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The Digital Professor: Michael Ballhaus

Michael Ballhaus ASC explains why open minds are essential for directors of photography and camera manufacturers alike as filmmaking transitions to digital.

Whether it’s an intimate character study such as director R.W. Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun or a big-screen spectacle like Barry Sonnenfeld’s Wild Wild West, Michael Ballhaus ASC has consistently delivered the creative visions sought by a wide range of directors and scripts. A master of his craft, Ballhaus is as much at home in his native Germany teaching cinematography as he is in Hollywood shooting pictures for Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Redford, Mike Nichols, and fellow countryman Wolfgang Petersen. With scores of films and multiple Oscar nominations to his credit, Ballhaus is one of today’s most accomplished and influential filmmakers, having lensed such hits as Something’s Gotta Give, Gangs of New York, and Air Force One.

As busy as he is, Ballhaus feels it is essential to also pass along his knowledge to students at universities in Berlin and Hamburg. “I have to know what’s in the future for my students,” he explains. “I’m always interested in trying new things, experiencing new technologies, and knowing how fast they’re developing.”

Putting this belief into practice, Ballhaus recently shot a digital test film, Triell, using the Thomson Viper FilmStream camera set to 4:4:4 RGB 10-bit log, with footage recorded to the Director’s Friend capture system. Band Pro Film and Digital/Munich was Ballhaus’ technical partner on the project; General Manager Gerhard Baier provided the equipment, which also included Zeiss DigiPrime lenses.

“There are bad lenses, there are good lenses, and there are Zeiss lenses,” Ballhaus observes. “If you want the last five percent of sharpness and crispness, DigiPrimes are the only lenses.”

Band Pro Munich also created a workflow to handle Viper’s 4:4:4 FilmStream data in the offline edit and ensure that it had synchronized time code for online. As this issue goes to press Triell’s final images are being output to 35mm via an ARRI Laser directly from the corrected raw data in 4:4:4 as well as Sony HDCAM SR and HDCAM cassettes.

“I’m pretty sure that it will look pretty damn good,” Ballhaus anticipates. “If you are used to film cameras all your life it’s just a change, but I am open to these new developments, and as long as these cameras are good and getting better I’m open to work with them.”

With industry expectations high for yet another round of digital filmmaking advances at this year’s NAB exhibits, Digital Cinema sought Ballhaus’ expert opinion on how recent technology changes are impacting his craft. (Special thanks to Contributing Editors James Mathers and Bob Zahn for some of the questions used in this interview.)

DC: How would you describe the work of a cinematographer?

Ballhaus: That’s a complicated question. A cinematographer is the one person who puts the vision of the director on the screen, basically. And whatever he can add to that with his technical knowledge and his own fantasy that helps to make the film as visual as possible, that’s the job of the cinematographer.

DC: Is it accurate to say that cinematography is “painting with light?”

Ballhaus: Yes, it is painting with light, but that’s not all, because the light is not everything. Light is the same for a photographer. A cinematographer has to know more than just painting with light. He has to think about the movement, he has to think about what comes together when he shoots a sequence, that he knows which frames will meet. What’s the rhythm of a scene, and how can he tell the story in the most visual way, the most dramatic way, to photograph a scene. And that is much more than painting with light.

DC: Does cinematography only involve the use of film, or are digital cameras also valid?

Ballhaus: Oh, they are absolutely valid for cinematography, and more and more so because technology develops really fast. I had the chance to shoot a short film [Triell] in Munich with Mr. Baier [of Band Pro Film and Digital] using the Thomson Viper FilmStream camera and it was an additional experience because the quality is getting really good and it comes pretty close to film.

DC: You are impressed with Viper FilmStream camera?

Ballhaus: Yes I am. I think it comes a little closer to what a cinematographer needs.

DC: In what ways?

Ballhaus: In the ways of how to handle the camera, the ergonomics of the camera body, how it’s formed, and all the things that a regular film camera needs to work. And I think they build Viper a little closer to what a film camera looks like and works like.

DC: What about the quality of the images you made with Viper?

Ballhaus: I was impressed with the quality that, at the end, you see on the screen. There’s still some things that are a lot easier-a lot more common and better so far-with film, because film cameras are very durable. You can shoot in the rain, you can shoot when it’s cold, when it’s hot; they always work. And you can work under the most complicated circumstances.

I think these digital cameras are more sensitive. And so far, it’s harder to work with them. Also, they are not as movable because they have this thick cable attached to them. So, there are still things that are better with the normal film camera, but I think the quality of the digital images is very good.

DC: Would you say that those digital images are on a par with film images?

Ballhaus: Not quite, I would say, but it’s coming pretty close.

DC: You’re known for capturing very challenging cinema imagery; can you give an example of a shot you did using film that would have been facilitated more easily today with digital technology?

Ballhaus: Easier, yes, but not better. When I shot Dracula with Francis Ford Coppola there was a scene where Keanu Reeves is sitting at a desk writing a letter, and Dracula (played by Gary Oldman) is behind him, leaning over his shoulder. And you see Dracula’s shadow on the back wall. And this shadow moves as he moves, but at one point the shadow has its own life and tries to strangle Keanu Reeves. It puts its hands around his neck and strangles him. But it’s just a shadow.

Today you would do that digitally because it’s a lot easier, although more expensive. But what we did in 1992 was use a second Dracula actor behind a screen and project his shadow off the first Dracula. The second Dracula actor, who wore an identical Dracula costume, had a monitor to watch every move that the first Dracula (Gary Oldman) did. And he matched each move exactly until the point when his shadow appeared to take on its own life. The effect was challenging in a way, but it was easy and adventurous, and it looked great. It was also not expensive.

We did a lot of in-camera special effects on Dracula. In my first meeting with Coppola he said, “Our role model for this movie is the 1922 Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau.” So we tried to do as much in the camera as possible. We did things like double-exposure and dissolves in the camera, and we ran the film backwards for special shots.

DC: What inspired you to want to do the test film Triell?

Ballhaus: I’m always a front-runner. I was one of the first cinematographers in Germany to introduce digital cinematography to students, and I’m always very interested in where the technology is going.

DC: What about monitoring the digital image during cinematography with the Viper, FilmStream the actual viewing of the colors?

Ballhaus: We had to filter the images because on the monitor they looked green. So we had to use a filter to take the green out. Then you could really judge what you had captured.

DC: What about the Director’s Friend recording system; did it make things easier or more difficult-as opposed to using film?

Ballhaus: In a way it’s easier because you can play it back. You don’t have to look [at] dailies, you know what you have in the can, so to speak. And that makes it safer.

But on the other hand we had to re-shoot half a day because we had some electronic problems in the digital recording. So I would say it’s more sensitive than the film and the film camera. But digital cameras are only at their beginning; they will develop fast and get better every time. I’m pretty convinced that in a couple of years they will be as flexible and as good as film cameras.

Consumer cameras are getting much better, and you now see motion pictures that are shot on consumer cameras that are excellent and good quality. And when that works for the story it’s great to use those small cameras. Panasonic has a new camera, the DVX 100, with a 25p mode, which-transferred to film-looks pretty good, I must say.

DC: Cameras such as the Panasonic 25p DVX-100 are democratizing filmmaking. Is that good or bad?

Ballhaus: For me it’s a good thing, because it opens the market for new talent. I recently saw an extraordinary film at the Max Ophuls Film Festival, in Saarbrucken, a festival for first-time directors. It was called Mucksmäuschenstill and it won every possible prize from the jury, the audience, the actors, the students, and the TV station. And it was done for $60,000 with a consumer camera. It’s just a great way to make movies if you have a brilliant idea that works for that system. You cannot shoot Gangs of New York with such a camera, that’s for sure. But there are many other stories that you can do with these consumer cameras that are excellent, and that opens a wide range of talents to our craft.

DC: Is that a bad thing for professional cinematographers, to have this new competition?

Ballhaus: No, it’s not. I like competition. It means we all have to be better at what we do.

DC: What do you say to cinematographers who fear new digital technologies?

Ballhaus: It’s hard to say. If you work all your life with film cameras-and film is something wonderful, as we know-and you’re raised in this tradition, then I can understand. But when you’re teaching, when you work with young people-students-who want to become cinematographers and directors, you have to be open to these new techhnologiess that possibly their future.

DC: What about shooting 35mm film for later compositing with computer-graphic imagery; are there special challenges for a cinematographer doing that?

Ballhaus: Yes, there are special challenges, but, I must say, it’s a little boring because you are not creating the images anymore. You have a storyboard and you have an animatic that they do of these scenes where you just shoot the foreground and then the background is put in later. In your animatic they tell you where to put the camera, what lens you have to use, the distance to the object-all these things-and then you have to light it in a way that it’s easy for them to do the composite later. It’s very technical and for a creative cinematographer who wants to be in charge of everything. It’s not inspiring. You’re not a master of the imagery anymore; a lot of it is done later in the computer. There are other DPs who might like that, but for me personally I’m not so crazy about it.

DC: Does it turn you from being an artist into being more of a technician?

Ballhaus: Yes, exactly, that’s exactly it. And I’m not a technician. I feel I am an artist. But then the end result is fine, it’s okay.

DC: What would you say cinematographers must do to ensure that new digital technologies don’t adversely affect their craft?

Ballhaus: Manufacturers need to work closely with cinematographers. Sometimes they may put too much technology into the camera, things that you would never use; so you discuss it with them, and they should listen to you.

I was the first guy who saw the ARRICAM, which was about a year before it came out. I looked at it, and we discussed what I would like to have changed, what I thought is and is not necessary. The guys at ARRI really do listen. The ARRICAM is developed by Fritz Gabriel Bauer, who was a cinematographer himself, and he’s just brilliant. He does really know what a cinematographer needs and wants. So they are pretty damn good, these guys.

The new ARRICAM is fantastic, I worked with it on my last movie and it’s the best camera I ever worked with. It’s just amazing. And Arriflex is developing a digital camera called the D20, which is, right now I think the most interesting development on that level of digital camera. I haven’t had the chance to work with it, but I will pretty soon check it out. It has the best viewing system because it’s an optical viewing system. The D20 is based on the ARRI 435, which is a brilliant camera. The imaging chip it uses is the same size as a 35mm film frame, and you can use the regular lenses-the Zeiss lenses, the UltraPrimes-with the same depth of field that you have on film. These are all things that makes it look much closer to film than the digital cameras with smaller chips. And so I’m very interested in this development.

DC: You used the Zeiss DigiPrime lenses to shoot Triell; what did you think of those?

Ballhaus: We used those on the shoot with the Viper and they are excellent. They are so incredibly sharp, they are chromatic-corrected, so that they have no problems with the edges of a frame with different colors. They are the best on the market.

I am also very impressed with the new Zeiss DigiZoom lens. It’s very small, it’s very light, it has a great range, from 6 to 24 mill. It comes very close focus to 55mm, and it’s a very beautiful lens. And it matches with the DigiPrimes, which is wonderful. The Zeiss DigiZooms arrived on the last day of the shoot.

DC: Do you think film will ever go away?

Ballhaus: Digital images and film images will exist next to each other for a long time, I think, because there are still millions of projectors all over the world that still need to be fed with film. When I first saw the first digital camera, which was about seven years ago, I thought then in two years it would be over with film. But we’re still working with film and loving it. I hope it doesn’t go away too soon, because I like film a lot. But I think in the future, when there are digital projectors in every movie theatre, then-slowly-film may come to an end. But I have been wrong before. As I said, however, I’m open to the new developments.