera crew was very quick, so it didn’t really hold us up.”


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