By Darek Kuźma
DP Ari Wegner ACS once again proved her visual storytelling skills and finesse in recreating bygone eras for director Sebastián Lelio’s period drama-with-a-twist The Wonder.
“You are only here to watch,” discovers Lib, an English nurse brought in 1862 to the Irish Midlands as an expert witness to an alleged miracle within a devout Catholic community. Supposedly, 11-year-old Anna has been fasting for four months, feeding off nothing but – as she calls it – ‘manna from heaven’. The nurse’s order comes from a hostile male committee, but as a self-sufficient woman and a veteran of The Crimean War where she witnessed what people are capable of in the name of their beliefs, Lib suspects mischief and wrongdoing. After she clashes with the community’s patriarchs, the girl’s pious family, and the zealous Anna herself, Lib realises that the objective truth she seeks to unearth is an amalgam of the subjective truths the local people hold to.
“Almost all the digital work I have done has been with ARRI Alexa, and familiarity with a sensor is a big comfort”
Storytelling is the most important aspect of The Wonder, to the point that Lelio decided to frame Lib and Anna’s story with a meta-device that reveals the artifice of filmmaking and encourages you to imagine your own version of the truth. It was fortunate, then, that the director found the perfect visual storyteller.
“We had almost worked together previously but our schedules didn’t align. Then, when I read this script and Emma Donoghue’s book, I was thrilled that it was going to work out,” says Wegner, a DP experienced in recreating bygone eras, from Lady Macbeth (2016) to The Power Of The Dog (2012). “We looked at a lot of reference photos but wanted to make our interpretation of the times. It’s a balance of reality and what we could achieve within the realms of plausibility.”
The Wonder is set shortly after the Great Famine had devastated Ireland and its people, yet the story, ambiguous as it is, is very much about hope.
“We didn’t want the film to be too visually bleak. There’s enough thematic darkness in the story already, as well as the landscape being quite muted,” she recalls. “Also, Lib is very much alive, she has a kind of inextinguishable drive and energy. We gave her a vivid blue dress to stand out in the muddy landscape and mark her as an outsider visually. In the sets we also took the opportunity to add vivid colours – rooms with shiny green walls that reflect glow of the fire and candlelight.”
The prep period was crucial in bringing The Wonder to life. “Sebastian and I spent a lot of time alone together planning. We storyboarded the script and took photos of each board on-location with him playing all characters.”
But the biggest challenge was organising the whole project around Kíla Lord Cassidy who played Anna. “She was 11 at the time, so we could only have her on set for three hours a day. Our rule was to do only ten set-ups a day total. For the shots of Kíla, we generally used two cameras. The time restriction was a challenge logistically – we shot other actors in the morning, then did all the shots requiring Kíla for the three hours (usually spanning several scenes), and then, after she was gone, we would go back to complete what was owing.”
This informed everything, from choosing camera/lenses to planning camera movement.
“Almost all the digital work I have done has been with the ARRI Alexa, and the familiarity with a sensor is a big comfort when you’re in a time crunch. Plus, we needed The Wonder to be 4K so ARRI Alexa LF was a natural choice,” Wegner says.
“I considered a few lens kits and settled on the Cooke S7 FFs. I haven’t shot a feature on them before but from the tests they felt reliable and beautiful, and there’s nothing whacky about them. It’s tempting on a period film to have unique vintage lenses, but we were going to shoot low-light on a fast schedule with a young actor, so I didn’t want to add unnecessary pressure with an eccentric lens kit. Or to tell Sebastian that we can’t do something in the ten minutes left with Kíla because of the funky lenses I’d chosen.”
Another element to take into account was the digital-film-digital process. “I love the Alexa look, but at I’ve also got a bit of allergy to period films that look too digital. We agreed that we needed something different for The Wonder,” she explains. “We shot tests and put them through the process at CineLab in London. They had just gotten the camera negative module for their ARRILASER and we ultimately went to Kodak 250D with it. It doesn’t have the precision you might be used to from working purely digital and adding digital grain, but what you lose in precision you gain in surprises. It’s a look that I don’t think I could have achieved on just digital alone.”
The Cooke S7 FFs felt reliable and beautiful… there’s nothing whacky about them’
Wegner admits that shooting two cameras presented challenges, too. “When you need this amount of B-camera, it does influence the visual language – the length of the lenses and the camera movement. The Cooke package consisted of 18mm, 25mm, 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 75mm, 100mm, 135mm but we definitely erred on the side of the widest lenses possible without seeing the other camera.
“There’s an emotionally-draining scene towards the end that’s nearly six minutes of dialogue between Lib and Anna. We wanted to cross-shoot, but we didn’t want to shoot long lens from over the shoulders, we had to feel close to them, be in the middle of the conversation. We made the decision to have cameras locked-off in shot, and paint them out in post which allowed us to be inside the conversation while shooting both actors simultaneously.”
Wegner recalls that there was only one zoom shot, her favourite shot in the entire film, which comes following the scene just mentioned, when Lib finally understands the big picture and walks towards the camera from far away. Wegner used 80-250 Premista Zoom with doubler, zooming-in slowly to emphasise Lib’s emotion and put the viewers in a sort of a contemplative state.
“I really love this shot. We had a particularly wild weather that day, and it was perfect for the moment in the film. Lib feels very strong and very alone – as a viewer you have a moment to process what you’ve just learnt, and hopefully you’re feeling similar to what she does. I really love when an emotionally-intense scene is followed by a shot that allows you to think for a moment, rather than moving directly on to the next plot point.”
The film was shot August to September 2021 on-location in and around Dublin, and in the picturesque countryside of County Wicklow, and the infamous Irish weather was yet another obstacle.
“I’ve worked and lived in New Zealand which is similar, but this was still quite an experience – different extremes of weather in one day, often right next to each other. As soon as it stopped raining you can have full sun, a nightmare for continuity and because direct sun on a wet landscape is incredibly glary,” she notes.
“But no amount of being disgruntled about it is going to change anything! You really had to smile about how predictably unpredictable the weather is. And luckily our Irish crew were at home in these conditions. We shot in the summer, where full darkness could be 11pm, which enabled us to work during the incredible long Irish dusks, so I have no complaints! It’s a magical place to shoot.”
The Wonder also required some stage work. “We shot at Westin Airport’s hangar on the outskirts of Dublin. We had the interior of Anna’s house there and its exterior was built in Featherbeds, Wicklow” explains Wegner. “Going into stage work, I’m always nervous it will look like studio, so I focus a lot of my attention there during prep – the first decision for me is windows, and how much to see out of them.
“The film takes place in rural Ireland in the 1800s, so small windows, thick walls, lit by fire and candlelight, and we chose to emphasise the darkness inside by having the windows go to bright white. Our workhorses were ARRI SkyPanels S30 and S60 and Astera Titan Tubes. Our gaffer Garret Baldwin is amazing on iPad and able to make those tiny adjustments quickly and without disrupting the set if we were in a delicate moment.”
Another important scene is when Lib gets high with opium, giving the audience the opportunity to go inside her head.
“Garret made a flicker-box with 60W and 100W bulbs. I’m pretty meticulous in prep with testing how much ‘flicker’ a fire or candlelight should have for that particular film or for a particular scene, realism might not always be the right choice.
“For most scenes with a fireplace we used the bare minimum of flicker, definitely less than a real fire would have – but we increased it beyond reality for the opium scene to intensify the high.”
On day exteriors Wegner used predominantly natural light and had quite a limited package for night exteriors. “We had a few bigger sources, like ARRI M40s and M90s, and supplemented them with some Maxi Brutes for the biggest night exterior scene where a house burns.”
Meticulous planning and taking risky decisions paid off in various ways, including the fact that they wrapped up just ahead of schedule, getting everything they wanted on camera.
“Our plan worked, which is the best you could hope for. We were sprinting through the days because of Kíla’s working hours, but I’m so happy with the result. Especially when it comes to the film’s overall look. I think you sense it’s not digital and not entirely celluloid, it’s something in between,” explains Wegner. It makes the audience – pun intended – wonder what is really happening inside the heads of the people who fight to defend their versions of truth, of reality.
Wegner put the final touches to this look during the grade with colourist Vanessa Taylor, whom she met on Lady Macbeth, at London-based Dirty Looks facility.
“It was quite extensive work because of the digital-film-digital process. We started by doing a basic grade with a Kodak 250D emulation LUT underneath – getting to an approximation of the look we wanted. Then, when we had the scanned film back, we did another ten days of grading that,” claims Wegner.
“When you’re dealing with a process none of us had done before, it requires a special person, and Vanessa was amazing. Overall, I’m super happy with the result and I’m especially excited about possibilities of the digital-film-digital process in the future.”