Christoph Hoffsten and Benjamin-Schubert at the ARRI Rental Berlin branch

What does it take to be head of a rental house camera department?

Podcaster Benjamin Schubert interviews Christoph Hoffsten, Head of Camera at ARRI Rental Berlin, about how he helps filmmakers find unique looks by tuning lenses.

Oct. 25, 2023
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Audio summary of the article "What does it take to be head of a rental house camera department?"

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Benjamin Schubert has been a film sound technician since 1989. In his podcast “Setgeflüster” (“Set Whispering”), Benjamin chats with colleagues from the world of film and photography, exploring the details of life on set and the responsibilities of various professional roles. One such chat was with Christoph Hoffsten, whose in-depth technical knowledge, long experience, and pioneering spirit are ideal prerequisites for being Head of the Camera Department at ARRI Rental Berlin. But what else is involved in being the first point of contact for the technical implementation of film projects?

Here below is an edited transcript of their conversation. You can listen to the original German podcast here.

Benjamin Schubert: Christoph, have you always had an affinity for filmmaking and camera technology?

Christoph Hoffsten: Not really – I didn’t go to the cinema for the first time until I was 21, and I had no background in film. I trained as an electro-mechanic and also worked as an industrial electronics technician, so my approach is from the technical side.

BS: What are your main responsibilities as Head of Camera and the core tasks of your daily work?

CH: It involves providing a lot of support, answering questions that come up about projects that ARRI Rental is servicing. I have a wonderful team; they do a great job, and they organize everything themselves. If issues come up where they feel they need to ask someone with a lot of experience, then they come to me for my opinion.

I stay up to date with what is happening across the industry, mainly through research on the internet, and the main challenge is to organize it for the team, so that everyone is on board and maintains a good level of technical awareness.

We tend to get asked more questions since digital technology took over the industry. Right now, the industry is continually seeking differences in the look of projects, so we get asked about textures, about the structure of images and how to manipulate their look and feel. Digital cameras are getting better and better across the board, to the point where a lot of filmmakers don’t see their choice of camera as a big factor in creating a unique look. That’s why we almost always just talk about optics.

BS: What do these conversations about optics involve? What kinds of lenses are filmmakers looking for, and what variety of lenses can you offer them?

CS: There is a clear desire for old glass, but like a lot of rental facilities we have a large inventory of modern lenses. I can show a DP my shelf of great lenses that are technically high-quality. Many of the DPs will start by looking at what we have there. But when I show them the box that still has cobwebs on it and tell them I found it at a flea market somewhere last week – that’s when they’ll get excited.

There's a definite craze for old glass – there are even trade fairs that revolve around it – but old glass is not without its problems. For one, there is the technical condition of such old lenses; you can't shoot films with them anymore, or only with great risks. Another problem is their availability. There are no two old lenses that look exactly the same if you want to shoot with an A-camera and a B-camera.

There are also big differences between focal lengths in a single lens set. One focal length can look completely different from the others. That puts us in a situation where we might need to change the look of a lens in order to deliver what a project wants, and we call that tuning the lens. It first started when a client told me that they wanted to get hold of some uncoated vintage Super Baltar lenses they had worked with in New York 10 years before. I told them that even if those lenses still exist and we can find them, they’re likely to either be unavailable or extortionately expensive. But because I don’t like to say no, I asked what it was that they liked about those lenses. What good qualities and what bad? Because maybe we could do something to replicate those qualities in lenses we had on the shelf, through tuning.

BS: What does this process involve?

CH: We discuss the basics – do the lenses need to be lightweight, and what focal length range is required? Then we see what lenses we have on the shelf to find the best starting point, and we think about how we could change those lenses to bring out the desired qualities. A lot of the time, those desired qualities that add character to the image are actually what might be called flaws, or artefacts. We've been fixing lenses for 20 or 30 years; we know all about every artefact there is, because in the past we’ve had to remove them, so we certainly know how to do the reverse and put them in. Realizing that was sort of a Eureka moment – we could make interesting images by turning everything we’d learned upside down.

Sometimes we get a better result by tuning modern lenses to have a vintage look, rather than starting with vintage lenses, because modern lenses are much more usable. You can focus on the particular attributes you want, and everything else will still be good. So, for example, there are great-looking vintage lenses that have insanely bad close focus. That means you can take great pictures, but you can't take great pictures if you want to get close to the actor. There are simply better solutions with modern equipment. This is the concept.

BS: How do you communicate with filmmakers to understand what they want – do they speak in creative or technical terms, and have you had to learn new listening skills?

CH: It can be very different; it depends on the cinematographer. They might know exactly what they want, but the challenge is translating that for me in technical terms, because I think in optical categories. Optical systems, devices, and imperfections have been studied by great people over the last two or three hundred years, and technical classifications have been defined. It comes down to the language that filmmakers use. What does the DP mean when they say the image should look ‘softer’ or the bokeh should look ‘creamier’?

Sometimes it’s easy to understand, and sometimes I struggle. I like to ask for reference pictures; I also like it when the DP tells me the story of the movie. The first thing I want the DP to tell me is what’s important to them, personally. Sometimes I don't know what the film is about, but I know how it is supposed to look. That's good enough, and from that I get a sense of what character the movie has. It’s helpful to try and immerse yourself in the overall mood of the film.

BS: Let’s talk about director Erik Schmitt’s feature film “Cleo,” which has a lot of night scenes and frequent use of flashlights. DP Johannes Louis wanted a very specific flare for the flashlight; how were you able to support him?

CH: We took a modern set of lenses, disassembled them, and changed them completely. For the flare, we applied a coating to the lenses that strongly brought this out, but the tuning wasn’t just about changing the flare characteristics. It took us several iterations to get there. For something like this, there are a few standard questions that we clarify at the beginning. The first is to ask the DP how much time they have available to spend with us in getting the lenses to look the way they want. Because often the DPs are very stressed during the preparation stages of a project. They come to Germany for preproduction and they might be here for three months before the shooting starts, but it's still difficult to get two hours of their time. With every project you're learning something new. The challenge is to find out what’s acceptable or unacceptable for each project. You'll find a flare that you didn't want, that wasn't there before, or that only appears at a certain angle. You have to test all that, and I like the process.

BS: Are there any other specific projects that you have found especially challenging or rewarding?

CH: It was great that the Todd Field movie “Tár” made it to the Oscar nominations this year. The work we did for that was challenging, but it was a nice project. The movie looks fantastic, which is all down to the amazing work of cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (BSC).  We contributed a tiny part, and it was super fun.

Many of our projects are rewarding, but I recognize that our work is not the only factor – there is also postproduction. It’s fair to say, though, that the lens is the basis of the work, and a lot depends on that. Some DPs say they want something extreme, something that limits them, so that they are forced into an artistic approach that works with those limitations creatively. That’s when surprising and interesting things can happen.

BS: What climatic considerations do you have to think about in terms of the heat, cold, or humidity that lenses might be exposed to on set?

CH: Of course, there are environmental factors, which we also try to check in advance. Humidity and cold is always a problem, especially for all projects that are shot in the polar regions. If you get moisture in the optics, that results in fogging, and you simply can't get rid of that. There are a few recommendations and tricks we give our clients in advance, to avoid this.

It is also popular to shoot in the desert, which has its own problems. For large projects, we send someone along who is able to take apart the optics on location and get the sand out. Because if you’re in the desert, there is no way to avoid getting sand inside equipment with moving parts. So, service provided to a production during a shoot is just as important as any service we provide before the shooting starts.

BS: Thank you for the great interview, Christoph, and the very interesting insights.

CH: You're very welcome!