Stefan Falke is a Brooklyn based German photo-journalist who has worked and traveled extensively for a wide variety of magazines. On top of that he has made himself a name as a stills photographer on big German movie productions, a part of the business I know almost nothing about. So I’m very glad and grateful that Stefan agreed to do an interview with me for The Heavy Light. The movie we’ll be talking about is “Die Buddenbrooks”, an adaptation of the sprawling Thomas Mann novel, directed by Heinrich Breloer.
Dirk Anschütz: Tell me a bit about the Buddenbrooks project. How big was the production?
Stefan Falke: The movie was a big feature film released by Warner Brothers. For a German production it had a very large budget of around $20 million, of course that would be pretty small for the US. The filming was done in the summer of 2007 and the movie was released in late 2008. The director Heinrich Breloer is considered a Thomas Mann specialist, he won an Emmy for his TV series about Thomas Mann and his family “The Manns”.
DA: Did you read the book before the job?
SF: I tried but then I decided to wait for the script. (laughs)
Da: How did you get the job?
SF: I’ve worked with the director before, as well as with the production company Bavaria Film, as well as the distributor Warner Brothers. My initial way into the business was by complete coincidence. An old childhood friend of mine Hermine Huntgeburth became a movie director and asked me to shoot stills on one of her productions in 1996. It was just one of these things in life.
DA: For how long did you work on that movie and how long were your days?
SF: I worked for about 4 months, 5 or 6 days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day. When I started shooting on films, that’s when I thought I really became a professional photographer, because you have to shoot everyday for months. It’s different from a lot of other freelance jobs.
DA: What equipment did you use?
SF: I had 2 Nikons D200. The lens I used the most was a real cheap plasticky Nikkor 18-135 mm f 3.5 to 5.6. I never thought I would use this lens, it just came with one of the cameras but I ended up really liking the range of the zoom. The other lenses I used were a Nikkor ED 28-70mm f 2.8, a 17-35mm f 2.8, an 80-200mm f 2.8, a 300mm f2.8, and an 85mm f1.4 for portrait shots. The lens factor of the camera was 1.5 and changed the focal lengths accordingly. I work out of a backpack on set but it’s easy to store gear and lenses that are not needed on a film set.
DA: Do you shoot with a blimp (a device that muffels the sound of a camera) ?
SF: No, which is rare in the business. There are two aspects of the filming I need to cover: The making- of and the film stills. For the making-of part or if there is a lot of noise in a scene, I don’t really have to cover up the noise my camera makes. For the quite scenes I work like this: During the filming I look for photographically interesting moments during the scene, and when the filming is done I jump in and ask the actors to redo the entire scene or a part of it, while all the lights are still set up. If it’s only a part I give them the sentence they said at the time and they can snap right in. Obviously to do that you have to really get along with the actors, the director and the DP (Director of Photography).
DA: How do you interact with the actors or the director or DP for that matter?
SF: I’m just being myself but as a stills photographer you have to be aware that you’re the only person on the set not involved nor needed in the making of the movie, and many people treat you accordingly in the beginning. I hear there are a lot of tears being shed on movie sets by still photographers (laughs).
Beside being a good photographer this job is really about weaseling your way into a large group of people that have very little time. You work around them, they don’t work around you. I treat a film shoot mostly like a reportage. Even though they pay me, I still want something from them. You also have to be totally decisive in the moment that is your moment, which can be nerve wrecking. You might have to wait around for your moment for 2 or 3 hours and then it’s only going to be there for a very brief time. In that moment you stop a huge machinery, 40, 50 people stop what they’re doing for you to take your pictures, so you have to be decisive about what you want.
DA: How much do you mimic the DP’s vision in your photographs?
SF: The photographs have to look like they’re images from the movie. I try to shoot alongside the camera as much as I can but at other times you have to come from a different angle.
In this picture below the camera crew set up in the speeding carriage to film the actress cradling her husband in despair. There was no room for me in the carriage and I could not ask for a restaging of this scene for my photo. So I asked the DP where exactly they would stop filming and he showed me the spot on the street. I set up a ladder right there to shoot down into the carriage while it was still moving and while the actress was still in the full emotion of the scene. Everything had to be very precise cause the second they stopped rolling film you could see me and my ladder in the frame of the movie camera.
DA: Do you ever work with an assistant?
SF: Almost never. If you shoot the poster, you’ll have an assistant but not on set.
DA: How do you deliver the images?
SF: It depends. For the Buddenbrooks I delivered RAW files and they did the post. But I also gave them my edit as finished jpgs as well. Sometimes they say they will do the post but they don’t always do.
DA: What ASA do you normally shoot on?
SF: I’m usually on 800 (inside scenes always 800, outside 100-400, 800 at night). And let me just say that I love digital. I love digital! It made things so much easier. You don’t have to carry a huge bag with daylight and tungsten film and filters and all that, and shooting with a high ASA is really not a problem anymore.
DA: How is the field changing with movies being shot on HD video? Do you think that a lot of the stills will be pulled straight from the video?
SF: Yeah, that will become a problem. Right now though a lot of the “moving” images are a bit blurry since a lot of them are shot at 1/50th of a second and you still need a photographer for the making-of pictures.
DA: Did you ever shoot video on a job?
SF: Yes, I tried to shoot a making-of video during a film once but had to stop. I could not shoot video and stills at the same time. I’m really an image maker. I want to fill the frame. I’m a stills maker.
DA: Are you a Movie buff?
SF: Pretty much. I normally watch half a movie every day. I usually fall asleep on the couch halfway through.
DA: Do you have a favorite movie?
SF: Well, there are a few, but maybe my favorite one is “The Professional” by Luc Besson with Jean Reno, Gary Oldman and a young Natalie Portman.
DA: Is there a director you would like to work for?
SF: I would like to work with Wim Wenders for the visuals of his films and I would love to work with Werner Herzog. I can really relate to his mixture of fantasy and documentary. Plus he works all the time. I really admire that.
DA: Any concluding tips for working on a movie set?
SF: Don’t think you’re important. I mean, of course you are important, but don’t let it hang out. You have to be really strong and might have to stand up to the director or DP to get your shots, but you have to fit into the team. The best praise I’ve gotten was when at the end of the movie the film people love the pictures but ask when I had taken them.
I see every production as a privilege. If I get the opportunity to get access to these great actors and directors, the job might be difficult, but it’s a privilege.
DA: Stefan, thanks a lot for the interview.
all photos © Warner Bros. Pictures / Bavaria Film / Stefan Falke