The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents April 2010 Return to Table of Contents
Alice in Wonderland
Presidents Desk
Sundance 2010
Production Slate
Lebanon
Brooklyns Finest
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Camerimages Golden Lebanon


Sitting in a hotel room in Lodz, Poland, cinematographer Giora Bejach recalls how director Samuel Maoz prepared his actors in Israel before starting production on Lebanon. “He put them inside a shipping container and closed the doors. Inside it was something like 45°C [113°F]. They didn’t know how long they would be in there. It was dark; they couldn’t see anything. They had no water, nothing, for one hour. Then, in the last five minutes, Samuel started to throw sticks and stones at the container. You know, that makes a hell of a lot of noise!” Bejach laughs. “When he let them out, they were ready for their close-ups! But it was amazing to see their faces.”

Lebanon, which takes place entirely inside a tank during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, won the prestigious Golden Frog at the 2009 Plus Camerimage International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography. The film’s main characters are the four young men who make up the tank crew, none of whom has ever experienced combat. The film is limited to their point of view; the outside world is seen only through the binocular viewfinder operated by the gunner, Shmulik (Yoav Donat). Over the course of their first 24 hours in Lebanon, these callow recruits are transformed by the violence they witness and partake in, and by their memorable encounters with enemy combatants and innocent civilians.

Lebanon is a war film without any heroes. It depicts a conflict full of confusion, punctuated by sudden acts of violence. To illustrate the impact of combat, the tone of the film shifts from brutal realism to a moment of surreal madness, and finally, when the young men have lost all innocence, the film concludes with a simple act of humanity.

Maoz, who met with AC in Paris after Camerimage, reveals that the film is based on his own experiences as a tank gunner, events that have haunted him for more than 20 years. He does not mince words: “I can say that the acts the war forced me to do ruined my life.” He says he had a “need” to tell his story, but that “it was a matter of how to tell it. The story in my film is not the plot. The plot is something very basic. Let’s say the events are the symptoms, not the issue. The issue is the bleeding soul, what happens inside a soldier during a war. I couldn’t tell this kind of story in a classic cinematic structure. How the hell can you tell a story about what’s happening inside a soul? It’s an emotional understanding, something you can understand through the stomach, through the heart. To achieve such an understanding, you must create a very strong experience.”

Maoz’s goal was to confine viewers in the tank with the characters, and make them partake in the confusion and cabin fever of four young men experiencing the horror of war for the first time. “You see only what they see,” he notes. “You know only what they know.”

Bejach credits his director for taking the actors and the audience “on an incredible journey.” He recalls that Maoz gave him a visual direction with a few words at one of their first meetings about the project: “He said, ‘Please make it bleeding to black.’ From there, everything was very easy.”

For Bejach, the first step was to work with production designer Ariel Roshko to create a somber tank interior. “The inside of real tanks are white because you need light in there, but we went with dark brown. There are two scenes in the tank when you see red blood, and you can’t miss it.” The tank was built by combining eight modular constructions on a soundstage, and it could be split apart to arrange for different viewpoints.

Maoz also told Bejach that he wanted the tank interior to have a green tinge. “We could have achieved that in post, but I preferred to do it with the lighting, so we did it with yellow and green gels,” says the cinematographer. “We changed them from time to time, only because I wanted to give each lighting setup a slightly different look. I didn’t want it all to look the same.”

Bejach created variety in the dark tank interior with a few small practicals and gels, and by providing brief glimpses of the world outside. Day and night inside the tank are evoked by the presence or absence of glowing bright light spilling in through small openings. To light the interior, Bejach wanted sources that fell off quickly, without being too soft. “I didn’t want to use soft lights because they don’t describe the situation. They’re gentle, and the situation is not gentle. But I don’t like hard lights, so I decided to use an old light, the Zip light. That was the main source inside the tank.”

The Zip light is an old-fashioned fixture with a 1K or 2K bulb aimed at a built-in, curved, reflective surface. Inside the tank, “it gave us the right feeling,” says Bejach. “If you move a bit too far from the lamp, it starts to be hard, and if you come closer, it gets softer. It falls off quickly, so it won’t hit the walls, which was very good, because we had no way to cut the light in there.”

Sometimes Bejach also bounced 650-watt Tweenies off reflectors with wrinkled silver foil to add “a metallic feeling” to diffused light on the actors. He sometimes used this bounce with a small source to create fill for day interiors, and at other times he used the silver foil by itself for fill on dark interiors.

To create the sensation of daylight outside, Bejach hung Nine-light Maxi-Brutes with narrow-beam bulbs (through ¼ White diffusion) and aimed them down at the tank set. For a scene in which a corpse is brought into the tank, Bejach pointed a 6K HMI on the ground up at a mirror above the tank’s open hatch, creating a blinding downward shaft of light, which he defined with a smoke machine.

Smoke is also an important component of battle scenes seen through the tank’s periscope; these were shot as day exteriors. Bejach added burning tires and smoke machines to generate “a hell of a lot” of thick, dark smoke that helped to lower the contrast of the strong Israeli sunlight and create the feeling of a war zone.

In a surreal nighttime moment, the tank crew finds itself in a big, amorphous space where they hear eerie accordion music. For this scene, Bejach used a Dino to create a soft moonlight, adding ¼ Blue, 1⁄8 Green and 1⁄8 White diffusion. He complemented this with a handful of smaller lights gelled in a similar fashion.

One of the main challenges for Bejach was his mélange of film and digital formats. The filmmakers shot two-thirds of the movie on Super 16mm, using an Arri 16SR-3 Evolution. They then went on hiatus for almost a year to raise more money, and production resumed with a Red One digital camera (Build 16). Bejach notes that the Red was chosen mostly to avoid the delay involved in getting film footage to and from the lab, Geyer Cologne in Germany. “It could take two weeks!” he recalls. “Money was not the issue; it was time. In the end, digital costs about the same as film, but what you save is time.”

Bejach used the same lenses, Zeiss Ultra Primes, often close to the actors, with both the film and digital cameras. He most often used the 24mm. The cramped tank interior did not allow for true wide shots. “We changed the language [of film grammar] completely — a medium became a long shot, a close-up became a medium shot, and an extreme close-up became a close-up,” he says.

Although there is little traditional camera movement in the film, the camera was often on a Scorpio head. To simulate the tank’s movement, the entire set was tilted and shaken by grips, and sometimes the camera was also shaken for good measure. Bejach laughs, “This was a low-tech movie!” He explains that the shaking motion and close-up framing help to create an “uncomfortable” feeling. “When you show things in very tight shots, you lose reference for where you are, and then everything gets scary. You add the lighting and the actors’ expressions, and it all comes together — it works.”

Though many cinematographers mix digital and film to create different looks, Bejach used the Red to shoot missing portions of scenes shot on 16mm, often shooting digital close-ups designed to be inserted seamlessly into scenes shot in film. When going back to shoot a matching scene with the Red, he says, he used the same number of lights, but with less contrast. For example, if he used a 650-watt bounce fill in the film version of a scene, he would use a 1K bounce fill with the Red. He thus created an image with less latitude when shooting with the Red, about 11⁄2 stops above and 41⁄2 stops below. However, he would go as much 5 stops above when he wanted white light, as in the scene in which the soldiers look up as they hear jets overhead. “If you want to burn something with the Red, if you want a nice white, you should use a lot of light,” he remarks.

Bejach credits Geyer Cologne colorist Andreas Fröhlich for doing an “unbelievable” job blending the film and digital footage together in the digital intermediate, which was carried out at 2K. “I sent just a few samples of how I wanted it to look,” says Bejach. “Andreas degrained the Super 16 a bit and added some grain to the Red material.” The color correction and degraining were done with a Digital Vision Nucoda Film Master.

Maoz is thoughtful as he considers the self-imposed limitations of shooting a film in a cramped space with just one opening to the outside world. “One of the important things I learned is that limits are a kind of blessing,” he says. “If you don’t have room to move right or left, you can only dig deeper.”

TECHNICAL SPECS
1.85:1
Super 16mm and Digital Capture
Arri 16SR-3 Evolution; Red One
Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses
Kodak Vision2 200T 7217
Printed on Kodak Vision 2383

 

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