Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen discusses her work on Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt”

La Lettre AFC n°225

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Charlotte Bruus Christensen is a Danish cinematographer who completed her studies in England. Upon returning to her native country, she began to work on a number of short films, one of which got her recognized by Thomas Vinterberg who hired her to do his film Submarino in 2009.
Since then, she has signed her name on two other films, Hunky Dory by Welsh director Marc Evans, and Min bedste fende by Danish director Oliver Ussing. Then, Thomas Vinterberg provided her the opportunity to earn her first selection at Cannes with The Hunt.

How did you prepare The Hunt ?

Charlotte Bruus Christensen : Before beginning work on the film, I put together a number of visual references principally based on a number of photos I had gathered on the Internet. That enabled me to determine the ambiance of the main locations such as the forest, the two houses in which most of the action takes place, and the nursery school. Amongst the images I had chosen, I especially remember that there were a number of stills from Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, especially the scenes filmed in the woods. I also had shots from Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander for the inside shots where the very warm light—sometimes based on candlelight—provides an enormous contrast with the bluish light filtering in from the windows—and then I also had The Shawshank Redemption by Frank Darabont, with lighting by Roger Deakins, BSC, ASC.

Your first film as director of photography was also with Thomas Vinterberg (Submarino). Do you feel that there were any links between that film and The Hunt ?

CBC : The links one might identify with Submarino are stylistic and relate to the special way Thomas has of creating an immense proximity with his characters in telling the story. I feel that both films are clearly very cerebral films with a single central character and a very dark storyline…the difference is that in The Hunt, I thought that Thomas tried to begin the film on a lighter note so that he could make an even more radical shift into the tragic when the inexplicable occurs. Whatever the case may be, both films are filmed in a realistic style, like that Danish village had to look like any other village anywhere in the world, and because the viewer had to instantly identify with the character of Lukas played by Mads Mikkelsen.
The image couldn’t be too pretty or too refined…I felt that he wanted this film to be very “down to earth”. In technical terms, that meant that filming took place on all-natural sets with the camera on my shoulder. That, especially, wasn’t very easy for me because I was six months pregnant when filming began. The camera had to be specially rigged so that I could hold the camera but still keep my freedom of movement with my round belly.

How did you do it ?

CBC : Most of the time, I used an Easy Rig, but since it was hard for me to fasten the belt without pressing too hard on my belly, the key grip and I perfected a system to enable us to install the Easy Rig on a dolly. That way, the camera was suspended as it would have been on my shoulder, but the weight was entirely borne by the column.

How did you reinforce the storyline using the film’s imagery ?

CBC : The opening of the film takes place at the end of the autumn and features that season’s very warm tones : the yellowing leaves, the setting sun…It is a very warm atmosphere that slowly changes as the story unfolds. The vivid colours slowly lose their intensity, winter sets in, and a chill can be felt, especially through the natural light filtering in through the windows. We really played with the contrast between the warm interiors and the cold, snowy world outside. All of that was literally in the screenplay which was divided into chapters by month. Because we filmed between November and December 2011, the ambience was naturally there ! The only difficulty was dealing with shooting a film where 75% of the scenes are outdoors with such short periods of daylight…For example, I often used a slightly diffused Softsun for the beginning of the film in order to make sure that the sunlight coming in through the windows remained constant. For the winter scenes, I used HMIs that were reflected and then diffused in order to cheat the very soft natural light that characterizes Danish winters.

Did you use spotlights while filming indoors ?

CBC : From a technical standpoint, Thomas wanted to feel as free as he had on a film like Festen. Of course we weren’t going to go back to the very restrictive principles of the “Dogma,” but we nonetheless wanted to approximate that sort of image. For example, we had to be able to film from any axis except for a small blind spot without loading down the set with a technical grid and spotlights. So set up for me only involved in making sure light came in from outside. Then I had to adjust and dose the contrast using reflectors or secondary light sources.
Because of the camera’s sensitivity, I also used a lot of black fabric to make sure there were some dark areas in spite of the white walls, and I almost always based myself around the light that came in through the windows. What was magical for me was to watch an actor like Mads Mikkelsen at work, because he is able to integrate the minimalistic set up into his acting and make the most out of these documentary-like conditions. I must also recognize the immense talent of our seven-year old actress who literally carries the entire film on her shoulders.

What camera equipment did you choose ?

CBC : As concerns the camera, given the limited number of spotlights and Thomas’ wish to film in an almost documentary-like style, we first thought we would film on 35mm. But we didn’t have the budget for it. The Alexa took the place of a 35mm camera, and I had to adapt my style to that device. As far as lenses are concerned, I wanted to film with Cooke S2 lenses, but the sensitivity of the sensor to the colour red and the lack of uniformity within that series made me change my mind. After a couple of tests, I chose to film with the new Cooke Panchros, a series of lenses that reproduces a soft “vintage” feeling and that only open at 2.8. As I was saying, Thomas Vinterberg is very close to his characters, and the number one priority for me in terms of lighting was enhancing faces and eyes.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC and translated from French by Alex Raiffe)