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Illuminating Fear: Andrew Shulkind talks about The Ritual

Trevor Hogg talks to cinematographer Andrew Shulkind about battling natural elements in Romania while shooting the horror film The Ritual…

A group of college friends reunite and are stalked by a menacing presence in Swedish highlands in The Ritual directed by David Bruckner (The Signal); the horror film had its World Premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and was bought by Netflix for $4.75 million; lensing the performances of Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier and Sam Troughton was cinematographer Andrew Shulkind (The Vault).  “The Ritual was an unique experience,” observes Shulkind.  “It was physically demanding because we were shooting at 8000 feet on a mountain plateau in central Romania.  One day we had snow, sleet, rain, and sunshine in the span of one hour.  When you only have 10 hours of daylight, that becomes a thing.   Also shooting so much of the movie on a mountainside at night in freezing temperatures posed a challenge to all departments.”  David Bruckner was deliberate with his choices and well-prepared.  “Traditionally we storyboard the most complicated scenes, especially those that required a lot of visual effects interaction.  It was important to us that the creature didn’t feel like a dislocated CG character.  Josh Russell and Sierra Russell from the creature effects team built practical arm sleeve elements and a full head that could be suspended with an actor puppeteering.  This allowed us to shoot important close up scenes practically without the time and expense of every shot of the monster being a visual effects shot.”

In order to highlight The Ritual being a metaphor for human fears and anxieties, a naturalistic approach was adopted for the cinematography.  “Darkness was going to be our asset [when it came to hiding the monster] but I didn’t want the blacks to be so inky that you couldn’t see detail,” explains Shulkind.  “There has been a trend to faster lenses and more sensitive sensors that allow us to shoot in very low light.  I wanted to lean in to this advantage by utilizing the technical advances to subtly reveal nuances in that shadow area which is too often crushed down to black.   The delicacy of those soft, barely-discernable shadow details cue our brains to find mystery or hope.  The challenge became how to grade multiple deliverables of the movie so that those details aren’t lost when you’re watching it on a compressed stream or on an airplane.”

Six weeks of shooting was preceded by a month of prep with key crew members being gaffer Florin Niculae, key grip Radu Marinescu, Steadicam and camera operator Bogdan Stanciu, and DIT Alex Golding.  “It was quite important and difficult to find the right locations,” states Shulkind.  “Not only to match the topography and environment of the Kungsleden in Northern Sweden, but certain scenes to different foliage levels in the forest.  David, 1st AD Liam Lock, production designer Adrian Curelea, and I would bore the location scouts with our long conversations about the difference between spiny forest, dead forest, lush forest, empty forest, and the nature of how bare were the branches.  I am close to a degree in Romanian plant sciences!  We moved the whole company six hours north just to shoot two scenes with unique trees in the caldera of a volcano, and sent a splinter unit to a farther location to shoot some aerials even farther north near the windy road in Transfăgărășan.”

Conversations about style, composition and mood helped to determine the shot list.    David has a clear idea of the story that he wants to tell and I riff off that theme with thoughts and ideas about how to create an executable plan,” remarks Shulkind.  “Sometimes we’ll board it if its a complicated blocking or has a VFX element.  As we progress through the schedule, we’ll sketch out a theme plan to guide us on the day and make sure that we’re adhering to the course that we want.”  A selection of cameras was deployed that included the Canon C300 Mark II, Canon C700 and ARRI ALEXA Mini.  “For lensing, we wanted shallow focus and a very fast stop, so I went back to my favorite T1 Primes from Vantage.  The creamy softness at T1.4 is my favorite and was a real force multiplier in the dark woods.  We used the halo-ing at wide stops; when appropriate and my focus pullers really had to stay on it, especially, at the longer lengths!”

Lighting equipment consisted of hybrid balloon lights, flashlights of different intensities and color balances, a light ribbon from LiteGear.  “I had the electricians staple some lengths of LED to yardsticks that we could power off of lantern batteries and place deep in the background to create depth without having to cable the whole forest, although we did that too,” reveals Shulkind.  David and the editor, mark towns, and I deliberated quite a bit about aspect ratio.  David and I framed the last movie at 2.35 because we both love filling that width, but we needed the vertical resolution for all the trees.  Given that most theatrical experiences are projected digitally and most viewers will also watch the movie letterboxed on a streaming VOD service, the idea of aspect ratio is really arbitrary.  As long as the deliverable is 4K, we can letterbox it to whatever standard or non-standard aspect ratio that we want.  In the end we decided to frame for 2:1. We recorded 4K to an uncompressed RAW image to the CODEX onboard recorders, using the vault system workflow.”

DIT Alex Golding and colorist Matt Watson from Shed London were responsible for the grading of The Ritual.  “Matt prepared some looks that we modified throughout the course of our shooting schedule so we could demonstrate a rough version of our final look to David and the rest of the production team,” explains Shulkind.  “It always gets modified as we need to bring up faces or tone down the sky a bit.  Matt was able to dial in the delicate balance of nuance that we were looking for.  I got started in this business working with the Kodak-Panavision preview system, helping DPs like Janusz Kaminski and Darius Khondji communicate their intentions to the lab, so the color grade is something that I am always thinking about throughout the process.”

An unexpected big snowfall took a full crew a weekend to broom 12 inches from the trees.  “We had guys in ladders, leaf blowers, water hoses, and lit small fires to melt the snow,” recalls Shulkind.  “We were shooting at a high altitude on steep inclines with complicated camera moves at a fast clip.  I like to work quickly and can multitask between units efficiently.  David is the same way.  We had a great team and everyone was up for the challenge!”  A favorite scene is when Luke (Rafe Spall) and Dom (Sam Troughton) are imprisoned in the black house situated in a village.  “It was very simple.  Two outstanding actors in a room built to detailed specifications.  The closed window was at just the right distance from where they are chained up with a hole in the mortar between beams at the right height with a little smoke and some beautiful light.”

Many thanks to Andrew Skulkind for taking the time to be interviewed and for more information visit the official websites for the cinematographer and The Ritual.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.

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