ARRI News - June 98 - Wing Commander the Film

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Wing Commander The Film


That’s right: when you hear the title WING COMMANDER you first think of the very popular computer game of the same name. It has now been adapted for the cinema in a suitably ambitious way, using state of the art technology. It is the year 2624. In the universe a war is going on. The heroes – stranded war veterans and daring young pilots – get involved in risky battles with each other and survive dangerous missions. Exciting fights and the struggle between good and bad are at the heart of this saga in outer space. “The story borrows from the film, THE BOAT, adapted of course for outer space”, Chris Roberts describing his feature film. It is the first time this American has directed a film – he also developed the computer game series of the same name.

WING COMMANDER was filmed in Luxembourg. With a budget of 45 million DM, it is the most expensive film project to date made in the Grand Duchy. The film was produced by the Carousel Picture Company (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS) which the Luxembourger Romain Schroeder founded, together with his partner Tom Reeve in 1995.

The main roles are played by Freddie Prinze jr. (I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER) and Matthew Lillard (SCREAM), two of Hollywood’s rising stars. In supporting roles are Jürgen Prochnow (THE BOAT) and Tchéky Karyo (NIKITA). For his debut, Chris Roberts hired some of the best international specialists. In the team of over 170 people, such well-known names as Peter Lamont and Michael Ford can be found. They were responsible for the design of the buildings and details of the set construction. Both recently received an Oscar for their work on the mega-production TITANIC. In total, 25 people who worked on the TITANIC production were hired to work on this project. Césarwinner Thierry Arbogast (films include THE FIFTH ELEMENT, LEON, SHE’S SO LOVELY) was responsible for image composition. He shot WING COMMANDER with ARRIFLEX 535B and 435 cameras. Robert Wiesmann, head of the ARRI Camera Rental Park in Munich, spoke to him:

R.W.: Your last film, THE FIFTH ELEMENT was the same genre. Can we assume that Science Fiction is your preferred film genre?

Thierry Arbogast: No, it was more a coincidence that Luc Besson made a Science Fiction film. As I had often worked with him before, it was also clear that he would ask me if I wanted to make the film.I very much like the type of cinema which in France is called genre films – for example period dramas, thrillers and of course also Science Fiction, which provide a particular challenge. I mean, I love films which belong to a precisely defined category.

R.W.: And what films do you like to go and see?

Thierry Arbogast: I think highly of Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER, Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE and also Clint Eastwood’s PALE RIDER. As a visual person I prefer this style – when beautiful images are shown. In general these are North American productions.

R.W.: On WING COMMANDER you also support Chris Roberts in directing, as he is actually a computer games programmer and this is his first time directing. How did you cope with this extra function as well as your tasks as DoP?

Thierry Arbogast: Oh no – you can’t claim that I directed on WING COMMANDER in any way. I just very much enjoy discussing with the director how a sequence should be shot. Or what possibilities existed to further tighten up a sequence.

With Luc Besson it’s completely different as he has a very exact idea of how a sequence should be shot. Often he even operates the camera. And then I’m the one who has to run after him. But I am, of course, very interested in the discussion with the director, as that is also part of filming.

And although this was his first film, Chris Roberts is a brilliant director, especially technically. He is very enthusiastic about the cinematic medium. And there were already many filmic sequences in the WING COMMANDER games, so you could say he has definitely a certain experience in directing.

R.W.: On the set it was noticed that you let the operator work the camera, although particularly in Europe that’s not very common.

Thierry Arbogast: First of all the sequence is discussed with the director to get a common understanding of it. Then, of course, I reach for the camera to establish the image composition. Then I leave the field to the operator and tell him: that’s exactly what we want.

The actual operating of the camera is a job which I don’t necessarily have to do. Sometimes it is also simply better to have an operator on the scene.

R.W.: You shot WING COMMANDER and THE FIFTH ELEMENT on Super 35. Who decided on this format?

Thierry Arbogast: Well, it wasn’t my personal choice. On THE FIFTH ELEMENT the recommendation on format came from Digital Domain, as with anamorphic lenses the special effects would have been more complicated. Luc Besson finally made the decision.

Personally I also like anamorphic lenses because of the aesthetic reproduction – they create something bizarre in the image which I find interesting. The same with zooms which cause the image to no longer look quite as natural. I would also like to try out the Variable Primes one day.

R.W.: You shot both THE FIFTH ELEMENT and WING COMMANDER with ARRIFLEX 435 and 535 cameras – how did you find them?

Thierry Arbogast: To be honest, if I have the choice between various camera systems, I prefer the one with the better viewfinder. That seems to me to be the main trump of an ARRI camera, as I like viewfinders on which the image seems very close. It is a little bit as if with an ARRIFLEX you are sitting in the fifth row of a cinema and with other cameras at the back of the cinema. Some cameramen like that because then they can assess the image globally and at the same time keep an eye on the contours. But that is rather a view of many operators. When I work as an operator, I prefer to see the image close up.

Another point is that the viewfinder can be pivoted to the other camera side. Sometimes you end up in the corner of a room and are forced to use the viewfinder on the other side. It doesn’t happen very often, but on WING COMMANDER that’s exactly what happened three or four times. And that alone justifies the system.

R.W.: You also had a special ground glass which darkened the surroundings to neutralise everything which wasn’t in the image. Was that the operator’s wish?

Thierry Arbogast: No, that was my idea. I hate seeing things in the camera which are outside the image. For me only the image counts – only the image composition and nothing else around it. I would even like the surrounding area to be completely black.

R.W.: Doesn’t it bother you, for example, to only see the sound assistant’s microphone once it comes into your image?

Thierry Arbogast: What can you do to stop it? All you can do is pivot to the ground when you see a microphone coming towards the image, and that creates a bad image composition. To me it makes more sense to say: OK, let’s repeat the scene. It certainly doesn’t justify leaving an edge around the actual image. However, I accept having very dark grey shadows to enable the operator to at least have minimal points of reference.

R.W.: On WING COMMANDER there were very many camera moves. Sometimes, for example, the camera rotates on its own axis with the Scorpio-head. Doesn’t that later cause a problem for animation?

Thierry Arbogast: No, not necessarily. On WING COMMANDER the special effects were much more easily adaptable than, for example, on THE FIFTH ELEMENT. The technical development of special effects moves very fast. With increasing experience people now have far less fear of many things.

R.W.: In the jets’ cockpits you also left the glass panes in the set. Doesn’t that normally create problems for post-production?

Thierry Arbogast: Yes and no. If the glass panes are kept, some of the set will also be reflected. That doesn’t affect the Green Screen’s performance though. But if we take the glass away, we would have no reflections, and they make everything look far more realistic.

R.W.: The budget of WING COMMANDER was much smaller than on THE FIFTH ELEMENT. Did that cause limitations?

Thierry Arbogast: As a DoP you don’t have a lot of influence on the production’s problems. The limitations exist and you have to live with them. But that also happens on a large film and it’s not necessarily a question of budget. In any case you have a certain responsibility to the production company. And that means, if I don’t really need something, I don’t take it. Even on a big film. It is correct that less money was available for WING COMMANDER than for THE FIFTH ELEMENT. Despite this, relatively speaking the budgets for both films were very small.

On WING COMMANDER we shot for 9 weeks with 4 cameras, on THE FIFTH ELEMENT it was 20 weeks, again with 4 cameras.

R.W.: Which of your own films is your favourite?

Thierry Arbogast: I very much like the films which Luc Besson directed, because he is an extraordinary director who teaches me a lot technically. It is a great pleasure to work with Luc. There is a film called LE BRASIER by director Rick Barbier which I also enjoyed a lot, or HUSAR ON THE ROOF. But somehow it’s strange to say that a film is your favourite. That is like deciding which child in the family is your favourite. I really like all the films I make, even the little productions, such as for example THE APARTMENT by Gilles Mimony.

R.W.: Thank you very much for this interview! Thierry Arbogast’s next project will again be with Luc Besson, who after THE FIFTH ELEMENT, LEON, NIKITA and THE BIG BLUE will begin filming JOAN OF ARC this summer.