“The Shelter Radiated Human Warmth and Closeness”: DP Simon Lereng Wilmont on A House Made of Splinters
The war in eastern Ukraine has left countless children as orphans, and in the face of systemic failure, the burden to care for them falls mostly on caretakers at overburdened orphanages. Simon Lereng Wilmont made one such orphanage the subject of his latest film, A House Made of Splinters. Wilmont both directed and shot the film, and below he discusses the paradoxes of shooting in an isolated orphanage during COVID and recounts the most difficult scene he has ever filmed.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Wilmont: I do most of my own filming because I simply love cinematography. I value working in the intimate space that I am able to create, when it’s just me with a simple camera setup and my subjects rather than a whole crew with big lights and equipment. In my experience it makes it so much easier to establish that all important trust, and at some point the camera blends into our shared everyday. It becomes an indifferent piece of equipment, or kind of an extra friend in our group. That’s when the magic usually starts happening and I am able to capture the most emotionally raw and honest scenes.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Wilmont: I fell in love with this shelter in eastern Ukraine because it radiated human warmth and closeness from the very moment I stepped over the threshold. I knew instantly it was a special place. I soon understood, though, that it was also a place that had a strong underlying current of tragedy that would surface and rear its ugly head once in a while. It is, of course. part of the DNA of the shelter and its function, so it became kind of a mission for me personally to try to understand and capture what made the shelter so special, which was both the kindness and care of the staff and that fragile but precious hope that still lived so strong in the most of the kids despite the tough circumstances. I needed the moments of close human connection to be captured as beautifully as possible to show just how precious that hope is in contrast to the stark reality outside the shelter.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Wilmont: I was, and still am, deeply inspired by the French photographer Lisa Sarfati and her photographs from the post-soviet Russia of the 1990s.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Wilmont: COVID, COVID and COVID. The orphanage did not use much masking equipment because they pretty much closed themselves off from the outside world. This was great for the film, because it makes it more universal and not COVID “time-stamped” but super hard for us because at times I had to film the kids going about their daily lives wearing a contagion-like hazmat outfit, which was much to the great fun of the kids. The absurdity of those moments made the whole filming process a bit less earnest for us all, I think. So in some ways you could actually argue it all ended up working to our benefit.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Wilmont: The film is shot on a Canon C300 mk2 with the 24-70 mm or 70-200 mm Canon lens – the 24-70 mm being my all-time personal favorite lens, because it ‘s an amazing versatile go-to lens for shooting in all the different kinds of crazy situations that you end up in when you’re filming documentaries.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Wilmont: I am a huge fan of natural light, and I gravitate as much as possible towards that. Professional lighting is an art form, and it is difficult, heavy and time consuming, so I prefer to make use of the light sources available and make the most of them with the least amount of tinkering. So, I might move a lamp, or ask the subjects to hang their light chain a different place, but I try to keep it to a minimum.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Wilmont: Without a doubt the most difficult scene to film—maybe even the hardest scene I have ever filmed—was when one of the children had to say goodbye to his siblings. I had become good friends with him at this point in the process and I had spent a lot of time with him and his siblings, so filming what was properly one of the worst moments in their lives was really tough. The situation was so sudden, so raw and heartbreaking, that I just wanted to lay down the camera and try to be a friend to them in any way I could, but I realized, to my frustration, that I was completely powerless in this situation. So I decided to do my absolute best to capture the moment as soberly as possible so the scene at least could stand as some kind of testament to his deep love for his little brother and sister.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Wilmont: The worn look and dusty colors of the orphanage and the bright colors of the kids is pretty much baked in from the reality, but we did add some grain to give the film a soft appearance, which reminds me of the old 16 mm color film and gives the film a special kind of warmth and life.
Film Title: A House Made Of Splinters
Camera: Canon C300 mk2
Lenses: Canon 24-70 mm & Canon 70-200 mm
Lighting: Natural light
Processing: Kong Gulerod Post Company, DaVinci Resolve
Color Grading: DaVinci Resolve