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Meet The Cinematographer Who Pushed Werner Herzog To The Third Dimension

by Lee Curtis
13 June 2011

The much admired cinematographer discusses his career, working with Werner Herzog and how he convinced the auteur to use 3D...

Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger has worked on many projects, but has achieved most recognition from his work with esteemed documentarian Werner Herzog.  We sat down with the cinematographer who has brought fascinating images from rarely seen locations and discussed his career, working with Werner and the use of 3D in contemporary cinema.

LC: Can you describe how your partnership with Werner began?

PZ: Werner saw a film I shot and he was very impressed with the intensity of the images. He wrote an article in the newspapers and an Austrian film magazine saying that the main discovery in this film is the cinematographer. I immediately wrote him a letter, because I admired him as a director for several years, asking if he was serious about it why don’t we work together. I don’t really remember, but he probably didn’t answer to this letter. Actually, three years later he called me and we started to work.

LC: What is it like working with him?

PZ: On the one hand it is fantastic, because he gives me a lot of freedom to create my own images and my own angles. But on the other hand it’s also very challenging, because he has a very exact vision about the things he wants to tell. Most of the time he wants to visualise things which are unfilmable, which in reality you can’t film. It is a big challenge to find the right approach.

LC: How does he differ from other directors?

PZ: I would say every director is different, every person is unique.

LC: How are you ‘directed’ on these small shoots, Encounters at the End of the World for example?

PZ: The work, on those films and those documentaries, like Antarctica, you can compare to archaeological work. You come somewhere looking for something and you are putting pieces together, enlarging all of these images and setting up a network of a story. The work actually is like a partnership, because we were just two people, although sometimes we were with Henry Kaiser who was doing the underwater photography and organising. Creatively we were only two people, Werner and me. I was doing the sound recording and also the camera operating. Werner was the one who was the frontier – to dig in to the story and in to the people’s lives and fates. It is a collaboration of two archaeologists.

Every film should be unique so this is a need to create a special look for every film. Every story demands a special look, demands a special rhythm, a particular rhythm and demands its images.

LC: You’ve worked with Werner on several films now, how do you feel your relationship with the director affects the films you make?

PZ: It should be the other way round: how does my work affect the director’s film? The director directs and I work for the director – at least for their vision. Ideally I would create cinematography which fits the story and transports their vision.

LC: You’ve worked with Werner on both documentary and narrative films. Is your approach different for each film you make?

PZ: The big difference between documentary and feature film is that in a feature film you follow a script. So every scene is scripted and you’ve got your visions and you try to convert your visions in to reality after what you read in the story. The writer sets up the guideline. In documentary the guideline is the reality. Usually Werner and I approach a theme, very open, without prediction and prejudice. That’s the only way – to be open for all the vibrations and images of all what is happening – to be open for that, this is the main attitude.

LC: In terms of your cinematography do you try and bring something unique in to the films you create? For example, the “Iguana cam” in Bad Lieutenant.

PZ: Every film should be unique so this is a need to create a special look for every film. Every story demands a special look, demands a special rhythm, a particular rhythm and demands its images. Some stories need slow images and wide images, and some stories need short cuts, close ups, moving cameras. Some stories need steady cameras, some stories need handheld cameras, some stories need special effects. So I think that it is a universal thing – every film should be different.

LC: When shooting The Cave of Forgotten Dreams did you encounter any problems?

PZ: This question is too vast, because there were a lot of problems. The main problem was the cave itself, the difficulty to enter the cave and to bring in equipment. The limited time period we had to shoot because of the oxygen and because of the CO2 – and also the limited time of access that was set up by the scientists. Another problem was working with 3D which is not really developed yet, or was not really developed yet at that time, for use in documentaries. A lot of problems arose when using 3D vision in the real world, in feature films it is much easier to deal with the aesthetics and technical problems like the 3D affecting the foreground and 3D affecting the background and balancing these effects. These were the main problems

LC: What effect do such low light conditions have on the shoot?

PZ: There were some advantages in low light, you don’t use big equipment and you can work with a smaller crew. The disadvantages are that you are limited with creative lighting so you have to be creative yourself to create any good effects and any good pictures. Of course there are technical issues in low light, very small depth of field, very big grain and the pixelization when you shoot digital. Of course when it’s too dark you don’t see anything.

LC: How did you counter the low light, with lenses or other equipment?

PZ: We used high speed lenses and we had strong, cold, LED lamps with us. We used them cleverly by moving them to create the feeling like it would be torchlight or headlights of helmets – to create more vivid and a life feeling in the scenes. We believed that this effect was showing how the cave people 30,000 years ago saw the cave when they entered with their torches.

3D is a demanding tool to capture the art.

LC: How did the limited time, and space, inside the cave affect the look and feel of the film?

PZ: Actually, it didn’t affect it. There is nothing special that you are limited in time and space, you are limited in every production.

LC: In terms of your personal experience what was it like to be inside the cave?

PZ: Inside the cave the unique experience is that you feel that you are at the bottom line, or at the origins of human art, human consciousness and human vision. This is a very great feeling – you are at the centre of it.

LC: I’ve read that Werner was quite sceptical of the artistic value of 3D. Do you feel the same way?

PZ: Werner believes that 3D is a gimmick of the commercial cinema. Usually they use it as an effect to attract the audience, like spears coming out of the screen or weapons reaching out in to the audience. We didn’t want to use those effects, but actually to capture the surface of the paintings, the reliefs and the three dimensional structure of the walls on which the animals are painted. 3D is a demanding tool to capture the art.

LC: Have you shot in 3D before?

PZ: Even though I had not shot in 3D before, I had some theoretical experience and also in the beginning of my career I did a lot of experiments with home built photo machines and cameras – so I played around a little bit with 3D.

LC: Whose idea was it for Cave of Forgotten Dreams to be filmed in 3D?

PZ: When I first heard about the idea to be able to shoot in this cave, where usually no publicity is admitted, I immediately thought of shooting this in 3D because this is a kind of demand; to come somewhere, in to a cave and capture this – in 3D. At first Werner refused it immediately, because of being sceptical of this technical part of cinema. Actually after he visited the cave himself the first time, I’ve never been there before I just had the imagination of it, but after Werner had visited the first time and shot with a tiny little camera he immediately realised that this project is a 3D project. It is the only way to capture this wonderful art.

LC: In terms of post production, what is your role in a film?

PZ: It’s very different how much or how long I am usually involved with the post production process. At the beginning of my filmmaking I did the DP work – I was cinematographer. I also did editing so I was really much more involved than I am now, because now it is edited by Joe Bini. It depends on the production company – how much money they want to invest in to the quality of the post production. Sometimes I am invited to do just the colour grading and only a few days because then they have to pay for the hotel and flights. So on small productions they try to keep the costs very low, which results in a poorer quality result, because I am not there and cannot do all the colour grading properly.

LC: Is it different because it is 3D?

PZ: In this case I was there with Kaspar Kallas who was doing all the post production and also the 3D treatment of the material. We worked together one week, twelve hours a day, just adjusting alignments with which the camera works. We also experimented with a lot of new technologies and new softwares. There is still a lot of work to do to invent things, because 3D is quite developed on big projects when they can do all of the effects digitally and assemble the images on the computers and they can separately record the background, midground and foreground. But we in the documentary process we didn’t have this possibility so we had to be very inventive.

LC: In the initial discussions with producers and Werner on the topic of 3D, was there any talk of it being shot in 2D and converted afterwards, as it is frequently done in films?

PZ: We never thought about doing fake 3D, or shoot in 2D and then convert it to 3D. This would not have made sense because the basic idea was to capture the reality, how it really was. Actually, there were some scenes we messed it up somehow and it was difficult to align in the post production. We usually did parts of the images we used just one eye, which means it was 2D and created a fake 3D, created a relief like a statue. All in all was a 3D image, but parts of the image were basically 2D. It was actually in those cases when we shot side by side, which meant that we were not able to put the lenses close enough together and the object got too close to the lens, which created a depth conflict and a very hard 3D effect which was very tough to watch.

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