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Behind the Lens: Game of Thrones with Anette Haellmigk

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CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: Game of Thrones with Anette Haellmigk -- Cinematography Editorial

Anette HaellmigkAnette Haellmigk

©2013 CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.


Cinematographer Anette Haellmigk shot two episodes of Season 3's Game of Thrones, the HBO blockbuster that returns on March 31. A native of Germany, Haellmigk was the 2012 winner of Kodak's Vision Award from Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards. A pioneering woman cinematographer, Anette's resume includes Das Boot, Robocop, Starship Troopers, Total Recall, The West Wing and many more.

Haellmigk speaks to Creative COW about her path as a pioneering female cinematographer and her work on Game of Thrones.



Game of Thrones Cinematographer Anette Haellmigk by Sean Moe
Anette Haelmigk. Photo Credit: Sean Moe
Game of Thrones came to me through director Alex Graves, with whom I've worked for 17 years. In Spring of 2012, when we were doing the 666 pilot together, he told me Game of Thrones had approached him to shoot two episodes, I said, "If you get it, you have to take me with you. I love that show so much, and I think I can contribute." Another coincidence was that Bernie Caulfield, someone else I've worked with quite a bit, was the Game of Thrones line producer, so she was able to back Alex up and I got the job.

For this season, I shot Episodes 4 [And Now His Watch Is Ended] and 5 [Kissed by Fire]. The show shoots with the ARRI Alexa. I'm very happy with that camera. It's a workhorse and an easy transition from film to HD. It's very consistent and user-friendly. Having started my career in Munich, Germany, I grew up with Arriflex cameras when I started out, so I do have a strong connection with Arriflex.

When you shoot episodes for a show with an established look, it's all about serving the show. All my experience as a 2nd unit DP, when you have to match what the 1st Unit DP established, helped me to match the look without too much difficulty. I know what the show is supposed to look like and I match it as well as I can. Every DP has his or her own spin on things, but it has to be something that looks similar. Shooting episodes in a show like Game of Thrones is a special situation on so many levels -- the directors are coming in with their own DPs being one of them. This season had six cinematographers! In order to get consistency, you communicate with the other DPs about their approach. You have the PIX system where you can watch each other's dailies, and production created so-called flip books, which were "frame grabs" of each scene and locations of previous and current episodes. Since we shared locations and sets, these books were very helpful for reference. Through all these methods, we -- the group of DPs -- were able to create consistency.

At the same time, we were always encouraged to do our own thing. There is no formula so to speak for Game of Thrones. King's Landing looks Mediterranean and warm, which you can do with lights or with the final color correction. Other locations are cool. The costume palette is the same, the production design is the same, so throughout the episodes, there are continuous elements that help create consistency.

With regard to how I lit the show, I mainly used a natural lighting style where the light comes through windows or is motivated from candles or fire. I didn't push it too hard -- it's a little on the desaturated side. I was able to play with lots of shafts of light.

Game of Thrones is a fantastic working environment, and it definitely met my expectations. I worked very, very hard to achieve that look and on many occasions it hit me, "My god, it looks like a feature film." It's still a TV show, so I still had to complete each episode within the time frame of a TV show, although Game of Thrones' schedule is more generous than other shows.

Something else that's really unique with Game of Thrones is that it shoots with two units at the same time; the units are named Wolf and Dragon. In the first season, they had to do it out of necessity because they were on so many locations. Then they revisited this idea of two units at the same time on the second season, because there's only good weather in Belfast for two or three months and the production needed to be finished by the end of November. I switched back and forth between the Wolf and Dragon units. In the beginning that was a challenge. When you start doing a show that's new to you, you need to be able to fit in; I started working with all the crew people on one unit, and then the next day I had to move to another unit and start over again. Working with different crews and units, the British style of working, was initially challenging. After two or three weeks, Alex and I had it all figured out. It went fine and I had a really good time.

Each episode had about 18 shooting days. I was in Belfast for about four months. Then we travelled to Croatia and Morocco. During the shoot, I wasn't shooting every single day; in between I had one or two prep days during the weeks. The units were dependent on locations, so all the directors who had that location would shoot in that location. One unit was working with five directors/DPs on a certain set.


Anette Haellmigk with Dave Worley on the set of Game of Thrones
Anette on location for Game of Thrones with David Worley


I just finished the final color timing of the episodes I shot, at Modern VideoFilm with colorist John Finley. And I am very, very happy how my episodes turned out. John Finley is a great artist himself, and it was a pleasure to work with him. It's crucial to me to be involved in the final color because LUTs can be lost or interpreted so many different ways. It's important to make sure the intention of the look is carried through the final color correction, and I think only the DP who has developed a visual approach with the director has the knowledge of what it should look like.

I came to my career as a cinematographer through art and some happy coincidences. Some people are lucky enough to know what they're going to do early on in life, but I didn't have that carved out for me. My family background had nothing to do with art or cinematography. My parents were businesspeople and not necessarily happy their daughter would go in an artistic route. Initially, I wanted to be a painter. After high school, I applied for various art schools in Germany but was denied access. I was 19 or 20 at the time, and it was a very big disappointment to me.

I got interested in photography and worked in this field. By coincidence, in 1980, I hooked up with a filmmaker Hellmuth Costard who was a very well regarded avant garde filmmaker in Germany and who did feature documentaries for German TV. He asked me if I was interested in being a first assistant cameraman on a project shot with three Aaton cameras. I hadn't worked on a film project before so I didn't really know what to expect but I agreed to become part of the team. I did a pretty good job on that project which went on for three or four months as we travelled throughout Germany.

During that project, a light bulb went on in my head and I thought, this is really what I want to do. Cinematography combines the artistic and the technical, which I liked. So I have found my path. In order to continue, I thought I better start learning about the cameras. I went to a company in Munich -- Dedo Weigert -- to learn about the cameras. I was also happy to go back to the part of Germany where I grew up; with the Wall still up, Berlin at the time was too enclosed for me. Very early on, I established contact with Jost Vacano, who shot Das Boot, and got an Oscar nomination for that, the first for a German film in the category of cinematography. He took me under his wing and became my mentor, and I started working with him on various projects in Germany. He was always interested in a kinetic camera style and had devised a very unique handheld camera system that I was trained on. When he came to the U.S., I was able to come with him.


Anette Haellmigk on location for Game of Thrones Season 3
On location for Game of Thrones Season 3


I'm so grateful to Jost. He helped me to learn my craft, opened up possibilities for me. In the 1980s, there weren't any female assistants or operators or DPs anywhere. He recognized my talent and gave me a chance. It went beyond gender for him, and that was really fantastic for me.

I started out as a loader and continued as a first AC and operator, second unit DP and then DP on my own. There were various projects that were breakthroughs for me. One of those was The Neverending Story, shot by Vacano, which was my first 1st AC project. Considering that it was shot anamorphic, and was one of the biggest films done at the time in Germany, it was a big deal getting and doing that job, and I managed to deliver. Then I came with Jost to the U.S. and he introduced me to Paul Verhoeven, with whom he'd worked on Spetters and Solider of Orange in the Netherlands.

When Paul did Robocop, he asked Jost to be DP and I was able to work on that project, as well as Total Recall. I ended up working on all of Paul's films except Basic Instinct. Jost and Paul were both very supportive of my career and promoted me on their projects. On Total Recall, I started to work as the A camera operator, and on Starship Troopers, I was second unit DP. The two of them really supported me, saw my talent and helped me to move into this man's world. I was able to start on the highest end projects around at the time, and this opened doors for me.

That really gave me credibility, but it took awhile after Jost retired to stand on my own. That was a little hard. I didn't know if the world was ready for a female 2nd unit DP, even though I had proved myself on the jobs for Paul Verhoeven. It was another thing going out in to the world and meeting people who didn't know me. Also, I came from a different culture with a different language. It took a while to establish myself and connect to new people. It was a process that took time. Now I consider myself incredibly lucky and successful even though there were many times when I thought I would never reach my goal of being a cinematographer.



Anette with Dave Worley


It wasn't easy to find work as a 2nd unit DP on my own. I also wanted to get into a more narrative field with more story and less SFX/VFX. TV opened up for me when I started working with Alex Graves, a great director. He brought me in to work on The West Wing, and I got a chance to shoot three special episodes for the show. This was a great entree into TV work and is still a great calling card on my resume.

It had always been my dream to work for HBO, and I got my chance with Big Love, which was a really great experience for me. That job came about because I'd done a small show for Lifetime where Bernie Caulfield was the line producer. After the conclusion of the Lifetime show, Bernie returned to her job as the Line Producer on Big Love. She introduced me to [show creators] Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer. It was really great to be invited to work on that show; I joined them in Season 3. They wanted to make a change in the look; I pitched my take on it and how I would light it, and they hired me as one of the DPs on the job. I did three seasons, shooting alternating episodes.

When shooting TV, cinematographers work with different directors all the time. I've been lucky in that I've worked with Alex Graves for 17 years on and off, and we've been able to create a cinematic approach to each show. I don't always have influence when it comes to camera movement style, because that comes from directors, but I do believe strongly that lighting needs to serve the show. I want to underline whatever the feeling of the scene is with my lighting. Of course I like to do that with camera movement as well, but I don't always get to do that on TV shows since the directors usually work that part out on their own before I get to collaborate with them.

I am on a break now. I had an extremely busy year filled with wonderful things, so it's good to recharge the batteries. To get the Kodak Vision Award was very special to me. It's not given for a particular project, but for my achievements as a female collaborator in the film business and for outstanding work.



Anette embraces the "Hound" - Rory McCann, who stars as Sandor 'The Hound' Clegane.


I consider myself a pioneer. The female cinematographers who were starting out 15, 20 years ago opened up doors for the ones coming in now. It's a better era now for female cinematographers. Men are more used to women in positions of power; in the past, many men had trouble accepting women as cinematographers because it was so new, and it was so different from the typical structure reflected in the family. Now, in families, boys are now used to seeing a mother in charge. That has an impact also.

In general, what's important to me as a cinematographer is fostering a very creative environment. I always make sure my crew is supported, and the actors feel happy and secure so that they can do their best work. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to make sure there is a good tone on set and a really good environment where everyone can do their best work.






Thanks also to Debra Kaufman for coordination and additional editing on this piece. Follow her on Twitter @MobilizedDebra


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Re: Behind the Lens: Game of Thrones with Anette Haellmigk
by Brett Turner
Another great article, thank you as ever. RoboCop, West Wing, Game of Thrones, etc etc... blimey!! Not a bad CV...

I find it just plain weird that women aren't taken seriously as DOP's, or at least weren't. Bizarre?!?
Re: Behind the Lens: Game of Thrones with Anette Haellmigk
by Steven Bradford
Terrific Article. I'm printing it out to share with my students. Very inspiring.

Steven Bradford
http://www.3dstereomedia.com 3D company I've worked with since 1990
http://www.seanet.com/~bradford/ my personal home page, find my greenscreen page there.
http://www.seattlefilminstitute.com the school I teach at.


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