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ALEXA 65 and DNA lenses on “Schachnovelle”

DP Thomas W. Kiennast on why he chose ARRI Rental’s exclusive 65 mm format and customizable DNA lenses for the period chess drama “Schachnovelle” (“The Royal Game”).

Based on the 1941 novella by Stefan Zweig, “Schachnovelle” (“The Royal Game”) stars Oliver Masucci as Dr. Bartok, a lawyer who is imprisoned by the Nazis and submerges himself in the world of chess as a form of psychological escape. Director Philipp Stölzl teamed with cinematographer Thomas W. Kiennast, whose longstanding relationship with ARRI Rental prompted him to go beyond large format and explore 65 mm capture. He speaks here about his experiences with the ALEXA 65 system and with detuning Prime DNA lenses in collaboration with ARRI Rental lens technicians. 

Could you describe where and when “Schachnovelle” is set, and the tone of the story?

The novella takes place at the time the Nazis came to power in Austria; a very restless and diffuse time. The great gap between the old-money nobility and the rebellious proletariat grew bigger and bigger. The film treats this upheaval only as a prologue at the beginning. We wanted to get to the essence of the story very quickly—how a man's pride is systematically destroyed by his tormentors. The perfidiousness of the Nazis was their persistence and their manic bureaucracy. The film reflects this in many small details and asks the question: how long does it take to break a person?

What kind of a look did you want to create? Did you have any visual references? 

It was important to us to give the film a visual credibility without losing its own style. I hardly work with references or moods. For me, what counts are the images that I visualize when I read the story for the first time. Philipp and I wanted to create big pictures for cinema, but also to be very intimate with Oliver. 65 mm emerged as the right format for these priorities.

How exactly did that decision emerge, to shoot with ALEXA 65?

The film has kind of a visual curve. In the beginning, there are great show values in wide settings, but the story is systematically condensed and reduced to one room. Nevertheless, we didn't want to change or lose details and blur. It needed a consistent format. From the start we planned to shoot with ALEXA LF, which I had used before on two movies. Still, I thought “Schachnovelle” needed another component, something that would increase the show value in the cinema, and that quickly took us to 65 mm. The combination of the ALEXA 65 with the beautiful DNA lenses inspired us.

What would you say is special and unique about the 65 mm format?

That is a very subjective feeling. What particularly impressed me were the details in the wide settings. It's just fun to see big, long shots in this format. In the close-ups, the format develops incredibly beautiful blurring with very, very soft transitions. Even a blurred picture has an incredibly powerful effect. The ALEXA chip shows its true ability in this size; the details in the lower areas are really nice. I used very high ISO, simply because the format allows it and a certain background noise seemed interesting to me.

Describe the look of the DNAs and why you chose them for “Schachnovelle.”

Each of these lenses has its own different character, and getting to know them is what you have to earn. In advance, I spent a long time looking at our lens sets and testing them. Understanding when and how a lens is showing its advantage is a lengthy process, but if you get through it, you will be rewarded with a beautiful picture. Each lens acts differently. You have to subordinate yourself to these lenses, otherwise you gamble away their quality. The way in which the sharpness turns out and how the highlights react is very independent. In the lower exposure space, some of the lenses make very strange contrast shifts. You have to work with them and also serve them. But you will be rewarded.

You worked with ARRI Rental to detune the lenses. What was that process like, and what support did you get?

The support from ARRI Rental is always very comprehensive and great. We were able to test all the lenses more precisely and after many tests we fulfilled my wishes for focus and contrast performance. In the end we translated the DNA of “Schachnovelle” into the DNA of our lenses, which was a unique experience for me. In fact, I didn't use more than four lenses. We didn't have any more on set either.

Have you been working with ARRI Rental for a long time?

Yes, for many years. I think my first intensive project with ARRI Rental was “Das finstere Tal.” I just like to work with people I know, and the trust increases with every project. You no longer have to explain everything from scratch, instead you can concentrate on the new tasks to be solved. Every project is different and each time I want to experiment for as long as possible, and push the limits. For that you need a good partner who understands the process and goes along with it. That’s ARRI Rental, for sure.

What advice would you give to young cinematographers starting out?

My motto is always: be brave. Never do something just to please or impress someone else. Creative work always has to come from you, first and foremost. Your own vision is important. Only then can you adapt and compromise with directors or the production. But once you lose heart, it's like losing part of your own creative power. This makes the visual quality of films weaker and more interchangeable. And it’s important to remember that it never has to be big strides; it’s about the small details. Barely noticeable ideas can be enough to strengthen confidence in your own creative power because above all, you have to trust yourself in order to create images.

How does it feel to walk onto set for the first setup on the first day? 

I'm always excited before the first day of a film shoot. No matter what the project. It's that fear of not finding the right picture, not finding the right workflow. But I also love that moment after the first take, the realization that this is how we’re going to do it for the next six weeks. For me this is filmmaking, and I hope to never lose this fear.