Illuminating The Dark Shadows In “The Raven”
Cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann, A.C.S., regards the years he spent working on Australian commercials as a blessing.
"Shooting commercials for me has been wonderful training," said Ruhlmann. "Each week I’m working with a different director, idea, and script. I’m able to explore new equipment and new technology. There are challenges I face every day in commercials, and sometimes pieces of equipment and techniques I use to solve them can flow through to feature films very easily."
Ruhlmann began his production career as an apprentice for an Australian TV station straight out of high school. Eager to expand his horizons and skill set after a few years at the station, Ruhlmann began looking at film schools in the U.S. He settled on the American Film Institute’s program due to its "hands on" approach. Graduating a year later, Ruhlmann returned to Australia where he’s become one of the leading commercial DPs. Ruhlmann has also been the DP for some of Australia’s major features, receiving the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA) award for best cinematography for "In a Savage Land" and Australian Film Institute and FCCA best cinematography nominations for "Little Fish."
While achieving consistent success as a DP in Australia, Ruhlmann sifted through scripts sent to him for American films. When he read "The Raven," the cinematic possibilities immediately hooked him and he jumped at the opportunity.
"My imagination went crazy while I was reading the script and I could see the visual opportunities, and that was the main thing that grabbed my attention," said Ruhlmann.
Reconnecting with director James McTeigue, whom Ruhlmann worked with on a few commercials, Ruhlmann began referencing the work and life of Edgar Allan Poe, the main character in this thriller that presents a serial killer copying Poe’s fictional murders in 19th century Baltimore. Throughout pre-production McTeigue also shared points of reference from films as diverse as "Kill Bill" and "Citizen Kane" to Vincent Van Gogh’s painting entitled "The Potato Eaters." After researching the project, Ruhlmann began focusing on two key visual elements: lighting and negative space.
The film’s lighting focuses on pitting highlights in the characters’ faces against the shadows that surround them. Working closely with production designer Roger Ford, sets were constructed with additional spaces for lighting set-ups to enhance the depth and shadows. A prime example of this was a Serbian fortress tunnel system Ford recreated after the crew discovered their equipment wouldn’t fit on location.
"What Roger did was fantastic. He created small side tunnels and spaces within the tunnels that allowed me to put in lights," said Ruhlmann. "Toward the end of the tunnel it wouldn’t just disappear, it would go around in an arc, so I could place a small lamp in the background to give us that depth we required that would be enough to silhouette the foreground."
Ruhlmann’s second key visual element for "The Raven" was negative space. He created negative space through framing, focus and shadows. Framing alternated from tighter than usual shots of an actor to opening up the space around the actor, creating an area the viewer wouldn’t expect to see. The actor’s eyes were kept tightly in focus while the background would generally fall off the frame. Shadows were as well maintained as the actor’s lighting exposure, giving the audience a sense there is something ever present, just lurking out of sight.
"The reason to use negative space in this way was important to engage the audience," said Ruhlmann. "I feel that if the audience has to think about what is in the shadows, or what is happening in another part of the frame, it takes them away from their reality and draws them into the story a bit more."
Because most Australian features have a forty day shooting schedule, Ruhlmann was familiar with the economical length of the production. He also felt the rainy, bleak, wintery weather during the two weeks of location shooting in Hungary worked perfectly for the film’s mood and lighting. What did prove a bit complicated was finding crew in the unfamiliar countries. Once Albrecht Silberberger, a German gaffer who had worked with McTeigue on previous projects, came on board, Ruhlmann reached out to fellow DPs and additional contacts to acquire the remaining crew members.
"For me, lighting is the most important thing, so once I had my gaffer in place, I started feeling much more comfortable," said Ruhlmann. "I had some crew I worked with that had just signed up to do ‘Ghost Rider 2’ shooting in Romania, so I just missed out on hiring them, but they recommended another camera department out of the UK, so I managed to get those guys involved. Even though I didn’t know those guys, I had some recommendations from others whose opinions I respected, and that’s how the crew came together."
At the time "The Raven" was shot, Ruhlmann chose to shoot on film to ensure the image had a timeless feel that captured the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe and his work. Ruhlmann also felt with a tight schedule and some precarious conditions there wasn’t room with the experimentation sometimes necessary using digital cameras. While he admits he would still choose film for "The Raven" if it began shooting today, that choice would be based on sentimental reasons alone.
"The cameras, especially the new Arri digital cameras, are able to create a textural field within the electronic medium, and that is what I think most cinematographers have been waiting for," said Ruhlmann. "The cinematographer’s job is to adapt to technology and use technology to create a visual image. I love film, but technology is catching up very quickly and soon there will be no reason not to shoot digital."