Behind the Lens: Martin Ruhe
CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: Martin Ruhe -- Cinematography Feature All rights reserved.

Cinematographer Martin Ruhe was just honored with the ASC Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Motion Picture/Miniseries Television for his work on Page Eight, a contemporary spy film directed and written by David Hare for the BBC. The classic, cerebral spy story harkens back to espionage tales from the 1960s. Starring Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis and Ralph Fiennes, Page Eight closed the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011.

I was honored to be part of Page Eight. It brought together the producers of the Harry Potter movies, David Hare who is a brilliant screenwriter and a great cast. I was glad to be nominated for an ASC Award and it was a shock to win. I never expected it. That whole weekend, I was at the ASC Awards nominees' dinner, and at the ASC Open House. A lot of these ASC cinematographers are my heroes, and to be among these people was a dream.

Director David Hare working with Martin Ruhe on Page Eight

I got onto Page Eight because the director/writer David Hare had seen The American, which I shot for director Anton Corbijn in 2010. He told me that in that he loved it very much and that it was the most beautiful film that year and wanted that look for his film. Working together with him, he was very trusting and let me do a lot of things.

Page Eight has the sensibility of the John Le Carré movies, but rather than being set in the Cold War, Page Eight is happening now. The protagonist Johnny Worricker, played by Bill Nighy, begins an investigation of a secret inner group in British intelligence at the behest of his boss, played by Michael Gambon. When his boss dies, Johnny has to solve the case outside of the intelligence agency, not knowing whom to trust. His neighbor, played by Rachel Weisz, is investigating the death of her brother in the Middle East. They become friends and she's the only one who helps him and supports him on his quest.

It's got brilliant dialogue and great performances. When we first started working on the film, the director David Hare showed me some films for reference, including obvious ones like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and less obvious ones like The Servant (1963) and The Pumpkin Eater (1964). We also looked at some classic advertising from the 1960s, using iconic locations on one of those bridges over the Thames. At the same time, it was clear we would do a modern film. He never told me how we'd translate it. He left that very open to me to investigate and be inspired.

Ralph Fiennes
Ralph Fiennes and Bill Nighy as Alec Beasley and Johnny Worricker in Page Eight

I had already shot a few films in London, and David and I talked about the classic feel of the city. David wanted it to be part of the story but to have it also feel timeless. When I thought about it, I thought London should look almost like a B&W movie. For Page Eight, I thought let's clear out the sodium vapor so we don't have any orange color. Let's make it feel like it could be any time - 20 years ago or 10 years in the future.

Until very late before we started shooting, we were thinking about 2 perf 35mm. But we couldn't afford 35mm, so we shot on an ARRI Alexa. I thought it would be great to shoot anamorphic 2.35:1 as the format, but that was something the BBC hadn't done before. We used Vantage 1.3x anamorphic lenses, which squeezes a third more into a 16x9 image and produces the original 2.35 aspect ratio without any quality loss. Nobody had done that before but we did some tests and everyone - even the producers - loved them. It was the first time the BBC had shot anamorphic for one of its own productions.

Cinematographer Martin Ruhe with his beautifully rigged Sony F35

When it came to picking the digital camera I'd use, I didn't consider any others. I had shot one other film digitally, Harry Brown, and we used the Sony F35. For me, the Alexa is the best camera at the moment - although it changes every week. For some night exteriors, I did tests on the camera. It comes with an 800 ASA rating and I did everything up to 1600 ASA and it shows no noise on a TV screen. Maybe with a bigger screen I would have been more careful.

Martin Ruhe with Michael Caine on the set of Harry Brown
Martin Ruhe with Michael Caine on the set of Harry Brown (2009)

The whole film was shot on location. Locations in England can be tiny and tight. We shot key scenes in a third-floor apartment and a Holiday Inn. The strategy was natural, beautiful lighting. I don't like to be too pretty or precise with light. I don't like to tell an actor to turn his head exactly this way. I don't like to limit them. We also had 30 days to shoot, so my strategy had to be quick, to create a certain style and then yet create some atmosphere with it. That's why I don't try to be too limited in terms for the acting and actors. We had a lot of very soft, very subtle yet moderate lighting. I used a lot of Photoflex OctoDome soft boxes, which is a big soft source.

My philosophy is that I have to create not only the image on screen but a space on set in which everyone feels comfortable and everyone is able to do highly creative work. When you shout, everyone gets scared. If you you're too technical, people get bored. The more freedom there is, the more things might develop.

When you're young and don't know much about film, you either want to be a director or an actor. I was working as a runner in London at a camera rental house and when I saw what DoPs do, I never wanted to do anything else. I did some studies in Berlin and, after that, I made hundreds of music videos and commercials. My first feature film in Germany was a disaster. It wasn't professionally produced and it didn't come together very well. On music videos, even if you have a so-so concept, you can make it work somehow. On features, it the story isn't right, it doesn't work. That plus being not professionally produced, it fell apart. That experience made me stay away from films for some time.

Six or seven years later, my second film was Control, for director Anton Corbijn, who I had met working on a music video. I didn't know anyone in the crew except the director but it was still one of the best experiences I had in my career. Control was nominated for and won dozens of awards; I was nominated for a Golden Frog at Camerimage that year.

Ever since, I try to do one or two films a year. I'm very picky with those. If I feel there's danger it won't come together, I'd rather not do it. You need a lot of energy to make a movie and you spend a lot of time making it. It's got to be worth that investment in time and energy.

After my disastrous first film, I had done two episodes of a TV show, a copy show, in Germany, just to figure out if I wasn't right for long-form projects or the experience was just bad luck. I don't usually do TV movies, but when David Hare approached me for Page Eight, the script was so subtle, well written, brilliant, and the characters were so well developed. I liked David Hare and the list of actors was so unlike what you usually get that in a TV movie ever.

Page Eight was written and directed by David Hare (left) and lensed by Martin Ruhe

But I still really enjoy making commercials. It's actually great training for shooting feature films. Shooting commercials, I go to all these different places, and can train in many different skills and technologies. For example, if I'm on a feature film and there's a helicopter shot, I already know how to do that. If the movie calls for us to go underwater, I've done that too. I've done all that and much more on commercials. So you gain a lot of really great experiences. I also meet a lot of people on commercials and some of those people end up bringing me into features. That was true with Anton and Control, and I also met Harry Brown director Daniel Barber on a commercial.

Working on commercials is also about independence. If you only do feature work, you end up shooting bad scripts because there aren't many good ones around. And if you shoot bad films, you get offered more bad films. You have to be able to say no, and that's why commercials are a good thing. Shooting commercials is more family-friendly. I live in Berlin but I hardly ever shoot here. When I go away to shoot a commercial, I'm away for two weeks. When I go away to shoot a film, it's four months.

Martin Ruhe
Martin with Panavision
There are still quite a few commercials being shot on film. It seems like a lot of the high profile ones with a bigger budgets, like car commercials, still like film. Unfortunately very often the decision of whether to use film or digital in a commercial is made before a director of photography is involved.

With the digital cameras having become that good, it will be tougher to argue for film. On the big screen you can see a difference and I still love film for its organic quality. I would love film to stay around as a tool. Film is a medium the cinematographer can paint with, given all the different film stocks, mixing reversal and negative, using prints to create certain looks, and even Super 8 as well as what you can do in the lab. I think it would be a great loss if that goes away.

When I shot The American, a journalist asked me why I would choose film over digital. He was surprised when I told him that it was the best image quality and that film cameras would be the most reliable tools to do the job. In his mind, the new thing should be the best. To me, only recently have there been feature films shot digitally which really hold on the big screen. We'll see how things develop but a cinematographer today has to be open to shooting either way.