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ALEXA, Anna, ‘Anonymous’: Anna Foerster Shoots the First Feature to Use ARRI’s New Camera System

Anonymous dramatizes an argument that has roiled university English departments for close to a century: was Shakespeare really Shakespeare? Or did someone else—someone with a better education and more worldly experience than the son of an illiterate glove-maker—actually write the plays and sonnets that now stand at the pinnacle of literary art?

Cinematographer Anna Foerster and director Roland Emmerich
Photos by Reiner Bajo

Director Roland Emmerich uses this question as a starting point, blending in court intrigue, scandalous romance and timeless lust for power to the story, set in the visually rich period of Elizabethan England. The cast boasts a suitably English roster of master thespians that includes Derek Jacobi, Joely Richardson, Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave.

Emmerich asked cinematographer Anna Foerster to shoot the project. More than two decades ago, Foerster worked as an intern and camera assistant on one of Emmerich’s first movies (Moon 44), and since then has contributed visual effects and second unit cinematography to various Emmerich creations, including Independence Day, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow and 10,000 BC.

Foerster also has experience on Emmerich projects, having served as second unit director on The Day After Tomorrow and 10,000 BC. Foerster is currently directing episodic television (Criminal Minds, Unforgettable), but she leapt at the chance to return to the camera in collaboration with Emmerich on a narrative feature.

Director Roland Emmerich on the set

Regardless of Anonymous’ success at the box office, it may live on in the world of cinematography a landmark movie due to its origination. Anonymous is billed as the first feature film shot on the ARRI ALEXA camera system. At the time—2009—the ALEXA was still in a prototype stage, and Foerster chose to shoot using a precursor to today’s ARRIRAW codec. At the time, it was a surprising choice, whereas today it’s almost standard operating procedure.

When Emmerich and Foerster first discussed the project, they decided to rethink the standard period-piece approach.

“When you think of a period film, you think of happy pictures with sun-flooded rooms and colorful costumes,” says Foerster. “We wanted images that were dark and sinister, with a rigidity and emptiness inside the court. Outside the court, by contrast, we envisioned everything moving, smelly and dirty.”

Joely Richardson (Young Queen Elizabeth I) and Jamie Campbell
Bower (Young Earl of Oxford)

Foerster thoroughly enjoyed doing extensive research about the period. She learned that Elizabethan England was colder than it is today, with most interiors lit by smoky, sooty, malodorous lard candles. She also studied paintings by de La Tour and Vermeer, along with Tudor-era portraits.

“In these Tudor paintings, people seem to emerge from the darkness, and Roland and I both liked that,” she says. “It’s different from conventional filmmaking, where you have backlight and you separate everything. We wanted to emphasize bright faces that sometimes melted into dark backgrounds.”

Almost all exteriors were slated to be done against greenscreen and composited with CG backgrounds. The filmmakers decided that digital was the best route in light of the extensive visual effects work. They performed tests with various digital cameras and, after some back-and-forth with ARRI, found the ALEXA to their liking.

Vanessa Redgrave (Queen Elizabeth I)

“ARRI had not expected us to shoot in the raw codec,” says Foerster. “It was assumed that regular stage work would not be done without any matrix applied, but we saw it as the only solution for us at that time. We looked at images shot using this early version of ARRIRAW and started applying LUTs. We saw that the images had this organic creaminess. The transition of the colors was beautiful. We realized the huge potential of this approach.

“Of course, today there are so many people pointing out in technical terms the difference between this and that aspect of technology,” says Foerster. “But it really comes down to the emotional reaction you get when you look at an image and what makes sense for your story. That’s an important part of the cinematographer’s job. It’s almost like a canvas or a film stock—you choose it for a specific project.”

With the help of an ARRI colorist, Foerster created six LUTs (lookup tables) for different situations—day interiors, for example, or flashback sequences. She was able to refer to an on-set monitor with these looks applied.

Rafe Spall (William Shakespeare)

The images were composed with a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The lens package included ARRI Master Primes, with early scenes generally on slightly longer focal lengths and later scenes generally wider, usually between 16mm and 21mm. But Foerster estimates that a half to a third of the film was shot with a lightweight Zeiss zoom lens, the ARRI LWZ-1, which ranges from 15.5mm to 45mm. That lens facilitated tiny, on-the-fly adjustments in focal length. It also worked well on the Steadicam.

“The wide focal lengths underscored the tableau feeling of the court situations and accented the proscenium during the plays,” says Foerster. “It comes back to the paintings that inspired us as well.”

Foerster says that lighting a scene entirely with candles is just an illusion—Barry Lyndon notwithstanding. “Everyone says that now that we have 800 ASA, we can light with candles, but that is not the case,” she says. “Generally speaking, digital doesn’t require less light—it requires different light.”

Still, light from candles and other flame sources was part of Foerster’s palette. “We created double- and triple-wicked candles for some interiors,” she says. “In any situation where there should have been a fire or a chandelier burning, we used flame bars to get a bit of reflection in the eyes, or on the buttons or armature. That was one advantage of shooting at 800 ASA—and sometimes we would even shoot at 1280 ASA, a number which testing led us to for some night interiors.”

Rhys Ifans (Earl of Oxford)

Relative color temperature was an important consideration. “I used a huge amount of large HMIs, sometimes bounced, for soft daylight coming through the large windows we had built into the sets,” says Foerster. “For anything with a daylight feel, that’s the right approach, and the same went for our huge greenscreen sets for exteriors. For me it was very important that the candles or fire have the right color temperature compared to our daylight. If we had lit with tungsten, it just would not have felt right.”

The copious smoke was a key factor, affecting all the other visual elements. “In my research, I read descriptions of theater plays that said, ‘It was as if I saw through a veil of smoke.’ We had a lot of smoke in the room, not only for the smoke itself but to create the quality of light we wanted. In post, we pulled up the contrast, so you don’t really feel the smoke that much, but it makes all the colors blend into each other, creating a kind of creaminess. The images have a more painterly quality.”

Foerster’s research also taught her that even in Elizabethan times, lighting was used to underscore drama. “The plays at court were often timed to various times of day,” she says. “Act I might start in late afternoon, and Act II might be at dusk, with candles. They even had devices with which they could dim the candles. It was interesting for me to realize that they were using light to dramatize a story—which is essentially what I was doing as well!”

Rhys Ifans (Earl of Oxford)

Foerster’s daylight entering interior spaces from outside created another opportunity for period verisimilitude, in the quality of the window glass. Set design experimented with warping, sandblasting and melting a variety of plastic materials to create distortion that was consistent with the period. This also helped make painted backdrops visible through the windows more convincing.

“Similarly, the costumes worked beautifully with the type of soft lighting I was using,” she says. “Something in the buttons, the seams and the thread had a certain sheen that was crucial and very helpful to me. It was part of the whole look. That collaboration was a great experience.”

The dark interior spaces Foerster designed for the drama had a similar salutatory effect on the actors. “Lighting-wise, we were using extremes—really bright windows and dark corners,” she explains. “It was interesting to have some actors gravitate to the light and other to the darkness, depending on their character. Usually a movie set feels bright. Our sets had all that smoke and candlelight, and that somber feeling was a change for the actors. They felt the difference, understood what it was about, and they really played the light, which was beautiful. It was rewarding to see our approach to telling the story with light picked up and carried on by the actors.”

ARRI handled the postproduction, including the digital intermediate, at its facility in Munich to ensure quality control. Interestingly, Foerster prefers the film print, done on Kodak Vision print stock, to the DCP versions, saying the blacks and contrast are a bit richer. “ARRI was great,” she says. “They gave us all the support throughout.

Anonymous was a fascinating project for Roland and me,” she says. “Roland is known for big effects blockbusters, and much of the visual effects and second unit work I’ve done involved explosions and chases. Anonymous was a departure for both of us. It’s a more complex and intricate story. It’s a completely different way of looking at our collaboration, and to me that’s the best thing about it.”

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