Cinematographer Stefan Ciupek brings ‘Guns Akimbo’ to life
Crazy projects need someone just as crazy on board to bring that vision to life. Films like 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire are praised for their innovative techniques in their filmmaking, but the reality is their style is the result of one man.
Stefan Ciupek is one of the cinematographers who was at the forefront of the digital revolution, bringing digital cameras on set. His innovative look at technology started with his work on the 2003 film Russian Ark, as his push for technology allowed for the film to be shot entirely in one 90 minute take.
Ciupek’s future collaborations with his mentor Anthony Dod Mantle and Danny Boyle continue to prove his prowess as a cinematographer with his work on Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. The innovation he brought in particular to Slumdog Millionaire helped the film become the first digital picture to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
Now, Ciupek has some more intense action on his hands with his latest project Guns Akimbo. The cinematography legend worked as DP on the Jason Lei Howden-led film, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Samara Weaving. Even in 2019, Ciupek is still innovating by pushing Red Monstro technology on set for Guns Akimbo.
To promote the film’s release, we had the honor of meeting with Stefan to talk about his extensive career, and how it all led to his techniques that influenced his work on Guns Akimbo.
Obviously you’ve been working with cameras for most of your time in the film industry. Have you ever considered a different track within the film industry?
Yes, I have. I studied media design which gave me the opportunity to try out different aspects of filmmaking. I dabbled into directing, editing, lighting design but ultimately cinematography is what stuck with me. For a long time I was working parallel in several fields, both on set and in post-production; I’ve explored many different paths until I found the one for me.
I’ve always believed that in order to be really good at my job, I should know all aspects of filmmaking. So, editing was very useful, and even directing. I’ve directed some TV work, early in my career, and it was really very, very good for me to know and understand that perspective. I see it as a holistic approach.
A cinematographer is really what, next to the director, is a very important position on set. We create the visual language of the film, and of course I’m also close to actors and everything that’s unfolding on set. The more involved in the whole process I am, the more I can help with the story.
So that actually brings me right into one of my next questions. So when it comes to cinematography, obviously that’s just as key to the storytelling as the script and performances, so how do you use the camera to enhance the story being told?
It all begins with a long and intense collaborative process. First, you work with the director to try and understand his vision and perspective of the story; Very often the director already has a strong idea about where he wants to bring his film visually. Then, with the production designer, you build the world of the film; finding mood pictures and reference images for the project.
Once this general world is established, you can begin to go deeper into the creative process. Actually, for me, it all begins with the scene: taking a very close look at what the key elements of that scene are. What emotions do I have to transport through the actors? Where do I have to be with my camera? In order to achieve what? What is the lighting setup? What can I do to enhance the mood of a scene?
I try to be very close to the energy of the story, and find the visual language that will enhance the actors’ performance and the overall mood of a scene.
You were one of the camera operators who was really on the forefront of that change from more traditional film to digital. Give us a brief overview of what it was like to have to switch technology.
I really started to become active in the late 90’s when digital was still in its infancy, and you could always see the result in the quality of the image. Film cameras have been able to deliver cinema quality for a long long time, and always had this more organic feel to it with this texture that just made it very very good. At the beginning, I was very close to technology, right at the advent of digital HD cameras in the late 90’s.
I saw something that had potential to be useful for big screen cinema work. Maybe not as a direct substitute for film but as a medium with slightly different aesthetics, but I also saw how limited this technology was in the beginning.
In order to really get something cinematic out of it, I had to dive intensely into the technology and figure out how to light scenes, using those cameras at their optimum exposure range to get the best images. But I immediately saw the potential in them. I saw it wasn’t going to be long until this technology would improve enough to actually overtake film, or at least become a similarly valid tool to use in film.
My very first feature film, where I pushed technology was Russian Ark. We shot this one in 2001. That literally was shot on a prototype of an HD camera as it was the only way to shoot this film in a single 90 minutes continuous take. We had to find a camera that could record 90 minutes and the only way we could do it was using a digital camera.
Obviously we also wanted it to look very cinematic, and because we shot this at the St. Petersburg in the Hermitage, we kinda saw that it has to have this painterly quality, which was very hard at the time on existing digital cameras. So we spent a lot of time testing and finding out the best camera to use. Dirk Meier, a friend of mine’s company had a hard-disk recording system that could store 90 minutes uninterrupted.
We shot the film uncompressed on these hard drives. A lot of technical stuff but in the end it was all about serving the vision of the director and being able to tell the story in a single take.
So you worked closely on both 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire, and both films were championed for being some of the first to really use digital cameras as an enhancement for the storytelling. How do you think digital helped tell those two specific stories better?
Slumdog Millionaire was like the pivot of my strong working relationship with Anthony Dod Mantle, who was my mentor for a long time. He took me to Denmark and together we pushed digital technology into those cinematic fields. We had done quite a few films before, and he always challenged me for cameras that were more ergonomic and Compact.
Especially Slumdog Millionaire needed this extremely mobile, agile, small camera system that could be used to shoot in a documentary style, in a dynamic way that would’ve never been achieved with any big film camera.
First of all, the original idea was to have cameras so small, that we were able to shoot in a disguised way in the slums of Mumbai, without everybody knowing we were shooting a movie, because both film and digital cameras at this time were still very bulky. But Danny Boyle and myself realized very quickly how much more dynamic these images could be.
Using those smaller cameras, it’s easy to fly around and just follow the emotional trajectory of the actors in a much more organic way, and be physically close to them, almost as if breathing in the images. This wouldn’t have been possible with any bigger camera at all. In this instance, it was a very revolutionary approach. I brought the tools onto the film and Anthony and Danny just used them in new creative ways to tell the story.
127 Hours was like a step onward from there. I shot it two years later. The small cameras were even more important because Danny had this idea of this immersive experience that you would have Aaron Ralston (James Franco) stuck there in between a narrow, slotted canyon, and we only wanted the camera to be able to places where it was physically possible.
So he didn’t build it as a set that would have removable walls or anything, it was literally a blocked set even though we built it on a sound stage. It was like being in the real canyon. So the smaller the camera was, the better it was for the angles and perspective we wanted to achieve. Also, it would be beneficial for the actor, to have just a tiny camera flying around him versus the distraction of big film cameras and crews.
Very often, it was just James Franco and a tiny camera, or two tiny cameras around him, so he would really feel alone out there. There were also loudspeakers with Danny Boyle speaking to him. The loudspeakers just being like God’s voice, and just making it as intimate as possible.
And in a way that’s the same with Slumdog Millionaire; these cameras are so small that you can just kinda keep filming and do take after take, moving the cameras very easily, for instance to the eye level of kids running through the slums. It’s very difficult to do this with a traditional film camera. Both films would’ve been entirely different if they were shot on 35mm film. Small digital cameras were really necessary to tell the story.
Otherwise, my general approach is really every camera’s a tool, and I kinda love film still today for what it does. Like if you see Christopher Nolan’s work mostly done on 35mm film for IMAX, it looks stunning. I mean, with Dunkirk, you just feel it. There’s still something there for me, and I’m happy that film has found its comeback.
I think digital was neglected for a long time, and especially when the Dogma movement started, and all those films were shot on DV, it was neglected for the poor image quality, even though it gave performances we’ve never seen on the screen before. And I then was part of a transition of keeping the cameras as small as early DV cameras, but making the image quality appear indistinguishable to film.
Every story deserves its own approach, and that’s true of all aspects of cinematography. I really kind of try not to be stuck with one type of camera, but every script, every film I read, I think “What do I need ergonomically / look wise” and try to find the right tools and right technology for each film.
So especially with Slumdog Millionaire, that was the first digital film to win Best Picture at all these award shows. It won at the Oscars, the BAFTAs. That moment, when you found out Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture, knowing you got to play your tiny part in making that film Best Picture worthy, how did it feel?
I was literally speechless, even the nomination was unbelievable. But I wasn’t quite aware that this would make history as a film shot on a digital camera. That was an overwhelming experience. And it wasn’t just this (best picture), it was one Oscar after another.
This has never happened before, not for a film so small and so independently shot. It opened many doors for indie films that now get into the Oscar race, which I really feel happy about. It’s not anymore purely the studio driven films, but it can be tiny films with a small budget. If you just get the emotional side right, you have a chance to be in the Oscars.
A lot of people after Parasite won Best Picture this past year, were comparing it back to when Slumdog Millionaire just swept at the Oscars, even with it being such a small film. How does it feel to see another film, that actually is the first 100% foreign-made film to take that award?
I think with Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, it’s even more historic because it’s completely foreign language spoken as well as with a foreign language director, which I think really opens up the Academy to foreign films and more diverse stories. It really opens it to what is the best film out there and not just what is the best American film. It also shows there’s a big step forward in the democracy of choice of best film.
You’ve also worked on television as well. You’ve worked with Starz in the past as well. How does the camera work change depending on the medium, whether it’s for film vs. television?
Basically, if it’s an episodic TV series, the visual language has to be mostly contained for all these episodes and over several seasons, whereas on a feature film you create a language for only one film. You have to draw bigger arcs. It’s also different in that you have less time normally to shoot television versus feature films, so the time pressure leads to you shooting on two or three cameras at a time.
This sometimes compromises the camera positions and your lighting. But I try to bring these worlds as close together as possible. In general, I don’t make a distinction in my approach, as both have a story that needs to be told, whether it’s in 90 minutes or ten episodes. I try to give it as much love and care in the creation of these images. But time restraints often lead to a different kind of working style.
It sounds like you don’t have a favorite project, but I’m still going to ask if you do and why it’s your favorite project.
Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours were both really awesome experiences and were both unique in how we told those two films. They’re very close to me. I feel very deeply for them, even though Slumdog Millionaire was the hardest thing in the world for me to achieve. To shoot this film for five months in India, it was incredibly exhausting it felt like an Olympic race. I lost 15kg.
Sure it’s a film that takes everything out of you, but you have this incredible Director and DP whose vision for the film you support, and you just give everything to achieve that. But these challenges in a way are what I love about filmmaking. this is how I started.
Russian Ark was an impossible task, and turned out artistically a very beautiful film. Maybe, if I can name three projects, it would be those three, because Russian Ark gave me a challenge early on in my career that everyone said was impossible. I feel you grow from your challenges, and the tasks and opportunities given to you.
Moving on to Guns Akimbo, you’re still innovating even with this film, since you did the Red Monstro to make sure this movie looked the way you wanted to. You wanted this very comic book-y, fighting video game style. What made you decide to go with that Red Monstro to help film this. What specifically about that camera made you choose it?
When I read the script, I was mesmerized. it was the craziest action roller coaster story I ever read. The premise of the story, with the lead character having two guns bolted to his hands, was just so mad and insane that it fascinated me enough to make this film. I guess for similar reasons that made Daniel Radcliffe and Samara Weaving choose it.
I was intrigued by the task to do a weird and funny stylized high octane action movie that has a strong graphic novel aspect to it. I loved building this new and brave visual world with director Jason Lei Howden and Production Designer Nick Bassett. While reading the script, I instantly knew two things: one, I want the camera to be insanely agile and mobile. I just knew the camera has to be on the move all the time.
And the second thing, I wanted the experience to be very immersive. The audience should feel what Miles, Daniel Radcliffe’s character, goes through. The two factors together made it clear there was only one camera at this time to shoot this movie with, because the Red Monstro is small, compared to many other cameras. And at the same time, it has a large format sensor that helps you achieve this immersive-ness with a very distinct look.
I wanted to shoot this film with very wide lenses, without it immediately looking like a “wide angle” film. If you do that with Super35 cameras, you get this larger depth of field and slightly distorted look, and I really wanted it to be more cinematic and immersive yet be wide angle. Pretty much similar reasons why Joker or The Revenant chose the Alexa 65 and shoot on a large format, but that camera would’ve been way too big for me.
I needed a camera that can achieve a similar look in a much more lightweight and smaller form factor so I was able to capture this kinetic energy of the story. I wanted to rig the camera very quickly in the most insane positions. I used some innovative, new rigs. My brilliant Steadicam operator Benjamin Treplin had a special MK V Omega rig, which gives you kind of a gimbal capability, on top of a Steadicam.
The camera is in a cage so it can rotate, and I was able to control the rotation with an iPhone. In this scene, where Miles wakes up after a hangover, with those guns attached to his hands, I wanted the audience to get this nauseous feel of waking up into the nightmare reality with him. It’s a very immersive, long one-shot, and the camera follows him, spinning and turning as he moves around and throws up, and it’s very hard for him.
But the same happens for the audience if you watch that scene in the cinema. There’s a few other scenes where we used this new rig, for example when he’s being shot at and he’s flying and falling. We attached the controlling iPhone to his neck. So when he fell, the camera would go upside down and tumble with him as he falls. I loved the energy of these moves.
Quite often I would shoot handheld alongside with Steadicam and there were many gimbal and crane setups. I pushed very hard to go really wild with the camera. At some point it became a challenge for me and my camera team, about new ideas, with exciting new angles and new ways to move the camera.
In my mind I was going back to Slumdog Millionaire, I was inspired by this freedom of small cameras, and how Danny and Anthony used them. I wanted a similar kind of energy and feel, just even more crazy and brave. Guns Akimbo is the one film where you really want to develop this new intense visual language. So we did that, and it was very exciting.
I loved the process of finding the look for the film. Jason already had already strong references from 80s and 90s action classics like Running Man, Terminator or RoboCop in mind for the film. But obviously we also wanted to reference very modern action cinema. We spent a lot of time exchanging mood images, trying to lock down the look of every scene in regards to lighting, framing and color.
It was an intense process together with our Production Designer Nick Bassett. He created a mood board that became a strong reference point for the film. At a later stage we involved a concept artist who would give us very precise 3D renderings with the actual location and my planned lighting schemes.
The most stylized part of the film is when we go into the dark world of Skizm, this underground fight club, which we shot in an abandoned paper factory in Germany. We used neon drenched, neo-noir lighting style, with dark tones and highly saturated primary colors, red and cyan, contrasting.
I wanted to create our own interpretation of a dark Graphic Novel. I wanted that feeling to be brought onto the big screen, and find these super intense color schemes.
The film is set in America, in a fictional place called Shrapnel City, our own little more chaotic version of Gotham City. But we had to shoot it New Zealand and Munich, as that’s where the film funding was. So we had to to turn a mix of Auckland and Munich into this extreme and intense world of Guns Akimbo.
It was complicated because the traffic is on the wrong side of the road in Auckland, and the skyscrapers aren’t high enough and there’s only one street where you have skyscrapers at all, so it was very challenging to find the right locations and make them look as large scale and American as possible. I think it worked out well, creating that stylish world there.
What’s coming next for you? After this goes into the world, what’s coming next on your Docket?
I just finished shooting my first period drama series for Lionsgate. I loved going from this action flick to something very different. I’m coming to LA, so I’m going to meet with my agent and choose new projects. I’m reading lots of scripts right now.
There’s options between a big WW2 TV series and some interesting feature films. But I’m basically in a reading phase and looking for the next big challenge for myself. I hope it’s going to be a really good drama. I’d like to do something less action oriented. If you look at my body of work it’s a mixture of all genres. I’m excited to see what my next challenge will be!