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1st AC Ken Macdonald on "We Are the Wave"

Macdonald speaks to ARRI Rental about pulling focus on the German Netflix series, captured with ALEXA LF cameras and DNA LF lenses.

Directed by Anca Miruna Lazarescu and Mark Monheim, and shot by cinematographer Jan-Marcello Kahl, "We Are the Wave" is about a diverse group of teenage social vigilantes in a fictional German city called Meppersfeld. 1st AC Ken Macdonald here shares his thoughts on the production, his role on set, and how his career began at ARRI Rental.

You started out as a trainee at ARRI Rental. When was this, and what are your memories of that time?  

My first experience with ARRI cameras was in 2006: six weeks as a camera trainee in India for the movie "Gandhi, My Father," directed by Feroz Abbas Kahn and shot by my own father, David Macdonald. That was filmed on an ARRIFLEX 535 with Cooke S4 lenses. I didn't have a clue what I was doing and had never before experienced what it was like on set, but I guess I take after my dad, because I was hooked, and he was the one who recommended ARRI Munich.
 

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1st AC Ken Macdonald (left) and DP Jan-Marcello Kahl (foreground) with other crew members

In January 2007 I was taken on by ARRI Rental as a trainee, and I ended up spending around seven or eight months there. Wolfgang Reichel, who helped us with our setup for "We Are the Wave," as well as Manfred Jahn, Markus Vassallo, and Bastian Prützmann are still there now, and were incredibly patient with my endless questions. I have great memories of my time there; I still get on great with everyone, and I learned a lot.

What are the responsibilities of a 1st AC?

The 1st AC doesn't just pull focus, they run the camera department for the DP, like the gaffer does the lighting department, and the key grip the grip department. The DP gives me what I think of as their "letter to Santa." I write it up and get in touch with Santa (in this case ARRI Rental). I like to get the 2nd AC involved at this point as well. On this shoot we had Miriam Metzger, without whom I would have been lost, at times. The 2nd AC is essential, because they help keep track of all the equipment. Plans are constantly changing on set, so you need to be able to react. If the 1st and 2nd AC don't work as a unit, then the whole team has to wait. I need to be focused on what is going to be happening with, and in front of, the camera. 

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How was the handling and workflow of the ALEXA LF? 

I like the ALEXA LF, especially in combination with ARRI's Wireless Video System. Digital cinematography has simplified filmmaking, but it has also added the "joy" of camera menus. These can be a nightmare, but luckily with the LF, ARRI has stuck to tradition and managed to keep it very simple and intuitive. It is also a robust camera. For a lot of our shoot it was very cold and wet, but I don't remember this ever being an issue for the camera.

"We Are the Wave" was mainly shot handheld, but we also had a lot of Steadicam and Ronin shots. We needed to find a setup that would allow us to switch as quickly as possible. Michael Rathgeber, our A-camera operator, came up with the configuration. He stripped the camera down and just added the bare necessities. ARRI Rental were also a huge help, because they built a special V-Mount adapter for the Ronin setup, enabling us to attach the battery underneath the LF, thereby shortening the camera by around four inches, which in terms of dynamic balance is a lot.
 

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You had some exterior night scenes--what are the difficulties of shooting at night? 

I think, as a focus puller, the first thing you associate with night shoots is shooting wide open. We had ARRI Rental's DNA LF series, which are really nice lenses: well built, not too heavy, and a good focal depth. Because they open up to T1.5 to T2, you can get a really nice depth of focus on the wider lenses, too. They have a nice contrast without losing their softness. This looks great in low light situations and the LF sensor adds to this. It's a challenge for the focus puller, but it wouldn't be much fun if it was too easy, would it?

What was your favorite lens?

I don't know that there is such a thing as a favorite lens for a focus puller, it depends on the scene. Pulling focus can be very technical, but it also plays a part in helping to tell the story. You can guide the audience or distract them. You can use it to reveal something. So for me it's all about the right lens and the right stop for the right shot. I started off mainly pulling focus for Steadicam, and all of my DPs and operators did a lot of handheld, meaning that I had to learn to rely on my instincts rather than a tape measure in a lot of situations. I believe the ability to do this is a huge advantage for focus pullers. Directors such as Anca Miruna Lazarescu and Mark Monheim, who we had on "We Are the Wave," see this as a quality they can use to enhance their storytelling.
 

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Do any scenes stick out in your memory as being particularly interesting or challenging?

There are scenes which I remember as being fun to shoot. Time is a very valuable commodity on set, and can be as rare as gold dust. This can be stressful, but it can also lead to great moments of teamwork. In episode three there is a getaway scene with a campervan, where all five of the main characters are running away with suitcases. The shot began in a stairwell, went through a doorway, and into the campervan, which then drove off. Because of the lack of space, we planned to cut to the B-camera waiting inside the van for the moment they get in and drive off. However, this only served to take out the sense of urgency that was needed for the scene.
 

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These are moments where working with a DP like Jan-Marcello Kahl can be so rewarding. He is very attentive to detail when choosing his team and he gives us a lot of freedom to use our own initiative. Michael Rathgeber suggested a camera handover through the window of the campervan to the B-camera operator waiting inside. This meant we were able to turn two or three shots with two cameras into one shot with one camera. It was also a situation where having a tool like the ARRI Wireless Video System and the reliable WCU-4 wireless control unit helped, because there is no way for me to be in two places at once. I realize it isn't the most exciting of shots, but it was a great example of how teamwork, a little creativity, and trust in each other's ability can make a difference to a scene. And it was just great fun to shoot.

How was the support from ARRI Rental?

ARRI Rental's Wolfgang Reichel and Manfred Jahn were particularly supportive. It wasn't all smooth sailing, we had a couple of issues which were new to ARRI Rental as well, but they found a solution in most cases and if they couldn't, they at least helped us find an alternative route. They also provided us with a never-before-used prototype 24 mm Moviecam lens, so fresh that they didn't even have time to engrave the scales--they were hand-written in marker pen!
 

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