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The DP of ‘10.000KM’ on the Challenges of Capturing Long-Distance Romance

The DP of '10.000KM' on the Challenges of Capturing Long-Distance Romance

Relationships are all about point of view. Everyone goes through life as the hero of their own story, but when a relationship forms, as beautiful and exciting as it is, suddenly there are two protagonists. Can we identify with another person’s point of view? Can we go outside of our own experience and our own feelings and see how they feel? When we really can, when we can feel how the other person in a relationship is experiencing the same situation we are, that’s love.

READ MORE: What’s the Difference Between Shooting a Web Series and an Indie Film?

Accessing a partner’s point of view allows us a new perspective into our own behavior; to see outside ourselves. We learn about our partner and ourselves in immeasurable ways and it is the main building block of intimacy. “10.000KM” is a film about love, intimacy and one couple testing the strength of their relationship over long distance; taking their incredibly intimate and connected relationship and stretching it over an ocean and a continent, filtering it through screens and technology and finding out if it can survive.

Point of view becomes incredibly important to this story. For the audience to feel intimately connected to these two characters, their separate journeys and experiences, the change in the relationship as their worlds become filtered through their fragmenting love and digital screens, there must be incredibly careful use of point of view.

Intimacy and POV was a large part of what [the film’s director] Carlos Marques-Marcet and I discussed when first talking about “10.000KM.” This is a sparse film when you tally actors and locations, but its simplicity is part of the reason the point of view is effective.

How does one quickly make the audience feel years of love between two characters, feel as though they themselves are part of this intimate relationship, and continue to identify with it as it changes and ultimately deteriorates? Carlos had the brilliant idea of inviting the audience to experience the relationship the same way the characters do. At the start of the film, we see Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer) in one long, unbroken take, often a long two shot. We experience their sex, their casual nudity, brushing teeth, making coffee, comfortable and confident silence, 23 minutes of everyday love. We are invited into their private lives, sometimes exciting (watching them climax) sometimes trivial (setting the table and eating toast).

It was important that this long take feel more invisible than epic, and that the rhythm of their relationship and their connection be the focus of the shot. We kept the blocking simple and shot in a real location. The camera never leads, but reacts to the action, moving on a few pieces of simple straight track, often patiently waiting for long periods of time and letting simple pans, tilts and peds do the work.

The camera allows one character to exit and then finds that partner again as the other moves to join them, sometimes following the other and then finding them again in a two shot. Keeping the shot simple keeps the audience focused on the actors and not the technique. It was also important that the light feel natural so that the space feels familiar and identifiable to the audience. We are with them in this very private everyday space. This is a real place and a real couple, in real time. We believe them as a couple. We are onboard with their love. We are excited about it.

When they begin to video chat with each other and try a long distance relationship, we see each scene from the perspective of one of the characters, and the other is only seen through their video chat footage. Rather than intercutting or having a digital Doris Day and Rock Hudson-type split screen, we root ourselves in one character’s point of view. The camera stays in one room with one of them and the audience must access the other character the same way they do: on the computer screen and through the webcam only. We only see our absent lover through pixels. We feel the same yearning for more access to them. What exists off screen around them? What expression is the pixilation and freezing video chat obscuring?

At different points in the movie the audience experiences different sides of the relationship, sometimes in LA and sometimes in Barcelona, but almost never intercutting. I say almost never because one of Carlos’ many strengths is knowing when to break his carefully constructed rules so that the audience receives a surprise or release. The cut becomes incredibly important and when it happens it becomes special and moving. For the majority of the film though, the audience is with one or the other and this is how the careful balance is made so that it is possible to feel for and identify with both protagonists. We go on both of their journeys in this relationship. We feel the alienation of the new Los Angeles with Alex, but we also identify with Sergi as Alex begins exploring and she leaves both the audience and Sergi behind. She disappears visually from the film and we feel her absence, emotionally and literally.

The simplicity of the construct, two main characters and two locations, also keeps the focus on the relationship and not any of the events or adventures that exist outside of it that are causing the two to grow apart. If the camera were to show the roadtrips that Alex takes or the friends Sergi is out with in energetic Barcelona, the audience would receive a break from the relationship, a release, and new energy. By limiting the point of view and experiencing the outside world only through the digital snippets sent to each other, the audience is left to imagine the life each is having outside, which is exactly what the characters are forced to do.

The audience feels the same claustrophobia, the same frustrations. Alex and Sergi ask each other: “Can we talk about anything other than our relationship?” and we feel how much their love has changed. It’s no longer a source of energy for them; instead it consumes them and must be continually fed. As anyone who has been in a long distance relationship can tell you, claustrophobia is one of the main hurdles. Glued to a screen, the relationship can become your entire world and you miss out on anything happening in the real world outside your room.
Though long distance relationships are very common now (and often when I am traveling to shoot I live in one with my husband; I’d be lying if I said the scene where Sergi and Alex lay next to each other in bed via two sideways laptops isn’t based off a personal story I told Carlos about) I remember distinctly the first time I observed a real long distance relationship. It was my first year in college. Most of the people on my dorm floor were new to the city and we would go out exploring all the time. There was one girl, however, who always opted out to stay back in her room. I would walk by in the hall and see her sitting in front of the glowing screen. She missed so much. The world was taking place outside and she wasn’t getting to benefit from her new city or life at all. Instead, she was so frustrated and tethered to her old one.

This is exactly what Alex, Sergi and, ultimately, the audience face together in “10.000KM.” We needed to capture the authenticity of this feeling. Of being torn between two places and not ever really being present in either. The balance is incredibly complicated. By the last half of the film Alex, Sergi, and the audience long for the simple unspoken intimacy at the start of the film. We have gone from a long two shot to two intercutting singles. Will it ever become a two shot again?

READ MORE: ‘10,000 KM’ Director On How to Shoot a Long Distance Romance Via Video Chat

The intimacy felt by the audience is also created by the authenticity that every department strove for during production. We often tried to shoot in order. David (Sergi) was never allowed to come to the “LA” set and was separated from Natalia (Alex) though they were live video chatting within the scenes. There is something special about when you haven’t been to a place, but you have seen it. You have a very particular picture in your mind of what the rest of it might be like and if you ever are to see it in person its very interesting how the real layout affects you emotionally. Though our two sets were about a half an hour away from each other in Barcelona, we strove to have them feel very distinct and this affected our framing and lighting approaches. Our Barcelona apartment has some great frames within frames and lots of strong verticals much like the Gothic old quarter of the city, while our “Los Angeles” has a lot of clean horizontals and bright light. Carlos and I attended the graduate film program at UCLA so it was very important to us to capture the feeling of the light in LA.

We tried to bring that consideration into all of our choices from which units and diffusion down to working closely with the production designer to choose the exact color of white the room would be painted as that would have a large impact on the quality of the light. It also happened to be an incredibly small location with low ceilings but I had voted for it when we were scouting over Skype because of its amazing cactus so I can’t complain about that challenge!

To replicate the time zones one set was always in night while one was in day, as we were always rolling three “cameras” (one Red Epic and then recording both video chats). This setup was also helpful for performance as one set had the main crew (wherever the Red was) and the other set only had one or two people at most besides the actor, creating a very real feeling of isolation. Recording with two computers and an Epic with live video chats also created a technical challenge. One computer was not only a camera recording the web chat and holding a specific frame but also a prop in the Epic’s shot. Two other computers were needed at each location – one connection for Carlos to communicate with the actor, and another video chat open for me to communicate with our remote gaffer about light, framing and subject placement etc. Though logistically complex, this was an incredibly invigorating way to work and made the authentic performances possible. The actors are not playing to a blank screen with tracking markers, they are having a genuine remote relationship. 

Watch the trailer for “10.000KM” below:

“10.000KM” was released theatrically and on VOD on July 10, 2015. Find out more here.

Dagmar Weaver-Madsen, a Danish-American, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, received her MFA in cinematography from UCLA and now splits time between New York and Los Angeles shooting films, music videos, web series and commercials. In addition to Carlos Marques-Marcet’s “10.000KM”, her recent feature work includes Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected” (Sundace 2015). She is also one of the DPs for Vimeo’s critically acclaimed first original web series, “High Maintenance” which moves to HBO in the fall. She is also the recipient of the prestigious American Society of Cinematographer’s William A. Fraker ASC Heritage Award for her work on Alex DeMille’s “The Absence.” Dagmar endeavors to make visually striking projects that compliment great stories and brands.

READ MORE: Review: ‘10.000KM’ Is an Insightful, Moving Romance For the Technology Age

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