Every Picture Has to Tell the Story

THE OSCARS. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen has teamed up with Thomas Vinterberg on his last three films, including the Oscar-nominated "The Hunt." Here she talks about converting words into images and the pleasure of working with such a visual director as Vinterberg.

First, Charlotte Bruus Christensen took home a technical award in Cannes in 2012. More recently, in February, she won a Bodil from the Danish film critics for her ability to "maintain a credible everyday realism in a film that also looks amazing," as the motivation read about her work on "The Hunt," nominated for the Oscars 2014.

"Charlotte Bruus Christensen's frames are fixed and lustrous" – Screen Daily

Mads Mikkelsen plays "The Hunt"'s mild-mannered kindergarten teacher, Lucas, recently divorced, who is falsely accused by a young girl in his care. Soon he becomes the target of hatred by all in his small town, abandoned even by his lifelong friends.

Charlotte Bruus Christensen

Charlotte Bruus Christensen graduated from the National Film and Television School in England in 2004. She worked on a series of shorts in England and also directed her own award-winning short film "Between Us" along with her husband and fellow graduate, Stefan Mørk.

Charlotte Bruus Christensen received the Prix Vulcain De L'Artiste-Technicien (Best Technical Achievement award) at Cannes 2012 for her work on Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt". Following the film's gala screening at Cannes, the press wrote:

"The elegantly framed widescreen compositions of cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen maintain a certain detachment in the establishing action, bearing witness to the awful events with distressing clarity"
The Hollywood Reporter

"There really isn't an ounce of fat on this picture, and the cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Cristensen (sic) is ravishingly good"
The Guardian

"Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s frames are fixed and lustrous"
Screen Daily

Selected films

Life (filming)
Dir. Anton Corbijn 

Far From the Madding Crowd (2014) 
Dir. Thomas Vinterberg

In Real Life (2013)
Dir. Jonas Elmer 

The Hunt (2013)
Dir. Thomas Vinterberg

Hunky Dory (2012)
Dir. Marc Evans

My Good Enemy (2010)
Dir. Oliver Ussing

Submarino (2010)
Dir. Thomas Vinterberg


Late Sunday night, Danish time, it will be decided whether "The Hunt" takes home an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Two other Danish films are contending for the coveted statuettes – Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing," produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen for Final Cut for Real, and Anders Walther's "Helium," produced by Kim Magnusson for M&M Productions. 

All three films received support from the Danish Film Institute.

Cinematographer on Thomas Vinterberg's "Submarino", "The Hunt" and the English-language "Far from the Madding Crowd" (to release in 2014), Charlotte Bruus Christensen talks about her collaboration with the director and her work with the camera as narrator in "The Hunt."

What is the story in "The Hunt" about for you and how did you work with pictures to tell that story?

In broad strokes, "The Hunt" is about how a little girl starts a vendetta by telling a banal lie that spreads through a small community like a virus. But it is also about how people influence reality and force fantasy into a context of truth. The film embraces and communicates weighty concepts like doubt and faith, judgement and innocence, friendship and hatred and, not least, forgiveness. 

Thomas Vinterberg and I spent a big part of our preparation time doing a concentrated reading of the script. What is the individual scene about? How does the individual scene fit into the greater context? Accordingly, you could say that I work with the words – understanding the script and the director's vision – primarily to be able to start the actual work with the pictures. The goal is to make every picture tell the story, and in "The Hunt" it was particularly important for me to always return to the basic ideas of the scenes. 

What were your inspirations for "The Hunt" – and why them? You previously mentioned films like "The Deer Hunter," "Fanny and Alexander" and "The Shawshank Redemption."

I took inspiration from a lot of different media – film, stills, paintings, even a random postcard from a street stand. In terms of film references, we did look at "The Deer Hunter" for its forest shots, colour palette and calm camera movements across from panic. 

"Fanny and Alexander" keeps popping up as an inspiration in my collaboration with Thomas. We are both fond of that film, and elements or moods from it always seem to be inspiring Thomas's stories. As a case in point, we were inspired by the warm interiors versus the cold exteriors. 

"The Shawshank Redemption" was an entirely personal inspiration for me in terms of light. The angle of the light. Frontal light in situations where a character is "trapped." I used that light in the scene where Lucas first hears the charges against him. He is sitting in the kindergarten principal's office, and the light hits him right in the face and creates an almost spotlight-like feel.

Jagten-kolde-farverCOLOURS. Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas whose isolation is reflected in the cool lighting of his home. Photo: Per Arnesen  

You have, as you mentioned, worked a lot with the contrast between warm interiors and cold exteriors. How come?

It was a very simple but also very fundamental idea in visualising "The Hunt." Lucas does not have his family around him, as he would like. To underscore that story we kept Lucas's home rather cool, while everyone else's home got an extra warm glow. At the same time, I developed the degree of cool or warm to match the rhythm of the story and the changing of the seasons. 

In the opening of the film we introduce a cosy, contented village in warm fall colours. From that point on it gets colder and colder outside, as the accusations against Lucas mount in the village. The development ends back in "warm fall colours," as everything is, apparently, back to normal at the end of the film.

There is something almost documentary about the film?

Our approach to "The Hunt" was to create freedom under lighted, constructed conditions. In other words, in my lighting I worked to create an atmosphere in a room rather than placing lights for the individual actors. That allowed the actors to move freely in a real world.

It was important that the visuals don't call attention to themselves. My job was to frame the film, create the light and dark and the compositions that were necessary for staging the characters and their circumstances. It was important not to "get in the way" with flashy visuals. On the contrary, it was better if the camera was invisible.

Jagten framegrabLIGHTING. The intensity and colour of the light influence the audience's sense of where Lucas is emotionally. Framegrab

As spectators we get very close to the protagonist, Lucas, played by Mads Mikkelsen. How did you work to create intimacy and identification?

My immediate answer is that the visual intimacy was a result of the preparatory work. Once that is said, Thomas and I do put a premium on spontaneity and intuition. Only when the actors are on the set and the rehearsals are in progress do I finally get a sense of how the individual setups should be handled to get as close to the characters' emotions as possible. I believe that the intensity and colour of the light influence the audience's sense of where the character is emotionally.

You have shot three films with Thomas Vinterberg, including his recent English production "Far from the Madding Crowd." How would you describe your partnership with Vinterberg?

Working with Thomas on his last three films has been an amazing journey, an invitation and an adventure that I appreciate to the fullest. I think our partnership is special and unique in a number of ways. We are both curious about communicating and enlarging cinematic aspects. Thomas is an incredibly visual director, which means that our collaboration is based on hours of discussing the visual communication of the screenplay and the characters.

What did it mean for you to win the technical award in Cannes for your work on "The Hunt"?

Winning the award was a pretty big surprise, especially because "The Hunt"'s visual vocabulary is kept in a documentary, minimalist style with the goal of not being seen. So it was farthest from my mind that my work would attract attention in such distinguished company. The award motivation mentioned "story-based visual precision," and I'm very proud of that, of course. The award has brought a certain recognition, not only from the industry but also in a smaller, more personal format – an inner faith that the in-depth work I love to delve into actually makes sense and has significance to a film. 

What does the Oscar nomination of "The Hunt" mean to you?

When a film is nominated for an Oscar, it means that it has been seen by a lot of people and that a lot more people are going to see it, too. All the positive buzz is gratifying and beneficial to all of us who helped make the film. Assign whatever value you want to film awards and nominations – that's up to you – but an Oscar nomination is undeniably a huge commercial event for our film. 

I simply think it's really fun and memorable to have been a small part of a film that's being considered for an Oscar. Moreover, it opens new doors for Thomas, the actors and the crew.

What are you working on at the moment – and what's in the pipeline?

At the moment I'm filming in Toronto with the director Anton Corbijn ("Control," "The American"). The title of the film is "Life." It's about the friendship between James Dean and the photographer Dennis Stock, and stars Robert Pattinson and Dane Dehaan. I will be returning to my little country house in Denmark in early April and I haven't made any plans for my next project yet. I currently spend my weekends reading potential scripts.

Do you dream of Hollywood?

My hopes and dreams are simply to get to work with good, human screenplays and exciting directors. If a good story should one day take me to Hollywood, well, yes, that's part of the dream.

Who are your models as a cinematographer – and why?

I have a lot of models and the more films I see, the more I get. But Sven Nykvist [Swedish cinematographer, best known for his work with Ingmar Bergman, ed.) is surely at the top of my list because of his absolute precision and his unique and uncomplicated way of doing close-ups.