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DoP Peter Zeitlinger: the ‘dark side’ of <br class="br_visual" />digital filmmaking

DoP Peter Zeitlinger: the ‘dark side’ of
digital filmmaking

© Cécile Mella

April 2015

Legendary cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger is well known for his work with the directors Werner Herzog, Ulrich Seidl and Gotz Spielmann. CPN reporter James Morris met Peter Zeitlinger during the 2015 Berlin Film Festival – where the most recent feature film he shot for Werner Herzog, ‘Queen of the Desert’, was competing for a Golden Bear – to discuss his views on digital cinematography, how Canon has democratised digital filmmaking and much more...

Although he is most famous for his classically epic capturing of natural landscapes, Peter Zeitlinger claims that the digital SLR filmmaking revolution has noticeably affected his shooting style. “When Canon started with this marvellous technology for democratising the world of filmmaking, they made it possible, with much less money, for people to create their dreams,” explains Zeitlinger. “At that time the TV networks, especially in Germany, refused the compressed footage. Nowadays they have changed, and the compression and the codecs got better. This ‘Canon world’ influenced my work as well because I'm seeing a lot of first films from creative people and also from students.”

He adds: “The possibility of the big sensor, and the possibility of using cinematic lenses; this really changed aesthetics. It changed the beauty and the look of the cheap films; non-studio films, independent films. This influenced me and I tried to imitate these elements, which were done with the Canon technology. But I did it with bigger cameras, and when I was still shooting on film, to recreate this kind of ‘Canon look’.”

Of the DSLR filmmaking revolution – sparked by the EOS 5D Mark II (above) – Peter Zeitlinger says: “When Canon started with this marvellous technology for democratising the world of filmmaking, they made it possible for people to create their dreams.”

The ‘dark side’ of digital

However, Zeitlinger's attitude towards the digital filmmaking revolution is ambivalent. He doesn't use digital film cameras begrudgingly and he is highly enthusiastic about the positive things they have done for creative flexibility. But he is also wary of the negative impact digital cinematography can have as well...

He notes: “Like every great invention, it always has a dark side. This is not particularly the ‘Canon effect’ – this is all digital and video technology. The moment when you started to see, immediately, the image that you were creating… this was the start of a very big disaster and destruction of the inner image and the inner vision, which you had to create with old technology on film, when you did not see what you did straight away. You had to see it in your mind. You had to create all [of] the world on the screen in your mind first; then shoot it, then everybody else did not know how it would be. But, nowadays, you look on the screen and this destroys the inner vision; and everything that constitutes creative visual work is becoming very hard.”

This much more immediate "feedback loop" that is possible with digital filmmaking is seen as a key problem by Zeitlinger. “The ‘feedback loop’ is actually a shortcut. The tension that you can create by making something important or touching or beautiful; you have this tension between what is there and what is meant by it – the text and the sub-text, the world and the sub-world. When you make a shortcut the battery is empty. We have to find tricks; we have to train ourselves – our minds and our vision – to trick ourselves to keep this tension, without making this ‘feedback loop’ into a shortcut. This flattening is the ‘dark side’ of digital technology. The good side is that it's a democratisation and a revolution, because everybody can express him or herself in images and stories. Well, not everybody, but people from industrialised countries, at least.”

© Cécile Mella

Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger pictured onstage during his talk, ‘Measuring Space’, at the 2015 Berlinale Talents event in Berlin, Germany, February 2015.

Zeitlinger has developed strategies to combat the negative effect of this ‘feedback loop’, as he explains: “With a director like Werner Herzog, who has one of the great inner eyes in filmmaking, he ignores the shallowness of looking. In his process he forbids people from watching the screen and also he, himself, doesn't watch the screen. He keeps all this technology out of his set. The screen is only for the Digital Image Technician, or an assistant checking the technical quality – focus, etc. So we use the advantages, but try to keep back the loop of feedback. Werner is such a great soul, and he trusts completely in what I am doing, so he just asks me if it was OK, and if I say so he trusts me. I hope that he will never be disappointed!”

Peter Zeitlinger tends to choose his shooting format around the distribution deal, but in the case of the movie ‘Queen of the Desert’ this was not in place at the time of production… “So we chose the biggest resolution possible, all the shooting and post-production at 4K or more. Shooting was in 5K or 6K, post-production and effects in 4K. The widescreen format was also chosen by the epic scenery.”

He reveals: “I was aware that when we distribute on smaller formats, maybe we would have to change the framing by ‘pan and scan’. But then Werner [Herzog] and I would have control over which part of the image we would choose that would still transport the visual message inside.” However, Zeitlinger is also ambivalent about how shooting at a higher resolution than you will be distributing in allows the opportunity for reframing, because this can also conflict with the ‘inner eye’.

Creating darkness with light

In his onstage Berlinale Talents 2015 talk, ‘Measuring Space’, Peter Zeitlinger pinpointed a difference between film and TV in how the two media use light, revolving around the viewing context. With film, the dark viewing context means that the screen can also be fully dark, with just the subject matter brightly lit. With TV, at least during the era of glass-fronted CRT televisions, a well-lit viewing context would mean reflections could be distracting. So TV needed to be much more generally bright. However, we discussed whether the era of the HDTV flatscreen with a matt finish meant that TV could be much more cinematic nowadays...

Zeitlinger notes: “The good TV productions, and even internet Netflix productions, that look very cinematic, are because they start to trust that people have bigger screens. The screen has gotten closer to the visual impression of a cinema screen. But you still have to keep the audience from changing channel, or a story that allows for that, by somehow repeating things so the viewer can pick up halfway through. Cinema does not have to do this. It has its own arc of storytelling.”

He also provides an important insight about how lighting styles have changed in the digital filmmaking era, drawing from his experiences in the seminars he held for the 2015 Berlinale Talents programme. “The sensitivity has a significant effect. I was astonished by the Canon cameras [the C300 and C500] we have been using with the Berlinale Talents; when we turned off the lights and hoped it would be dark, it was not! So now you can create darkness, but only by light. You cannot create darkness by just turning off the light because the camera will still capture the scene. You have to use more light to create the contrast to get the rest of the image dark. This is the new challenge for thinking, that you have this reverse psychology. To create darkness, you need more light! It's a paradox.”

Of the EOS C300 and C500 cameras in the Cinema EOS System Peter Zeitlinger says: “I was astonished by the Canon cameras we have been using with the Berlinale Talents; when we turned off the lights and hoped it would be dark, it was not! So now you can create darkness, but only by light.”

“This even started in the 1980s, when I began to film," he continues. "The film stock began to become very sensitive. They came up with a new stock with 500 ASA. There, already, I started to use 50 ASA film for night shots, to be able to get darkness. Even with this 500 ASA film stock, which is not as good as the Canon cameras now, it was not possible to get dark, mysterious images. So I used 50 ASA, which we can now do very easily with digital equipment. We stop down, or put the ISO down, or put the ND filter on. But then we need light again. To make beautiful things we need to introduce much more light again.”

With the Canon Log Gamma feature – which allows neutral image quality with subdued contrast and sharpness for a wider dynamic range (up to 800% or 12 stops of latitude) and maximum freedom in post-production editing and processing – Peter Zeitlinger also advises caution, particularly regarding how much control it gives to the gamma range you can use in your final grade. “If you're conscious about it, this can be really good. But you can also involve too many people who are conscious about how it could look, who put in their opinion. Especially producers! If they have some scenery, and they have put in some money for this, and now you turn something black because the image is more intense, and the story is more mysterious, they ask for it to be brighter because they can't see all the stuff they paid for!”

He adds: “When it was cut by nature, or the print you chose, then it was technically given. Now the producer can come to the grading room, let the guy turn the button, and he sees everything. This is the problem we have to deal with. It's much more a group psychological dynamic problem we have to solve. But technically it's all wonderful, beautiful! When I decide for myself, it's the greatest thing to have all the possibilities.”

Optical choices

Zeitlinger used Canon lenses on director Ariel Zeitoun's 2013 film ‘Angelique’, but his choice of optics depends on the project and director. “Werner [Herzog] is a director who doesn't like the soft look, or anything that you call a ‘look’. He doesn't like flares; he doesn't like all these things that seem to be disturbing. You cannot make a real rule out of this, but when I work with Werner I will choose sharper lenses. We used Cooke lenses for ‘Bad Lieutenant’. Cooke lenses have a very round, very beautiful look.”

For ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ Zeitlinger even found security camera lenses provided a more suitable sharpness, albeit losing quality in other aspects. He notes: “Usually you don't need the sharpness in the edges. It's rather more disturbing when the image is sharp everywhere. You're at least trying to get shallow depth-of-field. The technically bad lenses, let's say, help you sometimes to make this illusion. There is a company in Germany, Vantage, and they are experimenting a lot with old technologies, with uncoated lenses, and this is something that brings a lot of beauty into the image. Dirt is also natural. When you look into the sun with the naked eye you don't see a clear image, you always see flares. This is natural.”

© Cécile Mella

Peter Zeitlinger pictured during the 2015 Berlin Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, February 2015.

He adds: “When you make a technical reproduction of the world with a clean, clean lens, without any flares, then it looks naked, like a hotel foyer! But the digital workflow uses more and more amusing effects, like exchanging sky or getting a deeper expression in the clouds, or even to clean up the set to make it more intense. I have used digital effects to create flares and lens distortions, although not on Werner Herzog films, to make it more analogue and human."

Even the ability to ‘run and gun’ with lightweight digital cinema cameras, to catch opportune moments, is not seen as an entirely positive development by Zeitlinger. “You have to focus; you have to create the image that expresses what you need from the story – the scene, the character, the set, the location. It's a composition. When you shoot randomly, or whatever, it's like doing music, and every musician would do something different and it will never become a concerto or an opera. It's noise. What people are doing with this is visual noise. It's a big necessity to escape this visual noise, to fight the randomness that is the biggest enemy of creativity.”

However, Peter Zeitlinger is still very much a digital filmmaker and, overall, he is positive about what the technology has brought to film. “The democratisation of digital cinema technology is an emancipation. It's no longer only a few people who hold the camera and are in [the position of] power to express themselves. You see what you get; you are in control from the beginning. This is the good thing. But there is always the ‘dark side’. You have to learn to deal with the dark side and keep the dark side away, and use the good stuff. That's the basic natural law. When you do something great, then you have to control the dark side!”

Biography: Peter Zeitlinger

Peter Zeitlinger

Peter Zeitlinger is an Austrian cinematographer with an illustrious career in film and TV features. He has shot 13 films with legendary director Werner Herzog, including ‘Grizzly Man’, ‘Encounters at the End of the World’, ‘The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’, ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ and ‘Into the Abyss’, which won the British Film Institute's Best Documentary in 2011. Most recently, he was Director of Photography on Herzog’s ‘Queen of the Desert’. He has shot six features with Gotz Spielmann and three with Ulrich Seidl. He has won five Best Cinematography accolades, including two Romy TV awards and one German Cinematography Award, and ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ was nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 2009. He is currently working on a new film with Werner Herzog, which will involve volcanoes.