The American Society of Cinematographers

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Anonymous, shot by anna J. Foerster, questions Shakespeare’s true identity.

Photos by Reiner Bajo, courtesy of Sony Pictures.
There were probably a few times during the filming of Anonymous when cinematographer Anna J. Foerster was a bit surprised to look through the viewfinder and see a political drama set in 16th-century England rather than spectacular fireballs, catastrophic weather or alien invasions. After all, she had worked for Anonymous director Roland Emmerich in various capacities on Independence Day (AC July ’96), The Day After Tomorrow (AC June ’04) 10,000 BC and 2012.

This time around, only the historic Globe Theatre goes up in flames, but Anonymous also poses an incendiary question: “Was Shakespeare a fraud?” The film suggests that the Bard’s words are really those of Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the Earl of Oxford, who puts his plays and poetry to political purpose after he is exiled from the court of Queen Elizabeth I (played at different ages by Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter, Joely Richardson). To remain in the shadows, Edward enlists an eager pawn, buffoonish thespian Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), to take credit for his work.

Stylistically and thematically, Anonymous is a dark film. “It’s about betrayal and all the things that come out of the darkness of the human heart,” says Foerster. She and Emmerich researched films set in and around the same period, including Elizabeth (AC Dec. ’98), Sleepy Hollow (AC Dec. ’99), The Girl With the Pearl Earring (AC Jan. ’04) and The Duchess (AC Sept. ’08). However, they found most of their inspiration in the hazy, sunlit rooms painted by 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer; the candlelit canvasses of his French contemporary, Georges de La Tour; and the Tudor portraits of the Elizabethan era.

“We studied Vermeer’s paintings, many of which have soft fill light that came through the north-facing windows of his studio,” explains Foerster. “What fascinated me about De La Tour was the way he sometimes lit his subjects with just one or two candles.”

Shot in Germany in 2009, Anonymous was the first feature to be photographed with Arri’s Alexa, and it was also Foerster’s first foray into an all-digital workflow. “Given our budget and timeframe and the workflow necessary for the visual effects, all of the signs clearly pointed toward digital capture,” she says. “At that time, digital cameras were finally starting to offer ASAs above 800, so you could make a movie where firelight was your primary light source. You can push film to that ASA, of course, but that introduces grain in the image, and that would have been wrong for this movie.”

In prep, the filmmakers narrowed their choices down to the Arri Alexa and the Red One (with the Mysterium-X sensor). Foerster knew the Red would be the easier option — it was readily available, and she was impressed with its resolution and sensitivity. However, she was concerned about how the camera rendered differences between colors, and even more concerned about how it handled flickering flames. “When we shot tests, the Red seemed to produce a strange, red flare or a halo around candlelight,” she reports. “It didn’t happen all the time, but when it did it was quite prevalent.”

The Alexa was still just a prototype that recorded with an early version of the ArriRaw codec. The camera had no onboard recording support and was always tethered to a Codex digital recorder. Visual-effects artists at Uncharted Territory used the Codex’s native JPG2000 files for their 300 effects shots, and the Arri team used DPX files output from the Codex for the digital grade. The DPX files were also backed up to LTO tape and quality-checked by Arri.

Shooting with the Alexa was a leap of faith for the filmmakers, but Arri pledged total support, promising to walk Foerster through every step of the camera’s nascent workflow. “Arri really stepped up to the plate to make sure things were going as smoothly as possible,” says the cinematographer. “Everything ended up looking great. There’s a soft transition between colors, and the image holds up all the way from candles to daylight.”  

The story’s timeline covers decades, and each period has a specific look. Scenes set in an earlier era are rendered in vivid, glowing colors and captured in fluid camera moves with long lenses that separate Elizabeth and Oxford from their surroundings. The look of the story’s present is cold and grim, with many scenes composed in wide, locked-off shots, particularly those that take place in the royal court.

Foerster recalls that scenes set in the earlier period were typically shot in the 35mm-60mm range, whereas scenes set in the present were captured at 15.5mm-25mm. Even close-ups in the latter era were shot on short lenses, a 21mm or 18mm. “We had to be careful about distorting the actors’ faces, but if the shot involved a big room on an 18mm, the actors could just walk up to the camera for their close-ups,” says Foerster.

The production used a set of Arri/Zeiss Master Primes, but the most popular lens was an Arri LWZ-1 (15.5-45mm) Lightweight Zoom. “Even compared to the prime lenses, I thought the zoom looked fantastic, and it allowed us to work quickly,” says Foerster. “Roland is a fluid thinker. The faster you can keep up with him, the better.”

After testing an experimental color matrix, Foerster decided to record the raw image without making changes to the camera’s settings, using custom viewing look-up tables she designed with Arri color scientist Florian “Utsi” Martin. “It was like choosing a film stock,” she says. “We developed six LUTs, day and night for each of the two time periods, and two more for looks that were slightly more extreme. Our digital-imaging technician, Timo Andert, applied the appropriate LUT to each scene, and looking at those on the monitor were the only ‘dailies’ we had.

“We didn’t have the time to do any color correction on set, and I don’t think there’s any place for that on a feature production,” she continues. “Working with LUTs is more like dealing with printer lights — you have something to reference so you know you’re within the limits of your image.”

Foerster took advantage of the Alexa’s enhanced sensitivity to light by shooting candlelit scenes with practical candles as the source. She and production designer Sebastian Krawinkel collaborated closely on the placement of every flame source, whether candles or fireplaces. By researching how stages were lit at the time, Foerster learned a great deal about the light of that era. “I read descriptions of how disgusting some of these places smelled because all the candles were made of lard,” she says. “It must have been revolting! The church was the only entity that could afford wax, so even the royal courts used lard.”

Though all the candles on set were wax, they still caused some problems. During a scene in which young Elizabeth and Oxford attend a ball, prop master Oliver Kuhlmann deployed approximately 300 candles with double wicks. As hard as it was to breathe in the resultant smoke, Foerster was pleased with its light-diffusing qualities. “You would not believe the amount of smoke on that set,” she recalls.

To approximate the soft, hazy look that characterizes many paintings from the Elizabethan era, the filmmakers used a smoke machine to lightly cloud the backgrounds. “We wanted to take some of the harshness out of the digital image, but I didn’t want to use diffusion filters because of the sources in frame,” says Foerster. “You couldn’t really see the smoke after we added the LUT and crunched the contrast, but when you’re working with that much smoke, you end up mixing light. In day interiors, the candlelight seeps into the smoke and the window light seeps into the smoke, and they mix. We used [that combination] all the time.”


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