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ARRI Rental supports Franz Kraus Production Award winner "Almost Home"

Graduating cinematographer Georg Nikolaus describes shooting the Franz Kraus Production Award-winning sci-fi short with ALEXA Mini LF and ARRI Rental's exclusive Hover Dolly.

Sep. 1, 2022

Starting in 2021, ARRI Rental has pledged to recognize stand-out graduation films made by students at the HFF Munich film school with the Franz Kraus Production Award. The winner receives up to €50,000 towards camera, lighting, and grip equipment. In its first year, the award attracted so many high-quality submissions that three projects were chosen to share the prize. One of them is the lehof FICTION production "Almost Home," by director Nils Keller, producer Jonas Lembeck, and cinematographer Georg Nikolaus. The short film is also one of the winners of the 2022 Student Academy Award® in the category "narrative".

In "Almost Home," astronaut Nico takes her son Jakob with her on a two-year trip to Mars, hoping to cure an ailment that restricts him to a wheelchair on Earth. Just before their return, however, they learn that a pandemic has broken out. Concerned for the wellbeing of her immuno-compromised son, Nico wants to turn back to Mars, but Jakob is tired of being isolated and wants to get back home. And so the conflict between the two unfolds.

In this interview, cinematographer Georg Nikolaus talks to us about how this complex graduation film came about, and was filmed in just 11 shooting days. ARRI Rental Munich provided the ARRI ALEXA Mini LF and the Hover Dolly.

What look did you want for the film?

"Almost Home" is a coming-of-age story in a science fiction setting. The visual imagery focuses on the relationship between mother and son, and the changes it undergoes, with one key turning point that we wanted to accentuate in particular. At the start of the film, Jakob experiences weightlessness and the freedom it gives him with his condition. But then gravity kicks in again, confronting him bluntly with his disability. We symbolized that with a stark contrast: the camera initially floats around with Jakob exploring the freedom of weightlessness. Afterwards it is locked in, as if in cement. As Jakob's body then recovers, the camera also gradually learns to walk again.

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Jakob (Jeremias Meyer) and his mother Nico (Susanne Wolff)

What films were inspirations for you?

Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity," with its floating camera that is attached to the lead actor, but also separates and explores the surroundings on its own from time to time. Other references were the tactile futurism of Spike Jonze's "Her," and the claustrophobic world of Lenny Abrahamson's "Room." Our world, the spaceship, is a sterile sci-fi world that our characters have made more homely with personal objects. That is why we break up the sterile blue-grey of the spaceship's interior with bold color accents here and there.

Why did you decide to use the ARRI ALEXA Mini LF?

Nico and Jakob have become estranged over the course of the long journey through space, but at the same time they remain closely bonded as mother and son. We wanted to underscore this dichotomy with the larger format of the ALEXA Mini LF, using longer focal lengths to visually separate and isolate them, without losing the confined feel of the small space they inhabit. The reduced depth of field was another stylistic device for entering the characters' emotional mindset, in combination with shot sizes and the mise-en-scène. The ALEXA Mini LF was ideal for us, not only because of its large sensor, but also because of its compact size.

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Can you describe your approach to camera movement?

Due to our limited budget and the number of minutes we had to shoot each day, we couldn't work with wild walls or just remove parts of the spaceship for certain scenes. The small set made camera movements difficult, but motion was an important part of our visual concept. It was important to me that the camera not only floats, but also rotates, in order to replicate weightlessness. A TRINITY stabilizer rig was beyond our budget. We wanted to film most of the weightless shots without stunt rigs and use camera movements to enhance the actors' floating. The ALEXA Mini LF enabled us to do so, mounted on a Ronin 2, or for some scenes with the gimbal mounted on a Steadicam arm. In addition to the gimbal operator, there was a second person who operated the gimbal using a DJI Force Pro.

Do you have a favorite scene in "Almost Home"?

I'm really happy with the sequence when the spaceship docks onto the orbital ring. It turns 180° as it comes in, while at the same time rotating around its own axis. With ARRI Rental's help we were able to rig a Hover Dolly on XD-truss which carried a large tungsten light mounted on a Max Mover. I wanted the big Fresnel lens of a 20 kW that could be moved along the spaceship as closely and low as possible, to cast realistic-looking shadows on the inside. Three lighting technicians pulled the lamp on cables, while another pivoted the lamp with the Max Mover to keep the focal point on the cockpit of the spaceship.

We filmed in a fairly small warehouse, so we had to set up the lifting platforms, and the truss attached to them, diagonally to the spaceship. And with the ceiling not being all that high, the Hover Dolly was perfect because of its small size. I think the combination of moving light and rotating camera works really well. A rotating space station was inserted in VFX, creating a real sense of weightlessness.

How was the collaboration with ARRI Rental?

I found ARRI Rental's support very positive and rewarding. Bastian Prützmann's advice was especially beneficial; he recommended the Hover Dolly. We always had the feeling that there would be a solution to every issue that might arise -- when testing lenses in advance, in the advisory meetings, and in the support provided during the shoot. It showed me how beneficial a close relationship with a rental company can be. Their expertise was invaluable, especially because the project was technically so demanding -- as were innovations like the Hover Dolly.

What was your lighting concept?

The sun plays a big part as a light source in our film. Direct sunlight also helped us to bridge over changing daytimes and the many time gaps in the script. It was important to me that the practicals installed in the ship largely work as personal lighting, something that we backed up with Carpetlights in the close-ups. For that my practical electrician and rigging gaffer Finn Gosch mounted more than 100 meters of LED strips onto the back of opaque Plexiglas, which we controlled via DMX with a tablet. It wasn't easy getting the more-or-less omnipresent sunlight right, especially with the ship moving: that required detailed planning with the gaffer Moritz Virmond and ARRI Rental.

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Cinematographer Georg Nikolaus operating the ALEXA Mini LF

What other challenges were there?

The biggest one was finding a style that we could uphold throughout, so that the film didn't fall apart visually, and the optically imposing scenes didn't overwhelm the quieter moments. And the immense technical scope was a challenge, with so little time available. The elaborate set construction often made fast changes impossible, and a technically clean chroma key at each window was essential for post. But it all worked out in the end, thanks to painstaking preparation and having the right tools at our disposal.

Is there a filming moment that you look back on with special fondness?

We had planned the entire film with a Sketchup model of the spaceship, and we were as familiar with it as if we had flown to Mars in it ourselves. So, when the set was actually built and the practicals and the 20 kW Fresnel lit up the outside, bringing it to life - that was a pretty special moment.

"Almost Home" premiered in July 2022 at the LA Shorts International Film Festival, and is a winner at the 49th annual Student Academy Awards®, with the awards ceremony taking place in LA on October 20th.

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Jakob (Jeremias Meyer) and Nico (Susanne Wolff) arrive at the space station