Speculative fiction is something that’s often hovered on the borders of drama, fantasy and sci-fi, and one of the huge benefits of the streaming media revolution is that much more of the genre has found a way in front of both a camera and a large audience.
Like all good speculative work, Bliss, directed by Mike Cahill and starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek, defies easy classification. Regardless, the script created an enticing opportunity to depict two visually separate realities within one consistent narrative, and the solution devised by cinematographer Markus Förderer, ASC, BVK, involved an unusually broad range of tools, including some innovative filters that have never been seen before.
Förderer’s credit history includes shorts, episodes of television series including Rise and Nightflyers, and feature films up to the scale of Independence Day: Resurgence. Now resident in Los Angeles, Förderer grew up in the Black Forest region of southern Germany, and attended film school at the University of Television and Film Munich from 2007. “I spent four years there,” he recalls. “With a one year, break, until 2012 when I officially graduated.” As so often, school contacts proved crucial. “That's where I met Tim Fehlbaum, the director of a movie called Hell [also known as Apocalypse]. I was quite lucky… it was a post-apocalyptic film. Visually it was quite unique. The sun is bright, the whole movie is overexposed on purpose. It played a lot of festivals which is where I met Mike Cahill.”
This acquaintance with Cahill led to Förderer’s first US project, I Origins, and ultimately to Bliss. “I'm good friends with Mike. We talk a lot about new projects. He writes a lot, and pretty much out of the blue, I think in January 2019, he came with this specific script.” Discussing the cinematograpy of Bliss is difficult without revealing key plot points, so if that’s a factor for you, watch before reading further.
The story follows Wilson’s character Greg, who we encounter under grim circumstances of unemployment, estranged children and even inadvertent murder in a depressed version of Los Angeles. Meeting Hayek’s character Isabel, who appears at first sight to be homeless and living among a collection of junk on the banks of the LA river, Greg slowly realizes that he may be trapped in some sort of alternate reality. An escape to the huge contrast of a literally blissful world of wealth and contentment is a shock to both Greg and, by design, the audience, with the script giving no conclusive answer as to which world is real.
Cahill and Förderer began gathering ideas for the production before any studio had become involved, scouting locations for what they referred to as the “ugly” world in downtown Los Angeles. “Usually it's quite expensive to shoot in LA but since so much was set in downtown LA we thought it would make more sense to do it here, rather than to go to some other place and try to recreate it. It feels more authentic, and at some point we figured out it's not that much more expensive.”
Even so, shooting in the world home of moviemaking meant Förderer and Cahill had to cover things quickly to keep the budget under control. “What helped us,” Förderer remembers, “was that Mike comes from a documentary background, and he likes handheld camerawork. We had the idea of shooting more or less everything handheld in the ugly world. Following the character Greg feels a bit messy and the world around him is noisy and chaotic. Everything in the bliss world is shot very smoothly, from Steadicam. In LA, shooting handheld helped us to be flexible, not having to deal with setting up big cranes.”
The production shot for nineteen days in Los Angeles and five in Croatia, where much of the blissful world was shot “to give it a distinct look, and really make clear for the audience which world is which,” Förderer continues. “In Croatia they have these really beautiful blue skies, blue water. In LA everything is a bit more desaturated and bleached out – all these concrete colors in downtown LA. The way we designed the show LUT for the ugly world helps eliminate primary colors. All the greens you see are a bit more bleached out and washed out. For the bliss world we did the opposite, the primary colors are really vibrant.”
Bliss was photographed on the Red Monstro 8K camera, leveraging its large sensor to continue differentiation of the two worlds. “For the bliss world we embraced the 8K VistaVision sensor and used spheircal lenses, so everything looked detailed, sharp, colorful, saturated. When you downsample back to 4k resolution all the imperfections and the noise of the sensor disappear. That’s contrasted with a more gritty, grainy image of the ugly world, where we used anamorphic lenses.”
Förderer used Atlas anamorphics and Angénieux EZ-series spherical zooms. “With the Atlas, the wider ones don’t cover 8K,” he recalls. “Most of them we shot using the traditional 4-perf sensor size of film; we’re not using the full sensor and that again was a decision on purpose… I already rated the camera at 1600 ISO, to have it look a bit more grainy and low resolution. It was important to Mike that when the characters wake up in that bliss world you feel like you're taking some dirty glasses off and you see the world for what it is. That was why.”
The effect starts off, as Förderer puts it, subtly. “In the beginning you don't notice the anamorphic, but it does look a bit softer when you contrast with these high resolution, wider lenses. You buy into the idea that, wow, maybe that is true, maybe it's a simulation.” Equipment was supplied by renowned LA rental house Keslow Camera, and shipped to Croatia along with the rest of the unit. Förderer says that travelling the equipment kept things simple: “We transported our package because we’d also shot some interior scenes of the bliss world in LA. It was better to keep the same for continuity.”
Even casual observers will notice that the bliss-world scenes exhibit a characteristic rainbow-colored lens flare that’s rarely, if ever, been seen in a major production before. The filters used to create this effect were custom-made to Förderer’s specification some time ago, but saw their first major outing on Bliss. The effect, he says, is more than the rainbow streaks. “Years ago I did a test. A lens company in Germany made these prototype filters for me and I kept them in my desk because I thought it was over the top. It’s a prismatic filter that splits light into its spectrum. In the script, the bliss world is described as colorful and rich, so I showed it to Mike.”
Cahill was, Förderer continues, “bold enough to try it. It adds this layer of almost too-good-to-be-true. Is this really the future world where all the problems are solved, where everyone is happy, the world is clean? Or is that the imagination or a simulation. Sometimes you see some colorful streaks but even in shots where you don't see flares it's doing something, blending colors in the frame. It makes it more saturated without just boosting saturation in grading.” The filters used on Bliss remain Förderer’s speciality: “we made a couple specifically for Bliss. It's not released or used for something else.”
It’s easy to forget that filmmaking is a team sport, but Förderer and Cahill worked closely with the production design department on Bliss to highlight and reinforce the duality of the two worlds. Set dressing and other environmental and architectural elements are reflected in both realities. Förderer remembers one example: “in the roller ring there's the disco ball and certain logos on the wall which then appear in the bliss world when things go crazy. Then again, when they go back into the ugly world, it's dark and raining and suddenly this disco ball appears in the bliss world and the lab assistants are on roller skates!”
“We used repetitive elements,” Förderer continues, “but also repetitive shots which give you hopefully a sense of visual deja vu, even if they're spread out all over the film.” Similar techniques are used around Isabel’s ugly-world urban hideout. The location, Förderer says, “was amazing. It's really right there. In films you have to cheat a lot, splitting up locations for scheduling reasons or because certain locations don't exist, but we found it. The LA river on one side and the arches – all these elements repeat in the bliss world.”
Real-world locations also make it possible to cover lots of ground in a continuous take, something Cahill used to his advantage on Bliss – but which put Förderer under pressure. It was, he remembers “a very long shot. He escapes the police at [Isabel’s] home and climbs down a ladder into the [dry] LA river which was one continuous shot. I think initially it was four and a half minutes long, and of course we wanted to shoot it at magic hour. The window to shoot that is very short, to get that good light. Twenty or thirty minutes. So, there was a lot of planning for that.”
The purpose of this scene, which ends the film, is to show Wilson’s character Greg making a decision about which of the two realities to accept. “In the end he walks to the rehab clinic,” Förderer says, “and goes through the process of choosing the ugly world as the real world because he wants to be with his daughter, even if it means he has to go to a rehab clinic. It's interesting because there's no dialog. It’s just Owen’s face. The walk was really long, half a mile or so. At the end it's cut up a bit shorter, but we shot it as one long take, with Steadicam on a Grip Trix camera car.”
Given a combination of pandemic-related travel restrictions and Förderer’s schedule, grading took place remotely under the supervision of colorist Walter Volpatto, with whom Förderer had previously worked on both Independence Day: Resurgence in 2016 and on 2015’s Stonewall. “The colorist was in New York in a color suite and I was in Atlanta,” Förderer recalls. “I couldn't go to a suite and watch a monitor, we were quarantined. And Mike was in Croatia at that point.” The problem was solved with color-calibrated iPads, with the creative aspects of the process simplified by careful preparation. “Finding the look happened all in preproduction,” Förderer says. “We shot a lot of tests, we had those LUTs loaded in the camera so the dailies already looked very close to the final result. It was about refining certain story elements, eliminating confusing things. Maybe in the ugly world we have the desaturation, but in the background you see an orange traffic cone, that sort of thing. It's always better if you can sit in the same room. So, these things worked pretty well even if it was done remotely on an iPad.”
Bliss was released to Amazon Prime in February 2021. “Some people see it purely as a science fiction film,” Förderer concludes, “but you can see it as two people tripping on these crystals and imagining things. You see them later, when the worlds are blending – perhaps the dose is not high enough! There's no one clear message, it's up to the audience. Were they imagining the whole thing? In the end, Owen’s character runs all the way to the rehab center and decides to confront his addiction and believe in his daughter – or this girl who says she's his daughter – because he's choosing the tough solution.”
Without the need of streaming services to create a slate of content, though, such a production might have been much more difficult to raise, and Förderer concludes by returning to “Amazon. They really loved the project and Mike's vision. With that sort of studio behind it you get actors like Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson, really talented actors you haven’t seen in that context, and it opens up the movie for a wider audience to give it a try.”
At the time of writing, Förderer had just finished another streaming-bound production, Red Notice, starring Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds, which will appear on Netflix later in 2021.
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