20,000 Kelvin at 9 PM: DP Eli Arenson on Lamb
Comedian W.C. Fields coined the often-repeated adage, “Never work with children or animals.” One would assume that aphorism extends to hybrids of the two as well. Cinematographer Eli Arenson learned the difficulty of that amalgamation on the new A24 film Lamb, while also braving a petting zoo’s worth of critters, including horses, dogs, cats and, of course, sheep.
Set in the remote north of Iceland, the film finds a sheep farming couple (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) pulled from the depths of grief when one of their ewes gives birth to a part human/part sheep child they christen Ada. With the film still in theaters and now also available on VOD, Arenson spoke to Filmmaker about shooting in 20,000 Kelvin Icelandic sun, differentiating Ada from Jar Jar Binks and why, if everything is a close-up, then nothing is a close-up.
Filmmaker: With a movie like Lamb that is open to interpretation, how deep into the weeds did you get with director Valdimar Jóhannsson in terms of explicitly discussing the themes and metaphors? Can the film mean something different and personal to you than it does to the director?
Arenson: Usually those conversations consisted of me telling Valdimar what I thought and him going, “Hmmm. That’s interesting.” But I never got down to the nitty gritty of what he [thought Lamb was about. I had my own interpretation. Noomi had her own interpretation; we shared those with Valdimar and he was open to all those ideas. It’s based loosely on Valdimar’s childhood and [Noomi’s] character of Maria is loosely based on Valdimar’s grandmother, who was a sheep farmer and the head of the household in a way. He grew up in a place where women sometimes were even stronger than men in terms of their responsibilities. But in terms of the metaphors and the meaning of the lamb and all of those things, I think in Valdimar’s mind everything was matter of fact. He would tell you that there are no metaphors, that this is just a simple story where this fantastical thing happens.
Filmmaker: I’m always interested in the way that a film chooses to begin. Lamb opens with a point-of-view push-in to a herd of horses. What’s the intent of that shot?
Arenson: The first image was written into the script. Valdimar co-wrote the film with Sjón, who’s an (Icelandic) poet, and the script is written extremely poetically. The opening, if I remember correctly, describes a howling wind and a snow storm that reminds you of some kind of beast, but it’s written as a one shot. There’s also a kind of tradition in Icelandic films of starting with a string of horses. Originally in the script there was also this closing moment with the horses, which still appears slightly in the film in a photograph where we zoom in to these farmers on horseback. So it ties back into the beginning and gives this feeling of closure—it starts and ends with the beast.
We had this idea of starting with just complete white, then the horses appear out of the mist, but we knew we weren’t going to have a lot of control over how that was going to happen. It was quite a small movie and the crew was quite small. I had these big ideas at first, like we were going to have a wire cam that went through the snowstorm, but in the end it was just me walking with the camera and a little bit of stabilization added to it. We went up to the location at the end [of the schedule] with a very, very small team and spent some time waiting for the perfect weather. We ended up getting a yellow warning storm, which is about 30 meters per second winds. You could barely stand in the wind and when we were driving up there in the cars you could barely see anything. So, it was just perfect weather for that shot. In the end everything is just in camera. It’s 100% a real shot. There’s no VFX team on that particular shot. It’s just a real snowstorm that kicked our asses. I think we ended up using like the second take and I’m so happy because it’s exactly what we imagined. The gods were smiling on us that day.
Filmmaker: The point of view of that shot is interesting. I had this sense of dread throughout the film, just waiting for something tragic or horrific to happen. That opening shot felt like a looming force whose arrival was inevitable.
Arenson: We did have a back and forth, myself and Valdimar, about that. Early on he wanted it to be a literal point of view of the beast. So, you really feel the footsteps and hear the breathing and it’s a direct point of view of a beast. We were even talking about some kind of special lens that would represent the beast’s perspective. Then, closer to shooting, we talked about maybe toning that down and not feeling the footsteps so much or using shaky camera, and instead having it be more like this ominous force coming. It’s not necessarily the direct perspective of this creature, but it is, in a sense, nature itself. Throughout the whole film, nature is always watching over the farm, because they’re down in this little valley surrounded by mountains. So, it was important for that opening shot to also represent that unrelenting force of nature that is approaching this tiny little speck in the middle of nowhere.
Filmmaker: Break down the shooting schedule for me. You shot the first chapter in the spring, where you had these days with like 22 hours of sunlight. Then you shot the latter parts of the film in the summer and the prologue in the winter. In total it was a six month shoot, but I’m assuming that wasn’t continuous.
Arenson: I think, all in all, it was 35 days of shooting, split apart. The first part was around May of 2019 and that was about 14 days, which is the first chapter. Then we had a break of a good few months, which was awesome because they cut together the first chapter and we could watch it, which I think helped with the division of the chapters and how they’re almost each like their own genre. Then we shot the second chapter, which was the majority of the shoot, and that happened in the summer around October. We finished in February of 2020 when we shot the prologue, and that was a much smaller team. Most of the film was finished at that point and I believe we’d even started grading it.
There’s a really strict schedule to farming—when they harvest, when it’s lambing season and when they let the sheep out to graze. In Iceland they let them graze for six months out of the year and they’re free to roam the hills, then they round them back up. So, we had to work according to that schedule and we were always shooting at the very end of those periods. Noomi’s first day on set was actually the birthing scene, where she’s delivering the lambs. At that point there were only like four ewes that were still pregnant and had to give birth. The daylight was really, really long at that point. The first chapter was so complicated, because we were working a lot with real lambs and real infants. It was a really difficult schedule to puzzle together, so we utilized the fact that it was endless night and shot a lot of day scenes at night and a lot of night scenes in the day. The scene where they find Ada after she’s disappeared from the house, that was shot at like 3 a.m. but still in daylight.
Filmmaker: How did you approach lighting your day exteriors around the farm? You’re shooting in this valley so you’re not getting a lot of harsh, direct overhead sunlight.
Arenson: The exteriors are pretty much natural light, with the exception of bringing in as much negative [fill] as I could. It’s so beautiful, the soft sunlight there. We tried to always position ourselves to shoot towards the sun, because even though we were in a deep valley and the sun was below the horizon most of the time, you still got a little bit more of a glow in the sky [in the direction of the sun] even if it was an overcast day. It would be maybe a half a stop to one stop punchier from that direction. Then we’d bring in negative from behind camera and from the grass below, because there was a lot of green bounce coming up from all the grass. But we pretty much worked with what nature gave us. It was a really small crew. I think we were two people in the lighting department, two people in the grip department, then myself and a 2nd and 1st AC. It was a very, very small, intimate shoot. So, we couldn’t really control that much. The only thing we could control was our schedule. We had a fantastic assistant director and he would sit with us every evening and we would have a Plan A and then a Plan B in case it was a sunny day, because it’s really hard to predict Icelandic weather. It was really important for us to shoot as much as we could in overcast skies to give it this moody feel, especially in the first chapter. The characters are in this very, very dark moment in their lives and we wanted the nature around them to reflect that.
Filmmaker: When you get inside the farmhouse for interiors, you’re dealing with a practical location. The daylight in there is very cool in temperature.
Arenson: The farmhouse was this old, abandoned pig farm that belonged to a sheep farmer a little bit further down the valley and the production made a great deal with him that we could shoot there if we fixed up the house. It was really in disarray when we got there. The walls were crumbling. So, production had to fix it up, but they could fix it up the way they wanted in terms of replacing windows with the frames they wanted or painting it however we wanted. We did choose a pretty dramatic color inside the farmhouse, so there was a lot of negative fill to begin with because of that color.
For lighting, we pretty much started with whatever the natural light was giving us. We owned that location for a very long time in preproduction and Valdimar and I would go up and sleep there some nights to just meditate and study the light. It was a great privilege to be able to do that. But I would go up there with my color meter and, in these summer nights, measure the temperature coming into the window and it would be off the charts of what the color meter could even read. It was like 9 p.m. and it’s at 20,000 Kelvin. At 10 p.m. it’s even higher.
Filmmaker: I heard you talk about those 20,000 Kelvin meter readings and was curious, so I looked at my DSLR just to see how high the Kelvin went and it topped out at 10,000. How high can you even set an Alexa’s Kelvin temperature?
Arenson: I just left the camera always at 5600. If the light wanted to get crazy turquoise, then that’s the way it was. You just work with what nature gives you, which was also kind of a manifesto for Valdimar and I, because we’re doing this film about respecting nature, so it’s kind of like we can’t be fighting it ourselves. We utilized LEDs like SkyPanels and Titans. What those units have, which is an awesome newish feature, is a CIE 1931 color graph. The new Sekonic color meter would give us a reading of these two X/Y coordinates, then on the app for the LEDs you’d just punch in those coordinates and then “poof,” the light imitates that color. So, for instance, if we’re shooting the characters with a window behind them that is this strange shade of bluish green, we could bring some lights on the inside to gently emulate that color. That’s how we did most of the interiors. We exposed to whatever was outside, then we just brought in a little bit of [the color] that was happening naturally outside [to bring up the interior exposure].
Filmmaker: You shot with the Arri Master Anamorphics. When I watched the film, I couldn’t tell if it was anamorphic, or if you shot spherical and then just cropped to 2.39. Some of the most recognizable anamorphic tells—the barrel distortion, the horizontal flares, the way a focus rack breathes—aren’t really present.
Arenson: One of the earliest conversations I had with Valdimar was about the aspect ratio. We knew that we wanted to go widescreen for this film very early on and it was my suggestion in the beginning, before I even visited the location and had just read the script, that this was an anamorphic film. I’m a huge fan of anamorphic lenses and usually Panavision is my go-to. So, early on we were testing a lot of Panavision lenses. They were super supportive with helping us out, but the nature of this film is a lot of locked-off wide shots. [The audience] has time to start looking all around [the frame] and to start looking at the edges and seeing the imperfections and the hallways and doorways of this tiny little farmhouse warping, and we really didn’t want to have any of those distractions. That’s not the reason why we wanted anamorphic. We wanted anamorphic because we liked the aspect ratio of the widescreen for the story that we were telling and also because we were shooting in all these small spaces, and it was really important for me to not use a 25mm lens for Noomi’s close-ups (which we would’ve had to do if we’d used spherical lenses in those confined spaces), but use a 50 mm [which is the equivalent field of view for a 2x anamorphic lens].
We eventually narrowed it down between the Panavision T Series lenses and the Master Anamorphics and ended up using the Master Anamorphics. It was the first time I used them and I was super happy with them, because, like you said, it’s not in-your-face anamorphic but definitely has that creamy bokeh in the backgrounds and it’s super flattering. They just kind of tell the story, you know what I mean? They don’t show off at all, which I think really suits this film.
Filmmaker: When you came on board Valdimar had already storyboarded the entire film. Once you joined the project, how did those storyboards change?
Arenson: Yeah, he had these beautiful storyboards that he hand-drew, which were just a work of art when you looked at them. There was no dialogue or text written on the storyboards at all. It was just laid out in images. It was really funny because you’d open this big book and didn’t even know what scene you were on. They were really gorgeous and super helpful in understanding what Valdimar wanted. Then I came with some ideas of my own, like being sparse with certain techniques like camera movement. We ended up storyboarding the entire film again. We had this big PDF we made that had the original storyboard, the adapted storyboard, maybe a reference from another film, and then a photograph from the location, where we’d go and shoot a stand-in. So, we did all of that and then the VFX shots were storyboarded a third time.
Filmmaker: What’s your favorite moment in the film that wasn’t in the storyboards?
Arenson: The scene when Maria and Ingvar come home and Ada is missing, towards the end of the first chapter. They come into the hallway and the camera is standing in the back of the hallway and the characters enter and exit the frame [as they search the house]. The camera is locked off for this really, really long time, then Maria steps forward and searches the bedroom and sees that the crib is empty. When she does that, the camera does a pan and what’s so cool about that is because the film has been so locked-off up until that point, suddenly a 90 degree pan does something to you. It was planned to be covered with a shot in the living room, then this shot and that shot, but the evening before we were going to shoot it I said to Valdimar, “Let’s do what we planned, but if we also do this pan I have a feeling that we could just get this whole complicated scene that happens in multiple rooms in a single shot.”
Filmmaker: You had this great quote from one of your film school professors at AFI, Bill Dill, that went something like, “If everything is a close-up, then nothing is a close-up.” You can see that applied in what you just talked about, how a small pan can have an outsized impact if you wait to use it at the right moment. I also just love how visual the storytelling is in Lamb. There’s never any direct dialogue that tells us about the trauma that this couple is recovering from. But when Ada is born, there is a wide shot of the husband pulling a crib out of storage in the barn, and that single image tells us everything we need to know.
Arenson: Right. Absolutely. You can communicate so much with just shot/reverse shot. Because this film is so sparse on dialogue and heavily features animals, you have a lot of scenes where animals are communicating with one another and just done with a shot and reverse shot, then people communicate with the animals using the same technique. So, you build all sorts of secret conversations that are happening because you’ve established this visual language where things are communicated purely with looks.
Filmmaker: Honestly, I could ask 50 questions just about dealing with the animals. You’ve got horses, cats, dogs and sheep. But let’s talk about the sheep, in particular in the first chapter during lambing season. You have all these frames where like a dozen sheep are arranged with perfect symmetry. I’m thinking of one shot in particular where the camera is looking in through the barn door and all the sheep’ heads are perfectly arranged almost like you told the sheep, “If you can’t see the camera, the camera can’t see you,” the sheep then found the lens to make the blocking work. How difficult was getting that particular composition?
Arenson: That was really hard. It was also a particularly small crew day. It was snowing outside and freezing cold. Valdimar, because he grew up helping on his grandparents’ sheep farm, has a really good understanding of what sheep will do. He understood how to place the camera and the crew and how to get these reactions, which was amazing. And at the point when we shot that scene, which was toward the end of production, we were all kind of sheep experts by then. But that was a really, really tough one. The hardest shot that we had with sheep, and getting them to do what we wanted, was the scene where Maria and Ingvar find Ada [out in the field] and are walking back to the house with her.
Filmmaker: I know exactly the shot you’re talking about, where the camera is tracking back with the parents in the foreground and this mother sheep comes charging after them perfectly centered between them in the background.
Arenson: Yeah. That shot was in the original storyboards, with the sheep coming out of the mist and running between them. In preproduction I remember sitting with Peter Hjorth, the VFX supervisor, and we were both like, “There’s no way that we’re going to get this.” You can’t have your lead actors out there for hours waiting for this shot. Some of the sheep scenes where [the animals] are alone, we were out there for like five hours waiting for one sheep to do the right thing—but once you have the actors involved and they’re holding a real baby lamb, forget about it. So we said, “We’ll try it. We’ll give it maybe three takes and if it doesn’t work we’re going to resort to CGI.” We were thinking about things like, “Maybe we’ll make a fence [to give the sheep a path to run down] and then paint it out.” We weren’t sure. What ended up happening was, the farmer who owned the mother sheep, he’s actually in the background of that shot in a camouflage coat and he just let the sheep loose, then he hit the deck and he’s hiding there pretending to be like a patch of moss or whatever. It just happened on the second or third take. The sheep ran right where we wanted it to. It was a Steadicam shot, so I was at the monitor and remember I jumped up and was just like, “I can’t believe it! We got it!”
Filmmaker: Right, you just saved a couple grand or whatever the CGI version would’ve cost.
Arenson: Yeah, it’s just so cool when you get those things in camera. We really tried to get as much as we could in camera, especially with Ada. And not just for budgetary reasons, but because we did not want her to be a thing that is created. She’s not like a Jar Jar Binks where she’s some kind of creation. She has a lamb head and a human body, but both are very real parts from the real world and we wanted her to have this photorealistic quality. So, we tried as much as possible to have the lamb head as a real lamb head, and the body as the real body of a child, then in VFX all you have to do is [combine them] and tidy up the seam. Then what you’re looking at is the real thing. We did that for most of the film and it gives it this very eerie, “uncanny valley” vibe to it. I think it makes the character more relatable and a little bit less Stuart Little.
Filmmaker: I have to finish by asking about the music video of Ingvar’s brother. We only see a few seconds of it when Ingvar pops it into the VCR, but in a movie that, like I said, mainly filled me with a sense of impending dread, that video made me laugh out loud. What’s the story behind that? Did you just do a couple shots because we only see snippets of it?
Arenson: Oh no. We shot the whole music video. (laughs). Valdimar has this running gag where he says that he actually wants to be a music video director, but no one lets him do music videos so he has to do features instead. We actually worked a long time on it. We scouted a bunch of locations. We shot it on Betacam and converted it. We just had a blast doing that. It was like we were in film school again.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.