Thomas Kiennast about his work „Cortex – Are You Awake?“

Thomas Kiennast about his work  „Cortex – Are You Awake?“

„Cortex – Are You Awake?“ tells the story of Hagen, who can no longer discern between his disturbing nightmares and reality. This fact and his wife Karoline's affair with the criminal Niko weigh heavy on him.

What is it that fascinates you most about being a cameraman?

Well, it enables me to tell stories using pictures. That has always fascinated me – even as a boy with a Super 8 camera. I love reading and visualizing things. The process of making something visual is highly creative, and most of all an incredibly personal and unique one, because everyone has their own way of understanding, interpreting and ultimately doing it. And that's what makes us camerapeople who we are. The different approaches intrigue me. The single greatest thing about making a film is when 10 different people read a page of a screenplay and each one has a different visual interpretation of it! That creative freedom is a veritable playground – a wonderland.

Would you tell us where you get your inspirations from, or are there artists, people, philosophers who have had an influence on you?

I'm not really the kind of person who has role models in that way. There are a lot of things my colleagues do that I love and admire. For example, in “3 Days in Quiberon” the Lebeck photos were omnipresent. They had more than 600 of them. But I myself only looked at them once. I found them so expressive and so good, but it's always difficult to interpret something that is already good. You need your own language to reinvent something in art. Someone who definitely did have a big influence on me though is my father, who is a musician and composer. That artistic vein is always present in my images. Recording movements, finding a harmony with the actors – that's exciting. It's a very musical thing, even if there isn't any music involved. If it works and you get into a kind of hand-held camera dance with an actor, it's just great. So I'm happy to have been given that musical influence in my childhood.

Your versatility is something that truly astonishes me personally. I mean, if I watch a film like "Ich war noch niemals in New York", where everything is so luminous and glittery and colorful, and then compare it with the look of "Cortex", that wants to draw us more into the darkness, it makes me wonder how do you approach a new project?

Well first and foremost, its never about any specific technology for me. ARRI probably doesn't want to hear that, but that's the way it is. I don't really care much about the camera technology. Cranes, or which camera heads or chips are at work behind the scenes is all of secondary importance to me. For me the lens is the first key component. And the second component, in fact the most important one, is the light. For me, the atmosphere is what makes or breaks a film in the end – what the cameraperson makes of it. “Ich war noch niemals in New York” and “Cortex” both have this in common, despite their different illumination and approach. At least that’s how I do it. With my images, I always try to lend support to the narrative, to the message we want to get across. The difficulty in that is developing a visual look that people notice. Not like "OMG is that an amazing technical camera!" but more "Wow, what an atmosphere!".

In fact, I think it's the greatest compliment of all when someone doesn't analyze how a shot came about technically, but just says that the scene, with the setting, the lighting, the acting… that it just swept them up so much that they can't explain it in words.

That's probably more applicable to “Cortex”. With “New York” it happened really often that people said "Holy cow! That's the movies!". When I hear someone who's not from the movie industry say "That was just how I imagine a cinema movie should be," that means to me that the whole big screen was used: with picture, setting, with everything I could fill it with; the maximum a film can offer, which in turn promotes the cinema experience as such. Because when that is the case, everyone – even if they know nothing about film really – can go home with that feeling of "Man! That was a great cinema experience.

Tell me: why did you opt for the Alexa Large Format camera, and what is special about it and the format for you?

That was only on “Cortex”. We shot “New York” with a normal Alexa. I grew up with analog film, and then came the Red, then the Alexa – suddenly changing everything! I was one of the first to use an Alexa – on “Bella Block”. That series was filmed with a 16 millimeter. Then came the paradigm shift and I decided in favor of the Alexa, not the Red, although it was cheaper and everybody was so abuzz about it. I liked the way the camera was built and how it approached things. With its simple menu and leaving out all the bells and whistles that nobody needs, it reminded me of a 35mm camera. I preferred that. That's why I've always been an Alexa man, and probably always will be as long as they continue to make and update them.

Now, when it comes to the Large Format, that really blew me away. People had been trying for ages to keep a rein on the digital medium, the sharpness, the brilliance, with old lenses and then ultimately even with anamorphic lenses, which were more destructive for the shot than anything. They wanted the analog look – I tried it on “New York” too, trying out a set of old Hawk lenses – but in the end I just thought: It cannot be that we approach a medium in a way that makes it inferior to what it actually is. And it cannot be either that anamorph – as great as the format and the lenses are – is the be all and end all. So I didn't want to shoot even anamorphically, but spherically. And there of course, the Large Format was a no-brainer. Because, quite apart from the 65, it's so great to have the same depth of focus, and yet still have the advantage of spherical photography. And now sitting here in a movie theater with it right in front of me, I think I can say it worked really, really well on “Cortex”.

My next question comes from Philipp, the colorist on "Cortex".
What is a "Mini Run"?

You're asking me that? Okay. The Mini Run, ah (laughs) …
Each director has different ways of working with their cameraperson. Some want you to get more involved so they can concentrate on the acting. Then there are more technical directors who like to get involved in the frame, the lighting and the overall look. “New York” was definitely a close collaboration with Philipp Stölzl on all these levels that I really enjoyed. For me as a cameraman it is totally fascinating to make someone's ideas and visions become a reality. In the projects before “New York” I was pretty free in what I was doing. That changed with Philipp, but I enjoyed it immensely.

On “Cortex” I was relatively unbridled creatively, although I had the feeling there that the customary style of shot and reverse shot worked well when staging the scenes. But somehow something was missing, something real and perhaps a little bit unplanned. So I grabbed the Alexa Mini with M 08 Leica lenses – photo lenses – and the Mount and just went right up close to the actors' faces with the close-up lens and said "okay, let's do it one more time". We discussed the scene and I'd get them to say a sentence again, and again, and then look that way and say it again, and now in this direction, and now just don't say anything at all. We did it quite technically, always in the extreme close-up. The actors loved it: Moritz, Nadja, Nicholas Ofczarek, Janis; all of them. Because doing that you get glances, situations, twitches that might not be in the right place at the right time when you shoot them, but then in the editing room they are incredibly helpful if you want to pull back and allow a camera angle that's a bit different. That then became the "Mini Run" that we would shoot extra at the end of every scene we filmed normally.

We used it on the last “Tatort” last September too, by the way, and everybody loved it there too, because getting that close on TV is highly unconventional – a close-up that just goes from the mouth to the eyebrow – especially at the public TV broadcasters. But they were all over the moon about it. It especially gave us a very close look at the police commissioners that was… how shall I say it without hurting any feelings? New (laughs).

What is it like working with Moritz Bleibtreu as a director? Does he have a very set idea of how he wants a scene to look?

When actors are trying out a new job on a film, like when they've written the script or are directing, as Moritz was here, they often look for assistance. Moritz definitely did and we had a talk about just that. When I committed to the film, he wasn't even playing the lead. But then, the way it all turned out it was obvious that if Moritz isn't just writing it, but producing, acting and directing as well, there's definitely going to be more work for me. And so I was given a lot of responsibility! I really can't emphasize enough how much faith he put in me, and I did everything I could to justify that faith. I tried to transform the screenplay, which was highly complex, to the screen in a way that everything comes together.

So it was a collaboration, a good collaboration. Moritz had his freedom to do things the way he saw fit, and I kind looked after the technical stuff in the background so he had his head free. It worked well. The work had a strong foundation in faith and trust, that I must say.

Were LUTs made in advance? And if so, were they also used?

Yes, both for “Cortex” and for “Ich war noch niemals in New York”, and I'm the kind of person who really runs through them on set the way they are written. Irrespective of whether day, night or artificial light, I like to have an LUT. Of course you know that it won't always end up being 100% what you need on the day, but everything is based on it. When editing, which usually stretches out over half a year, it's really nice to have a picture in front of you where you don't have the feeling you're going to have to work like a dog to get it to look good. So yes, I like working with LUTs and I will continue to do so, also on “Chess Story”, my next project, which is together with Philipp again.

“Cortex” wasn't the first time you worked together with ARRI. Can you tell me why you keep coming back to us?

It would be fantastic if it was always my decision alone. I don't want to claim that I can decide which company I go with. I can always just make my request and hope that the financiers and everyone else gives their ok.
I graded both “Das finstere Tal” and “3 Days in Quiberon” with Traudl in Munich, and now these last two films with Philipp here in Berlin Mitte. The fact that I keep coming back is simply because the working environment and methods here are great, and you always have the feeling here that people concentrate on what really matters, and not some kind of "special looks" that someone has the feeling they have to want.

Working on the essence is something I really appreciate and want myself.
That interests me when making films as well. So, getting back to what I said earlier; I don't really care much about the technology. I want the film to look the way it looks. Which projector we use and how and with what settings we achieve it doesn't bother me.

Now I'd like to ask you about the future of filmmaking.
The production methods are changing ever more quickly through new technologies, formats, evaluation options and more efficient workflows. What do you think will be the biggest challenges for a filmmaker in the years to come?

The biggest challenge will be not forgetting how to make movies as such. What time brings with it is an incredible pressure on looks. Everyone is trying to outdo each other with more dark, more colorful, more light, more whatever, to the extent where the time came that I forgot what I was doing it for. I was like: "Does that also make sense for the story?" You know, it isn't necessarily essential to film for instance an underworld story so dark that you can't see anything on the screen anymore.

For me, the biggest challenge is not to get caught up in this wave of having to always squeeze every drop out of everything. And what I also think is really important, especially in the German-speaking region, is that we don't keep trying to copy what's being done overseas, that we focus more on developing our own looks and being courageous in doing so. It's really important that German, or German-language, films have their own visual signature that isn't just based on copying. I try to do that. I don't always succeed, but I always try to find that approach again when I start a new project. That's why I'm not the type to work much with mood images and role models; because I'm afraid of falling into that trap.

So, last but not least I have what might be construed as a somewhat personal question. Where do you see yourself in, let's say, 10 years?

(Laughs) Where I see myself in 10 years? Well, I've quite intentionally been avoiding offers for series in recent years. Maybe a series will become inevitable in the future because there aren't any movie theaters left. But right now I'm still too much of a cinema guy, and I want to stay that way as long as I can, because I still think that the movie theater is the ultimate for a filmmaker.

As long as I continue to find exciting projects, or they find me, I expect I'll still be doing the same thin in 10 years that I'm doing now – making really cool films somewhere on the planet. Although, if the stories, the scripts get too repetitive one day, then I think I'll probably stop in 10 years and do something completely different.


„Cortex – Are You Awake?“ is a production by Paloma Entertainment, Port au Prince Film & Kultur Produktion and Warner Bros. Film Productions Germany. The producers are Moritz Bleibtreu, Emek Kavukcuoglu and Jan Krüger, and Thomas W. Kiennast is associate producer. ARRI Media provided the film post, titles, VFX, mastering and deliverables. The package included ARRI Rental's camera ARRI ALEXA LF with Signature Prime lenses and lights from the MSeries, Tungsten and Skypanels.

„Cortex – Are You Awake?“ premiered on September 25, 2020 at the Filmfest Hamburg, and was then featured at the Zurich Film Festival and the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in the Rebels With A Cause segment. „Cortex – Are You Awake?“  has been in German theaters, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures Germany, since October 22, 2020. ARRI Media International is the global distributor.

Photos: Philipp Orgassa, ARRI Media
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