May 31, 2018

Ingmar Bergman – A year in a Life (Ett år, ett liv)

After its world premiere at Cannes Film festival (which was AMAZING) and the subsequent red carpet premiere in Stockholm, the Ingmar Bergman documentary is finally out in Swedish theatres! The day of its Swedish premiere marks exactly 100 years since Mr. Bergman was born and I do hope that he will appreciate this film spiritually, from above or beneath (depending on whether you put your trust in religion or science). It’s been almost three years since director Jane Magnusson and I recorded the first interview with Kenne Fant in southern France, and from there on we continued interviewing some of those friends, relatives, and colleagues of Mr. Bergman that are still alive today, resulting in 56 interviews!

When I was asked to do this job I knew my main focus would be filming the interviews, and I wanted to find a way to give a congruous and consistent look to the film, even though we would be recording all these people in various countries and surroundings. I was aiming for quite an abstract, indistinct background blurred by shallow DoF. Since many of the subjects for our interviews are aged between 70 and 85, the lightning setup was of great importance. With the right light, an experienced (i.e. old) face can be strikingly beautiful – and after the initial tests, I realized I wanted a really soft key light. So I ended up using a LitePanel Astra, mounted in a big DoPchoice softbox with eggcrate. As backlight, I would generally use another one or two LitePanels mounted in softboxes or fitted with a piece of diffusive cloth. No hard lights at all. We filmed everything with a Sony F55 fitted with a Canon 30-105mm CN-E lens, usually set around 90-100mm and T2.8.

The next challenge was making the interviews look different from all other interviews you see on TV and film. I came up with a pretty wild idea and shot a few takes. The director and producers loved it and gave me the go-ahead. The idea was basically to hang eight to ten rectangular panels of transparent plexiglass between the interviewee and the background. I then made these panels rotate slowly, creating a subtle abstraction by casting an array of blurred reflections in the background. I wanted a sense of implied movement, so subtle you could barely notice it and never too obvious since it pulls away the focus from the interviewee. I figured something very abstract would do it.

There was never a budget for this, so I decided to get some cheap disco ball motors that I ended up attaching to a metal frame. The problem, however, was that these motors rotated too fast. I tried lowering the voltage, but in the end this solution proved not only too heavy for transport, but it also created too much noise. Hence, I arrived at the conclusion we all arrive at when we run out of ideas: LEGO!

I had made use of LEGO on a few occasions before, when I needed a cheap solution for a rotating plate for pack shots etc, so I was well aware of how awesome it is. And by using ten sets of LEGO cranes I managed to construct a little device where the rotation speed may be reduced by using gears. But as the final construction stood mounted in front of me, a three-meter-wide metal frame fitted with disco ball motors and plexiglass panels attached to LEGO constructions, I realized… this would be tricky travelling the world with it, having to rig and de-rig it about 50 times! But with the help of my awesome colleagues and a few tubes of superglue we made it! The plexiglass panels were mounted behind every person we interviewed, and quite honestly, it proved to be a good ice-breaker between the director and the interviewee. What was once just a crazy idea had become a reality!

However. A couple of months into production we had a look at some of the footage and felt it was still rotating too fast. And when we started the final editing process I realized that the parts where the interviewee is seen on-screen are very short. I had predicted ten to fifteen seconds, but most parts only last four to five seconds. With longer parts the audience would have gotten used to the subject and framing, and any minor change to the background could have worked. But the way it looked now… it was actually rather irritating. My biggest fear! What was once just a crazy idea had become a reality and it looked like shit!!

So I had to fix it myself. When the editing was done I decided to export every single interview part featured in both the movie and the four episodes made for TV (a total of 521 clips) and import them into After Effects where I masked out the person and changed the background speed some 20-40 %. I then exported everything back into the project. This took me 21 working days, but the result was nothing short of amazing. It looked just as if it had been filmed without any rotating plexiglass in the background!!

Oh, well. As cinematographer you need a lot of ambition and ideas, but you also need the mental strength to deal with the fact that a lot of the effort you put in will never make the final cut. The only thing that counts is the end result. It doesn’t matter how much time or money you have spent on an idea, if it doesn’t work in the editing room, let’s just kill that darling.

And now? Well, at least I’ve got a lot of LEGO for my future children.  

Production details:
Director: Jane Magnusson
Director of Photography: Emil Klang FSF
Editor: Hanna Lejonqvist SFK
Story Editor: Henrik von Sydow
Music: Jonas Beckman and Lars Kumlin
Research: Isabel Andersson, Linnea Vikengren
Editor’s assistant: Johanna Joona, Alicia Lundahl
Koordinator: Erik Galli
PA: Shajan Kozegary
Colorist: Sebastien Guest
Producers: Cecilia Nessen, Fredrik Heinig, Mattias Nohrborg