A ground-breaking sixty-minute opera film, featuring music by the great Barbara Strozzi, and shot by Australian cinematographer Dimitri Zaunders – by Joe Ridge
A Delicate Fire came to Dimitri Zaunders at exactly the right time. He’d recently finished a feature film and was looking for the next opportunity when this unique project came to him somewhat out of nowhere. “It was just perfect,” says Zaunders. “There was no script, just images as a treatment and the music. As a cinematographer, there’s nothing more exciting than some ideas and raw poetry.” The film’s treatment followed a dreamy night of idealised love to a collapse of the artificial film world and a stark acceptance of love, threading together Barbara Strozzi’s eleven distinctive madrigals from the 1600s.
Because of the pandemic and what was going on in the world there was an incredible array of musicians who were unable to perform in other capacities, including talented director Constantine Costi whose Opera Australia production of La Traviata on Sydney Harbour had been halted. The unused resources of that world, statues, painted backdrops and instruments would otherwise never have been available to Zaunders. “It was amazing to have Pinchgut Opera believe in us and invest those resources into this beautiful film, especially given it was the first time anything like this had been done,” he says.
On-set Covid testing and precautions had to be implemented because there was a large cast and crew on this project. “I needed to adapt some of the ways in which I work,” says Zaunders. “When you rely on your lightmeter, it’s hard to check the light on a person when I’m standing a required 1.5 meters away.”
In early meetings with the director and production designer Charlotte Mungomery, the team were influenced not only by film but also other imagery. “Early on, we saw the Baroque painting Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi and I was inspired particularly by the Baroque tenebrism of that time and its emphasis on shadow,” he says. “I think it’s the most important element of what cinematographers do, balancing lighting with that subtractive element. It’s what differentiates the work from theatre, which is additive.”
Over the course of pre-production Zaunders had a huge library of visual references. “We looked at paintings from the time period and films which blur the line between theatre, art and cinema like those by Peter Greenaway, Chantal Akerman and Tracey Moffatt,” he says. Greenaway’s The Baby of Macon (1993, cinematography by Sacha Vierny) was a particularly big influence on Zaunders.
“I love having a shared place where we can all save images. From there I built a scrapbook that goes scene-by-scene which I find useful to organise my thoughts over the long shooting period and to communicate with the rest of the crew. We also put up a lot of our images around the filming location so we could always come back to those photographs and paintings.”
Zaunders filmed A Delicate Fire on an ARRI Alexa Classic. “I always come back to that camera for its softness and field-of-view,” he explains. “It feels a bit like choosing S16mm over 35mm. When everything else is moving towards cleaner images and bigger sensors, I love breaking down the picture with exposure levels and grain.”
When the cinematographer is not shooting on film he almost always uses filters. “Usually I’m a big fan of Classic Softs because they don’t affect the highlights or shadows too much,” says Zaunders. “Lemac gave us a set of MkIII Superspeeds which are beautifully soft on the Alexa. I was also hazing on set and filtering the light through that volumetric diffusion. I found that in the end I didn’t need to put anything in front of my lenses. Lemac have been a huge support on all my projects. They also gave us a beautiful 24-290mm which I used for some long, choreographed zooms.”
Zaunders loves tall frames, and from testing he wanted a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. “It feels timeless and unplaceable,” he says. “There’s something beautiful about taking that golden ratio from painting. I think it holds the viewer in a kind of ambiguous tension between time periods.”
Some of the scenes in A Delicate Fire are long with individual songs running up to nine minutes. Zaunders wanted to approach these in lengthy, constructed shots. “As a complete layperson when it comes to opera, I found it much easier to make a video for myself of the music with timing and a countdown that I could use to work out when the camera would move and how the image would develop through the course of the music,” he explains.
During pre-production, it helped the cinematographer to visualise sequences by marking out the floor with tape and physically walking through the space. He could then work out how the light would continue or change through blocking and decide where the camera would travel. Often these tests were cut together to show to the rest of the crew.
“I’ve been so lucky to build up a crew from commercials and other projects,” he says. “Rose Newland and Trudi Gultom have done a couple of films with me now. With the complexity of what we were putting together it was an opportunity to work with an incredible gaffer, Tom Keyes, and a great key grip, Kristian Bruneteau. We had some very intricate sequences that required all of us to come together perfectly, such as a lateral dolly moving through a set that reconfigures itself in different scenarios and different lighting states. We formed a great team.”
Visually, every part of the film had its own sensibility as it moves through different pieces of music. Each scene is tied together by elements that would recur throughout the film, but each distinctive part is heightened and expressionistic moving through different modes; from static tableaux and hand-held to long, slow zooms and lateral tracking shots which would respond to each change in music with a new visual proposal.
When it comes to post-production Zaunders says it’s important for him to be at the grade. “As cinematographers, from the very beginning when we’re looking at visual references it’s our job to have sensitivity for the image and put that onto the screen. When I was first starting out is our job to communicate with the lab, to work with our medium and know if we are going to push it, pull it, how we’re going to print the image. Now it’s even more extreme where anything can be changed and we should always be part of those decisions.” Zaunders completed the final grade with Yanni Kronenberg who has collaborated with the cinematographer for many years. “The thought and pride he puts into his work is incomparable.”
Some of the cinematographer’s favourite sequences are those that were done very simply, such as dance sequence from a window of a moving car or an aria performed entirely in a phone booth as the camera rotates on a circular track.
“The sequences that took the most planning and were the most satisfying to achieve were all our practical effects which we did entirely in camera. Like our rear projection simulated travel and the forced perspective painting of an old house with singers outside and in the windows,” he says. “I love those kind of archaic, forgotten techniques.”
Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle HKSC, and a hero of Zaunders, once said, “If I was satisfied, why would I do another film?” Zaunders doesn’t think he can ever be completely complacent with his work because there’s always so much more to try, to go further. “I’d like to make another film as bold and full of possibility as this one and, not to repeat myself, to approach it completely differently,” he concludes. “And I would like to shoot the next one on film!”
Dimitri Zaunders is an up-and-coming cinematographer and photographer, working between documentary and fiction.
Joe Ridge is a contributing writer with Australian Cinematographer Magazine.