Anna Foerster on ANONYMOUS

Anna Foerster on ANONYMOUS

Known more for action-packed blockbusters such as 2012, Roland Emmerich'’s new feature ANONYMOUS is a literary thriller set in Elizabethan England that questions the true authorship of William Shakespeare'’s work. The film was the first international feature to be recorded digitally in its entirety with the ALEXA camera system. We spoke with DP Anna Foerster in the Lustre suite at ARRI Munich about her experience working with ALEXA on the set of ANONYMOUS.

ARRI News: How closely do you like to personally control camerawork and lighting on set?

Anna Foerster:
Apart from the light, the shot itself is very important to me; I’'m always involved in that. Other than that, it’s good to give the team some leeway and not to micromanage, as they say in the US. Doing so only prevents positive things that happen coincidentally when one is surrounded by creative people who develop their own ideas. To me, filmmaking is first and foremost a team effort. It involves working with people who don'’t just do as they are told, but who make suggestions; that’'s what makes things interesting for me.

AN: This was your first feature film shot entirely on a digital camera; were you skeptical in the beginning?

AF: Luckily I got around the entire issue surrounding digital recording in the last couple of years because I worked exclusively with 35 mm, so I was spared the tiring transition phase during which digital seemed to stand for low budget. Now the discussion has changed and takes place on a very different level than even four years ago. Today'’s digital camera systems such as the ALEXA, a leader in this field, are in my opinion a true revolution for filmmaking.

As for me personally, the switch was exciting, more than anything. Sure, I was nervous; that'’s normal when you leave something behind that you'’re very familiar with. But the quality meets such high standards that it was very convincing. In retrospect, it was more like using a new film stock and testing its limits. I do have to admit that I always worked with a light meter and never relied on what I saw on the monitor, even though that was pretty exact most of the time.

ANONYMOUS: Behind the Scenes with ALEXA

Known more for action-packed blockbusters such as 2012, Roland Emmerich’s new feature ANONYMOUS is a literary thriller set in Elizabethan England which questions the true authorship of William Shakespeare’s work. The movie was the first international feature to be recorded digitally in its entirety with the ALEXA camera system. Here we see first-hand what production of ANONYMOUS was like.

AN: How did you decide upon a visual approach to the story?

Early on, before we went into production, we determined the look of the dailies on the Lustre. Digital colorist Florian “Utsi” Martin worked closely with us, giving us advice and support. Altogether we created six lookup tables (LUTs) for different day and night shooting situations, and for things like flashbacks. On set I had these LUTs on the monitor and was able to refer to them. For me they were like printer lights, showing me how far I had pushed the light away from the intended parameters.

Prior to that, we spent a lot of time thinking about the overall look. We finally agreed on a “naturalistic” one; not in the sense of a documentary style, but naturalistic in the sense of being lit with natural light. In other words, it shouldn’t look like it’s been lit. That presented the challenge of only working with natural light sources --– candlelight, open fires and daylight.

We looked at many paintings of that time, such as Georges de la Tour'’s nocturnes, in which one or two candles light an entire scene. ALEXA has an incredibly large dynamic range and if you can shoot with EI 1200 or 1600, you get results that used to be unthinkable; you can now capture the effect of a single candle, torch or open fireplace, meaning you can actually use its reflection on the wall or on the faces in your shot without getting any noise in the blacks , just like the human eye perceives it.

AN: What lenses were you using?

Surprisingly, we shot almost 80 percent of the film with the new ARRI Lightweight Zoom LWZ-1. Initially, I was quite skeptical about these extremely small and light zoom lenses, until I compared test shots using a projector. I was impressed by the image quality of such a small zoom lens. We had Master Primes, which were mostly used for visual effects shots, because these lenses deliver the sharpest edges for keying.

The LWZ-1 gave us an enormous amount of flexibility because we could quickly change the focal distance by a few millimeters without having to exchange the entire lens; we could also use the zoom on the Steadicam. About half of the film was shot with a 17.5 mm focal length; that'’s pretty wide. It was one of the elements of the look that I had discussed at length with Roland prior to shooting. In terms of the lighting it did create some problems, because you saw a lot in each frame and you couldn'’t just quickly add a light source somewhere. That was a real challenge sometimes.

AN: What has changed for you, as a DP, with digital acquisition?

This reminds me of an anecdote involving Dean Semler (ACS, ASC), the Australian DP of the film 2012. I was shooting aerials from a helicopter for that film and I asked Dean why he shot digitally so much. His answer was, '“It'’s better for the heart.”' Back then I laughed and took it as a light quip. Now I know it'’s true --– you sleep better; the panic worrying about what the dailies will look like the next day is gone. In the past you always went there with sweaty palms, worried if you'’d pushed it too far in some places. You now have so much control on the set, especially thanks to the wavelength monitor, which shows you where you can get even more out of a shot. That’'s a big relief.