“We spent a lot of time staring at the clouds and waiting for a bit of soft light and a bit of consistency. My gaffer would shout at me, “I’m a gaffer. I’m not Gandalf.”

New interview up over at Filmmaker Magazine with Oscar nominated All Quiet on the Western Front cinematographer James Friend. The story covers the British DP’s compulsion for symmetrical composition, devoting 10 weeks to a few fleeting but crucial frames of fox cubs, and collaborating to create “the most cinematic latrine ever.”

The Netflix film is the third adaptation of Eric Maria Remarque’s World War I novel, following an Oscar winning version from 1930 and an Emmy-nominated 1979 miniseries.

Tech Info
Cameras – Arri Alexa 65, Alexa Mini LF, Sony Venice (night exteriors), Red Epic Dragon (VFX Plates)
Lenses – Arri Prime DNA, Tribe7 Blackwing 7, Arri Prime 65 S, a detuned 21mm Zeiss CP.3, and a custom-made 18.5 from Arri

Here’s a few snippets from the story:

On the extreme lengths the film went to for a few key shots of real foxes….

Filmmaker: There’s a Wildlife Unit listed in the credits. Did they handle some of those nature shots?

Friend: There’s this great wildlife cameraman called Rob Hollingworth, who specializes in shooting animals and wildlife. We worked very closely together to shoot the fox sequence, which was originally supposed to be a little bit bigger. The reason it needed its own camera person is because we had to essentially put a pregnant fox in a purpose-built den that was designed for shooting with camera traps. The fox then gave birth to the cubs in this den and that turned into what you saw on camera. 

Filmmaker: Wait, those are real foxes and that’s a set?

Friend: They’re totally real foxes. One hundred percent. They were born in that den. The only way to get those shots is basically to raise the cubs in the environment in which you’re filming them, so the mother and the cubs feel completely at home. Then, if a probe lens comes in to get a closeup of a cub or the mom, they’re already used to it by that stage. Essentially, we wanted it to look like a David Attenborough piece and not like a movie. We wanted that to feel very documentary. A lot of care went into it. That was about a 10-week exercise to build it and then get the mum in there and for her to give birth. We were getting constant updates. We had to prelight it beforehand because it’s not like you can just turn the lights on and go “action.” The lights already had to be burning and constantly in place. 

Filmmaker: That’s an insane amount of work for what ends up being three or four shots in the movie.

Friend: It was originally supposed to be a little bit more, but not a lot more. But everyone was very aware that it was going to be the opening of the film.

On lighting the film’s long battlefield tracking shots…

Friend: You’re at the [mercy of] the grace of God. The two biggest tools in the arsenal are your pan glass and good scheduling. We spent a lot of time staring at the clouds [through the pan glass] and waiting for a bit of soft light and a bit of consistency. My gaffer would shout at me, “I’m a gaffer. I’m not Gandalf.” I kept asking him, “How long? How long? How long” We would both sit there burning our retinas out staring at the sun. We really had production on our side, though. I said I wanted to shoot in overcast skies, and I had a sympathetic director. So, a lot of it was just patience even though we were on a really tight schedule. Sometimes we’d have to wait and wait because we’d have a clear blue sky [and we wanted cloud cover] and there would be a lot of nervous people on set getting itchier and itchier, none more so than me. You can obviously control the closeups more, but when you’re shooting on large format, the field of view is so large that even closeups are hard to navigate. You really just have to wait for the right sunlight and have a production willing to support you. Oh, and a good 1st AD. Benedict Hoermann was an absolute ninja.


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