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“Space Dogs” DP Yunus Roy Imer: “ARRI is sincere and reliable”

For “Space Dogs,” DP Yunus Roy Imer filmed in Moscow with stray dogs. In an interview the cinematographer talks about the difficulties of shooting the film, his equipment selection from ARRI Rental, and the color grading at ARRI Media—also in a video.

In 1957, the Russian stray dog Laika was the first living being to be sent into space. That mission proved to be deadly for Laika. According to legend, she returned to Earth as a ghost and has been roaming Moscow’s streets ever since. In their creative documentary “Space Dogs,” which celebrated its world premiere at the 72nd Locarno Film Festival, Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter (script, director, and producer) tell the story of Laika, following the movements of her descendants: two stray dogs. ARRI supported the film project with camera equipment from ARRI Rental and picture postproduction by ARRI Media. An ALEXA Mini, the Master Grips, and various lenses helped DP Yunis Roy Imer with the difficult shoot. In an interview, the cinematographer talks about working with stray dogs, the equipment he chose, and color grading at ARRI.

Before we start talking about “Space Dogs,” what was it that inspired you to want to become a cinematographer?

One big inspiration was our design teacher at school. I was about 16 when he showed us the documentary film “Step Across the Border.” It’s a black and white film that was shot in 1990 and is a portrait of the musician and artist Fred Frith. That film combined everything that interested me at the time: music, photography, and poetry. That picture really inspired me in a big way and it ended up pushing me in the direction of the film business. Camerawork wasn’t a clear path from the start, but the idea became more concrete when I realized that this discipline unites photography and film. When I turned 20, I attended the Baden-Wuerttemberg Film Academy in Ludwigsburg, where I started studying image design and camera. Initially, I had doubts about whether it was the right thing for me. Today, I have both feet firmly planted in this profession and I'm very happy about it.
 
“Space Dogs” is your fourth collaboration with Levin Peter. How did you two meet?

We studied together, with Elsa too. She was involved in three of the four films as a producer. I can still remember how on “Sonor,” our first film together, we sat around in various parks in Ludwigsburg discussing the film and the idea behind it. The three of us were always closely knit somehow. On “Space Dogs,” however, I wasn’t involved from the outset, partially for logistical reasons. Elsa and Levin had moved to Vienna and founded the production company Raumzeitfilm there. They traveled a lot and researched a lot in Moscow before they approached me. By that time, the project was already quite well developed.

When was the first time you went to Russia for “Space Dogs”?

We went to Moscow together about a year before the start of shooting. Levin and Elsa already knew the city fairly well and had done a lot of the work in advance—finding interesting districts, packs of dogs, and researching in the archives. Some of what they found were shots that were never published or that were shown once in a news program 40, 50, or 60 years ago. The search for material was very involved, and our stay in Moscow ended up being more of a research shoot at the locations we liked than anything else. Like a technical walk-through, preparation, and research together with all the different aspects of the film team represented.

I can imagine it might be a bit daunting working with stray dogs at first. How did you find it?

As a child I was afraid of dogs, so I was of course a bit nervous about filming with them. But I’ve had my own dog for a few years now. I did actually get bitten once in Moscow, but not by one of the strays, funnily enough. We were walking in the park, and in Moscow the parks are almost like forests in the middle of the city. Anyway, there were a couple of bad looking guys with two dogs that suddenly just started running at us. We walked slowly backwards, not looking them directly in the eyes, just the way we learned, but because there was a bush in the way, I had to go a different route than the others. For the dogs, that meant that I was the weak one, separated from the pack, and one of them lightly grazed my shoulder. Actually, the strays aren’t dangerous if you know how to read them. Elsa is a real dog expert. She grew up with them because her parents bred dogs when she was a child; she gave us a lot of tips about how to approach them and such. That gave us some confidence. Elsa was always the one who went out ahead whenever we met a new pack. You can tell pretty quickly whether you’re welcome in a pack or not. They give you clear signs if you are getting too close to their territory. You can judge whether you’re in danger or not.

You tested at ARRI Rental in Berlin in preparation for the shoot.

Yes. The focus of that was mainly about how to set up the camera system. We wanted to be at eye level with the dogs, and having a camera that was as light as possible like the ALEXA Mini was very important. It’s pretty hard work to nearly always having to hold the camera in one hand. With the lenses it quickly became clear that we would definitely need a fast aperture and light, small, compact lenses. So, it didn’t take long for us to decide on Zeiss high-speed lenses. Because we were moving around so much and didn’t want the pictures to get too restless, we tended to go more for wide-angle lenses. We had the 18, the 25, and the 35 mm with us, and ended up shooting most things with the 18 or 25. We also used the ARRI/Fujinon Alura Zoom 18-80 mm, but we wanted to test the Master Grips too, for one thing because of the remote function and secondly as a stabilizing element. It was all about the overall handling and how stable or not we wanted it. For instance, we kept the battery in the backpack in order for the camera to stay lighter.

You always had ARRI’s Master Grips with you on the shoot…

… No, we didn’t have the Master Grips yet in the first shooting block, although there were situations where they would have been helpful. For example, when the video signal went out, or the times when I was positioned in such a way that the assistant couldn’t see what I was filming. If the assistant couldn’t tell by the remote focus what I was filming, there had to be a way for me to adjust the focus myself. That’s why we decided to go with remote focusing at first, and then, in the course of our research, we came upon the Master Grips. There was one situation where we shot for a really long time in one go, and it was damp and really cold. Of course, there comes a time when it doesn’t matter anymore how good the remote focus is if the battery is empty. So, there I was and had to focus by hand. It was kind of a safety backup to have the Master Grips there … or if I had to go somewhere alone. So, we always took the Master Grips with us from the time we had them onwards. And they didn’t disappoint us in terms of reliability.

Watching “Space Dogs,” one often finds oneself asking: “How did you film that?” Were you in a car or did you run along with them? Some of the takes are quite long.

That was one of the reasons why we tested the camera setup so thoroughly. We actually did run alongside them. So, no cars, no skateboard, or what have you. It was physically really hard work. Then there came a point when the pack had become so accustomed to us because we had been around them so much that the relationship became symbiotic. If we took a break, the dogs waited for us. That happened quite a lot, although I often had to decide off the cuff whether I should stop and do a wide shot when one of the dogs took off, or if I should try to keep up with it.

You shot a lot at night, in various seasons, in extreme weather, and with greatly different light situations. The film also has different chapters and levels. How did you go about deciding on the color grading?

Nico Hauter from ARRI Media in Berlin was the colorist on “Space Dogs.” We started bright, colorful, and loud, thinking it would be a great look for this film. But then in the grading we drifted more and more toward a more naturalistic look. The biggest challenge was the orange of the sodium vapor lamps that there are so many of in Moscow. Finding exactly the right nuance alongside all the LEDs and various other light sources in the city kept us busy, and we repeatedly made minor changes. Despite the naturalistic look, we wanted to retain the gaudiness of the city, for example keeping the green and purple. The color diversity has its own appeal, after all, so, in some scenes, we played with that a bit and exaggerated the coloring a little. We also just went with the more emotional and brutal scenes. In a team with Nico we were able to try out a lot—and we did.

Did working so closely with the dogs change your own personal relationship to man’s best friend?

A lot actually. For instance, when we went home between shooting blocks and I saw dogs, the whole concept of “having a dog” suddenly felt totally absurd. We aren’t accustomed to packs of dogs running around free here. It became completely normal to meet some dogs somewhere and to hang out with them if it felt right. I always liked dogs, but I was afraid of them sometimes as a child. I’ve gained a whole different confidence in dealing with dogs now. I like it when they can live freely. I actually wonder more nowadays about keeping a dog on a leash and having it do everything you tell it.

Americans used monkeys for their rocket experiments, while the Russians used dogs. Do you know why?

There is a story of when the Russian scientists were thinking about which animal they should use. In the course of their research, they visited a circus animal tamer, who said, “whatever you do, don’t use monkeys, they’re far too sensitive. Here in the circus we have dogs and stray dogs. They deal way better with stress.” So, then they went out looking for stray dogs. They kind of auditioned them more or less. The dogs had to be as small as possible so that the space capsule didn’t have to be built too big. And they had to be good looking too. Laika was particularly good for the newspapers with her pretty face.

You worked with different departments at ARRI on “Space Dogs.” How would you sum up the collaboration?

I had worked with Stefan Duell and Ute Baron from ARRI Rental previously. It’s a personal relationship. We look for and find solutions together. I really like that. ARRI is both sincere and at the same time reliable, which is excellent and makes for a lovely cooperation. That proved to be the case again on “Space Dogs,” with the international ARRI support and the communication with Mandy Rahn. She made it all possible, with ARRI Rental, with the Master Grips, and with postproduction at ARRI Media. We're really happy that everything worked so well.


Watch the video interview with DP Yunus Roy Imer

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