Til Schweiger shoots an emotional action drama with the ARRI ALEXA

Production of Til Schweiger's Guardians got underway in late January 2012. It is the first action drama from the co-author, lead actor, producer and director whose comedies (Keinohrhasen, Zweiohrküken and Kokowääh) broke records at the German box office. Schweiger plays Max Fischer, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan as a member of an elite German military unit. Upon his return he joins a special police unit and finds himself in charge of protecting Nina, a 15-year-old orphan and the only witness to a brutal murder. Nina is played by Luna Schweiger, who takes the female lead opposite her father, just as she did in Phantomschmerz.

The film was produced by Schweiger and Tom Zickler under their Barefoot Films banner; ARRI Rental Berlin provided the camera equipment for the 45-day shoot, which took place in and around Berlin and Brighton. VisionARRI spoke to cinematographer Adrian Cranage about shooting with the ALEXA and new ALEXA M because Schutzengel marks Schweiger’s  first foray not only into a different genre, but also into the world of digital film production.

According to the DP, the ARRI ALEXA delivered a stunning performance, proving to be robust and reliable during complex action sequences and impressing with its unmatched light sensitivity during night shoots and its incredible high speed function. Meanwhile the compact ALEXA M guaranteed ALEXA quality when filming in the most constricted spaces.

Robust and reliable

During action scenes, which by their nature are expensive and time consuming, camera equipment must function properly once the director says ‘action.’ Schutzengel includes five extensive action sequences, during which the ALEXA was put to the test. Cranage recalls one scene in particular in which a paramilitary unit storms a compromised safe house. The main character, Max, fights off the attackers but loses two of his partners in the blaze of gunfire. This sequence was meticulously planned and choreographed with the help of an expert from a special forces unit and a total of 40 people were on set during the scene. The special effects team spent two days preparing the set, placing squibs (small charges that simulate bullet hits) and timing the gunshots and explosions. During lengthy rehearsals actors, stuntmen and the special effects team blocked the entire sequence and conducted several run-throughs. On the actual day of shooting the team filmed the action twice without gunfire and explosions before ‘going hot.’ Since the safe house was to be completely destroyed during the actual take, it was absolutely crucial that nothing went wrong. Rebuilding the set and additional special effects preparations were, for budgetary and time reasons, out of the question.

The complex arrangement was shot with five ALEXAs. Four, with different angles and lenses (Master Primes), were pointing at the paramilitary attackers. “One ALEXA was for the wide shot, two for close-ups and one was on the ground,” says Cranage. Another ALEXA, as well as six Canon EOS 600Ds and a Phantom Gold, captured other parts of the action and grabbed inserts - such as the explosion of the squibs. “The ALEXAs were subjected to water, dust and debris,” explains Cranage, “We really put these cameras to the test.” The ALEXAs were up to the challenge and delivered results the DP called “fantastic.”

The lightweight and compact ALEXA M was used when filming took place in constricted spaces. In various car scenes, for example, the camera had to be set up inside the vehicle in places too small for a regular ALEXA. The M was also used within the set of a house - one of only two studio setups; the rest of the film was shot on location. Cranage recalls a scene in which Nina, hiding from pursuers, watches them through latticework. The hiding place was so small that there wasn’t room for the young actress and the ALEXA. Yet the ALEXA M was the perfect fit.

Shooting night exteriors

Reading the script, Cranage recalls he was surprised by how many night exteriors were called for. “Out of 45 days of shooting, 18 were night exteriors,” he explains. And the locations were vast. In the past a great deal of time and money would have gone into lighting such enormous night locations, but that has changed thanks to the ALEXA. This became obvious when filming the night car scenes. Cranage was worried about one in particular, because the location was a long section of a wide street in the heart of Berlin. To light the location was, despite the film’s sizable budget, out of the question. During preproduction the DP discovered, to his great relief, that with the ALEXA he could shoot the scene almost exclusively with available light, simply because of the camera’s extremely light sensitive image sensor. The car was put on a low loader, while two actors sat inside, and the scene was shot with three ALEXAs. “We had seven 2K street lights in the shot, which we replaced with our lamps and we helped out a bit during the close-ups,” says Cranage, “but other than that, we shot with available light. The result was incredible; there was no need for Hollywood style lighting with a crane and backlights.” The production briefly considered shooting the night car scenes in the studio in front of a greenscreen because the temperatures had dropped below -15°C during February and one particular scene called for a broken car window. Yet the greenscreen idea was discarded immediately because the look of the film would have suffered. “The available light coming from the Kebab shops and pubs lining the streets gave the image not only that special Berlin flare, but also a unique texture that you simply can’t create in the studio,” explains Cranage. 

When filming a scene in the trunk of a car, the only light source for ALEXA was a glow stick. In the trunk were two actors, hiding from their pursuers. One wall had been removed for the camera and the inside of the trunk was lit with a military-grade glow stick. Cranage credits DP Eduard Grau with the glow stick idea, who used this ‘trick’ shooting the film Buried. The light coming from the glow stick was more than sufficient for ALEXA, which again stood out thanks to its light sensitivity. Schutzengel was shot entirely at EI 800, with lenses from the Master Prime series.

In another scene, a car barely visible to the eye drives through a desolate rural landscape at night; only the headlights can be seen. “It was pitch dark when we shot that; I barely saw anything,” recalls Cranage, who captured the image using only available light as it would have exceeded their budget to light such a scene. The DP notes that the night exteriors were “the most incredible experience for me” and adds that on cold nights, the electronic eyepiece of the ALEXA was a real blessing as it was always warm and therefore never fogged up. This helped ensure that neither the cast nor the crew had to spend more time than necessary out in the bitter cold.

High speed feature

Another ALEXA feature that was frequently used when filming Schutzengel was the camera’s high speed function. “It’s an incredible experience when you can switch from 24 fps to 48 fps to 96 fps in a matter of seconds,” raves Cranage. “To be able to quickly adjust the shutter speed was great for us, because we had a lot of gunfire in the film and had decided early on to create it in-camera rather than in post.” During extensive testing, the DP and his team figured out the ‘magic number,’ as he says with a wink, a combination that actually captures the muzzle flashes in 9 out of 10 cases. And so the experienced camera team, knowing the required shutter speed when a gun was in the shot, quickly and effortlessly made the necessary changes.

The high speed function was also used in a safe house sequence, when six paramilitary attackers force their way into the building. This action scene took up five of the ten shooting days scheduled for that set. It was shot at 60 fps up to 100 fps and the shutter speed was changed several times. “You just press a button,” says the DP.

Cranage was also impressed by the on-set monitoring and grading capabilities. “We were able to look at the footage right away and in slow motion,” he recalls. “Til Schweiger got to look at the footage from all the ALEXAs. We had four 17” monitors and even the instant playback included the on-set grading. The material we were viewing already had the look that we had decided on during preproduction.”

Digital recording technology is ideal for the way Schweiger, who edits his films while he’s shooting, prefers to work. During a press conference in March, he presented 26 minutes of the film. “And he’s not showing a rough cut,” says Cranage. The footage has already been graded by Das Kombinat/ARRI Film & TV Services Berlin, where the digital dailies were created, and is quite close to what the finished film will look like. These early versions include sound and music, as well as effects. The short turnaround times of workflows for digital recording technologies significantly expedited this process. The impressive quality of the images at such an early stage is owed to the ALEXA camera system and its extremely light sensitive image sensor, as well as to the on-set grading capabilities and the high quality digital dailies.

“I think the decision to go with ARRI products and services from ARRI Rental Berlin was the best decision we could have made,” concludes Cranage.

The film’s co-producer, Warner Bros.Pictures Germany, will release Schutzengel theatrically on September 27, 2012.




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