Peter Zeitlinger, BVK, ASC, speaks about "L’angelo dei muri" ("The Angel in the Wall"), by Lorenzo Bianchini

"Space and Time" by François Reumont
Set almost exclusively in a dilapidated and dark apartment, Lorenzo Bianchini’s L’angelo dei muri (The Angel in the Wall) is a strange story mixing present and past, featuring a lonely old man threatened with eviction and new tenants. The result is particularly evocative of, both in its form and its staging, The others, by Alejandro Amenabar (2001). Austrian cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger was behind the camera on this film with few shots a very decisive choreography between actors and camera. A staging of space above all. (FR)

The Angel in the Wall is the fourth feature film by Italian director Lorenzo Bianchini.
A regular of fantastic atmospheres and horror films, he decided to set his latest film behind closed doors. Peter Zeitlinger, a regular collaborator of German filmmaker Werner Herzog, discusses the first decisions made for this film : "The director Lornzo Bianchini suggested to play the story in the apartment with closed curtains. I said that it is not possible to make a cinematic movie where the exterior world is excluded. We must show gaps to look out, but there was not the budget to go with this idea ! As often is the case in filmmaking, the financial planning usually is first done involving the cast, and then later production solutions are found to actually film the story. Fortunately, my experience in the field of visual effects and compositing allowed us to find these solutions. To tell you the truth, I liked the project so much that I eventually became a co-producer while working on the film... In fact, I was particularly excited at the idea of making a movie full of special effects... with almost zero budget !"

Peter Zeitlinger et Lorenzo Bianchini
Peter Zeitlinger et Lorenzo Bianchini

The first major challenge that had to be resolved was plunging the viewer into the top floors of a building with a view on the rooftops of Trieste from the first minutes of the film.
"Shooting on location in a multi-story apartment was too complicated for us, not to mention the difficulty in finding the location that would suit the script of Fabrizio Bozzetti. As for the solution of recreating everything in studio, that was also out of our reach. That’s why we settled on a simple one-floor villa in the countryside of Friuli, a place which had not been inhabited for years and whose layout was well-suited to the story, and which gave us enough leeway technically to work almost as though we were in a studio." To manage the views from the many windows on the roofs of the city, Peter Zeitlinger proposed a mixed solution : “For all simple views, I decided to call on a friend who owns a printing company and produced huge 6m x 6m laminated prints made from film negatives photographed from the apartment we’d chosen for the film’s few exterior shots.
This classic technique works wonderfully well for daytime scenes. For the more complex shots, in particular those involving movement from inside to outside (or the night views from the windows), we used extraction backdrops. Even Roscolite’s night views option was too expensive for us... We chose blue screen for the night scenes because the color rendering on hair or the set melds more easily into a moonlight effect. Nikolai Huber, a young German cinematographer and VFX artist, supported me on this part of the film, with great talent."

As for the setup and layout of the space on the screen, Peter Zeitlinger insists on how important the floorplan was and, of course, that of the cell Pietro (Pierre Richard) gradually builds to hide himself inside. "This very small space becomes almost a behind-closed-doors space itself behind-closed-doors. It had to both be believable and also allow us leeway in terms of staging and in light so that we could film it. For example, the idea of keeping the small skylight overlooking the roofs, which justified bringing a bit of light into the hiding place. Or the central location of the ’control tower’ the hideout becomes when the old man drills small holes through two facing walls in order to better be able to spy on his new ’roommates’. For these point-of-view shots, which gradually take on greater importance in the film, the design department, for example, reconstructed a fake hole about 15cm in diameter on a small, moveable, synthetic foam board. This accessory allowed us, while filming, to pivot to a given point of view to the left or the right..."

Capture d’écran

"The old man’s line of sight extends even into other rooms, such as the kitchen, because of the fortuitous presence of a mirror that we had the idea of placing at the right place in the living room. The fairly complex floorplan was really one of our challenges on screen, and in our opinion, the viewer had to be able to locate where he or she was at any given moment in the film, whether the camera is in the little girl’s room, the living room, the bathroom, etc."

This is also why the director and the cinematographer opted for long takes rather than for a very cut-up film : "Filming this behind-closed-doors story in a traditional way would have caused the viewer to get lost, explains Peter Zeitlinger. I sincerely think that long takes give substance to the world you are filming. They bring the viewer into the universe of the film, without the artifice of the ’cut’. You know, every cut – even though viewers are accustomed to them – is disorienting. It is then up to your brain to reconstitute the world presented to you. Especially when you’re in a unique place, like in this movie. Also, shooting a long take is a way of following emotions as closely as possible – as the first viewer of the film. Giving rhythm to the story as it is being filmed, and not necessarily giving the editor the reins. Because most of them like to make cuts. It’s their job, after all ! Sometimes even without really asking themselves whether the take needs. I was discussing this again recently with Joe Walker, the editor of Dune, whose work I greatly admire. He confided to me that his method was ’Only cut a take when it really hurts to let it last’. I wish more of his colleagues would take inspiration from his motto."

Asked about his techniques for creating rhythm without necessarily relying on cuts, Peter Zeitlinger explains : "There are a lot of elements on this film which helped me to create a sort of ’internal editing’ of the single shot. First of all, the movement, of course, the pans in particular were a help, as in the first shot of the ’encounter’ at night between the old man and the young girl. Lorenzo insisted a lot on the fact that the film was not to be based on the classics of horror cinema, such as the cuts and the sound effects that make you jump... Also, a kind of ballet between the camera, the actors, the darkness and the focus are what gives rhythm to the shot. The camera rotated 360 °, so we tried to hide as many light sources as possible or to integrate them into the set and, if necessary, we edited out certain hanging light fixtures that inevitably enter the frame. The mood is very dark, but it keeps the child’s point of view as much as possible, as this is the scene that reveals her handicap."

Considering both this desire for fairly complex long takes and the constraint of a very tight budget, Peter Zeitlinger also chose an unusual camera configuration : "I wanted not to have to ask myself too many questions and organize complex decisions regarding the grip equipment in relation to the camera. I really needed a simple, reliable and not-too-expensive system that would allow me to always stay in touch with the actors’ performance, whatever the shot. I therefore chose the DJI Osmo Pro Raw system to shoot the vast majority of the film. I’d already tested it out on Tommaso, by Abel Ferrara. It’s basically an all-in-one solution manufactured by the Chinese brand DJI, which notably also manufactures Ronin drones and stabilizers. It is currently no longer being sold (replaced since its release by the Ronin 4D camera), but it is for me a rather one-in-a-kind tool. First of all, it is equipped with a very efficient stabilization system which allowed me to take all the shots without any other additional means, and, above all, it records internally in Raw DNG format, which offers a grading latitude comparable to market leading cameras. Its only limitations are its sensitivity, which doesn’t go far above 400 ISO, and the size of the sensor (4/3 CMOS) which forces a very large depth of field in short focal length with the few compatible lenses, none of which produces a very bright image. That’s why I sometimes opted for simpler shots on a Blackmagic Pocket 4K camera you can use with brighter and longer lenses - such as the Voigtländer Nokton photo series f/0.95. This second configuration makes it possible to drastically reduce the depth of field and simulate the output of an S35 sensor (the BMP 4K is equipped with a micro 4/3 sensor)."

Capture d’écran

The Angel in the Wall, because of its behind-closed-doors nature features different lighting moods to bring the passage of time and the weather outdoors to the screen. The wind (which plays a premonitory role in the film), or the rain, are often brought to screen through the lighting. This is the case in one of the first nighttime scenes, where Pierre Richard is holed up in his alcove. "This effect is classic," explains Peter Zeitlinger, "but it is very effective. In this static shot in the hiding place, it’s simply water flowing over a window through a closed circuit, with a gutter in the lower part and a simple aquarium pump to generate the patterns. A spotlight was shone through, and there you have it. For other scenes, I also relied on the help of Nikolai Huber by first filming these rain patterns against a neutral background, then incorporating them into computer-generated images on a 3D model of the room. This allowed us, for example, to project it on the floor of the apartment in wide shots because it was impossible to light with such a system as we were shooting..."

Asked about what the most significant takeaways were from this experience, the director of photography answers without hesitation : “I learnt a lot in terms of the creative combination between the camera and digital effects. Although the film was shot with really a very tight budget, we were constantly looking for ways we could bring Lorenzo’s ideas to the screen. Personally, I even found it very refreshing to work in this situation since in my career I’ve worked more often in normal, or even comfortable, budgetary conditions. But on any project, I think limitations fuel creativity. And that’s my takeaway from The Angel in the Wall.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont, and translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe, for the AFC)