Creative Analysis: Part 14 - Cinematographer Sebastian Thaler On 7500

According to International Civil Aviation Organization rules, if an airliner transmits a certain four-digit transponder code, the world should assume that it is being hijacked. The 2019 film 7500, directed by Patrick Vollrath, takes that code as its title and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Aylin Tezel and Carlo Kitzlinger as the crew of an airliner during a hijack attempt.

The film takes place entirely on the flight deck of that airliner, requiring cinematographer Sebastian Thaler to find the right way to depict the contrast between the vast outside world and the restricted confines of the cockpit itself.

Preparation, Thaler says, was key. “There were so many unknown things, especially the tight space. When I got the script, I knew Patrick was writing something set in one space and one environment, but I didn't know it was a cockpit. I thought ‘oh gosh, two square meters and ninety minutes!’” Thaler was lucky enough to receive a script almost a year before production began, but, as he says, “we tried to get as much preparation as possible in the cockpit, and the hard preparation before the shooting was two months.”

The first phase of that preparation began in a flight simulator used to train real-world pilots, which Thaler describes as using “just to get the feel for the space. We took the cameras and actors from the acting school and tried out some ways to shoot it.” As much as the confined space, shooting would be complicated by Vollrath’s intention record continuous takes of up to twenty minutes. “We didn't make a shotlist,” Thaler confirms. “Our approach was that we took several scenes from the script, for example the first twenty minutes where they're still standing at the gate. Everything you see there is all in one take with no interruption.”

This approach inevitably makes impositions on other departments. “We had a script with technical tasks and dialogue,” Thaler explains, “but Patrick was asking the actors to improvise. They had their beats, their points in the script where they had to reach a certain point in the scene so we could push the story forward, but Patrick wanted to have them improvise their dialogue, to change the dialogue how they wanted or how they felt. Except the technical stuff, which was settled, it wasn't classically shot.”

The resulting freedom was popular with the cast. “They could really get into it and they weren't stopped by focus marks or light marks. There was freedom for them to act and be in that environment. We had rehearsals for the fight scenes but otherwise it was ‘this is the scene let's go for it let's see what happens.’ They really liked it.” Thaler, who operated handheld throughout the film, did his best to hold a continuous shot for each take. “It should be always usable footage,” he confirms. “When you pan you know it may be used in the edit and you can't count that it's an off-camera pan. It's somehow a little bit like a documentary and you have one chance to get that emotion, that feeling of the actor. It's very exciting, it pushes you forward to get your images.”

Creating a set equal to Vollrath’s ambition for realism led the crew to an aircraft breaker in Romania, where they found the cockpit, front galley and a section of the cabin from a suitable Airbus A319. Thaler describes it as “a metal skeleton of the cockpit. We didn’t have anything working. Everything inside the cockpit had to be rebuilt; the art department was buying seats which were no good any more for real usage but OK for us.” Such a technical environment required a technical effort to make it work, too: “the monitors in the cockpit used flight simulator software. We rebuilt the whole cockpit inside. We got some working parts but they had to be driven by external electrics so it looked real.”

Complex as it was, the cockpit build, initially set up at MCC Studios in Cologne, was only half the story. Outside, the production needed skies for in-flight scenes as well as the complex gate environment of an airport. For most of the film, the airliner fuselage was placed on a stage and surrounded either by blue or black screens, or by projection. Production was, Thaler says, broken down into “three or four stages of shooting. The first twenty minutes of the film, when the boarding starts and they're coming to the airplane, was filmed in front of projection. We went to the Viennese airport and took the background plates. The first twenty minutes of the movie were two days of shooting which we did in front of the projectors. The middle was in front of black or blue screen. The final twenty minutes was at a real airfield, Mönchengladbach in Germany.” Thaler preferred to avoid the more common green screen, simply because of the issue of casting unflattering green light on the scene.

Using live video backgrounds to be captured in-camera has only recently become very popular, perhaps most famously on The Mandalorian and earlier for Oblivion. For 7500, Thaler found the technique invaluable. Some productions have preferred LED displays for improved brightness and contrast, but late notice made that difficult for 7500. “We got a very late ‘go’ for the production and the preparation was quite short, so we couldn't get any LED screens. It was projectors, and it's really hard to get nice black levels. Every image was projected with two projectors so we could get more brightness, and we could stop down and get a good black level.” The approach is, Thaler says, “quite new to the German and Austrian market, but I think we'll see more of it because it's quite exciting work to do it. It's really satisfying to everyone to see a finished image.”

The final part of simulating the exterior world involved interactive lighting, representing the movement of passing lights at the airport. Here, Thaler worked with gaffer Jakob Ballinger, whose specialist experience with reflected light, using the Cine Reflect Lighting System, proved invaluable. “We came up with the idea not to move the reflectors or the lights themselves on some tracks above the airplane, but instead Jakob could get some custom-made reflectors which were quite long. We used moving heads and panned the lights over the reflectors so we could fake moving lights. Of course it's not physically correct, but it helped to build up the illusion. We projected the moving part and tried to match the light sources that you will see later in the movie.”

Inside the cockpit, much of the light was dictated by the practical influence of the control panels and displays, though Thaler was able to choose types and colors. In a real aircraft, he says, “It's greenish blue, that's chosen by the manufacturer. But the lights in the cabin are different for each the company. Austrian Airlines has LEDs inside, they're more reddish. Some have more greenish lights. For our cockpit I decided to avoid LEDs. We took really tiny tungsten bulbs for the back-illumination of the instruments. I wanted to avoid LED because we had already these monitors which were illuminating the faces of the actors, so I wanted to have at least somewhere a clean light source that gives me a clean skin tone.”

With the cockpit designed to accommodate two people, and with some scenes scripted to include more, Thaler was keen to keep his camera outfit compact, trialling options from Red but eventually choosing the Alexa Mini. Lenses, too, needed to be “small and lightweight. Everything is quite big these days, so got the Ultra Primes and Celere lenses which are small and lightweight. I was quite frustrated to see that there are no small lenses anymore. Old lenses are good, of course, but they were not good enough for the bluescreen and the hard light that we wanted to have in the cockpit.”

Shooting the film entirely handheld was another reason for Thaler to minimise his camera package. “I built up a small system where I could hang the camera in front of my chest. Everything else - the battery, the cable, the transmitters - was in a small backpack, or lying around on the floor.” Viewfinding was either via Arri’s own electronic viewfinder or using a small TVLogic monitor. “Unfortunately,” Thaler continues, “I couldn't use the viewfinder a lot because there wasn't much space, but usually I prefer the electronic viewfinder rather than the monitor. When I’m looking into the EVF I'm escaping the surrounding world and looking just at the content. I really try to focus on the image and dive in, like I was the first audience to watch the action.”

In such a cramped environment, first assistant cameraman Alois Kozar was required to pull focus from outside, and with much of the film exposed at t/1.9 or less. Thaler is philosophical: “Some movies are shot in a classical way where everything's planned and the focus puller can take his marks and measurements, and then there’s projects like this one where it's impossible to do.” Communication was key: “He was not by my side, he was outside, and I couldn't speak to him. We [only] had radio so it was very important to me that I get a focus puller who knows me, knows how I work, how I frame. When I'd move the camera, he’d know where he should pull the focus. We’ve worked together for a long time and he knows me, and he knows this kind of shooting style. He knows, when I start to pan, where the focus should shift. After one or two days, everybody was in that rhythm that we created.”

The production was shot in the wide, 2.39:1 aspect ratio that derives from mid-twentieth-century systems such as CinemaScope. That system, in turn, was designed to provide spectacular vistas to audiences used to squarish television screens. It might not be the most obvious choice for the cramped confines of an airliner’s cockpit, but Thaler describes the choice as a considered one. “It was a really big discussion. We decided the format two days before shooting! Of course, with a taller image you produce a stronger claustrophobic effect, but what we found was that the cockpit has so many buttons and so many little things around the actors, it distracts you from the emotions. When you shoot 1.85:1, you're so close to the actors and you want to frame out this busy environment you have just the face and nothing of the environment. It was important to us that you have the connection to both the cockpit and the emotions of the actors. In the wider format you could have the close-up of the face and show the environment.”

7500 was released in June 2020 to enthusiastic reviews, many of which credit the claustrophobic environment as a significant contributor to the tension of the piece. “It was important for Patrick to create a realistic atmosphere for the actors,” Thaler concludes. “That was rule number one. For myself it was important to hide myself, to make myself as invisible as possible. It was really important to me to build up a relationship with Joe and Carlo, to be that close to them. Sometimes I was twenty centimeters away with the lens in front of the face. There's this comfort zone everyone has, and you have to build up a relationship so they let you into this small comfort zone. Especially in this space, there's no hideaway. I had to give them that confidence.”

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