Take One . . . It’s a Wrap!

Photo by Jay Muhlin

TILMAN BÜTTNER IS THE NEIL ARMSTRONG of cinematographers — he pulled off the cinematic equivalent of landing on the moon. On December 23, 2001, Büttner and director Alexander Sokurov took over the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg to film Russian Ark, a film that squeezes 300 years of Russian history into a single continuous tracking shot. Although Büttner's remarkable camera work may not be eligible for the upcoming Academy Awards (the film received a 2002 release in New York, though not in L.A. County as the Oscar rules require), his achievement has already earned him a place in the film history books. Not bad for someone who'd never shot a feature before Sokurov came calling.

A Steadicam operator in the German film industry since 1988, the 41-year-old Büttner first made a name for himself with his acrobatic work on Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run, which inspired Russian Ark producer Jens Meurer to introduce him to Sokurov. Some of his colleagues might have heard the pitch and dismissed the notion as folly, but Büttner leaped at the chance to try it. "For a cameraman, it is the highest dream to do a film in one single shot," he said over coffee at Manhattan's St. Regis Hotel during September's New York Film Festival, where the film had its U.S. premiere. "But the fire inside me dampened a bit when I started to think about the physical and technical logistics of pulling this one off."

Indeed, Sokurov didn't want to film just any movie in one take. Russian Ark is told from the perspective of a narrator who, like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, has come unstuck in time. As the unseen observer (whose voice is provided by the director) wanders through the museum, each room he enters transports him to a different era, allowing him to witness the comings and goings of Russian rulers from Peter the Great through Nicholas II. Along the way, acerbic commentary is provided by another time traveler, the Marquis (Sergey Dreiden), a 19th-century French diplomat who views Russia as a miserable, corrupt backwater. All told, the film required Büttner to navigate his camera around 867 costumed actors in 35 rooms and carry 77 pounds of camera equipment for more than three-quarters of a mile.

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Making Russian Ark on good old-fashioned 35mm celluloid would have been impossible: The capacity of camera magazines hasn't grown too much since Alfred Hitchcock shot Rope in a series of contiguous eight-minute takes back in 1948. Though the advent of digital video made shooting such a film a theoretical possibility, the storage capacity of existing units still posed a stumbling block. "Technically, in a high-definition camcorder, the maximum length is 40 minutes," said Büttner. "We experimented with a studio recorder that the operator carries on his back and weighs almost 100 pounds and required a second person to carry 50 pounds of batteries." Like the moon landing, Russian Ark inspired the creation of new technology that's certain to find other uses: A Cologne-based company called Director's Friend learned of the project and volunteered to develop a comparatively lightweight hard-disk system that could hold up to 100 minutes of uncompressed high-definition video. Keeping the system running required the development of custom batteries as well.

Though the film was shot in just one day, the prep time was longer than that of many conventional features: Sokurov and Büttner worked on the film for more than two years. During that time, Büttner frequently traveled to St. Petersburg to walk through the museum with the director and chart the camera's eventual course, then returned to Berlin to pore over blueprints with his chief lighting technician. "Figuring out where to hide the lighting equipment was very difficult, as a Steadicam operator has 360-degree mobility." And the lights weren't the only thing he had to hide: Sokurov, a translator, the script supervisor, and a number of camera assistants and grips trailed Büttner at all times during the actual shooting.

While Büttner may have had plenty of time to work things out on paper, his crew had only 36 hours to hang lights in the museum, and there was no time to run camera tests with the lights before the shoot. The variety of light in the building also posed problems: Though many of the hallways have dozens of windows that let in ample natural light, the interior galleries have no windows at all. Sokurov's previous features (notably, Mother and Son) often used lens filters to play with light, but the single-take nature of Russian Ark prevented that from being an option, since filters can't be changed on the fly as the camera rolls. In the end, Photoshop-style digital manipulation was used to create a consistent warm tone in the lighting from room to room. (This may sound like cheating, but Büttner maintains that it's no different from color correction on a conventional film.)

As if Run Lola Run hadn't provided proof enough of Büttner's strength and agility, the producers bought him a gym membership to ensure that he'd have enough stamina for the shoot. Because of the time involved in working out all the logistics, however, he didn't really take advantage of that perk. Besides, he says, "The best training is just carrying a Steadicam, period, and I've been doing that for 14 years." And there was plenty to worry about besides the physical challenge — limited access to the Hermitage meant the film had to be shot without a proper dress rehearsal. Twenty-two assistant directors ran rehearsals with groups of the actors in nearby factory halls, but none of these groups had been in the same place at the same time until the day of the shoot.

ALTHOUGH IT WOULD HAVE BEEN EASY TO HIDE A cut digitally if anything went wrong and the camera had to be stopped, lighting issues meant that the shoot would have to start from scratch in the event of a flub. And if they didn't get it right on December 23, the film would have to be scuttled: The participation of orchestra conductor Valery Gergiev was an essential component of the grand finale (which re-creates the last royal party before the Bolshevik Revolution), and he had a contractual requirement to be in New York for a series of Christmas concerts scheduled to begin the following day. Gergiev was unable to return to Russia before the end of the year, and the December 31 expiration date of a government grant meant the money wouldn't be there for a 2002 rain date.

The need to shoot during daylight — and for Gergiev to make his 5 p.m. flight — provided what Büttner calls "the pressure points that put us in force to get it right." Assorted foul-ups torpedoed the first three attempts after 20 minutes or less, but the fourth take went off without a hitch and yielded the finished film. Was the production carrying enough insurance to cover the all-too-real possibility of a complete wipeout? "I can't say — only the producers can answer that question," answered Büttner with a smile. "We worked as if there was no insurance, which made it that much more of an adventure."

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