Rasmus Heise is the cinematographer of forthcoming Netflix Original series The Rain and drama fantasy feature film I Kill Giants. Now shooting TV series and feature films, the Danish DoP started out with a string of short films including Oscar-winning family drama Helium. Here Rasmus talks to Mandy News about how he got started, film school, shooting on film for the first time and what aspiring cinematographers can do to get noticed.
Rasmus, how did you get started in the industry? What attracted you to cinematography?
I started as a projectionist in Copenhagen then I worked a year for a local TV station. Then I took the eight months course at the European Film College in west Denmark (1996-97). This is where I met the people that I would go on making short films with for many years ahead. When I was at the EFC, my job was to clean the toilets that were sponsored by Zentropa (Lars Von Trier's company).
After the EFC, I kept calling up Zentropa’s boss Peter Albeck. When I finally got him on the phone, I said he owed me for cleaning his toilets. Because of that, I got my first feature as third lighting assistant. The gaffer from that movie took me on and I started working in the movie industry in Denmark as best boy/lighting assistant. I would keep using all my spare time shooting non-budget shorts and music videos.
After four years of working as a lighting technician and shooting shorts I got accepted to film school. Cinematography and movies in general were always in my blood. I picked up a VHS camera at summer camp, aged 13, and did a short film starring my sister. I overheard some adults praising my work. That never left me.
What film school did you study at?
The National Film school of Denmark. I studied cinematography for four years from 2001-2005.
What was the key to getting work when you started out? Pure talent? Recommendations? Luck?
I think you need all of the above. Sadly, some luck is a factor. But I don’t see myself as a lucky guy. I applied seven times for film school before getting in. I think a lot has to do with stamina and hard work. Suddenly you make something with someone, and that brings you to the next level. But it’s pretty impossible to plan. You have to just do it to find out if you have what it takes.
Did you shoot film when you started out or did you go straight into digital?
When I started out it was all digital for me. I didn’t really get to shoot film before I went to film school. Here we shot some film, but not a lot. I shot my graduation film on Super 16mm. After film school I shot many commercials on 35mm film, but that last lab in Copenhagen closed down some years back now.
In 2015, I shot the Amazon show Hand of God on 35mm film in Los Angeles. It was amazing. For some years before, I had mostly shot digital. First the Red One, and then never looking back when the Alexa hit the market. But shooting on 35mm again was so amazing. I did all nine episodes of season one. It just looked beautiful and I miss it.
You’ve shot a lot of short films, including Helium, which won an Oscar. How important to you are shorts for perfecting craft, career and just as an art form?
Short film was the way I learned. I think learning by doing is the only way to go. I must have done close to 100 non-budget shorts and music videos. Maybe more. When I finally got the chance to shoot TV drama for Danish TV, the only reason I made it through was because of all the many small experiences I had from the shorts.
My first TV drama job was two one-hour episodes of the show The Protectors. A cop show with heart. I was almost pooping my pants the first day of shooting. Suddenly I was working with a big crew and famous Danish actors.
How long do you usually have for a short?
The four short films I’ve done with Anders Walter we had from three to eight days of shooting. But it varies a lot of course. I did a short film with director Cole Webley in one day – and it was great! Check it out, it’s called 10:17, and it’s about 10 mins long: https://vimeo.com/228013581
What can you tell us about I Kill Giants and The Rain? They both look great! What did you shoot them on?
I Kill Giants, I shot on the Alexa mini. The reason for the mini was that I shot most of the film on a gimbal. I love the freedom from handheld but when you want something smoother the gimbal is an interesting tool. I don’t like Steadicam as much, mostly because I don’t know how to operate it myself, and I don’t like handing A-camera framing over to someone else.
The Rain was conceptualised by DP Jesper Tøffner. He did episodes 1-4 and I did episodes 5-8. (There are only 8 episodes in season onr). We shot on the RED Epic Dragon. Jesper made some LUTs, that I continued using. We really went for contrast and tried to make it feel in-your-face by shooting a lot of hand held.
Tell us about The Rain. How was it working on a Netflix original?
Everybody felt that we were doing something special. The project was very interesting. We had a crazy time schedule, so it took a lot of work and team effort from everybody to pull it off.
And what about I Kill Giants, Anders Walter’s first feature? What were the challenges?
This movie was something Anders and I had been prepping for a long time, in a way, since it came close to starting up a few times before it actually happened. We had to shoot a very unique and challenging script in just 35 days. Anders and I work fast and intuitive. I loved every second of it.
We tried to tell the story from the point of view of the main character Barbara. She was played by, then 13-year-old, actress Madison Wolfe. To get the camera at her height I used an Easyrig with a gimbal. The camera was always close to Barbara. Her close-ups where all done on a wider lens than everybody else in the film. This gave her character a lot of power, in a way. I could write for days about all the thoughts we had.
But in the end I just tried to make something simple, naturalistic and beautiful. I tried to use a minimum of light sources, just soft and natural. The story in the film is so beautiful and powerful on it’s own, so I never felt the need to make something over the top or flashy.
What are your workflows in production and post? How do you get the rushes to where they need to be? Do you spend time in the grades of your project?
The best way is to have a colourist doing rushes for you every day. I only tried that on Hand of God, on Amazon Prime. I would do stills during the day, and after work I would colour about 10 of these stills and send them to the night-colourist, who would then do the dailies while trying to match to my stills. This meant that all the dailies and editing files already had a look that would follow for the many months of post production.
Sadly, this is not something we can afford in Denmark on TV dramas or features here. Here we just have a LUT technically applied to the dailies, and that’s what you get. Doing final colour grading is something I always want to be part of. The colourist is just as important a collaborator for me as the production's designer or gaffer or grip or camera assistant.
For aspiring cinematographers – do you think film school is essential?
Film school is not essential. But it’s a great place to learn from your mistakes without anybody out in the film industry noticing you screwed up. So if you don’t get into film school, or don’t have the money for it, find another way to get experience and learn. Make non-budget shorts or do music videos or art projects. Go to a film workshop or find collaborators some other way.
And what general advice could you give to an aspiring cinematographer?
What you need is collaborators. Find like-minded people and make something together. Learn and grow together.
Enjoy this? Check out our interview with Oscar-nominated director Chris Overton on how he used Mandy.com to crew his short film The Silent Child.
Check out Rasmus Heise online.
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