Award-winning Aussie DOP Jeremy Rouse tells how he ended up shooting the German drama Jonathan, which recently screened at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival.
By Jeremy Rouse.
About a year ago I had worked on a Vodafone commercial in Europe with a fantastic Production Designer named Erwin Prib. We worked really well together and had a combined aesthetic that complimented each others styles. Prib was one of the first crew members attached to the film Jonathan.
In early discussions with the film’s Director, Piotr J. Lewandowski, Prib used some of my work as a reference to try understand the look that the Polish-born Director was after. Lewandowski immediately responded to my visuals and apparently said to Prib, “Who is this guy, he must shoot my movie!”.
From that day Lewandowski was pretty convinced he wanted me to shoot Jonathan. He sent me an email and explained the project in detail. It was a sales pitch but the project sounded incredibly interesting; a coming-of-age saga crossed with a coming-out story, completely in the German-language.
The script, which the Director also wrote, had won many awards in Germany and there were numerous production companies wanting to produce the film. Lewandowski eventually decided to get Kordes & Kordes Film to produce Jonathan.
The producers initially wanted a German, or at least European, Director of Photography to lens the film and I believe made Lewandowski met most of the country’s available DOPs to that end. I get the feeling he simply went through that process just so he could say, “Now I’ve met them all, but I still want Rouse to shoot it”.
I had many discussions with Lewandowski and as the dates of the production firmed up I had to make a decision. The producers wouldn’t translate the script for me unless I agreed to shoot the film because a professional translation is quite costly. Having Prib attached the crew as Production Designer was a big factor on taking on the challenge, I trusted his word and that he was excited to be attached.
Eventually I agreed to the project based on a detailed synopsis and many conversations with the Director about the story, the characters and exactly what he wanted from me. Once I signed on I received the translated script and thankfully was relived that it was so beautifully written. I was still very concerned, however, about not being able to speak German.
My initial concerns were not so much about talking to crew members or anything technical, ‘move that light here or put this diffusion frame there’, more that I would not be in tune with the actors and their performances. It’s very important for me to feel the performances and know what an actor is thinking or feeling. It’s a big part of my job to be aware of actors space and their comfort on set.
I expressed the concern with Lewandowski before I agreed to do the film. He felt it would not be a hindrance but a liberating experience. He insisted with a translated script I knew what the scene was about and that the body language of the actors would inform me of how they are feeling. He also thought the themes in Jonathan are universal and that despite the language barrier, I would understand the exactly what was going on. He was right.
I was very fortunate to have a brilliant 1st AC, Christian Clarenz, who doubled as my personal interpreter. He would very discreetly relay notes from the Lewandowski to the actors and whisper in my ear all the subtleties that were happening around me. “One of the actors is getting a bit frustrated”, he might say. This helped me to manage my crew a bit more.
On the first day of shooting I was so nervous about talking to the actors and making suggestions. I was nervous thinking I was this Australian bloke who has found himself on set with some of Germany’s most famous actors, stumbling over after the rehearsal and suggesting, for a lighting reason, that perhaps we could move a mark this way a little bit. As it turned out the actors were all extremely professional and excited to have a non-German DOP on the team.
After my nervous start it didn’t really affect the job that much. All the crew spoke in English, no problem there. Grips, gaffers, sound department, make-up all fluent in English. When I was involved in discussions with the cast and Director they were happy to speak in English too. Mostly it was in English, then action was called and it turned to German.
Crewing was a little tricky. The budget came from various state funding bodies, where possible I had to try and use crew from certain states. “Have a look at all the resumes from Hesse and Baden-Württemberg”, I was told. Not much good. But I found a great Gaffer from Frankfurt, Martin Bourgund, who worked on Lore (2012) with Adam Arkapaw ACS. Also an Australian Gaffer, Michael Adcock. Kai Finnigan our Key Grip had the necessary address for the funding bodies, but I still couldn’t find appropriate camera crew.
It was really important for me to have a strong camera team. I felt that with that language barrier and a tight shooting schedule of about five weeks I really needed a top-notch crew. I really like focus pullers to be flexible and understand the way I like to work. I often don’t want lots of marks put down or to run a tape out every five minutes. I prefer them to sit back where possible and use a laser pointer to discretely get marks.
Part of the job description was the 1st AC would step up and operate the B-Camera for certain scenes and occasionally split off to shoot splinter unit shots. I started looking in Berlin but it was so busy that I struggled to find someone appropriate. Eventually Finnigan emailed me and said he knew a Camera Assistant who had a job fall over and I should chat to him about this film.
His name was Michael Rathgeber and he was a very experienced 1st AC looking to step into B-Camera operating. What he suggested was that he would bring his team with him and they would all step up and make it work within the budget.
What eventuated was Rathgeber operated B-Camera and would shoot some splinter shots almost every day and Christian Clarenz, his long time 2nd AC would just be A-Camera’s 1st AC. Given their level of experience I was very happy to run with this and it was perfect for the film. Clarenz immediately was impressive at pulling focus and the freedom to have Rathgeber floating in and out shooting with us or picking up shots was perfect.
There were many discussions on what to shoot Jonathan on and with. At one point Super 16mm film was an option! I felt quite strongly about shooting on the ARRI Alexa. For me RED was never really a consideration.
I shoot mostly on Alexa and love the look, the latitude and the simplicity of the camera system. I had been shooting Open Gate in ARRIRAW on television commercials and was really happy with the look I could get. Especially when I need to push the ASA to 1250 or 1600.
On our location tour we looked at barn interiors that were so dark and dim, house interiors that had tiny windows and really low roofs and I knew we would struggle with low light. I feel the Alexa has slightly better sensitivity in low light.
Lewandowski had no practical knowledge of cameras. He made it clear to me I should choose based on what I felt would best give him the look we had discussed. Once we locked in on Alexa the next discussion of course was lenses.
Quite early on I felt that although I love anamorphic, it didn’t feel right for this film. I think the distortion that comes with anamorphic squeeze can compliment a look or aesthetic, but for me Jonathan was more in need of a spherical realism feel.
I pushed for the Leica Summilux C early on. I love those lenses, the look for me is similar to that of the Leica M stills camera system. Optically well engineered and perform well wide open. They have a beautiful naturalistic feel to them. It looked unlikely we could afford the Leicas so Master Primes where the next option for me.
The production got quotes from all over Germany. Cinegate, Arri, Vantage and MBF. In the end a company from Munich called Ludwig Camera offered a really great deal that consisted of an Alexa XT plus for our A-Camera, an Amira for B-Bamera, a set of Leica Summilux C to and an Angeniuex 25-250HR to take for splinter unit.
The final decision was if we could afford to shoot Open Gate. I wanted to shoot this way because I like the slightly larger sensor area and what it offers in field-of-view. We chose a cropped spherical 2.39:1 aspect ratio and the little extra you see on the Open Gate made a big difference. I shot some footage on an 18mm lens at 2K, 3.2K and Open Gate to show the producers the difference. They were not aware at 2K you see so much less than in Open Gate.
With the addition of two-camera coverage we agreed to capture 3.2K Pro Res 4444XQ (which the Amira could also do) as a base set up and for a few select night scenes and interiors I was allowed to shoot in Open Gate. I actually shot much less in Open Gate than they budgeted for.
I worked very closely with the Production Design team. They created the environments in which I light and the spaces where the actors perform. We had a very close collaboration. I’m from the school of ‘show me more than less’. I like to know the colour of clothes, the level of decay in sets, the kind of vehicles people drive, anything and everything.
The world of Jonathan is contemporary rural Germany. Although the film is set now, the locations we found were up to six-hundred years old. Some of the houses we shot in had to be reinforced under the floors before we started shooting.
Part of the reason I didn’t want to shoot with old lenses was because it would be too much. The sets were old, dusty and real; I wanted to capture them with a contemporary lens, to balance the old-world feeling with the modern world in which the young cast of Jonathan exist.
We didn’t use storyboards. Lewandowski and myself tried to allow the actors as much freedom to perform within the sets. Jonathan is heavy on dialogue We wanted to be true to the story and let the actors talk to each other. If real drama is in the story and performances then I don’t see the need to reinvent the wheel and cook up elaborate camera moves.
Occasionally we did try things like long single takes, slow tracking shots over a whole scene or largely improvised scenes where I would just react to the action like a documentary camera man. It just depends on what the actors want to do and if it feels right for everyone than great.
It’s like when deciding whether to shoot hand-held or on sticks. There are some scenes that you decide will certainly be hand-held, others that are definitely sticks and then there are a few which could go either way. That happened a bit while filming.
I would often push for more dolly and tracks and the Lewandowski always pushed for the camera to be in the hand. To me there was not a definite reason to go hand held or not, it ended up being a feeling thing for the director. He liked the rawness of hand held, he liked the uncertainty of it, he liked the jittery uptightness of the camera being active, it mirrored our lead actors emotion. We ended up doing a mix of both throughout Jonathan.
There is a scene I really love towards the end of the film where we track with Jonathan (Jannis Niewöhner) as he walks through long grass to reveal his father Burghardt (André Hennicke) and Ron (Thomas Sarbacher) sitting on a bench. Jonathan knows this is the end for his father. As Ron and Jonathan carry the dying Burghardt back to the house we track back with them. It’s a beautiful and simple scene, one with immense emotion yet beautifully restrained performances. I was so worried about the sunlight for the scene, it had to be right and I was happy we got lucky.
After filming I was as involved as one I could be with post production process, being on the other side of the world. It was in my contract to return to Munich for the final grade. Grading is such a challenging process for me.
We got Moritz Peters a freelance Colorist from Berlin. He has been building 3D LUTs for a while and is a bit of a LUT consultant ion Germany. His approach to the Grading was to build a series of about 15 different LUTs to apply to the LOG rushes as a starting point for grading. Peters said it was more like doing a detailed one-light pass over the LOG footage and then tweaking the LUTs, mixing them and or adjusting them. Sometimes we would have to start from scratch and grade from the LUT but not often.
I’m not really trying to achieve a look in the grade. Nothing to fancy with blues in blacks or anything that was too showy. I was more interested in getting the naturalism and general tones and atmospheres right.
Lewandowski often tried to push something in too much, “make it more interesting” as he would say. I would react by saying, “I’m starting to feel our fingerprints on this too much”. Sometimes things get a bit heated in the suite and everyone has to take a break.
What amazes me is the infinite possibilities offered in colour grading. I like to think of it at times like the controls on a stereo, sometimes a fifteen-channel equaliser confuses me, I’m more of a bass and treble kind of guy. Brighter or darker, more contrast less contrast. Too saturated or not.
I’m back working on commercials now, however there are a few feature projects I’m attached to. I will stay optimistic with a healthy dose of realism.
Jeremy Rouse is known for his outstanding work on commercials and recently won the 2016 ACS ‘Golden Tripod’ in Advertising for Vodafone Bucket List. He lensed Shaun Gladwell’s ‘Family’ chapter of The Turning (2013), and the short film Florence Has Left The Building was the winner of Best Short at the AACTA Awards in 2015.