DP ROBBY MULLER EXPLORES DIGITAL VIDEO FOR A MUSICAL MELODRAMA
Robby Muller marked a milestone on Dancer in the Dark, his first film shot in digital video (DV). Muller receives a director of photography credit on Lars von Trier's latest experimental feature, which won the Palme D'Or at the most recent Cannes Film Festival and went on to open the New York Film Festival in September. But the German DP, whose international renown derives from long-running collaborations with the likes of Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, says that on Dancer in the Dark, "I couldn't do very much, in a sense; it was never complicated lighting, as we know it."
The shoot was complicated in other ways, however. Von Trier, who co-patented the no-frills Dogma 95 manifesto that yielded such films as The Celebration, Mifune, and his own The Idiots, applied a somewhat different approach to Dancer in the Dark, a musical melodrama set in 1960s rural Washington State. Bjork, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes, plays Selma, a Czech immigrant factory worker and single mother who's gradually going blind; her 10-year-old son is afflicted by the same condition, and Selma is storing money away in her trailer to get the boy a vision-saving operation. Oh, and in her spare time, she's playing Maria in a community theatre production of The Sound of Music.
Music is Selma's passion, and periodically she transports herself into reveries of song and dance, with the former composed by Bjork and the latter choreographed by Vincent Paterson. During these sequences, von Trier tips his hat to the Hollywood musical, but from a Dogma-influenced place. "He didn't want to put too heavy a weight on the dance scenes, as you see them in musicals, where everything changes and new props come in," says Muller of the director. "He wanted to use just the props that were there." Thus, in a factory number, Bjork, co-star Catherine Deneuve, and the ensemble whirl around with tools and are accompanied by the percussive sounds of machinery. "The people weren't meant to dance beautifully - it was her fantasy, and it was an imperfect fantasy," says the cinematographer.
What this meant was that the visual style of the musical scenes, while distinct from the "storytelling" scenes, was of a piece with them. The major difference during production: On the normal dramatic scenes, there was just one camera, operated in largely handheld fashion by von Trier himself; the musical reveries, on the other hand, were shot with 100 stationary Sony PD100 cameras, give or take a few. "Some sets were used for normal A camera, and the same set was then used with the 100 cameras," says Muller. But between these modes, he adds, "Lars didn't want any lights changed, so they could go seamlessly over into a dance scene."
With so many cameras pointing in every conceivable direction, lighting instruments were necessarily sparse. But that generally worked out well in the DV format. "When you start with DV, you must never try to think 35mm, because then you are on the wrong road," says Muller. "You must take into account the properties of DV, and develop the things than can help you, like depth of focus. It lets you take in scenes and people in the background. The image is not perfect, but it has a certain quality to it, and it's softer and rather forgiving; you don't need the super-extra-special lighting of mainstream films. With the depth of focus and no fill light, you can discover the qualities of the image as such - which you tend to forget in the normal routine."
The DP says his greatest support on Dancer in the Dark came from Kino Flos - whose use he helped popularize back in the 1980s - and some Dedolights. "My biggest light ever was, I think, a 10k fresnel, which I used for a big spread in the factory parking lot," he says. Though set in the Pacific Northwest, the film was entirely shot in Sweden, since von Trier is famously averse to air travel. In addition to the factory, which was created inside an old military compound, major sets included Selma's trailer, which was fabricated for the film, and her landlord's house, a modified location. "In houses, you always have the possibility of the ceiling," Muller says. "I don't like toppy light, so I try to avoid it, but sometimes it was unavoidable. I used mostly Kino Flos, and when I wanted to keep the light from beaming down on people walking under it, I would put up a grate and throw it towards the window or farther away.
"There were not so many lights, because I wasn't always sure if it was just going to be one storytelling camera, or many in one room, all looking at each other," he continues. In other sets for the film, including the factory, a courtroom, and harshly lit penitentiary, Muller relied almost entirely on visible practical sources. "I like to use not too much light anyway," he says. "That has to do with the way I like to look. When you work, you try to get momentum, to work steady and focused. I like to light scenes as a whole, so wherever the actor goes in a room, I have only to do a little touch-up, and I'm ready. It gives a heartbeat to it."
When Muller joined the production, he says, "I went to a lot of meetings, saw the models of the sets or the sets themselves, looked at the plans, and looked for where my chances were." But planning was already well underway. Von Trier worked with technical director Peter Hjorth, camera department head Edvard Friis-Moller, and production coordinator Charlotte Kirkeby to gather the PD100s and have them fitted with special anamorphic lenses. Another major player was dance director Paterson, who not only choreographed the musical sequences but oversaw the camera operation. "After observing the completed choreography, Lars would formulate a `concept' for the 100 cameras in each individual scene," explains Paterson in the film's production notes. "Lars and a small crew of us would then walk each location or set and discuss the placement of the 100 cameras based on the choreography created for that space."
All of the cameras were mounted and linked via cable to a central technical base, christened "Zonja" by the crew. Paterson framed each of the cameras to optimally capture his choreography, and von Trier and Muller would "fine-tune" their placement and framing. The dance sequences were then shot beginning to end in one take, affording the director 100 perspectives on a single number (and an opportunity to edit in frenzied MTV style). In addition to von Trier, camera operators included such noted DPs as Jan Weincke and Anthony Dod Mantle, cinematographer of several Dogma films.
Of course, the cameras not only couldn't catch any film lights in the frame, they couldn't see each other. This presented a particular challenge in the courtroom, where a big dance number involving Joel Grey among other performers takes place. "There were four flat walls pointing at each other," says Muller. "And of course, Lars von Trier wants to see 360, as well as the ceiling and floor." The set contained small viewing portals for all the cameras, little black holes that were digitally removed in post. With a picture originating in DV, the removal process was that much easier.
Muller's role on the musical sequences expanded during postproduction, when he settled in at Wave, a facility in Copenhagen. "It was fun doing timing with a huge computer behind you; it was new to me," he says. "The sky was the limit, although I didn't change that much." The primary work involved giving the musical sequences an added vibrancy and an extra ping of light, in contrast to the straight dramatic scenes, which appear quite muted, though no filtering was done during production. "The PD100s had a tendency to be more colorful than the storytelling camera, which was bigger and had a slightly different system," says the DP. "It was my idea to touch up the musical scenes a little bit more. Sometimes they came out brighter and more colorful than I actually meant, but that was just getting used to the system."
After his experience with Dancer in the Dark, Muller has worked some more with digital video, though nothing to inspire him in the manner of a von Trier project. "I've gotten wise now concerning DV," he says. "You must always ask, `why are you shooting it?' Is it simply because they want to shoot a lot, a lot, a lot? Or do they want to use the mobility of the camera as a storytelling element? Or to have direct access to digital post work and special effects? It's good to know." On a recent film that he's loath to name, the DP says, "the director used me as a kind of dolly and overpaid tripod. Those cameras weigh nothing, so you don't get tired, you can shoot half an hour if you want to. Not having a plan, you just shoot a lot and then you glue it together and you have a film.
"But it's part of Lars von Trier's vision to use the mobile camera," Muller continues. "A 35mm camera was not the tool for Dancer in the Dark; it would have restricted the director's vocabulary enormously." The cinematographer became accustomed to von Trier's unconventional methodology while shooting Breaking the Waves, an anamorphic feature largely photographed with a handheld 35mm camera. And though he didn't work on any of the Dogma films, he says they remind him of his beginnings, of Wenders projects like Alabama: 2000 Light Years and The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick - "no lights, no special costumes, 16 mil, a little handheld camera."
With DV, says Muller, "it's the time to experiment. Soon, it will look like 35, and then we're at point zero." Indeed, Dancer in the Dark was shot in the high-resolution PAL format, which results in a better image than usual on a video-to-film transfer. Of course, point zero is where Lars von Trier apparently likes to be. "It's like he said to me on Breaking the Waves," Muller recalls. "It's about being innocent again with the way you look."