'Ensuring Dark's continuity was a challenge': Cinematographer Nikolaus Summerer discusses jumping through time
In this exclusive Q&A with Firstpost, Dark cinematographer Nikolaus Summerer talks about crafting a unique visual style for each time period.
Following the breakout global success of Money Heist in April, Netflix churned out the third season of Dark in June-end and captivated audiences with the show's mind-bending twists and turns, along with the theme of time travel. Dark emerged as a worldwide phenomenon during the pandemic and has now become one of the most loved series worldwide by consistently topping the global charts on Netflix ever since the final season dropped. In fact, Dark, which is co-created by Baran Bo Odar and Jantje Friese, marks the first German-language original series of the world's dominant content behemoth.
In this exclusive Q&A with Firstpost, cinematographer Nikolaus Summerer (Who Am I, The Siege of Jadotville) talks about the challenges he faced in putting the cinematography of this mind-bending show together and crafting a unique visual style for each time period.
Dark has topped the worldwide Netflix charts in various countries. Do you think the series has finally put Germany on the global map in terms of television content considering it is Netflix's first German-language original?
Yes, absolutely. Germany has occasionally produced excellent feature films that have raised awareness of our filmmakers in other countries; including a few Oscar nominees and winners actually. But in terms of television, there have been only very few productions that have been recognised abroad, but none as successful with such a broad global audience as Dark.
Transforming the script from paper-to-visual for a mind-bending screenplay like Dark could be very challenging. How did you achieve the cinematographic style for specific timelines mentioned in the story?
In truth, we didn’t really have separate cinematographic styles for each time period (e.g. handheld only for scenes in a particular time period or others). However, Bo and I decided very early on that it was imperative that each time period has a unique visual style. So it was more a case of keeping subtle strings with a distinct look in various strengths, to separate and support each time period.
Take the post-apocalyptic future for example, where we chose a very harsh, high contrast, gritty and desaturated look. Whereas we wanted 2019 to appear more elegant and gentle, the ‘80s cooler in the shadows, and the ‘50s warmer with a more compressed colour palette - much like an old photograph that has been tinted brown with age, if you will. In season two and three, with more characters travelling to various other periods and places, we needed to establish even more looks.
How demanding was it for the cinematography team to maintain the lighting continuity across all timelines? Could you please explain how you approached the shooting structure considering the small-town set-up?
Jumping between time periods was hugely demanding but primarily because of the complexity of the story, whereby we had to give the audience a roadmap for where they were at any moment in time within the story. Overall, the lighting was relatively consistent across all time periods, and this was to meet the goal of being moody, dark, extreme.
Lighting changes were more situational, a sunny lake scene versus inside the bunker, or a rainy overcast setting in the forest versus Claudia’s sun-filled ‘80s bungalow. Ensuring continuity of visual styles across time periods was perhaps the bigger challenge. It started out simpler in season one and got progressively more complex throughout the subsequent two seasons. For instance, by the end of season three, we had ten plus different visual styles. And because of the filming schedule dictated by actor, studio, location, equipment availability, we frequently had to film several scenes within the same shooting day that weren’t in the same time period. You have to be really on your game to ensure nothing is missed, and fortunately, I was also supported by a very talented and committed crew throughout all three seasons.
There's a lot of scientific nuances involved in the entire screenplay. Metaphysics, philosophy, a multi-generation time-travel conspiracy etc. I used to keep a book to note down the character arcs and pause in between the episodes to recall them. How often did you get confused about the nonlinear narrative and the timelines involved while shooting?
Let’s just say I went through a notebook or two myself. Because of the way the filming schedule had to be structured, we ultimately bounced around time periods even more than the audience. And there were definitely a few lunch breaks spent debating the plot amongst the crew.
How challenging was it to use different colour palettes for a particular decade in the timeline since the entire screenplay spans nearly 100 years?
During pre-production for each season, I worked in close collaboration with my colourist to create new and/or enhance existing colour palettes for each of the different time periods. In the end, I’m quite happy with what we achieved. The challenge was as described before, to make sure we were using the allocated look at the right scene and nothing was overlooked.
What made you guys arrive at Alexa 65 and Alexa Mini as the camera choices for the series?
When we started pre-production for season one, Netflix stipulated filming had to be with a native 4K camera. The director and I wanted to work with an ARRI Alexa and at the time the 65 was the only ARRI camera that was producing 4K (actually 6K but we only exposed a 4K area of the sensor). Large Format is a beautiful and very artistic format and the Alexa 65 is a fantastic camera and was the perfect tool for me to create the cinematic images I wanted for Dark. The Netflix requirements allowed us to film a small percentage below 4K native, so we used the Alexa Mini for special occasions such as drone photography or action sequences.
What kind of a working relationship did you have with the creators (Baran Bo Odar and Jantje Friese), especially when it comes to creative freedom and executing a director's vision?
Bo, Jantje and I went to film school together and subsequently worked on three films prior to Dark, so we definitely have a strong working relationship and we’re good friends. This shared history certainly enhances our ability to communicate openly and honestly, even non-verbally and allows a healthy collaborative process to create the visual style for a project.
Since the backdrop of Dark was decided as a small-town (Winden) in Germany, what kind of conversation did you have with the creators about the visual language for the entire series?
The visual language was driven more by the story itself and the characters’ journeys rather than where it took place.