'Berlin Station': Spies, Lies and Shooting on Location

"They wanted to get away from the old cliché of the 1960s spy movie," says cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski.
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Checkpoint Charlie. The Wall. While the city is no longer divided as it was in the years after World War II, Berlin will forever be linked with these touch points of the Cold War. For CIA analyst Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage), who spent his youth in that very different Berlin of old, returning there to root out a whistleblower means having to face some ethically compromising situations while relearning the lay of the land.

Launching on cable network EPIX with a ten-episode season on October 16, Berlin Station is a contemporary spy series that follows Daniel Miller, who has just arrived at the CIA station in Berlin, Germany. Miller’s clandestine mission is to determine the identity of a now-famous whistleblower masquerading as “Thomas Shaw.” Guided by jaded veteran Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans), Daniel learns to contend with the rough-and-tumble world of the field officer—agent-running, deception, danger and moral compromises.

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Richard Armitage as Daniel Miller, the newly anointed CIA officer who goes from being an analyst in Panama to an undercover officer in Berlin tasked with finding a leak. Photo by Stephanie Kulbach/Epix & Paramount.

Produced by Paramount Television and Anonymous Content, the series’ creator/executive producer is bestselling author Olen Steinhauer. Bradford Winters (The Americans) is the showrunner and an executive producer. The ensemble cast includes Richard Jenkins, Michelle Forbes, Leland Orser and Tamlyn Tomita.

To shoot the series, the producers turned to cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, BVK, best known for the German film The Lives of Others, which received the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Regarding his work on Berlin Station, Bogdanski says, “They wanted to get away from the old cliché of the 1960s spy movie. The politics and plot turns are contemporary and relevant, and telling this story against the backdrop of modern Berlin, which is so very vibrant and packed with people, meant conveying the energy of this town, which was very appealing to me.”

Part of the attraction for Bogdanski was that the series was shot principally on location, with stage work limited primarily to the CIA station interiors. Even with 110 filming days, however, Bogdanski and crew would be shooting 10 to 12 pages at two to three different locales per day. “The 1st AD was essential for getting things scheduled so we would be shooting in the right light both in early morning and evenings,” Bogdanski explains. “At many of these places we were shooting interiors as well, so that meant having a crew to pre-rig the lighting. The good part was that we had no walls to take out—because that isn’t an option out in the world—but we had to be able to shoot within minutes of arrival at each location. My gaffer had LED light boxes that could be wheeled in and turned on. It is amazing what you can do with them—we could handle any kind of changes to color immediately, which sped things up tremendously.”

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Richard Jenkins as Steven Frost, a veteran of the Cold War who serves as the CIA’s Berlin chief of station. Photo by Stephanie Kulbach/Epix & Paramount.

Bogdanski also exploited existing location lighting for night work, relying on it as primary illumination and supplementing only to put the actors in a good light. “We’re on [ARRI] Alexa, and the real advantage with night shoots is that you can go to [ISO] 1600 without noticing the push,” he relates. “We carried two and sometimes three ARRI Alexa XTs, along with an Alexa Mini. That smaller camera became a real workhorse for us in all the tight spaces, and I used it in handheld and Steadicam mode.”

Footage was acquired in 2K ProRes, with DIT Daniel Pieper backing up drives prior to delivery to ARRI Post in Berlin. Digital dailies would be uploaded to the cloud, with editorial taking place in Los Angeles. Bogdanski chose a LUT that allowed him to achieve most of his desired look right out of the gate. “I always shoot with the idea that what you see in dailies is what you are going to see in the final,” he declares. “By locking in a look and style up front, and reviewing this with the colorist, we get him on board with the idea that the DI will be about corrections and enhancements, not major tweaking. We use the digital intermediate to polish, knowing we’re already 90 percent of the way there.”

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Mina Tander as Esther Krug, a well respected case officer. Photo by Stephanie Kulbach/Epix & Paramount.

The interior of Berlin Station, which includes a security entrance as well as the windowless office space within, was built on a stage at Studio Babelsberg near Berlin. “We stayed away from traditional lighting on the station interiors,” Bogdanski acknowledges. “Instead, it was all industrial LED lighting, on dimmers, primarily top-lit from the visible ceiling fixtures. That way when we came in each morning, we could turn things on and be ready to shoot. When you’re doing 16 pages per day with multiple cameras, that is a huge aid.” While the DP preferred to avoid shooting in both directions when possible, he did often shoot with one camera at 90 degrees to A-camera, and also with cameras side by side for wide and close coverage.

The office set contains a large wall of monitors depicting world situations; the monitors are operated via media server. Much of this and other surveillance imagery was captured by second unit DP and operator Ralph Kaechele using up to six Sony Alpha A7s cameras with Metabones adapters and Canon EF 16-35mm lenses, augmented by as many as 12 custom-rigged 4K GoPro HERO4 Black Edition units.

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Kaechele explains that the DIT and cloud support each played a part in providing him with necessary reference imagery when matching to first unit. “Cloud support helped me in communicating with main unit directors about their needs when it came down to shoot parts of scenes they started and I had to finish or complement. [But] since the turnaround for digital dailies in the cloud system was often too long, the DIT became essential, preparing drives [that allowed] me to look at main unit footage.”

Kaechele sometimes worked from storyboards, though some directors just issued verbal descriptions. “Once main unit and second unit were shooting and the machine was running, it was much tougher to get briefings from directors,” he recalls, “so I would try to meet them during lunch break or talk to them on set in between takes. My schedule also filled up really quickly and prep time got shorter and shorter. It’s always good to have a battle plan on big action scenes with lots of talent, crew and gear, but I think it shouldn’t restrict you from making creative choices on the day. I do like working both ways and therefore also really enjoyed days when the directors handed me entire scenes and all we had talked about were story beats and emotions. I was free to direct and set up angles as I felt appropriate.”

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Flooded office set at Studio Babelsberg.

Second unit tackled many pursuit sequences, allowing Kaechele to use a Moving Cine Company X2 arm and a Technocrane, and occasionally work from 65-meter cherry pickers. “There is a pretty big shootout scene, where a hostage situation goes bad,” recalls Kaechele. “Main unit shot all the ‘drama work’ leading up to the first gunshot. At that point I took over and shot the remaining scenes and angles, naturally including principals when needed, and body doubles/stunt people when possible. We shot all the action scenes in real time 23.978 fps since we wanted to have an authentic and realistic feeling. So no slow motion and no lock-off crash boxes.” Second unit shot 10 days of aerial work using a Skynamic Cinema Drone system carrying an Alexa Mini.

One episode takes the concept of “drowning in paperwork” to nearly Brazil-like extremes, when an office in the station becomes flooded. “Babelsberg has a big tank in one stage and we built a copy of the Richard Jenkins character’s office in it,” says Kaechele. “A scene like this that includes a principal requires full control—water level, temperature and chemical constitution need to be just right and to be monitored all the time.” The scene took four weeks of prep and lensed for three days, with underwater specialist Jens Winkler and crew building waterproof practicals to match the office originals.

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Photo by Stephanie Kulbach/Epix & Paramount.

Kaechele relied on a Hydroflex underwater housing for the Alexa XT and a Hydroflex Bag for the Mini, working with the 15mm-40mm T2.8 Angenieux Optimo zooms. This configuration allowed the DP to adjust focal lengths quickly while staying true to the overall visual tone established by first unit, which entailed staying tight on the characters rather than executing the typical wide “spectacle” view for underwater action. “We also lit the set with waterproofed HMIs and other HMIs above the water,” he notes. “There were two shots when we had to suspend the camera underneath the ceiling with water gushing down right next to it. Key grip Alex Zielke did a fantastic job to mount the Hydroflex from above onto a waterproof remote head.”

While not lacking for action, Berlin Station’s prime focus remains on the personal aspect—specifically the emotional toll associated with espionage. “Though this aspect doesn’t carry through for the whole season, we begin by seeing Berlin through [Miller’s] eyes, remembering the Berlin of old while having to adjust to the modern reality of it,” concludes Bogdanski. “That’s like the movie memories audiences carry of Berlin too, so there’s an existing connection to play off. We want viewers to feel his dilemma: how can I adjust to this and do my job? That was one goal for shooting, and I hope we succeeded.”

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