Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey
“On Every Movie I Do, I Try to Test Every Single Camera I Can Get My Hands On”: DP Pawel Pogorzelski on Nobody
In the middle-aged revenge fantasy movie, the protagonist’s onslaught of violence is a reluctant one. In your John Wicks or Takens, these are men forced back into action by a transgression so grievous it demands brutal retribution. They don’t want to, but they have to. As director Ilya Naishuller points out, Nobody is an inversion of that formula. When Bob Odenkirk’s retired assassin Hutch is jarred from suburban drudgery by a home break in, he loses only a few bucks, a kitty cat bracelet and some pride. Hardly a kidnapped daughter or a murdered puppy. Hutch doesn’t have to dust off his dormant aptitude for carnage….but he really, really wants to. It’s basically his version of a midlife crisis. By the time his home is strewn with Russian mobsters’ corpses, Odenkirk deadpans, “I might have overcorrected.”
Mangled Russian henchmen almost qualify as light and breezy for cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski. The Polish-born, Canadian-raised DP made his name shooting Ari Aster’s disquieting Hereditary and Midsommar. With Nobody in theaters and on premium VOD, Pogorzelski talked to Filmmaker about his role in creating an unlikely new action hero.
Filmmaker: How did the script read the first time you saw it? The opening is this almost dialogue-free montage of Odenkirk’s monotonous daily routine.
Pogorzelski: The first time I read the script it resembled a John Wick movie and I had a hard time seeing very clearly how different it could be, but I really liked the work of [Hardcore Henry] director Ilya Naishuller. It was my conversation with Ilya and understanding his vision that sparked my interest in the project and made me think this could be something really cool and fun.
Filmmaker: The John Wick feel is understandable. Nobody has the same screenwriter and it’s produced by 87North, which is an offshoot of the stunt team responsible for the Wick series. What was it like working with those guys? One of the ways they made a name for themselves as stunt coordinators before moving into directing was choreographing, shooting and cutting fight scenes as a previs template.
Pogorzelski: Ilya already came in with a lot of storyboards. He talked to our stunt coordinator Greg Rementer, then Greg’s teams built each sequence and shot a test version. Then we’d start making adjustments and they’d shoot more and re-cut it again. Greg or Ilya would have an idea to change something and that would [create a domino effect] where another part would have to change and then another action would be added. It was this great ping-pong game where they would go back and forth and keep making it better and better.
Filmmaker: And for scenes like the bus fight, where Hutch has his first outburst of violence, you have to do a whole new round of adjustments when you actually get into that physical space for the first time.
Pogorzelski: Correct. We rehearsed that scene with the actors on the bus before we shot it to make sure that the camera angles we had come up with in previs would still work. We also had to see what parts of the bus, like seats or poles, would need to be quickly and easily removable on the day.
Filmmaker: You used a real bus for the scene. Did you have to add that strip of lights that goes around the top of the interior?
Pogorzelski: They were already there. We just took out the fluorescent bulbs that were in them and replaced them with Astera tubes. I wanted to be able to control the light so there was a key light on one side and fill on the other so it wasn’t all flat. So, I put dimmable Astera tubes the entire length of the bus and was able to control each section. Usually I made wherever Bob was on the bus a bit more intense by maybe half a stop and let everything else be a bit darker.
Filmmaker: You shot that scene on a real street rather than on stage. Did you have to swap out the practical bulbs for the streetlights and commercial building lights we see out the bus windows?
Pogorzelski: We did have to ask the city to turn off certain lights that we didn’t like and keep on the ones we did. Then, in the background, we just added a couple of bigger lights on condors to give a bit more sense of depth.
Filmmaker: That scene is largely handheld. I’m also guessing it was more single camera than the rest of the shoot just because of the limited space inside the bus. How much of that style was dictated by the restrictions of the space?
Pogorzelski: That was definitely mostly one camera. Maybe a few times we were able to work two cameras in there, but there was really no room. At first, actually, we were thinking of a different look for that scene and even did a rehearsal where we used dollies and jibs. Emotionally, it just didn’t feel right. This is the first burst of energy that Bob finally gets to release and when we went back to the handheld we were able to get the energy we wanted. Shooting handheld, we were also able to get closer with wider lenses, and that made it feel more like you were in the fight and part of the action.
Filmmaker: Was that the first big action setpiece up on the schedule?
Pogorzelski: It was the first big action, yes. I remember everyone feeling relieved once we got it. Like, “Okay, we survived that.” But we couldn’t get too comfortable, because then we had to go on to the next big setpiece and then another big setpiece. It was challenge after challenge.
Filmmaker: I’ve seen three films that you’ve shot and each used a different camera: Hereditary was Alexa, Midsommar was Panavision DXL2 and Nobody was Red Helium. What’s your process for choosing?
Pogorzelski: On every movie I do, I try to test every single camera I can get my hands on. For Nobody, I tested the Sony Venice, the Red Monstro and Helium, and the Alexa Mini and LF. We knew we wanted to do anamorphic, so on this movie so we tested a bunch of anamorphic lenses at Camtec in Hollywood.
Filmmaker: What are you actually shooting for those tests? Is it just a stand-in on a stool under different lighting conditions?
Pogorzelski: Usually I’ll have them walk around, maybe come in through a door so there’s movement through different contrasts and different spaces and I can see how each lens focuses. And for each lens, I’ll have them turn on a light that flares the camera so I can see the flares. It’s probably 20 seconds per lens, and that usually adds up to a 30-minute ordeal to watch everything with the director.
Filmmaker: It’s an ordeal? I guess 30 minutes of someone walking through the same space would be tedious.
Pogorzelski: It feels so long.
Filmmaker: And when you do that screening, it’s a blind test for the director, right? They don’t know which camera or lens they’re looking at.
Pogorzelski: Correct. We watch those tests, then choose which combination of lens and camera works best for the movie. When we’re shooting the tests I usually start to get some idea of what combination I’m going to like, but that’s from seeing it on a 17-inch monitor. As soon as I get to the big screen and watch it on the projector, it changes. It’s not a technical test, really. It’s very much an artistic test. I don’t remember, for example, why I chose the Alexa for Hereditary. It just worked for that movie.
Filmmaker: You shot Nobody at a higher ISO than the Helium’s 800 base?
Pogorzelski: We knew we wanted to add grain in post, but pushing the camera to 1600 already gave us noise that was really interesting. Even when we watched the 1600 tests with just Rec. 709 and no other grade, it was already so close to how we envisioned the movie. We wanted a look that was a little bit grimier and grungier, and 1600 already gave us a little bit of that. Then from there, we went out and created our LUT.
Filmmaker: For that show LUT, you basically pushed down the exposure about a stop?
Pogorzelski: Yes, just to force myself to light a little bit more to get a healthy negative. The LUT was a good 2/3 of a stop darker.
Filmmaker: In the digital intermediate, did you find yourself using that extra information and lifting up the levels, or did you tend to live where the LUT put you during the shoot?
Pogorzelski: There were only a few things that were lifted up, city exteriors where we just had to use available light because it was run-and-gun with Bob to get some B-roll and it was super dark. After four days in the color grade, we pretty much felt like we were done. Then we had the producers come in and they had very few notes. What’s funny, though, is that I remember early in the grade Ilya and [colorist] Walter Volpatto were like, “Let’s just try something else and see. Let’s try a few frames and explore and play around with the image.” And no matter what they changed, it just wanted to sit where we shot it. I actually hadn’t seen any footage in a long time before the DI. I don’t like to watch cuts so I can go into the grade with fresh eyes. Maybe we had all just gotten used to [the on-set look] at that point, but no matter what we did the movie just seemed to want to sit where we shot it.
Filmmaker: You used the Hawk V-Lites on this one. I just revisited Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, which was an early movie to use those V-Lites, and I’d forgotten how much barrel distortion they have.
Pogorzelski: Yeah, those distortions are cool. I remember liking those lenses right away for Nobody and so did the director. We debated about camera bodies, but with the Hawks right away it was like, “These are it.” We liked the imperfections. The wide lenses were so crazy with how much they distorted, but we embraced that.
Filmmaker: After the “Bob’s dreary suburban existence” opening montage, the villain—a Russian gangster named Yulian—is introduced and the style for his world shifts to this colorful palette with a prowling camera. The first shot of Yulian is a long tracking shot that begins outside the club he owns and then we follow him—like the Copa Steadicam shot from Goodfellas—inside as he works the room before going up on stage to sing.
Pogorzelski: That was a lot of fun, putting that shot together. The hardest part was the cars stopping right next to the actor [as he jaywalks across the street toward the club] and the actor not looking or reacting and trusting that the drivers were not going to hit him. Same for the Steadicam operator. It was Winnipeg in October/November, so the roads tended to be a little slippery. So, we were all nervous.
Filmmaker: There’s another great long take after Hutch escapes from a henchman’s trunk. It starts as an empty static wide shot, then a car tumbles into frame and takes out a light pole. The camera starts pushing in and Bob pops out of the trunk and begins interrogating one of his captors. Though it’s seamless, I’m assuming this is two shots stitched together and that you didn’t actually flip the car over with Bob in there.
Pogorzelski: We did that shot on a Technocrane with like 20 feet of track, because the [telescopic] arm wasn’t long enough to push around to the other side of the car without moving the crane. Once we were happy with the opening frame, everything was locked [for the shot of the car bouncing in. We framed it wide enough so that if the car didn’t fall exactly where we wanted it to, we could crop in afterwards in post. So, we shot the stunt with the camera move, then cleaned everything out and put a new car in the frame that was prebuilt for Bob to be in the trunk. On set we had an overlay on the monitor of [the stunt car’s final landing spot and the new car’s position] so we could match them. Then you just do the move again, Bob climbs out and in post they stitch it together.
Filmmaker: It’s amazing how invisible that technique has become.
Pogorzelski: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy what you can create today. You just need imagination.
Filmmaker: The second big action set piece following the bus melee takes place in Hutch’s quaint cul-de-sac. He’s unknowingly killed Yulian’s younger brother and a Russian hit squad has come to collect him. Hutch cuts off the power to his house and takes out the Russians in the dark.
Pogorzelski: That was a hard one. We shot that on a stage and, instead of a ceiling, I put a 20’ x 20’ frame with muslin maybe 10 or 15 feet above where the ceiling would be. I bounced two 5Ks into it from outside the set to give this very soft ambiance. I also had harder lights coming in from the windows. Then I would have a little bit of fill light to give an eye light, either with a DMG Lumiere SL1 or, if we were moving around a lot, a China ball with LED strips inside.
Filmmaker: You also put LEDs inside the guns to simulate muzzle flashes.
Pogorzelski: I don’t want to give credit to the wrong department, but it was either the armorers or the props people who built those guns for us. Anytime someone pulled the trigger, it would flash. It was so cool for those dark scenes to have that interactive lighting.
Filmmaker: How are you gauging exposure when you’re doing a complicated action scene like that in low light that moves through different rooms?
Pogorzelski: I used my light meter. It gives me a simple, easy number I can react to right way. If I’m standing there on set with the actors and measuring the light, I know exactly where the source is coming from that I need to fix and how much to adjust it. I still think it’s the best way to work.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.