Film Cameras Vital To “Unknown” Weather

Cannes Film Festival

Warner Bros. Pictures

While prepping to shoot "Unknown," cinematographer Flavio Labiano studied and prepared for the conditions of the East German winter locations.  There would be roughly five hours of sunlight a day.  There would be minimal street lamps to assist with lighting.  And it would be cold.  However, no one could foresee the record breaking temperatures the winter of 2010 would bring.

"The scene where the car breaks through the bridge and goes into the river, that was scheduled for February," said Labiano.  "One week before shooting the main river in Berlin was frozen solid.  Seriously.  We had to wait to the beginning of spring.  The trees started to get leaves, it was a challenge shooting it two months later."

Although the script originally took place in the summer months, the winter conditions around Berlin were chosen to add to the moodiness and intrigue of the story.  The crew found ways to manage shooting in sub-zero temperatures such as designing shoes with battery operated heaters built into the soles.  Although Labiano didn’t expect the abnormally low temperatures, he specifically chose to shoot on film knowing the camera body would tolerate harsh weather conditions.

"There was never a discussion to shoot digitally," said Labiano.  "The camera body is a motor like a sewing machine you are able to keep going.  With the digital camera in 27 degrees below zero every night, and the snow and the water, I think we would have had a mess." 

Shooting with film also allowed Labiano to craft an interesting visual approach to a cinematic problem.  The main character, Martin Harris, loses his memory and has trouble deciphering whether his memories are real or imaginary.  To create an abstract effect to the memory imagery, Labiano fashioned a rig that would hold both a 35mm camera and a 16mm camera.  Sitting below each camera was a prism that split the image and sent the fragmented shot into both cameras.  At the beginning of the movie both the 35mm and 16mm scenes are used for the same shot, providing a surreal, abstract quality.  Additionally, the 16mm camera shot reversal film (set at two stops over) that was cross processed.  The 35mm camera was shot without any tampering.  When the 16mm film is added in editing, there is a sense of shutter and lens movement that provides an over-exposure effect. 

"We further manipulated those images in the DI process with Flame," said Labiano.  "We decided to make the scenes shot in Paris much more romantic, so we added yellow in post.  We were able to do a lot of experimenting."

In addition to 16mm and 35mm, Labiano was also able to further his experimentation by introducing 65mm film.  Using a camera roughly the size of a washing machine that required film to be sent to Munich to be unspooled, Labiano chose to use the 65mm film during a major explosion scene.

"We gave the players room to play," said Labiano.  "In case we wanted to zoom in or out there was no loss of quality.  The distance between the lens and the film is much greater.  That was an experiment I really wanted to try.   Now I can say I shot 65."

While Labiano had plenty of room for experimentation in "Unknown," the majority of the shooting style was very deliberate and pre-planned.  Working with director Jame Collet-Serra, Labiano was careful to present the story through protagonist Martin Harris’ (Liam Neeson) eyes.  The camera became the audience, being shown whatever Harris sees.  For master shots Labiano stayed behind Neeson, shooting over his shoulder.  The goal was to allow the audience to see how things come to Harris and how he reacts.  Borrowing from the standard placed by Hichcock, the audience is placed directly into the lead’s condition and therefore the audience identifies with him.

In addition to carefully presenting the shots, Labiano made selective choices regarding the style of shot used, whether it was steady or hand-held per the decisions of the director.

"In many films today there is not much courtesy for the audience.  You have a guy saying ‘Pass me the butter’ and it looks like he’s going to be passed a gun.  You don’t want to sit down and say ‘What’s going on?’  You want to feel like you are in good hands being told a story," said Labiano.  "Jame and I try to find the right moment and tool: still camera or wide shot or twist or close-ups.  When you get a good script it is much easier for me as a camera man to know where the camera should be, and how it’s meant to be used, to make the scene better." 

With "Unknown" now released, Labiano is currently focusing on shooting commercials.  While he enjoys the atmosphere of a film set and digging into a film’s preparation, he finds the more flexible schedules on commercial shoots allows him greater time to spend with his family.  Creatively, he finds commercials very fulfilling as well.

"They offer a much more abstract world, there isn’t so much concern about story and dialogue.  A lot of times you meet people that come from a lot of different backgrounds, including art and fashion," said Labiano.  "They allow for such creativity on set.  Commercials are great to work on."