INTERVIEW: Achieving the Cinematic Impossible; "Russian Ark" DP Tilman Buttner Discusses What It's Like To Make History
by Matthew Ross/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE: 11.26.02) — Before Alexander Sokurov made “Russian Ark,” great single shot sequences — like the openings of Orson Welles‘ “Touch of Evil” and Robert Altman‘s “The Player,” the Copacabana scene in “Goodfellas,” or any number of shots orchestrated by the late, great Andrei Tarkovsky — rarely lasted more than five or six minutes. But now, thanks to talent, technology, and overwhelming ambition, all previous marks have been shattered with “Russian Ark,” the longest interrupted shot in film history and the first feature film ever to be shot in a single take.
“Russian Ark” takes in St. Petersburg’s legendary Hermitage museum and consists of one continuous 90-minute shot that traverses 300 years of Russian history. The protagonists are a time traveler, whose subjective vantage point is represented by the camera’s point-of-view, and a nameless 19th century French diplomat, who acts as our tour guide. More than 1,000 actors and extras appear in the film, which culminates in a spectacularly choreographed ballroom dance sequence.
Indeed, while Sokurov may be the driving creative force behind the film, cinematographer Tilman Buttner is its technical muscle. Long-known as one of Europe’s top Steadicam operators (he was responsible for chasing Franka Potente around in Tom Tyker‘s “Run Lola Run“), Buttner was faced with the daunted task of supervising the crew’s extensive pre-production rehearsal period — which included several mid-shot lighting and set changes — and then operating the custom designed HD camera, which recorded the film’s images onto hard disk. indieWIRE senior editor sat down with Buttner at the Mayflower Hotel during this year’s New York Film Festival, where the cinematographer discussed his role in the making of this historical film. Wellspring Media will release “Russian Ark” on early in December.
indieWIRE: I want to commend you on this film. On its technical merits alone, it’s one of the most impressive movies ever made. You were doing something that no one had done before, and it’s scope so ambitious. How did you get involved?
Tilman Buttner: Two years before the filming began I was approached by the producers, who asked me if I was interested to do a film with Alexander Sokurov in very few takes, possibly just one.
iW: How did you react when they brought up the possibility of only one shot?
Buttner: I was delighted that someone had the courage to do something like that. Sokurov’s desire was to make it the highest technical quality available. I was also very interested in the highest quality of the photographic image. Originally, Mr. Sokurov wanted to film with a Mini-DV camera. It was cheaper, but this camera could only handle 90 minutes. That wasn’t possible then with a professional video camera. But I was acquainted with a technology company that were developing high definition cameras for Sony called Director’s Friend, and I contacted them
Buttner: I suggested to the producer that this was the only camera with which to make the film. It was brand new and we made several tests on it. The video material was similar to 35mm; we were very convinced with the quality of it. One major problem was the time, because there were no cuts allowed. One shot, one take, no cut. Therefore, a special hard drive was developed.
iW: What did the Director’s Friend do?
Buttner: It recorded onto hard disk and recorded uncompressed HD images. It’s one terabyte of storage that holds of 90 minutes. It was a great risk to work with it, because it was never done before!
iW: What if it broke or malfunctioned? Could it be replaced?
Buttner: There was a back up, in case the first one was broken. I built myself a special Steadicam system.
iW: You were the only camera operator?
iW: When Sokurov began writing the screenplay for the film, did he consult with you on what was possible or impossible to do?
Buttner: The script was already finished, but during rehearsal time we discovered that Sokurov’s concepts were not possible. He would walk with me and told me, “You are the camera. You have the camera and you have the freedom.” He wouldn’t hinder my filming — he was very considerate in that respect.
iW: Once you finished the script and got the camera, how did you go about filming the shot?
Buttner: In the seven weeks I spent at the Hermitage, we walked the route of the camera five times. Only five times in seven weeks. We talked about the picture, and discussed the route of the Hermitage, because you constantly have to think where to hide the lighting. We started on December 23 in St. Petersburg, and we only had four hours to film because they wanted to use the natural light.
iW: After you had the route planned, and you knew where the extras would be, once the camera went into a new room, you had a set of people and a crew preparing the room for when you went back in. How did you make that work?
Buttner: That was one of the most important things we had to work out, because that was one of the things that Sokurov feared most. There was a fear that the audience would tire out if it: the same route going into one room from another. There was a rehearsal for those transitions, which were done in the last week before filming began. They were the first rehearsals with all the actors and the main character, the Marquis. Other than that, there were no complete rehearsals, not for the actors, the extras, the crew, no lighting rehearsal.
iW: You didn’t record any sound, right?
Buttner: No, that was done later. Every time I did the take, or someone else made a mistake, I would curse, and that would have gotten in, so we did the sound later.
iW: Back to the actual shoot: You had four hours to shot, so did you have one chance or two to shoot?
Buttner: One chance.
iW: That’s what I thought, because once you start, it must take hours to set everything back up.
Buttner: Yes, and because of my physical endurance, I could only do one take. The system I was carrying weighed 35 kilograms [77 pounds].
iW: How did you train for it?
Buttner: Working with the steady cam since 1988 was the best preparation. The producer was afraid that it might be too much stress for me, so he recommended that I join a gym to get in shape. I was already enrolled, but never went, so the producer joined as well, to oversee my workout. In the end, he was there more than I was. I had a very odd schedule, so they were never there at the same time anyway.
iW: How many extras were used in the film? And how many crew members?
Buttner: There were 1300 extras and 186 actors. My crew included 10 for the camera and recording system, 14 lighting men, and 22 assistant directors. The ADs were most important because they rehearsed with the single actors and extras in factory hall, never in the Hermitage. I want to clarify that when we said that we didn’t have a rehearsal that means no full dress rehearsal. The dancing, the waltz, the hundreds of people at the ball, these were rehearsed with the AD.
iW: There is this feeling, when you are watching the movie of how important this film is, how it’s making history. As you watch the film, I couldn’t believe you were able to do this.. It’s very exhausting to watch. You hope nothing bad happens. At the end, you can see that the Marquis [Sergei Dreiden] is exhausted, but there is a moment of exaltation that you can see on his face, this expression of relief that it was pulled off. I was also wondering what you, Sokurov, and Dreiden must have been thinking?
Buttner: Sokurov intended for the actor to portray this feeling of working at something for years, and now it’s over. But at the same time it was intended to show relaxation and relief. It was an improvisation, but it didn’t look improvised, it fit perfectly. It was really a challenge, because I had to see everything. I had to see the actions of the actors, and view all the extras, which was difficult, because I had never seen them before, because I had never been to any of the rehearsals. I had to be flexible, but the film was not supposed to show any kind of distraction.
iW: Once you finished the shot, how did you feel?
Buttner: I was thoroughly exhausted, and at that moment I didn’t feel totally satisfied, I had known of tiny mistakes that had happened of which only Sokurov and I were aware. He was not satisfied either. He had to speak the crew, but at the same time direct the actors, sometimes it was not as synchronized as he wanted it to be.
iW: Have you and Sokurov changed your minds? Are you now satisfied with the film?
Buttner: For a conventional film you have between 40 and 80 days of filming, minimum, it’s almost impossible that small mistakes won’t happen. I knew that they would have to correct things in post-production, since 45 rooms had to be lit in 26 hours, That’s why they knew from the beginning that the finest shades of lighting would be difficult to achieve. They had to create a light to make it possible for them to work with the imperfections and clarify them in post-production.
iW: Would you do a film like this again?
Buttner: It all depends on the director and the story, and more time for rehearsal. Yes, maybe. But I would want to do something completely different, more traditional. This was more like a play. I would like to do a more dramatic film.