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ARRI Rental supports Franz Kraus Production Award winner “Dead Girls Dancing”

Graduating cinematographer Felix Pflieger talks about shooting "Dead Girls Dancing" with the ARRI ALEXA Mini and ARRI Rental Moviecam lenses.

Jun. 27, 2023

Since 2021, ARRI Rental has been endowing the Franz Kraus Production Award to support a promising graduation film project produced by students of Munich's HFF film school. 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. Among them was “Dead Girls Dancing” by director Anna Roller and cinematographer Felix Pflieger. The team previously won the German Short Film Award in 2021 with their film “Gör” – also supported by ARRI Rental.

“Dead Girls Dancing” tells the story of high-school graduates Ira, Malin, and Ka, who pick up the mysterious backpacker Zoe while on a graduation road trip through Italy. When their car breaks down, they look for help in a deserted mountain village, unaware that it has been evacuated because of an impending forest fire. The film was shot between August and October 2021 with an ALEXA Mini camera and Moviecam lenses – as well as lighting and grip equipment – provided by ARRI Rental Munich. In this interview, cinematographer Felix Pflieger talks about the filming experience.

What look did you want for “Dead Girls Dancing”?

The story is told from the perspective of the main character, Ira. The idea was that the camera would not look at her and the other girls from the outside, nor did we want to draw attention to that by overdoing the aesthetics. So, we pretty much went without dollies and tripods, and instead shot especially the first half of the film almost entirely shoulder mounted. We got really up-close and personal on the girls, and the physical proximity enabled us to get numerous portraits of them. And because, seen together, they are too large for a single frame, we decided to go with an aspect ratio of 4:3. We wanted to create a tactile, textured look and worked a lot with reflecting surfaces like glass, stone, and drops of perspiration on skin. In order to pull the audience along in the film's momentum, we wanted to use as few shots as possible. We put all these thoughts into a document and printed it out for all departments. At the same time, we wanted to remain open to the process with the actors, and not feel constrained by those advance plans when shooting.

What films were visual inspirations for you?

 We were influenced by the films of Lucrecia Martel and Philippe Grandrieux, for instance, and by David Raboy's “The Giant.” And with regard to the handheld camerawork, by Alfonso Cuarón's “Children of Men” and also the photography of Bill Henson and Justine Kurland.

What equipment did you film with?

As it was director Anna Roller's and my HFF graduation film, we had enormous creative freedom, but also a very strict budget and limited equipment options. We shot most of the film in an Italian village with a very small crew. The camera and lighting team was made up of only seven people. We had an ALEXA Mini, Moviecam lenses, a Maxima gimbal and, as a B-camera, a Panasonic S1H with Cooke S2 and S3 lenses from the film school. The lighting kit comprised two Aputure 600Ds, two Digital Sputnik DS6s, and a few Carpet Lights, Aladdins, and Asteras. Apart from that we worked a lot with available light, using reflectors and especially butterfly frames and negative fill. Our entire equipment package fitted into three Mercedes Sprinter vans.

Why did you decide to use the ALEXA Mini and Moviecam lenses?

We wanted a small, lightweight, and versatile camera system because we mostly shot handheld and sometimes in inaccessible places. We wanted to create the feeling of being right there with the girls, but at the same time to also see the lead figure through an emotional prism.

We tested a lot at ARRI Rental to find just the right lenses, which was made possible by winning the Franz Kraus Production Award. It gave us the opportunity to work with Manfred Jahn (Head of Camera Rental in Munich) and tell him exactly what we wanted to achieve. And that was how we came across the Moviecam series, which he brought with him into the testing room, and which was probably the most important component in shaping the film's look.

The 35 mm and 50 mm focal lengths were the right choice for us, especially in the 4:3 format, because of their three-dimensional, almost medium-format visual impression. In doing the tests we also found out that we wanted to shoot the film between T4 and T5.6, so as not to lose sight of the outside world. For that, the Moviecams had a really nice softness about them, and I think more character than faster lenses. All the same, we did open the lenses all the way from time to time on the nighttime scenes. Since I’m pretty well acquainted with the ALEXA Mini, we decided to go with it together with the ISO 3200. The sensor texture was one way of making the film as tactile as possible.

Together with our colorist, Ze Maria Abreu Santos, we put together a show LUT to make sure the film had that sunbaked look from the outset. The underexposure also gave us a bit more latitude in the highlights, which worked very well, especially in the many exterior shots we filmed during the day. We also combined the lenses with filters all the time. We had thought out a filter progression in advance that was to enhance the storyline, and we used mainly Ultra Contrast and Bronze Glimmerglass in various densities.

What was your lighting concept?

For the overlying story arc, we wanted to create a contrast between the beginning, middle, and end of the film. The characters come from the civilized world, where there is electric and neon light. They then leave that behind them and enter the world of the Italian village where they are alone, there is no electricity, the sun is scalding, and only the small houses give shade. We wanted to light everything there as naturally as possible, use the sun's rays through windows and such like, and also allow the direct glare of the midday sun. At the same time, we wanted to stick to the desired look. So, we made up a few rules for ourselves.
For instance, when indoors, we wanted to feel what was going on outdoors. We didn't want to illuminate artificially at all, if possible, and we didn't employ any extra decorative lamps, or eye lights, or spots. We wanted to light entire rooms and not specific scene positions, so that we could film with a minimum of set rebuilds and the actors weren't irritated by lots of technical equipment. We used mainly LED lamps and our total electricity consumption for the entire film was below 5 kW.

How was the collaboration with ARRI Rental?

Dominik Schmidt (Project Manager ARRI Rental Munich) took care of everything to do with rental logistics for us, and ordered various components such as the only two DS6s that can be found in all of Europe, and the Maxima. When we had a problem with the camera and the internal ND wouldn't tilt out, ARRI sent us a replacement camera within two days. That saved the whole shoot. It's such a relief to know that you are going to be helped fast when issues arise – even if you are in the middle of nowhere on a hill in Italy.

What were the biggest challenges you faced?

Keeping the lighting concept consistent, reacting to changes in the shooting schedule, keeping an eye on the weather – because we shot a lot with available light. And the car stunt was a big challenge. We only had one night to do it and then a storm came up and stopped the night shoot prematurely. Then there was the cow that was suddenly standing in the middle of the road! Shooting a road movie in just 24 days with little equipment and a small crew was a baptism of fire for many of us in the team, including me.

“Dead Girls Dancing” will be celebrating a shared premiere in June 2023 at both the Tribeca Film Festival and the Munich Filmfest.