The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents September 2009 Return to Table of Contents
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Presidents Desk
Production Slate
North Face
District 9
CAS Part 2
ASC Close-Up
DVD Playback
A Perilous Peak

In the early 1930s, as Adolf Hitler’s government set about working Germany into the racist and nationalistic fervor that would perpetuate World War II, mountaineers who were keen to conquer the treacherous north face of Switzerland’s Eiger Mountain provided the perfect iconography for the propagandists. The German film North Face (Nordwand) depicts the attempt by German mountaineers Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) to scale the peak. Players in their story include the cynical newspaper editor (Ulrich Tukur) who wants to exploit their pursuit, and the climbers’ young journalist friend (Johanna Wokalek), who hopes the story will be her big break but grows increasingly worried about the pair’s safety.

North Face was directed by Philipp Stölzl and photographed by Kolja Brandt, who won Germany’s Lola Award for his work on the picture. The two had collaborated on a number of music videos and commercials, but Brandt speculates that it was his documentary-style approach to the 2006 feature Tough Enough that sold Stölzl on his ability to meet North Face’s challenges.

Stölzl was inspired by Kevin Macdonald’s documentary/dramatic re-enactment hybrid Touching the Void (AC March ’04) and hoped to achieve a similar degree of realism in North Face. He and his collaborators eventually decided to first shoot stunt climbers on location, then shoot the actors in a studio, and do some elaborate compositing in post. In accordance with this plan, Stölzl, Brandt and a skeleton crew comprising a costumer, an assistant director and a few assistants traveled to Switzerland six months prior to principal photography and set about shooting on the Eiger and other nearby locations.

Brandt’s goal was to get the camera in close to the climbers while maintaining the ability to read the surrounding environment. To achieve this, he and B-camera operator Tommy Ulrich were suspended by rope alongside the professional climbers and filmed with Arri 235s, pulling focus themselves. “I love to have the camera on my shoulder and be right where everything happens,” says Brandt, who spent three months training at a climbing gym before the shoot. “And luckily, I’m not afraid of heights!” The impetus to keep the cameras close to the climbers was inspired in part by Robert Capa’s still photography. “Capa always had the camera really near to the thing he was shooting — he said, ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,’” says Brandt. “Philipp and I didn’t want to have a lot of shots from far away with long lenses.”

He did use long lenses, however, to delineate the perspective of the spectators who gather at a cozy hotel at the foot of the mountain to witness the climb. “The spectators were watching the climb through a telescope, and for that perspective, we used long lenses to emphasize how much distance there is between them and the things they’re looking at on the mountain,” he says. “They couldn’t know what was really happening out there, even though they could see it.”

Shooting on the mountain, the team used the weather to determine which scenes would be shot when and where. Snow, mist and general overcast conditions were the norm. “The wall is a north face, so only part of it gets direct sun, and then only in the late afternoon,” notes Brandt. He shot these scenes on Fuji Super-F 64D 8522 and Eterna 250D 8563, using a mix of Cooke and Angenieux lenses. “We took two Angenieux Optimo short zooms [15-40mm] to the mountain because the short Cooke zoom lens wasn’t out at the time,” he says. “I shot most of the rest of the picture with Cooke S4 primes, my favorite lenses. We used really long lenses for the spectators’ perspective, including a Canon 1,000mm lens for one shot. I knew we were going to finish with a digital intermediate, so I wasn’t worried about the slight differences between the lenses.”

The Eiger region “is actually very good for shooting,” he continues. “You can go up to Jungfraujoch by train, and there is a tourist platform made of steel that we could attach ropes to and drop down from. The platform is at 3,500 meters [11,483'], and we would hang down about 20 or 30 meters [70'-100']. From there, we were looking down another 100 meters [328'] to the first ledge. The stunt doubles, who are well-known Alpinists, would be lowered, and I would be lowered with a safety climber. The camera was on its own rope, so when the mag was empty, an assistant could pull it up, change the mag and lower it back down to me. Dietmar Raiff, my great first assistant, and his crew had all the equipment and film stock in a tent on the platform — we couldn’t take the lenses or stock inside because of the temperature difference — and they worked tirelessly, even in the worst storms.”

For the studio portion of the shoot, a section of the mountain’s face was re-created in an industrial freezer that measured roughly 100'x66' and had a 49' ceiling. “The cooling machines were very loud, and we also had wind machines going, so it was impossible to shoot any sync sound,” notes Brandt. “But we felt it was important to shoot in an environment that was really cold. We wanted the audience to really feel the coldness and see the actors’ breath.” He shot these scenes with an Arri 235, teaming with B-camera operator Franz Hinterbrandner, who wielded an Arricam Lite. To create the overcast-day look onstage, he bounced Dinos and 10Ks off the enclosure’s gray, concrete walls and through butterfly nets.

Just outside the frozen stage, editor Sven Budelmann received a line from the camera tap so he could create rough comps of the finished scenes. “Every two or three hours, Philipp could go out and watch a whole scene,” says Brandt. “It was very helpful to have that reference right there.” He credits visual-effects supervisor Stefan Kessner with making the location and studio footage blend seamlessly in post.

Most of the scenes that are not set on the mountain take place in the hotel where the spectators gather. After attempting to secure the actual inn at the Eiger, the production decided to shoot at a similar location in Austria. In the hotel, Brandt transitioned to an Arricam Lite and mainly shot Fuji Eterna 500T 8573. (He used 8563 for some day scenes.) “We had a very talented production designer, Udo Kramer, who put all kinds of practicals in the lobby for us,” says the cinematographer. “To light the hotel dining room, my gaffer, Christoph Nickel, used a mix of 800-watt Redheads with Chimeras, a couple of Lowel Rifa-lites and Zips for semisoft backlight, and a 6K Barger Baglite with a Chimera for the tables in the background. Some 1Ks bounced off the ceiling provided a little more fill, and in the adjacent room, we had 2Ks bouncing off big polys. All of the dining-room lights were on a dimmer and gelled with ¼ CTO.  We worked at a very low light level — T2.5 to T2.8 — with the 500-speed stock. That gave us a nice look and really helped point out the contrast between the guests’ comfortable environment and the climbers who were struggling to survive.”

The negative was processed by Arri Film & TV Services, which also provided DI services to the production. The negative was scanned at 2K on an Arriscan, colorist Traudl Nicholson graded the picture on an Autodesk Lustre Master, and the finalized files were filmed out via an Arrilaser. Brandt emphasizes that the time spent in the DI suite was important because it enabled him and Stölzl to work through some important creative issues. “Philipp has a very good eye, and he started grading it before I was able to get there,” says the cinematographer. “During the shoot, we had talked about having soft blacks, not crushed blacks, and going for a look that wouldn’t take the audience away from the mountain. But when I got to the DI suite, the picture had really crushed blacks and an aqua-color, 1950s kind of look. I know Philipp, and I wanted him to have an opportunity to experiment, so I said, ‘It looks good.’

“After a week of roughly grading it, I wrote him an e-mail over the weekend and said, ‘I think we’re wrong with this look.’ We met again on Monday in the DI room, and he asked what I’d meant, and I reminded him how we’d talked about it initially. After that, we got the picture to the look you see now, which I am very happy with. That’s what I like about the DI: it’s a process. You can try everything out.”

Brandt marvels at the fortitude displayed by climbers like Kurz and Hinterstoisser. “You have to respect them. Today, we climb mountains with lots of equipment and warm jackets, and they didn’t have any of that. We could call a helicopter if we needed it. We could change our clothes when they got wet. We could have hot tea. I’m a physical guy, and I love that kind of work, but when I look at what those climbers achieved back then, it really touches me.”

Super 35mm (3-perf)
Arri 235; Arricam Lite
Cooke, Angenieux and
Canon lenses
Fuji Super F-64D 8522; Eterna 250D 8563, 500T 8573
Digital Intermediate


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