The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents February 2015 Return to Table of Contents
Presidents Desk
Q and A with Bradford Young
Sundance 2015
Shaun the Sheep
Christmas Again
The Visit
ASC Close-Up

The Visit

by Jay Holben

Director: Michael Madsen

Cinematographer: Heikki Färm

Moody, ethereal and at times downright creepy, The Visit purports to document the first contact between humankind and extraterrestrial life following an alien spaceship’s landing in the U.K. In its thoughtful analysis of an event that has not actually happened, the film ultimately becomes an examination of modern life on Earth as it might be seen from the perspective of a true outsider.

Helmed by Danish director Michael Madsen and photographed by Finnish cinematographer Heikki Färm, the genre-bending film premiered in Sundance’s World Documentary Competition. Longtime collaborators, Madsen and Färm’s previous credits include Into Eternity: A Film for the Future, a similarly styled documentary that serves as a video letter to a future generation regarding a nuclear-waste dump. “The idea for The Visit was similar to what we did for Into Eternity,” offers Färm. “This was to be a letter of sorts to a future audience — in this case, an alien life form.”

The Visit unfolds without special effects, CG spacecraft or actors in rubber suits. Instead, it presents a series of interviews with and conversations between real-world figures, including experts from such space agencies as NASA and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Some of these interviewees discuss the appropriate next steps once contact has been made; others speak directly to the camera, which assumes the extraterrestrial’s point of view. This interview footage is also cut with images of everyday life on Earth — many of which are presented in a sort of free-form glide or hyper-slow motion — as well as military training maneuvers.

“We did all kinds of tests when we started,” Färm recalls. “Michael, originally, had an idea of two parallel cameras on the same rig, about 40 centimeters apart, and we could randomly cut between them. But that proved to be too much of a gimmick and almost seemed like the point of view of someone having a seizure, so we went back to a more conventional approach.”

However, even “conventional” approaches were geared toward achieving unique ends. For example, the cinematographer continues, “we used a lot of Steadicam throughout the film. We wanted to create a kind of movement that would be unlike human movement — something surreal, something otherworldly.”

To further emphasize that unearthly feeling, the filmmakers mounted the Steadicam on the end of a Super Jib arm on a Panther dolly. “It was quite a massive [rig],” the cinematographer attests. “Amazingly, we rolled it all over the place! We wanted to be able to shoot near the ceiling and near the floor with relative ease, and we wanted to be able to move freely throughout our locations, especially the U.N. building in Vienna. By putting the Steadicam on the end of the Super Jib, we could easily get high or low and ‘float’ vertically and horizontally in-shot. Also, we didn't need track because the Steadicam easily absorbed any imperfections in the floor as we dollied along. Any bumps or cracks were completely invisible, giving us this free-floating feeling.

“We also wanted shots from directly above a person, looking down, as they were walking,” he adds. “This was the best rig to get that kind of shot.”

Färm and his team also incorporated more traditional cranes, helicopters and even cable cams to achieve the alien perspective. Footage was captured in 4K with a Red Epic MX and recorded to 256GB RedMag SSD cards at 6:1 to 9:1 compression, "depending on the subject and camera speed," he explains. Some of the desired otherworldly feeling was created by dynamically reframing shots in post to “float” the camera via a kind of creative pan-and-scan. (The film is presented in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio.)

In some of The Visit’s most memorable visuals, the camera studies ordinary people as they go about their lives in super-slow motion. Similar to the “bullet-time” effect made famous in The Matrix [AC April '99], the technique here serves as a hyper-real examination of our own humanity. The filmmakers achieved the effect by training a Vision Research Phantom HD Gold camera out the window of a moving vehicle and recording the everyday life outside at 1,000 fps. The slow-motion footage was captured in HD resolution onto Phantom CineMags. “We spent two days driving around the Vienna with the Phantom and fishing for shots,” recalls Färm. “We just shot whatever we thought was interesting. Even with its dreamlike quality, this technique tends to focus the audience on the action more than normal. It makes even the most mundane action seem very important.”

He turned to a Canon Cinema EOS C300 — recording onto internal CF cards in HD resolution — for sequences that were shot in the United States. “We were supplied the Red Epic by our Austrian coproduction company, but we didn't have access to that in the U.S. So, we went with the equipment that our Danish coproduction company had on hand, the C300.”

He paired the Red Epic with an Angenieux Optimo 15-40mm T2.6 zoom lens. For the EOS C300 he used a Canon 16-35mm f2.8 and a 24-70mm f2.8, and he fitted the Phantom with an "Angenieux Optimo 17-80mm T2.2 for city shots and a couple of Zeiss high-speeds for the studio," he says.

To contribute to the alien-like POV, the filmmakers shot various people and animals in a black void, onstage in Vienna, with the Phantom HD Gold camera at 1,000 fps and lit with a single 10K Fresnel. Other than that, the lighting package comprised a handful of Kino Flo fixtures and small Fresnels to augment available light for the interviews. “We kept the interviews very simple: mostly natural light that I had to supplement, from time to time, with small fixtures,” Färm explains. “We didn't want things to feel like they were ‘lit.’ The idea was to feel like these conversations were happening in a very day-to-day setting.”

The picture's digital grade took place at Screen Scene in Dublin, using Digital Vision’s Nucoda, with colorist Gary Curran. Looking back on the production, Färm observes, “Probably the biggest challenge on this documentary was that we were trying to give a point-of-view to something that the audience never sees, something that is unlike us, and how do you visualize how something else might see us? We felt that the hyper-real examination, especially with the super-slow motion, was the best way to convey this idea simply.”





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