DP Nikolaus Summerer discusses his history with ARRI Rental and his work with ALEXA 65 on DARK, the first German-language original production from Netflix.
Revolving around the disappearance of two children from a German town, DARK is a 10-part suspense thriller series, directed and co-created by Baran bo Odar, and produced for Netflix by Wiedemann & Berg Television. It was shot in Berlin by Nikolaus Summerer, with a camera, grip and lighting package from ARRI Rental. Summerer chose the ALEXA 65 as his principal camera, combining it with Ultra Prime lenses; he also used SkyPanel lights. Postproduction services were provided by ARRI Media.
What inspired your visual approach to DARK?
The director told me that when developing this project, he and co-creator Jantje Friese had been thinking a lot about the photography of Gregory Crewdson, who makes very cinematic, mysterious pictures. I’m a big admirer of his work, so I was hooked, but I had to consider how we could maintain that kind of style without it becoming too much. This was the starting point and we refined our ideas over a couple of months leading into filming.
Together with my colorist, Steffen Paul from ARRI Media, I created a LUT before the shoot so the director was able to see monitor images on set with our look already applied. All variations on this look, such as different times of day and night, were based on that LUT and then modified through lighting.
Did you create distinct looks for the different time periods in the story?
The first season covers the years 2019, 1986 and 1953. In early preproduction we discussed how to approach these time periods, for example with different lenses for varying styles and textures, or filtration, or even different cameras. However, we recognized that in later episodes there would be more hard cuts between eras, and we didn’t want the visual differences to overwhelm the audience. So in the end we didn’t pursue the idea of completely different looks; instead we introduced a slight difference in the grade, and obviously the set design, costume and make-up are unique and true to time period.
What determined your camera choices?
Netflix is specific about only using cameras that are native 4K, and since I have a very close relationship with ARRI Rental Munich, I asked Manfred Jahn early on about our options, because both the director and I really wanted to use ALEXA cameras. The ALEXA 65 came up, but initially I wasn’t sure it could happen, because of the expense and the workflow. However, after many discussions about compromises with everyone involved, me reducing my equipment lists and great support from ARRI Rental, I was delighted it proved possible.
We had 105 shooting days, but there was also a big second unit that had about 45 days. All in all we generated 412 hours of material, so around 656 TB of footage. Even the second unit was equipped with an ALEXA 65, but with a reduced lens package. Occasionally we used an ALEXA Mini for drone work or handheld running scenes—situations where we needed a compact camera.
Why did you combine the ALEXA 65 with Ultra Prime lenses?
Another aspect that enabled us to go with the ALEXA 65 was that we didn’t use the full 6.5K sensor, we used only about 4.3K, which eased data storage and widened lens options. I tested a lot of lenses and felt that the ALEXA 65 with the Ultras gave us a cinematic look with the right contrast and texture I was after for DARK.
I thoroughly enjoyed working with the ALEXA 65. The larger sensor makes the whole picture feel more three-dimensional, a kind of medium format feeling. It wraps around faces a bit more, somehow. My favorite combination was the ALEXA 65 with the 65mm Ultra Prime, which was beautiful for portraits—so gentle to the skin and with such a nice focus roll-off, but still wide enough to actually see the person in the context of their surroundings.
In what kinds of situations did you use the SkyPanel lights?
We used them in studio situations as overhead skylights. We had a couple of built sets, with both day and night scenes, and I was very happy with the output of the SkyPanels and the ability to change color temperature from day to night with just the flick of a switch. Tungsten lights would have been less expensive to hire in general, but due to the savings in electricity costs, and with no need to use or exchange expensive color gels, the SkyPanels actually worked out quite a bit cheaper.
Tell us about how you started your career as a trainee at ARRI Rental.
I started as a lighting intern at ARRI Rental and was sent out to work on the set of a small German TV series. I learned a lot, but what I really wanted was to get into the camera department, so I kept asking to work on the camera side at ARRI Rental Munich. I started there as an intern in 1997 and was later offered a camera technician position; I also worked at ARRI CSC in New York for about a year. After that I came back to Germany, was accepted into the Munich film school, and began working freelance.
From my time at ARRI Rental I have maintained close relationships with the people there and whenever I’m in Munich I visit to say hello. Extending from that I received great support from ARRI Rental Berlin throughout this shoot. From the beginning Ute Baron was very helpful and Christoph Hoffsten was enthusiastic about experimenting and manipulating lenses with us, to find the look I was after. During the grade the team at ARRI Media Berlin were all very engaged and supportive. I am very grateful to the people of ARRI.