Under Fire


The last time Lighting Dimensions encountered director of photography Robert Fraisse, he was lugging an IMAX 3D camera around the Canadian Rockies for Wings of Courage. Next, he ventured to equally elevated Argentine climes, where the Andes stood in for Seven Years in Tibet's Himalayas — though this time, Fraisse was shooting with less daunting anamorphic camera equipment. Both of those films were directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, as was Fraisse's latest project, the World War II drama Enemy at the Gates. But this time, director and DP were diving into the close confines of foxholes and bomb shelters rather than scaling the heights of the world's great mountains.

Still, the filmmakers wanted a widescreen format to capture the scale of the battle sequences. “There are spectacular scenes with 400 extras, explosions, and big sets, so it was natural to shoot in the 2.35 ratio,” says Fraisse. “But of course, we didn't go with anamorphic. I prefer it to Super 35, I like the quality of the background. But I also know it's much more cumbersome. In this movie, Jean-Jacques wanted the camera to be very movable; he wanted to shoot a lot with Steadicam, a lot of handheld, and he wanted the camera to be very low to the ground. I told him, it's going to be easier and more convenient to shoot Super 35. Also, most of the movie was shot with two cameras, and a lot of scenes were shot with seven. It's much more difficult to plan for anamorphic equipment — you have to know exactly when you're going to need more lenses, and more cameras.”

Enemy at the Gates tells a story of the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, when German forces ran up against a wall of armed resistance and punishing weather at the Soviet city. Jude Law stars as a Russian sniper raised to the level of national hero by a propagandist played by Joseph Fiennes; Rachel Weisz is the female soldier both men love. And Ed Harris plays a German marksman dispatched to the Russian front to eliminate Law's character.

“The battle started in September,” says Fraisse. “People always imagine snow, but the main problem when the Germans first went to Stalingrad was the mud. It had been raining a lot, and it was very, very wet. I saw newsreels of soldiers walking in mud up to the middle of their calves.” Enemy at the Gates shot on location in Germany from January to May 2000, and the DP says, “we were expecting very cold weather, snow, and hard conditions. Actually, we didn't get that. For the first three months, we had very gray weather. It was never very cold, but it was an overcast sky and dull light. It's the kind of light that fits the movie perfectly. And it was very, very consistent, although we had a few problems with the weather in May.”


Annaud wanted the film to evoke the look of period newsreels. “We were looking for something pretty harsh, really far from a sophisticated style,” says Fraisse. This partly reflected the conditions of the Stalingrad soldiers and citizens under siege, who made do with little in the way of electricity. “For interiors, they were using oil lamps or candles,” the DP says. “So we always had a bit of smoke in the sets.” This became a visual motif in the movie. Outside, for example, “there was always a lot of smoke because of the explosions. Plus, some of the sets were of underground shelters dug in the ground and made with wood and mud. When there was bombing outside, we had dust coming down from the ceiling. Dust and smoke always enhance the quality of light.”

The film's large chief exterior set was built on the site of an old military camp outside Berlin. Before starting the film in December 1999, Fraisse shot some tests on the location. “I was amazed that at 3:30 in the afternoon, I had to shoot at a 2.8 f-stop,” he says. “So I decided before I ordered the stock to go with Kodak 5279, the 500 ASA stock, for the exteriors as well as the interiors. I understood that I needed a really fast stock if I was going to be able to shoot until 4pm, maybe, at most. We wanted a bluish cast, a cool look, for the exteriors, so I decided not to use any 85 filters. And I asked the lab to correct the negative only partially — to let a lot of blue into the final print. I know if you don't use an 85 filter when you are shooting outside, the lab can put it back in if you need it. But this way, I gained 2/3 of a stop, and sometimes I needed that at 4pm. We shot almost every day at full aperture, and we were finishing every day at 1.9, sometimes underexposed one stop. That was not a problem, because it could be a dawn scene or a dusk scene, and also, I was looking for a pretty dull print. So I could underexpose.

“I didn't use much light for the exteriors,” he continues. “I had a full truck with 18ks ready, but most of the time we didn't need them because the daylight was so soft. We were looking for a harsh look, so I didn't care about having shadows. Of course, I used light for closeups, or when it was really late, to save the situation. When it was almost dark I had to use two 18ks to recreate the light of the preceding shot.” Nighttime exteriors were lit by bursts of special effects explosions and by HMIs with half-85 filters. “I like to use HMIs because I can scrim them and I can close the barndoor. Anyway, we were looking for a bluish night — but not too much. So I used HMIs with half-orange.”

As for the small interior sets, the shelters and bunkers and other cave-like areas carved out by the fighters, “we were supposed to build them on the stage at Babelsberg Studio,” says Fraisse. “But because nobody thought the day was going to last more than six hours, we would need to move to another set to finish the day. They were also expecting rain or snow, so it wouldn't match the previous day's shooting. So they decided instead of building the sets on the stage, to build them in warehouses that were a few hundred meters from the exteriors. After we finished in the exterior set, it was very easy to move the trucks, and 15 minutes later we were already starting again.”

Despite the demands of shooting, Annaud insisted that the sets representing underground bomb shelters be built to the proper scale, to evoke the characters' feelings of claustrophobia and fear. “Those sets were really cramped and crowded,” Fraisse recalls. “There was one Jean-Jacques thought was too big, and he asked the production designer to make it smaller. It's never easy to work like that — there were a lot of soldiers in these very small shelters, very close to each other, and there were very, very low ceilings with wood beams.” Even in these tight spaces, Annaud wanted to keep the camera mobile (Fraisse estimates that as much as 50% of the film is shot with a Steadicam). “With Steadicam and Super 35, you are using short focal lengths; you are very close to the actor, so I always had to deal with very small units of lights.”


The DP's choice of instruments varied, but mostly came down to what would fit, what could be hidden, and what wouldn't burn out the set. “I used 1k Mole-Richardson softlights,” he says, for example, “but most of the time they were too powerful. Sometimes I could use 500W lights.” Usually, Fraisse found himself confined to 300W sources “with a tiny bit of opal or Lee 216 diffusion or ND3 to reduce the amount of light. The lights were so close to the actors because the ceilings were so low, and very often, the ceilings were in the frame. So I had to hide lights behind beams of wood. When the camera is moving a lot in a set like this, and when the Steadicam is going very close to the actor, crosslighting is the only way to light. But sometimes even crosslight is not possible, because the camera turns to the left or the right.” In those situations, the DP resorted to toplighting with china balls.

The other source Fraisse made common use of was 250W lights customized by Cine Licht, a German rental house. “In Europe, we have nothing smaller than 300W,” says the cinematographer. “In the States, there is the stick-up light, which is very convenient. So I had them make similar lights here in Germany. They used 250W quartz lights with a very small reflector, and put a housing around them and a cable. I called them microlights. They were really, really small — about 4"×2½". I could hide them behind beams. It wasn't nice to light faces, but for a small patch of light on the set, on a wall or in a corner, or sometimes to give some fill on a set, it's very convenient.”

The DP has nothing but praise for Cine Licht's Berlin facility, which is run by a former gaffer. “Anything he didn't have in the store, he bought,” says Fraisse, who was content to use the common Arri instruments on Enemy at the Gates, with one exception: “I like to use Mole-Richardson softlights. In Europe there aren't any. When I shot Vatel, and Ronin, in France, I asked the company there to buy some; I know they're expensive, but they're so convenient — they have a grate so you can concentrate the light, there are scrims you can put in front, you can hang them, they are light. So now the French gaffers are convinced that Mole-Richardson softlights are very convenient. Cine Licht bought the Mole-Richardson softlights I needed, they made 20 of the microlights, and at the end, when we were on a huge stage with a greenscreen, I needed cyc lights, but they didn't have any. I asked for 30 of them, and they bought them. They were very happy to shoot this big movie, and wanted to prove a big American movie can shoot in Germany.”


The greenscreen set Fraisse refers to was on a stage at Babelsberg, and was much larger than the movie's average interior space. “It was the interior of a three- or four-floor store which had been bombed a lot, so there were holes in the ceiling and no more windows,” says the DP. “All the interior was burned. We had the greenscreen around two sides, to put in what we were supposed to see through the windows. They built it on the biggest stage at Babelsberg” — where worthy predecessors include Metropolis and The Blue Angel. Fraisse also took advantage of the studio lab, after having troubles with another facility. “I worked with a guy who didn't speak one word of English,” says the cinematographer, whose first language is French. “I speak a little German, but not enough. But he understood the look we were looking for — a tiny bit dull, slightly bluish.”

Fraisse also used a German gaffer, Ronald Schwarz, with whom he had never previously worked. “He was terrific — always trying to help you, always trying to give more than you are expecting. He will pull a light even if you don't ask for a light, so the background doesn't go dark. He also doesn't try to do his own lighting.” The DP worked for the second time (after Seven Years in Tibet) with camera and Steadicam operator Klemens Becker, whose credits include Braveheart, Gladiator, and X-Men. “When I called him on this movie to be a Steadicam operator,” Fraisse recalls, “he said, ‘I agree to be a Steadicam operator and A camera operator, but no longer Steadicam and B camera operator.’ But on this movie, since the Steadicam is 50% of the movie, it is the A camera.”

Whether sloshing through mud with soldiers across gray skies, or hunkering down with snipers and people just trying to stay alive in the stale air of shelters, the cameras in Enemy at the Gates do their best to put the audience in the midst of misery. “This war was so terrible,” says Fraisse, of World War II as a whole and the Battle of Stalingrad specifically, during which several hundred thousand people lost their lives. “The producers were a tiny bit afraid of the dailies, especially since they were printed too dark at the beginning. But we needed harsh photography; we needed something fairly depressing.”