Shooting Apple TV Series ‘Constellation’ With Cinematographer Markus Förderer

We discuss the challenges of shooting the northern lights in the winter dusk and within the confines of a recreated International Space Station with cinematographer Markus Förderer.

Not many productions depict the aurora borealis from both above and below, but Apple TV’s new series Constellation does just that. The glowing sky features alongside a rich variety of other fascinating environments, and cinematographer Markus Förderer, ASC, BVK, found himself shooting snowbound forests in the Swedish winter dusk and blinding orbital sunlight just in the first two instalments of Apple’s eight-episode psychological thriller.

Constellation was written by Peter Harness and directed by Michelle MacLaren, Oliver Hirschbiegel and Joseph Cedar, with Noomi Rapace in the lead role. Förderer and MacLaren’s collaboration on the first two episodes arose from what he describes as a script designed to provoke questions: “There's so many mysteries that unfold. What I really liked about it was that it didn't start in a science fiction setting – it’s very grounded in the real international space station, the way we know it, and so much of the show takes place on earth later.”

The first episodes of a new series inevitably establish a photographic style, one which must also serve other episodes shot by other crews, but Förderer’s work involved even more complexities than that. “Episodes one and two are quite extensive, because the opening has the big accident on the ISS, and the challenge with zero gravity and the locations involved. So, even though we did just two episodes, we had quite a lot of things to set up.”

The production’s atmospheric opening scenes, set in Sweden, were actually shot in the long winter dusk of northern Finland. Förderer leveraged the long cool dusk to illuminate vast frozen lakes as characters travel to a snowbound cabin. As he explains, something else about the area would play a key part in drawing together the production’s wide-ranging locations. “I thought the northern lights were such an interesting visual theme, and when we filmed in this location we saw, for real, the northern lights, this green-cyan hue. On the space station we see Noomi's character looking out the window and that cuts back to the snow cabin. I was using this cyan greenish light to hopefully give a sense of mystery, to tie them together.”

Whether or not Constellation is strictly a science fiction is an interesting question, but it does depict fictional events aboard a space station – albeit one that is itself very real. “I've shot some sci-fi before,” Förderer recalls, “with spaceships, but they were fictional designs. This was based on the real ISS, and our production designer is into every detail. We built this massive one-to-one scale ISS module. Sometimes shows shrink it to save cost, but this was accurate. We didn't build every module but most of them were interconnected.”

With a narrative directly referencing light and darkness, Förderer found himself responsible for some very specific lighting changes to the ISS set. “It's such a story point,” he says. “When the sun comes up, and Noomi is trying to fix the Soyuz capsule, we did it practically. In the script, it's described as pitch black when she has to bunker down in her capsule. I had a conversation with [consultant astronaut] Scott Kelly about what it looks like. The orbit is quite low, so every forty-five minutes you have day and night. Do they have a night mode? They have to sleep.”

Making that work in such an intricate space, though, meant careful planning. “We studied the set and did virtual walkthroughs of each module, and I realised how few windows there really are. There's the big famous window but most modules have small windows. We did a lot with our practical electricians. All the lights were hooked up to a dimmer board and we programmed complex lighting effects.”

In those dark scenes, Förderer explains, “the flashlight was the only light source, and we had to embrace the flaring which lifts the blacks. We'd have a camera operator in the Soyuz capsule so we could film the lights flickering back on. The strong sunlight is LED light, so we could fade it in, and we put it on cranes or dollies so you could feel the shadow moving.”

“Sometimes we tried to find interesting angles,” Förderer goes on, “but a lot was to do with the lighting and the lenses we chose. Our main lenses were Panavision T-series, which gave us a strong anamorphic look, with tension in the bokeh.” For sequences demanding something visibly different, Förderer reached for a lens that might ordinarily have been left on a dusty shelf. “At the end of the first episode, Jo goes to this mysterious cabin where things seem odd... I was doing some lens tests and I found this lens that had no front element. I modified it to create a wider angle of view, so whenever there's something we call liminal space, we switched lenses sometimes to subconsciously give the feeling that something's off. It’s hopefully nothing the audience can put their finger on.”

Behind those lenses were Red V-Raptor cameras, which Förderer chose having considered the changing seasons and their effect on light in the far north. “I knew we would go to Finland,” Förderer says, “and it'd be pitch black for most of the day. Most people were expecting to see those wide locations that we saw during daytime scouts, in the summer, when the sun never sets. I had to keep reminding everyone when we shoot there it'll be dark. With the raptor sensor, we could shoot at 1600 ISO, or sometimes higher, and feel the scope and the depth. I wanted to avoid the feel of big condors in the snow, it never really feels like moonlight to me.”

Constellation’s only use of filters involved Panavision’s electronic neutral density system, which, Förderer says, “allows you to quickly change density, which I was excited about. I knew we'd be shooting exteriors with limited time, and minors, so if you're shooting with filters which take two or three minutes to change, and you do it ten times, that’s half an hour. In episode two, you see more of the landing site in Morocco with changing light all the time, and it's quite a time-saver.”

With OTT distributors invariably requiring it, Förderer knew that the project would be finished in HDR. It’s something, he says, that has met with some caution, though it made a lot of sense for Constellation. “Cinematographers are usually fairly conservative. There's a hundred-year history of cinema, and everyone feels comfortable with the dynamic range and brightness we have – but on this show I really wanted to engage HDR. Working on an Apple TV show, we all had iPad Pros, which have an incredible display. When we did dailies and got feedback, it's good to know everyone's looking at the same image.”

Even so, Förderer elected not to monitor HDR on set. “The brightest monitors are not OLEDs, but we used OLEDs for the director and myself. There's really good on board monitors for the cameras. Sometimes on the ISS I would operate myself and it was important to me to have a really good screen to see the overall look. We had some on set grading, the a cam was the reference. I could load in the show LUT, and what we saw on the day was very close to the final result.”

Constellation’s grade adopted a workflow which has emerged as one of a few popular approaches: “an HDR finish with an SDR trim. For episodes one and two, I did colour at Color in Paris, but the majority of other episodes were finished in London. Most I did in person and some parts I did remotely. It's quite remarkable - with the iPad, you can click a checkbox for reference mode and you see what the filmmakers saw in the edit suite. At one point, I had to start another project, and I could do some grading from my hotel room. It's really interesting to see what other creative minds come up with. They’re using the same camera, the same lights, sometimes it's even pre-lit - it makes the whole show richer for regular audiences.”

Förderer discussed Constellation while in pre-production on a project which must remain under wraps; his previous project, the feature film September 5, is due to release at the end of the year. Meanwhile, the world’s increasing taste for HDR provoked Förderer to reach for an upgrade which highlighted a bump in the road of the actual viewer experience: “I've bought a new TV. Working in HDR, I've got to make sure I see it properly. There's so many devices out there you have no control over… some filmmakers will say ‘don't watch on a small phone!’ but phones and iPads have some of the best screens out there. The moment you go on a TV, the manufacturers have so many different settings, it might mess with the image to some degree.” The solution, Förderer reflects, lies in “filmmaker mode, and things like that, so I hope people get to see it in that way.”

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