The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents January 2016 Return to Table of Contents
ASC Theatrical Nominees
Adam Arkapaw
Mátyás Erdély
Cary Joji Fukunaga
ASC Close-Up

Son of Saul (Saul Fia)

Cinematographer: Mátyás Erdély, HSC

Son of Saul, photographed by Hungarian cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, HSC, follows Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a member of the Sonderkommando in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp charged with removing corpses from the gas chambers and transporting them to the crematoriums. One day Saul spots the body of a boy he believes to be his son, and he becomes obsessed with hiding the body and giving it a proper Jewish burial.

Son of Saul marks the first ASC Award nomination for Erdély, who won the Bronze Frog for his work at Camerimage last fall.

Bucking the current trend, Erdély and director László Nemes insisted on shooting 35mm film, specifically Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, and finishing the picture photochemically, an extremely rare workflow today. In his interview with American Cinematographer, Erdély noted he chose one film stock because he “wanted the levels of grain and contrast to be consistent throughout the film.” He added a Tiffen Ultra Contrast 2 on the lens. Night sequences were pushed 1 stop at the lab, Budapest’s Magyar Filmlabor.

Erdély used Arricam Lite and Arri 235 cameras along with Arri/Zeiss Master Prime lenses, and he stuck to just two focal lengths to create a distinctive visual style. “One of the most important aspects of choosing the right lenses for this movie was how the out-of-focus images would look,” he told AC. “Our whole visual approach relies on what is revealed, how it is revealed, and the information that is kept from the audience. If you show a dead body, how much of it is hinted at and how much is actually [seen]? We wanted a very precise recording of reality, and Zeiss makes the most precise lenses out there: super-sharp, very clean and no artifice.”

The desire for visual precision also motivated the choice of two focal lengths: 40mm for most of the picture, 35mm for the rest. “Approximately 85 percent of the film was shot on a 40mm,” said the cinematographer. “We wanted a focal length that would translate reality onto film in the most precise way — one that didn’t distort or magnify and was neither too wide nor too long. I believe 40mm is the closest to how we see the world.

“The lens remains focused on Saul, almost always in close-up or tight medium, while the horrors unfolding in the background are out of focus,” he continued. “By shooting close to wide open [T2 on interiors and T2.8/4 for exteriors] and focusing the lens approximately 2 1/2 feet from the film plane, objects [beyond those 30”] are still visible, but blurry. László’s genius was in using this very basic photographic tool for dramatic purposes.”

The filmmakers also shot in the traditional Academy 1.37:1 aspect ratio. “We were concerned that 1.37:1 might not give us enough of the environment, but by moving the camera, which we do constantly, we could reveal as much as we liked,” said Erdély.

Indeed, the camera is constantly on the move, and scenes play out in takes that are often 2-3 minutes long. Nemes spent the better part of a year choreographing and mapping Saul’s every move on his iPad. “ László wanted a feeling of chaos and unpredictability,” said Erdély, “and to achieve that we had to lock down every detail. Each shot required an enormous amount of concentration from everybody. It was very rewarding, but also physically taxing. László and I went to a personal trainer for months in order to get into the best possible shape. I knew from blocking and rehearsals that Géza would take 15 steps before turning on the 16th, so I counted my steps. Géza understood that if he didn’t stop where he was supposed to, or if he made a sharp turn unexpectedly, the shot would be ruined.

“I have such huge respect for László,” he concluded. “It’s a strange thing to say, given what this movie is about, but this shoot was the most satisfying I have ever worked on, both professionally and personally.”

Excerpted from the January 2016 issue. Original reporting by Jean Oppenheimer.


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