Ed. Note: Set in a forlorn American mining town, Dear Wendy depicts the kinship that develops among five young misfits who share a love of guns and a pacifistic bent. Led by Dick (Jamie Bell), the youths christen themselves “The Dandies” and transform an abandoned mine into their headquarters, where they engage in target practice and develop their own rules and rituals. The Dandies maintain an uneasy truce with local authorities that is eventually broken.
With the picture’s U.S. release imminent, we asked director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle to share his thoughts on the project, which was directed by Thomas Vinterberg and written by Lars von Trier. He, in turn, asked two key collaborators, technical supervisor/digital colorist Stefan Ciupek and camera-rig designer Jakob Bonfils, to detail their contributions. What follows are excerpts from their remarks.
Anthony Dod Mantle: When I first talked to AC about this piece, I was on a wave of Euro-assertion about how some of us on this side of the pond often struggle to make the limited resources available stretch to provide the satisfactory skeleton and body necessary for a good-looking European feature. There are many variations on this thought pattern. American movies, I know, cannot be dropped into one hat of vast budget; the only films I’ve touched in the U.S. to date have been, budget-wise, very reminiscent of my European productions. And we all know there are countless movies made outside America with budgets that can empty many shelves in the camera-rental house. It just seems that my loyal camera crews are always the ones tripping over other productions’ mountains of flight cases as we nip out the back door with little more than a backup camera and a pickup truck.
What comes out of this can be a bit painstaking for all departments. The time between the green light and first shooting day becomes an assault course in mathematically bending and twisting ideas to fit the numbers, and I certainly believe the preproduction period on all my films is the microcosm of all that lies ahead. A lower budget doesn’t necessarily mean lower ambitions or expectations.
Dear Wendy wasn’t my first excursion into HD; I’d used it on a few commercials, large corporate productions, and the features Dogville (see AC May ’04) and Manderlay. Wendy can modestly boast one HD camera, a few Zeiss primes, and a short Century zoom. That’s all we had, and generally that’s all I ever seem to have. In fact, getting even that camera package was a battle.
If you can already smell a rat in prep, then it will manifest itself again as bubonic plague during the shoot. During the month or so leading up to principal on Wendy, there were construction delays, script adjustments, late arrival of equipment, and last-minute rigging. So this chapter of my life was a gradual process of creative compression. That can be defined as putting lots of things back on the shelf when you realize there’s a slight hole in your pocket it hurts a bit. But when the starting gate lifts, you should feel sure of yourself, however limited the tools. “Compression” is a dirty word for any cinematographer, at least in the digital domain, but I’m attempting a post-rational conclusion because I’ve had a year or two to think about this one.
Wendy was a matter of creative compression because every week, for budget reasons, we had to sit down and rethink our ambitions to make them fit the resources available. Hours were spent evaluating squibs contra cranes contra lights contra two-floor buildings contra three floors … rain or no rain … day scene or night … interior instead of exterior. It went on and on, and for good reason: we just didn’t have the money we needed. Everyone at the table wanted to get the film made, and every department has a yarn to spin about where it saved and how.
One factor that quite drastically changed our process arose when I left the country to shoot Millions, thinking I would return to a production that would ambitiously be shot almost entirely in Copenhagen. Meantime, the film’s financing transported half the shooting to Germany, and consequently ejected half the crew from Denmark to implement the financing through German locations and labor. So it went on. Thomas worked persistently on the script with Lars, the producers continued to hunt finance, and I carried on testing formats and wondering ultimately which way we would have to go.
When you make films with Zentropa, a format discussion is always looming somewhere in the corridors. Sometimes this debate will have happened before the cinematographer has set foot in the place, because financing has deemed a certain shooting method essential if the film is to take off at all. On Wendy, Thomas and I had open discussions, and HD was always in the air early talks hovered around the words “improvisation,” “energy” and “quick and loose.” We had come through the poison-pen letters and love letters for It’s All About Love (AC April ’03), and in terms of form, there was evidently a rumble for something different on this one.
The script will always govern my initial feelings about format, and unfortunately, I had great difficulty getting my heart into the idea of shooting Wendy on digital. It’s most important to feel you can go to the people at the heart of the project and speak openly about this; otherwise, you are screwed and schizoid from Day 1. We tested various smaller and handy formats, as well as the CineAlta with varied lens systems, and celluloid. It would be the understatement of the year to say there was a force to lend myself towards digital. At one stage, we were close to shooting Super 16mm and going through a digital intermediate, but the lusting for improvisation was always rearing its head. In fairness to the producers, Thomas can run through endless long takes (the longest on Wendy was 40 minutes), and I was going to have a hell of a conscience problem convincing anyone I could hold the budget on celluloid.
Still, I felt digital was the wrong aesthetic decision. The creative compression really set in I felt strongly for the story and the constellation of people around it, but I didn’t really agree with anybody across the table about how we could achieve it. The Dandies’ costumes are orange and red velvets, and dusty; the movie features dark interiors, poetic references to Oscar Wilde, and, even worse, improvised action in daylight exteriors. These are all textural issues that led me to prefer celluloid.
An over-discussed example of creative compression could be The Celebration. We had what we had, and there just wasn’t any more. The story lent itself to some extent to the shooting format, but we had to define our own reasons and visually justify them in an appropriate manner. We will be loved and hated for it till the cows come home, but that’s an achievement in itself these days. You have to find a way of elevating something out of what you may privately fear is in danger of visual mediocrity, no matter whose hands it’s in. I may be misunderstood for putting this in print, but I sincerely feel that cinematographers, verbally inarticulate as we may often be, have to deal with this in private because it has to do with us and us alone. No matter what anyone says, we often have an intuition about every project we set eyes on. Whether we’re ultimately right or wrong in the way we choose to execute each film, we have to walk through the doors in the right direction, ideally forwards, believing it will be done in the best and most fitting way for all. I had to solve this in my own head before embarking on Wendy.
I immediately called on neutral, trustworthy colleagues. Stefan Ciupek and I have had a close working relationship through various projects, and I know he listens. I know where we are as Day and Night in our differences, but he does listen. I entrusted him with some general thoughts and concerns relating to digital formats, as well as my personal ambitions for Wendy.
Stefan Ciupek: My assignment started with a weird call from serious Anthony: “Let’s do a movie with an extremely small camera.” “What kind of camera?” I asked. “It should be hi-def but shouldn’t be much bigger than a DV camera.”
After some weeks of research, we found a solution: Sony’s HKT950. About the size of two packs of cigarettes, it initially didn’t look like a camera at all. There were no handles or a serious tripod mount, just a tiny box which holds the CCD block of a Sony HDC950 with a lens mount. I wondered how anybody could operate this camera handheld, but Jakob Bonfils just performed miracles with it. Working with the base of a Törtlerig, he built Anthony a complete handheld surrounding for the camera that included a rock-solid baseplate with rods; a completely new, more ergonomic viewfinder mount; and a bungee-cord suspension for the rig that detached it from any body movements.
Jakob Bonfils: Anthony phoned me one day and asked if we could meet to discuss a rig for an HD “T” camera he had ordered. He asked if I could build the T camera with the Pro35 adapter, Zeiss T2.1 lenses and remote focus, and hang it from something he could wear on his body. He wanted to be as mobile as possible and to be able to make relatively fixed shots for a long time. On top of that, it needed to be ready in 10 days!
I started by borrowing a “T” camera of similar size (but not HD) and asking for all the ingredients. That’s easier said than done, but we had it together in a day or so. Then the real camera showed up. The camera head is connected to the camera body by a thick cable, and the camera body is connected to the CCD block by another thick cable all in all, quite a chain to move around. There was nothing to attach anything to when the “T” component was used alone, so I started by making a bench, like in the old days with field cameras. The bench had two 15mm rods for lining up the T-cam with the Pro35 and the lens, plus rods to hold the remote-focus motor. Attached to the rods was a D-shaped handle, which on top had a system to balance fore and aft, side to side, so the system was level before you grabbed it. On top of the T-cam body I attached a joint for a normal viewfinder or a small Transvideo monitor. (The monitor was impossible to use in bright daylight, but this was two years ago, and a lot has happened with daylight-viewable monitors since then.)
When Anthony and I discussed the problem with the monitor, he suggested he might use some video goggles. We ordered a pair, and I constructed a cap that enabled them to be hung under the shade. It was a very odd-looking device, and they didn’t work very well because the angle of view was way too narrow. So Anthony usually alternated between using the monitor and the viewfinder.
The next thing was to construct a rig from which to hang the whole T-cam system. I made a boom on a pole attached to an operator’s vest and balanced with a bungee cord in low-friction bearings, so it was possible to walk with the whole package without transferring all of the up-and-down body movements to the camera. Of course, as with all new systems, it took some time to learn the small tricks of using it. At first Anthony felt that isolating the camera movement from his body movements was difficult, but he’s not afraid to try something new, and he got better and better during the production. It’s not easy to frame without any friction at all, but it’s not possible to build friction into a piece of string.
Ciupek: Anthony had a very clear vision of what Wendy should look like, and he often showed me old black-and-white pictures of Indians taken by Edward S. Curtis (The North American Indian). They were beautifully soft, large-format compositions that had a painterly quality very far removed from anything I imagined hi-def could look like.
We tested three different lens setups: the brilliant, ultra-sharp Zeiss DigiPrimes; a Pro35 adapter with a set of Zeiss Ultra Primes; and a Pro35 adapter with Zentropa’s good old Zeiss Standard Speed primes, which for quite a while were used mainly for student films. At first, I was a bit skeptical of the Standard Speeds. They weren’t perfectly sharp, and they also vignetted like hell because we had to shoot close to wide open especially the 32mm! Anthony liked them because they were much smaller than the Ultra Primes.
When we watched the first test, I understood why Anthony wanted to go with the old lenses. Especially in combination with Tiffen Soft/FX1 and Soft/FX2 diffusion filters, the picture went quite far away from anything I’d ever seen on HD. The lenses’ natural vignetting gave the pictures a touch more depth that was quite different from what we could have accomplished through grading only. We decided to go behind the lens with the Soft/FX filters. Throwing the NDs out of the filter wheel, we put in Soft/FX 1⁄2, 1 and 2 instead. The greatest benefit of this was the constant level of diffusion no matter which lens we used, and it also greatly reduced flare problems.