Go backBack to selection

“My Own Sweat Would Drip Onto the Camera”: DP Ants Tammik on Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

A woman stands nude in a dark room, her face is covered by a bouquet of aromatic leaves.Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Women bear all in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, the intimate documentary from Estonian filmmaker Anna Hints. While partaking in the ritualistic cleanse, a group of women divulge secrets, talk through past traumas and, above all, foster their feminine bond while sweating bullets in the nude.

DP Ants Tammik tells Filmmaker about the complications of shooting in such a hot, stuffy environment with sensitive equipment —and a few injuries he sustained along the way.

See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here

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?

Tammik: The key elements in this film are the sauna with its harsh environment, nature and the seasons and sensitive main characters, so I think my experience and resilience as a cinematographer, interest in nature, empathy and pure interested in a fellow human being opened the door for me to make this film. I’m more and more trying to choose projects that move me and this was definitely one. I also know the director and producer very well—13 years of various projects between us.

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?

Tammik: A lot of the subjects in this film are considered taboo so I interpreted the shadows as secrecy and the light as being open. We also wanted the film to be as natural as possible so we lit the reflection-less, dark sauna from a tiny window in the wall, similar to natural light. The only reflection point for the light is off of the bodies in the sauna, therefore creating the correct atmosphere, which we never wanted to fabricate or somehow feel staged. Everything had to be natural, but that doesn’t mean the image can’t be aesthetically beautiful.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Tammik: I don’t have a specific favorite, but I’m a big fan of photo-docus, magical realism in arts and I’m especially fond of films that are shot using wide angle perspective, with the use of natural light and improvised motion. I love when surreal moments are found in reality.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Tammik: The biggest challenges had to do with the sauna itself, we had cooler-boxes taped to the camera to keep the camera temperature low, but we still struggled with condensation on the lenses. We always had to keep the lenses in the sauna 3-4 hours prior to the shoot, so they’d acclimatize. My own sweat would drip onto the camera, lenses and the monitor, which made it very uncomfortable and slowed us down a bit as well but this was also the only way to ensure a realistic environment for our characters with the temperature peaking at 90 degrees Celsius at times. I had a very strict requirement for my team to be physically fit to withstand our continuous 4 hours sessions in this extreme heat. In the end the camera made it out, I lost 2 lenses and a monitor plus I lost consciousness once and probably suffered carbon dioxide poisoning.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Tammik: I chose the Arri Amira because I wanted my equipment not to fail in these extreme conditions and to my luck, it didn’t, it just burnt me a bit but withstood the heat. The second reason was Arri’s colour and dynamic range – I was filming bare skin in a dark environment. It was amazing to see how a small reflection from skin to skin can expose inside the sensor and add so much to the overall look. For lighting I used Arri LED and HMI lights. I chose Sigma lenses in the cheaper range because I knew I’d be running back and forth between cold and hot temperatures which would make the lens expand and break. I lost a couple of lenses and an expensive monitor in the process.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Tammik: Our inspiration was natural light. The set was mostly a dark room without reflective surfaces and the walls absorb 99% of the light but there was a small window that gave us the opportunity to light from outside. We mainly used a sharp light source to bounce off a tin bowl on the floor on to human flesh, which softened the light and also bounced it on to nearby characters. The humidity and fair skins created this heavenly glow that played with the water drops on skin, the water reflections in the bucket and when being poured to the rocks. We used HMI’s and skypanel S60s.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Tammik: There wasn’t anything complex in the narrative, we had the place, the characters and the story – I just had to capture the magic. It was difficult to find new angles and solutions in that tiny room but there was enough action to find new solutions for new scenes so it doesn’t lose authenticity and the jumps between scenes wouldn’t feel that long.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Tammik: We basically created the look on set, in post we just balanced the color and brightness, so we knew from very early on that this film will be visually clean and clear and would be founded on the principal pillars of cinematography

Film Title: Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Camera: Arri Amira

Lenses: Sigma ART

Lighting: Arri HMD and LED

Processing: Digital

Color Grading: Davinci Resolve

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham