Tamás Dobos is the director of photography of the war drama called ‘Natural Light’ set during the Second World War for which director Dénes Nagy (this was his debutorial feature film) was awarded Silver Bear for outstanding directing on the Berlin Film Festival in 2021.
Due to the unbelievably strong visual presentation undoubtedly was given equally to his permanent creative partner, so by virtue of this fact I asked him about his cinematic arts, poetry and the circumstances of making the awarded movie.
Budapest Reporter: The beginning of 2021 is outstanding for your producing company “Her Mothers” documentary was awarded at the Budapest International Documentary Festival. I know that you haven’t cinematographed it. In October 2020 your exhibition “W” had huge success and popularity in Faur Zsófi Gallery Budapest – and as a founding producer member, you are a part of the production company ‘Campfilm’ also, your profession has multiple layers.
So according to the trailer and reviews which were written by journalists who had the chance to watch the premier online during the Berlinale without exception it was highlighted that monochromic appearance long snits and long close-ups about Sergeant Semetka’s mimicry were unique and exceptional. Furthermore, this feature is your fourth-internationally recognized – work collaboration with Dénes Nagy so your connection is well grounded and forged a close bond in terms of visual world.
Tamás Dobos: We were classmates at University, and yes, our first internationally awarded short film was “Soft Rain” which was in Competition in Cannes in the Director’s Fortnight Section. Our second work was a documentary called “Another Hungary” it was in Competition in Rotterdam Film Festival. The third was also a documentary “Berlinskaya Fuga” which was personally very important for me because of the touching narrative: it was a portrait about a Harmonium-artist, a classical musician, Ukrainian nationality, who lives in Doneck-basin. Highly educated still he has to go play street music in Germany and Switzerland in order to feed his family. Dénes visited him several times since then.
Bpr.: Was this the movie for the final exam at University?
T.D.: No, that was our fourth collaboration it was also a Short called “Together” also recognized on several international Short Film Festivals (e.g.: Libanon,Sofia,Bologna,Potsam,Helsinki etc.)
Bpr.: Which aspect of your talent is recognized and used in his directorial vision?
T.D.: That visual definition which is highly preferred to be shown in his movies he had found in my art. We have already felt that unique connection since University we have this cinematic “chemistry” between us. According to him -I am the most capable of depicting it with my communicational tools. In private life we are on the same wavelength too. There is no tension between us we can concentrate on filmmaking without flaw. I believe in old traditional method of filmmaking which means to me that the director and cinematographer also should put a strain on himself during the making.
Bpr.: At the beginning did he discover first your photography artwork, or you discovered his directorial perspective to match your cinematographic arts poetry?
T.D.: First of all, I anticipated that he studied firstly cinematography with me for two years at the University of Theater and Film Studies although the two courses weren’t separated sharply, everyone studied directing and cinematography as well. Our professors discovered his directorial skills so he was recommended to continue his studies on directing but we didn’t stop the strong collaboration despite this fact.
Back to the question he realized at the very beginning that we define and think similar about the visual cinematic appearance and my sensitiveness too.
For me the most important connection between the director and cinematographer is the capability to catch human reactions and to adapt social situations similarly.
Bpr.: According to you would he use that same or similar visual depiction as you if he would have remained in the cinematography course?
Bpr.: Prospering collaboration!
T.D.: Yes, perfectly however I must confess that our latest work was extremely exhausting to record physically. The weather circumstances were extremely harsh, there was enormous amount of mud, impassable roads, in these conditions it is hard and dangerous to handle a handycam. It was challenging to me not only to pay attention to make the composition appropriate but also to not to break my ankle in the process. In the crew, there is a special position to secure my way during filming that is his only task.
Two years ago, I have met a guy on set ‘Dune’ I brought him with me to his job as well because for me this is highly important. For many it is not important that he provides my security while I just navigate through only my lenses, I cannot pay attention to what is under my feet. It has an unbelievable special code system for example if he touches my shoulder then I know that I must not step in that direction.
For a cinematographer, security is essential as well as for the director. For Dénes I provide security and probably for me he provides it and also the colleagues who surround me: gaffer, the dune, focus puller etc. If this exists, you can focus only on the goal.
Bpr.: Do you mean ‘security’ in connection with the director that you don’t need to make redundant circles?
T. D.: Yes, and besides that the trust in me, that I will record that set exactly how he imagined it. The sensitiveness which I represent, and which was discovered to me by Dénes Nagy is perfectly visible in this movie. For example, the feedback to human reaction which is one of my strongest ability probably because I made several documentaries, I realized that I am capable of catching the single most important moment in that set which I am taking down.
Bpr.: Speaking of catching the right angle of the right moment that a cinematographer should be a photographer artist at the same time?
T.D.: As a profession for a DOP based on various aspects on one hand during preparation and planning of this film we went through and analyzed plenty of photos mainly from the end of the Second World War to the Eastern Lines and the most important aspects were composition, dramaturgy, and light. To recognize vulnerability though is a very useful skill for a cinematographer from the territory of photography.
In photography for me the portraits are the most important sets. The human nature itself is the most important in that very moment when I shoot the picture, I have met many exciting personalities and each of them gave me different experiences because the important factor was the different observation angle.
My mentor was György Fehér who taught me a lot in a relatively short period because he passed shortly afterwards. His successor was János Szász the acclaimed director and the class included only seven students. We had a very strong bond and ever since the four of us stuck together and are working together on the same projects. We established the Campfilm production company: Sára László, Marcell Gerő, Dénes Nagy and myself.
Bpr.: The main character Sergeant Semetka makes photos. Can we the viewers see the pictures from his perspective? Did he really take pictures, or it was just a hero-prop?
T.D.: There was a photo reel in his camera, and he shot some pictures with it. The viewers cannot see the exact composition which he has made, however I shot every picture from that exact adjustment from what he shot the pictures from. I shot a significant number of photos during the making of the movie. We brainstormed about them with Dénes – because I took the photos from the very exact perspective of Sergeant Semetka – that we use them as flashbacks right after the title like a show reel, but finally we decided not to use them.
But still I have them in that exact order, organized. The photo camera itself is completely authentic we have looked into it a lot, but finally we found it. That camera type was used regularly in the forties by the Hungarian Army. I had to teach the main character how to shoot with it, how to look into the lenses professionally, how to roll the reel up, because it was essential in terms of authenticity for example when he already have taken the photo he has to roll the reel forward immediately. That is the exact same movement as if the soldier arms a riffle.
Bpr.: In my opinion this hobby of his was a historical documentation too. Was it important in terms of narrative that what was worth to capture in that foreign countryside, how to depict a conflict between them and the partisans?
T.D.: Definitely it was important, for the soldiers and they pressed their advantage on him because he took photos regularly. Plenty of pictures were born of humiliation and they for that express purpose ordered Semetka to take pictures. This fact arises some concerns about taking responsibility because Semetka got involved in this situation involuntarily. On the other hand, this is an escape form the actual situation, we show his responsiveness, his desire for beauty and we alienate him this way from the chaos of war from the dreadfulness.
Bpr.: Is it possible that behind the camera he just recorded the events he put himself out of context and he didn’t agree with his fellow soldier’s ferocity? Was there any intention to put this way the meaning of this act?
T. D.: Good point however I as a DOP cannot state as a fact this matter refers to dramaturgy. In my opinion you cannot simply get away with it just because you stood behind the camera. While he was a soldier he was given orders which he had to obey and he must shoot his weapon too.
In my personal career it was a great asset that I can hold a camera between me and the person I shoot it with. It helped me to gather the right amount of confidence this communicational tool helps me to express myself. I communicate through my photos and I create emotional quality by means of the modern technology.
Bpr.: Speaking of this technique, did you use any filters? What was your concept to implement the cinematic vision?
T.D.: I did not use any filters. We shot with Alexa Mini with Pancro QS CDS lens this type has a very unique surface and because of that it has a total different color interpretation. I tried and tested many optic systems, because it was important to have a quite high sensitivity of the lenses. We had a very tight schedule to make the film in order to catch the natural light we made it from late autumn on the 5th of December.
We knew that we want to use only natural light for the outside sets so it was a serious logistic issue to make it happen. We wanted to shoot it on reel but financially we had to let that idea go. While the characters were mainly amateurs, from my previous experiences from documentary making I was aware that it will cost double or even more raw material because you must shoot the scene multiple times so it was given greater weight to choose a cheaper digital method.
However, I myself am a big fan of analogue technology since I was born into it moreover I frequently use it in my photography works too. It requires a different thinking, different wire, and requires a very precise work method with fewer chance to make mistakes.
Bpr.: The movie is a Latvian-Hungarian-French and German co-production. How did this collaboration help location scouting and infrastructure of the preparation and the shooting?
T.D.: Yes, it was huge help. At the beginning we considered to shoot it in Hungary. In here in details we can find these white birch forests and pine tree forests but that enormous amount which we needed we can find them only at the Baltics. This fact was a basic and essential requirement in connection with the filmmaking. While the story took place on the territory of the late USSR the role of the scenery was one of the basic milestones of the conception.
The air, the bushes are somewhat unique and characteristic there. We negotiated several countries at that region and the Latvian partners were persuasive and helpful and provided smooth circumstances, so we chose each other to create this film.
Dia Linda Szabó