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In a Better World

May 24, 2011 1:44 PM, Jon Silberg

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When cinematographer Morten Søborg and director Susanne Bier began their highly productive collaboration on small Danish productions including Once in a Lifetime and Open Hearts, they probably weren’t thinking in terms of winning Hollywood’s top award, but that is precisely what did happen when their sixth collaboration, In a Better World, won this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The film’s intertwined stories, which take place in a small Danish town and an African refugee camp, concern a disturbed boy’s attempts to lash out violently at perceived injustice and an African warlord seeking medical treatment from victims of his brutal repression.

Photo by Per Arnesen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Though the power of the film comes from the same kind of intimate, interpersonal drama of Bier’s earlier work, the canvas of this newer film is larger, and the filmmakers they left behind the modest DigiBeta and DVCAM of their early, ascetic projects to work with the more robust RED ONE. But, Søborg stresses, their basic approach to visual storytelling has remained the same.

Bier, her collaborator explains, generally wants the actual mechanics of filmmaking to interfere as little as possible with the emotions and truth the actors can bring to each scene. Generally, he is expected to light a space for 360 degrees (or very close to it) so that the actors have the freedom to go wherever the moment takes them. Also, she doesn’t like shooting inserts and sections of scenes, preferring to shoot the entire thing from start to finish, even if she intends to use only a small section of a take. “We might do a scene 15 times or more,” says the cinematographer, “but we will always shoot from beginning to end. I will follow the actors with the camera wherever they go. It can be difficult on the person pulling focus, but it lets the actors really explore their parts, and I think the result always has a feeling of realism.”

Søborg frequently covered scenes with one camera at a time, although he and Bier were perfectly willing to make use of a B-camera so long as its use didn’t cause more problems than it addressed. After a first go at a scene, Bier consults with Søborg. “If she likes, say, the middle of a take more than the start, maybe I will swing the camera to someone else for the beginning and make sure to reshoot the scene the way I did for the section she liked. We always give the editor a lot of options. Nothing is forced into rigid blocking.”

He says both he and the actors can benefit from the freedom afforded them by Bier’s shooting style. Since he never knows exactly where the actors are going to go, he has to be keenly alert to every nuance of the scene. “Each actor approaches the work method differently,” he explains. “Some almost never do what’s unexpected, and some like to test you.”

Photo by Per Arnesen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Much of the film involves two pre-teenage boys played by William Jøhnk Nielsen and Markus Rygaard, the former having had a very small bit of acting experience and the latter in his first role. “It’s always a little scary working with children that age,” the cinematographer says. “You don’t have any idea when you start how much they can act, and the story is so dependent on them. They were very good and we had an excellent coach. Susanne was also very good at helping them and building them up throughout the shoot.”

Søborg appreciated the technical sophistication of the RED camera versus the lower-end gear the two usually use, and notes that its highlight latitude even surprised him a bit. “Outside, we could really hold a nice amount of detail in the sky and the clouds,” he says, “but it’s dangerous to underexpose in tungsten light.”

He also had Danish post house Zentropa apply to all the material a specialized LUT they built to give the colors a bit more saturation and the contrast some additional bite. “I had said I was interested in something that looked almost like the old Kodachrome slide film,” he says, allowing that Kodachrome might have been a bit too extreme a “look” to add. “They came up with something that more resembled the characteristics of Kodak’s 5201 50 daylight stock. Seventy percent of the shots in the film had no grading done beyond the application of this look. That gave us time to work more closely during the final color grading on a few troublesome shots.”

Though Søborg’s lighting package could be called “minimal,” it was more elaborate than those he’d used on previous collaborations with Bier. He lit day interiors with 12K and 6K HMIs from outside. He shot night interiors during the day by heavily NDing windows. “I don’t like to shoot night interiors at night and then light things outside the windows. I think it looks artificial. To me, it looked more natural this way.”

His gaffer also made extensive use of a very small, handheld LED unit that he kept close to the camera during takes. “He would always carry a battery-powered Litepanels Mini, and if I would go in for a close-up, he would go in with the light to add just a little something to the faces.”

Photo by Per Arnesen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The giant Kenya exterior that was the site of the refugee camp had no electricity and the film had no budget to bring in generators. “We had a really good Kenyan team working with 12x12 reflector boards,” the cinematographer recalls, noting that the RED’s sensor was able to handle the contrast of the African sun better than the imagers he’d used on some of Bier’s previous films.

For those who have watched the evolution of these filmmakers’ work, there are definitely more shots here that could be described as aesthetically pleasing, compared to the deliberately rough-hewn work of some of their early projects. But far from taking a bow for some of the sweeping vistas, Søborg maintains that this kind of work is not his primary interest and notes that many of the nature shots were done by a still photography student who was delighted to be given the camera in the earliest part of the day before principal photography commenced.

“In After the Wedding,” Søborg notes, “we did a lot of extreme close-ups—macro shots of an eye or a hand—and I think a lot of these exterior shots here achieve a similar purpose. They add an emotional layer that comments on the story and gives the audience a little time to think.

“Basically,” he sums up, “I am a storyteller. I get my most enjoyment working closely with the actors and emotions.”

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