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“To Get Soaked Into the Story and Not Be Aware of the Camera”: DPs Tom Bergmann and Konrad Waldmann on Eternal You

A close-up of an AI avatar of a rosy-cheeked baby.Eternal You, courtesy of Sundance Institute

The advent of AI now offers the bereaved an opportunity to connect with deceased loved ones via avatars, a creation that captured the interest of filmmakers Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck. Their documentary Eternally You investigates the benefits and dangers of digital immortality.

Cinematographers Tom Bergmann and Konrad Waldmann reveal how they collaborated on this project, which required equal parts empathy and adhering to a specific artistic vision.

See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film?

Bergmann: Georg Tschurtschenthaler, producer extraordinaire, reached out to me and told me about the project. I had seen and loved The Cleaners, Hans and Moritz’s documentary about the people that are reviewing and deleting disturbing Facebook videos. After my first conversations with them, I could sense how well they work together as a directing team. Sometimes it can be very painful to have two directors on one film. But Hans and Moritz were extremely pleasant to work with and mastered the task of co-directing beautifully. They also hired German cinematographer Konrad Waldmann, and we both shot for the project depending on schedules and availability.

Waldmann: Hans, Moritz and me worked together on The Cleaners. Back then, I was camera assistant and still photographer. We kept in contact and a few years later they called me to DP an experimental project about the very personal impact of big data (Made To Measure), which combined documentary and narrative elements. During the shooting of Eternal You, Hans and Moritz decided to split up to be able to film parallel with different protagonists in different places, and that’s when I am came in.

Filmmaker: What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Bergmann: That’s probably more a question for the producers and directors, but I assume my long time working in the documentary field and the wide range of often very intimate and personal stories of my films helped. Death is still a topic that most people feel uncomfortable to talk about, so it was important to gain our protagonist’s trust.

Konrad and me went to the same film school in Germany (though many years apart) and I feel that school does a very good job in nurturing curiosity, attention and mindfulness in their students. So having both gone through that school it was very easy to understand each other and to match our styles and approaches.

Waldmann: Since we’ve known each other for a while, we trust in each other’s work and we developed good communication, artistic and content-wise.  There is also a long tradition with the Gebrueder Beetz production company which helped me gather my first experiences in doc film 10 years ago. Thanks for that! Since then, we have been working together regularly.

It’s funny, I met Tom only once in person. He was holding a seminar at the film school in Babelsberg when I was there in my first year. I remember I was really impressed by his strong visual language.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them?

Bergmann: It’s always my goal to create strong and meaningful images, so we decided to shoot the film almost entirely on prime lenses. It means as the cinematographer you become much more a part of the scene in front of you. You have to move around the room to get a variety of shots and angles to get the coverage for the edit. So you are not only observing scenes from a distance, but somehow become a part in them.

Waldmann: It was essential to find a visual language that would merge well with Tom’s footage. That’s way more important than implementing my own vision. Apart from that, I really wanted to not be visible with my camera work. I want the viewer to get soaked into the story and not be aware of the camera. I think a lot about organic movement, focus and the right focal length.

Filmmaker: How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Bergmann: A really important aspect is patience. Usually, scenes will develop right in front of your camera if you have the patience for it. Observing well and to anticipate a change in mood or topic will help to capture scenes in the right way at the right time. Rather than shooting “everything,” I strongly believe in making decisions on set. If a character catches my attention, moves me emotionally or intellectually, this is usually a pretty good indication that it is possible to evoke those same feelings in your footage and eventually in the scene.

Waldmann: I want that the protagonists have trust and feel comfortable in front of the camera. So I always try to bond a little and find the right physical distance with my camera to the person.

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

Bergmann: Inspiration certainly comes from many of the early and current street photographers. It is the ability to wait for something to happen (even if one cannot exactly describe what you are actually waiting for), but there is this “right” moment that you want to capture and you certainly know when it’s there. The moment that stands for something bigger than the actual image does.

Waldmann: Honestly the main inspiration for this film came from the rough cut of the scenes that were already filmed. I watched it a couple of times and asked myself, “What works well and what feels bumpy?” Of course there are many more inspirations…ranging from narrative movies, photo books and exhibitions.  

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

Bergmann: Generally, one of the big challenges in my work is scheduling. I am usually working on a few different documentaries throughout the year, all of which deal with real lives and real people and developments are often hard to foresee. So, trying to be in the right location at the right time makes it sometimes really challenging. In this case it helped to share the camera work between Konrad and me, so that usually one of us would be available if shoots came up.

Waldmann: Probably the tight schedule! On every journey each day was either shoot or travel. It was very hard to get a feeling for the place. I wish we had at least one day for arrival and checking out the area.   

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on?

Tom Bergmann: I am working with a Canon C500 MKII as the  A-camera and the Canon C70 as my B-camera.

Waldmann: I shot mainly on Sony’s FX9 and used the FX3 when the camera shouldn’t attract too much attention.

Filmmaker: Why did you choose the camera that you did?

Bergmann: I found a configuration of the C500 that makes it the ideal camera for handheld work. The camera sits really well on my shoulder and is still small enough to move around quickly. Its image quality is absolutely outstanding and offers me the wide latitude that is sometimes needed in hard to control environments. The C70 is the ideal partner for that camera, as it uses the same codec as the C500, but is small enough to get mounted on the hood of a car, a gimbal or to get a second angle in interviews. I use both cameras with PL mounts, so I can swop lenses back and forth easily. 

Waldmann: Well.. it’s the camera of the production company. So, in the end it was a question of budget. Anyways, I love to work with the FX9’s dual iso combined with the variable ND which gives me full flexibility in really every light situation.

The FX3 is an incredibly strong camera. It’s a little tricky to film with these tiny cameras outdoors since they don’t have a viewfinder and with an external monitor it loses the balance. But still, the camera produces an incredible image and sometimes you need a small solution that doesn’t look like a professional camera.

Filmmaker: What lenses did you use?

Bergmann: I shot most of the scenes on a set of Sigma Cine Prime lenses. Occasionally we used Angenieux Optimo Style Zoom lenses.

Waldmann: Mainly I worked with my set of old Zeiss photo lenses but we also used the Optimo DP at times. I always prefer prime lenses over zooms. It feels like me eye adapts the focal length and I start to see and think in that specific focal length when I want to be closer and need to go physically closer. With zoom lenses it can get a little messy sometimes using to many different focal lengths.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Bergmann: I usually try to use lights in a very naturalistic way, often lighting means just to block out some existing light or to enhance a natural source. I just used an HMI Joker 800, an HMI Dedo 400 and a couple of Kino Flos.

Waldmann: Tom already set the visual style of the interviews when I came into the project. I really liked how he lit them…very subtle and naturalistic. So I tried to carry on with that style.  My setup was a little different. I used the Panaura 5 HMI & tungsten, Aputure LED lights as well as neg fill and 6×6 gridcloth & muslin.

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

Bergmann: It was certainly challenging to shoot the Thanksgiving scene at the Lucas family home. It was the first Thanksgiving after Bill Lucas had died and the whole family came together to listen to Bill’s legacy avatar for the first time. In emotionally charged situations like these, it can be challenging to capture the scene in an empathetic way while making sure to get the coverage that is needed for the edit.

Waldmann: When we filmed with Joshua in his apartment there was already not much space to move with the camera. His dog is very sensitive and had to stay next to Joshua during the shoot. It was barely possible for Hans and me to move. As soon as the dog recognized one of us moving, he totally freaked out. It was really challenging to be emphatic with the camera and prevent having a dog tooth in the leg at the same time.


Film Title: Eternal You

Camera: Canon C500 MKII, Canon C70, Sony FX9, Sony FX3

Lenses: Sigma Cine Primes, Angenieux Optimo Style Zooms, CY Zeiss

Lighting: Joker HMI 800, Dedolight HMI 400, Aputure 600x, Kino Flos, Dedo Panaura 5, Amaran panels, Aputure 60x 

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