Magazine article American Cinematographer

Once upon a Time in Bucharest

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Once upon a Time in Bucharest

Article excerpt

Director of photography Christopher Probst details his award-winning work on the stylish music video for Muse's "Knights of Cydonia."

Every so often, a project comes along that you just can't pass up, and when I read the concept for Muse's "Knights of Cydonia" music video, I knew it was one I had to shoot. Clocking in at more than six minutes, the song is definitely a departure from mainstream radio fare. A cross between Ennio Morricone's Spaghetti Western scores and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," the track stumped many music-video directors. Muse is known for their unconventional approach to both music and videos, so director Joseph Kahn submitted a treatment for "Knights of Cydonia" that featured Barbarella-style warrior women, robots, unicorns, holograms, motorcycles, and a mysterious hero who appears in the guises of a rogue cowboy and masked avenger. The band loved it, but they feared it would cost a million dollars to make.

The solution was the fortuitous discovery of a Western town "backlot" that had been recently erected in Bucharest, Romania, where we could use set pieces left over from the feature Cold Mountain (see AC Jan. '04). The "Knights of Cydonia" video was produced by Richard Weager of HSI London, and he and Kahn were able to take me and Dan Ming, my 1st AC/2nd-unit cinematographer, to Romania to execute the project on a relatively shoestring budget.

Kahn's treatment was rife with visual references to Spaghetti Westerns; cheesy, metaphysical kung-fu flicks of die 1970s; and scifi influences like Buck Rogers, Planet of the Apes and Star Wars. In short, die video is basically a trailer for the kind of schlocky Seventies low-budget movie ostensibly shot in a Soviet-bloc country and funded by shady, arms-dealing producers with misguided ambitions to be movie moguls. When Joseph and I began discussing how the visual design could support that idea, I was quick to pull out my DVD of Once Upon a Ttme in the West, mindful of its bold, widescreen compositions and hard, three-point lighting style. Kahn emphatically agreed, and that film became the launching point for our look.

Once in Romania, we scouted our backlot, as well as an odd geological mud-volcano formation a few hours south of Bucharest that provided a few hundred yards of cracked clay and mud - an ideal desert location. The local crews were experienced not only because of the influx of U.S. features shooting there to save a buck or two, but also because of Romania's lucrative commercials market However, the production imported an excellent English gaffer, Mark Taylor, and production designer, Morgan Kennedy.

Our 2 ½-day schedule began with a half-day load-in and skeleton-crew shoot, which we used to get a running start on our extensive ambitions. This half-day's work comprised the video's opening montage/dressing sequence inside the hero's log cabin. With our hard three-point lighting philosophy firmly in hand, we established a game plan: we would use large HMI units blasting unsoftened light at the characters for exteriors, and more old-school key/fill/kicker lighting for interiors. The cabin set had two small, boarded-up windows that provided source-lighting motivation, and we placed a 6K HMI outside each, sending shafts of slightly cooler daylight dirough die smoked interior. Inside, several 2K and 5K tungsten Fresnels were used to create warm, hard sidelight on the set, where Russell Bain, the actor portraying our nameless "hero," performed some corny kung-fu-style moves for the opening-credit montage.

On the first day of the main shoot, the company moved to the desert location to shoot sequences in which the hero - having been captured, stockaded and humiliated - is thrown out to die. Though graphic and alien-looking, the location was a fairly small geological anomaly amid the verdant Romanian mountains, so we chose angles that would allow us to keep any greenery out of frame. However, because of the site's remote location and the production's tight purse strings, only putt-putt generators could be used; this limited us to HMI units that were 4K or smaller. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.