Cinematographer Niels Thastum, DFF, discusses his work on Jonas Alexander Arnby’s film "When Animals Dream"

[ English ] [ français ]

Niels Thastum, DFF, is a Danish cinematographer who graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in Copenhagen in 2009. He works on documentaries, advertisements, and music videos, notably alongside photographer-director Casper Balslev. When Animals Dream is his first experience working on a feature-length film, directed by his fellow Dane, director Jonas Alexander Arnby. (FR)

What was your reaction when you read the screenplay?

Niels Thastum : The script was breath-taking... I read it in one sitting, very rapidly. Even though the film is full of werewolves, I never saw it as a werewolf movie in the classic sense of what that word implies, such as John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, or The Howling, by Joe Dante. When Animals Dream is first and foremost the portrait of a sixteen-year-old girl.
It is a film about transformation in general… the transformation from adolescence to adulthood… Something inevitable that forces her to say goodbye to the world of childhood and navigate new codes of behaviour and new responsibilities.

Did you have any images that came to mind that you shared with the director?

NT: I had already worked with Jonas on other short projects and we learned to communicate with one another with a shared visual language. Some of our influences were the work of American photographer Todd Hido. His night photos of houses or apartments with their windows literally exploding with light due to the long exposure. I tried to reproduce that effect in the movie by purposely exaggerating the amount of light inside the house so that their windows would really stand out in the scenes we shot at twilight or at night. The light literally sprays the street or the garden from the windows of the buildings… It’s rather as though the human life inside was pouring out into the outside…
The entire project depends on a rereading of the werewolf myth, meaning it is a fantasy film, but one which distances itself from the genre in its form and in its meaning. It had to be absolutely believable from the get-go, which is exactly why there are not shots of the full moon…or any of the other gimmicks often found in classic horror movies!
For example, we played with shadow a lot, but we tried to make it look as natural as possible. In the little village where the story takes place, we hardly modified or strengthened the public lighting at all; we always kept dark areas so that the action could take place inside of them…
Even in daylight scenes, there is always shadow in one place or another… I am thinking specifically of the scene in a WWII bunker, which is a good example of our approach. The actors provided the lighting themselves with their torches, and we didn’t add any spots.

At what time of year did you shoot the film?

NT: The film was shot in September and October. This is an in-between season in Denmark that allowed us to have longer nights than in the summer, while benefitting from beautiful sunsets with long shadows at the end of the day… I think that you really feel the change from summer to autumn over the course of the film, exactly as Jonas had intended in the script.
The idea was for the image to be as organic as possible and to follow the story and the sets naturally. The film was shot over the course of six weeks, and I spent a few weekends taking establishing shots all by myself in order to have as much material as possible during the final cut and take fullest advantage of the scenery.

In what region of Denmark was it shot?

NT: The film was almost entirely shot on the west coast of Denmark, in a rather wild, well-preserved region, that doesn’t much resemble the rest of the country. The landscape is more jagged, with a raw feel to it, as though it hadn’t been touched by man… I myself am from that region, and that helped me to find inspiration from the setting for the story.
The village where we filmed is full of sadness, in my opinion. They’ve got that fishery, and nothing else. That feel was capital for the story’s context, and for the main character’s own story. Only the scene of the boat in the mist was filmed later in Copenhagen, near a dock, with the help of special effects for the final result.

What camera equipment did you use?

NT: The film was shot with an Arri Alexa Plus, with two Cooke S2 and S3 series lenses, which helped us impart a bit of a “vintage” feeling to the final image. The advantage of those lenses is that you can get really nice flares if you want at full aperture, or instead obtain a very crisp image if you stop down a bit.
At the end of filming, rereading the script, I realized that a bit more than half of it had been shot at a 40mm focal length, which I find to be ideal for filming actors in a variety of situations. It gives it a slightly tighter feel than 35mm on the faces, while keeping the set and the environment clearly distinguishable.

The film was recorded using ProRes for budgetary reasons (developing and storing Raw was too onerous). Personally, I would have loved to use actual film stock, but our budget didn’t allow that.
With nearly twenty-two shots per day, we had to work fast… Letting the camera just roll so that we could get what Jonas wanted out of the actors was also sometimes important.

What about lighting?

NT: I mainly used Arri M90-40-18Ks for the daylight effects, either filtered or in reflection. For nights, I used Japanese lanterns in order to reinforce the light that came from props on set, which were numerous in this movie. I always tried to build the lighting out of existing light sources, in order to prioritize a natural feeling.

What scene was hardest?

NT: The scene of the first attack, which was shot in day-for-night, was quite complex. For example, the blood looked black during editing… You’ve got to choose the correct dosage of dye so that it remains credible. Besides that, even though the film doesn’t have any full moon shots, there are still scenes of humans transforming into wolves that weren’t easy to pull off. Because the concern for realism in the staging, some of them were master shots with complex special effects between peelings on mannequins that were filmed separately on the same axis and then played back in reverse, and that were then later incrusted into the master shot with the actress.
All of that was done in order to avoid the classic “cut” on the close up with hairs growing… The digital effects team added layers of effects on the peelings generated from “puppets”.

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