Magazine article American Cinematographer

I A Dark Chapter in German History

Magazine article American Cinematographer

I A Dark Chapter in German History

Article excerpt

Directed by Brian Percival and shot by Florian Ballhaus, ASC, The Book Thief focuses on 11-year-old Liesl (Sophie Nélisse), who is sent to a small German village during World War II to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). Liesl arrives with a book she has stolen, even though she is illiterate. When Hans teaches her to read, she discovers the power of words to nourish and heal the soul.

For Ballhaus, who moved to the United States from Germany when he was 19, The Book Thief was an especially meaningful project. "It's always very moving for a German to do a movie about World War II," he says, "and this one was even more personal for me because my parents were of Liesl's generation, and they also grew up in a small town." (Ballhaus is the son of veteran cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, ASC, BVK.)

American Cinématographer. What look and fed were you and Perdval aiming for?

Florian Ballhaus, ASC The novel [by Marcus Zusak], which is narrated by Death, moves back-and-forth in time, but the structure of the screenplay was instead quite linear. We wanted the audience to be emotionally engaged with Liesl as quickly as possible, so we decided to film it almost exclusively from her perspective. Experiencing civilian life during World War II through the eyes of a young girl meant we had to resist the drab, desaturated images of wartime that are so common. Instead, we chose to follow the book's lead and present these terrible times with the imaginative perspective of a child. As Zusak does in the novel, we used color to suggest the emotional temperature of the scenes; that was very important. We also knew from the start we wanted this to be a widescreen movie. We considered anamorphic, but I felt that look was too modern for the time period. We instead chose Leica Summilux-C [18mm to 100mm] primes, which are beautiful and magical, especially when you shoot fairly wide open, and Angenieux Optimo zooms, a 4:1 and a 12:1.

Why did you choose the Arri Alexa?

Ballhaus: We considered shooting on film because this is a historical movie, and we didn't want the extremely clean look you get with digital. However, we also didn't want to give up the advantages of digital, particularly the ability to do long takes, which is useful with child actors. I also appreciate having the ability to do onset grading; I try to set the look with the DIT and keep it the same all the way through. We did tests with the Alexa and found that by adding grain [in post], we could create something similar to the look of film. Also, the Leicas' focus fall-off at T2.0 gave us some added texture. We wanted to record in ArriRaw, and German productions usually use ProRes, so I brought over [DIT] Dan Carling from England. We had worked together on two previous films, and he understood exactly what ArriRaw entailed. We started shooting with the Alexa, and halfway through production, the Alexa XT came out, and we were able to use one of those as a third camera on the latter half of the shoot. The XT is easier to work with because it has built-in ArriRaw recording.

How did you do the shot in the opening sequence where the camera swoops down on the speeding train. enters the train compartment as if through the roof, and floats through the car before finally settling on Liesl?

Ballhaus: We built the train car, put overhead tracks inside, and attached a small jib arm and a stabilized remote head that allowed us to float over the heads of the passengers and move around the car very freely.

Was the Hubermanns' three-story house built as a single set?

Ballhaus: Originally the basement and first floor were to be one set, but I felt that would complicate shooting on the main floor because it would be so high off the ground. So instead, three separate sets were built. Production designer Simon Elliott did a terrific job. Although those sets were some of the smallest I've worked in, they had a very open layout, with doors and a hallway helping to create a sense of depth. …

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