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Israeli DP Eli Arenson talks about his approach to shooting Valdimar Jóhannsson’s gripping pastoral thriller Lamb

Feb 25, 2022

Eli Arenson • Lamb 

By Oliver Webb 

A childless couple living in rural Iceland discover a mysterious newborn creature in their sheep barn in Valdimar Jóhannssons‘s extraordinary debut feature. Deciding to nurture the creature, called Ada, and raise it as their own, their relationship and new family life begins to fall apart.   

Beautifully-shot in naturalistic blue and green hues by Israel-born DP Eli Arenson, Lamb is a supernatural take on parenthood that is deeply rooted in Icelandic folklore and mystery. The film stars Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason, and was co-written by Jóhannsson and Icelandic poet, novelist and lyricist Sjón. 

How did you start out as a cinematographer? 

I’m originally from Israel. I learnt how to use a camera in the Israeli military where I was stationed as a photojournalist. I studied at the American Film Institute, which took me to LA. It’s a difficult city to acclimate to. I’ve always had a connection to Iceland and my partner and baby are Icelandic. I’ve been back-and-forth for about five years now, but I officially moved to Iceland a couple of years ago.

Valdimar Johannsson

How did you get involved with Valdimar Jóhannsson?   

I knew Valdimar was working on a very special film. He was talking to other high-profile DPs at the time. He had this idea of a special lens that he wanted to use. He wasn’t sure exactly what that would mean technically, but he wanted to have this really particular look for some of the scenes in the film. I helped him out with the resources in LA and went to Panavision and Radiant Images to do a bunch of unusual tests for him. I never thought I was going to shoot Lamb at that time. I was secretly hoping that I’d get to shoot it. It was a super-exciting opportunity for me.

What were your creative conversations about the look of Lamb

The Icelandic title Dýrið… can’t be really translated. It’s sort of an Icelandic folklore word, meaning more like a gentle beast, or a creature that is elevated from the animal kingdom. In English, ‘beast’ sounds like a thing that comes and eats you, but the idea is something gentler in nature

The elephant in the room was the character of Ada, the lamb-hybrid in the film. We were figuring out how to do that. I had previously done a short film a few years ago that had a character of a pig that had to sit upright in a chair, like a human. We ended-up with this combination of filming a real pig and an animatronic body, where the head was composited over the body with very minimal CGI. It was a way to keep costs down and also a way to get a photorealistic result.

Lamb was a lot more complicated than that short, but it did utilise this technique of shooting real lambs and real human babies and making a composite together on screen, so it has this really uncanny feeling. When you look at the image it looks like a real lamb. There were also puppets and CGI, but the mix of techniques is what keeps you guessing. 

Lamb has been described as a horror film, although Valdimar claims it was never intended to be horror. What did he want to achieve?  

Valdimar is a super-visual director, but we never talked about Lamb being a horror film. It definitely has horror elements in it, but none of our references, or anything we aspired it to be, were in the horror genre, or any genre for that matter. It’s an arthouse film. You can describe it as magical realism, where there is a very real world with one odd element in it that everyone takes for granted. It just is and you deal with it. I think if there is a sense of dread it is more from the drama within the supernatural.

What creative references did you consider? 

Valdimar loves arthouse cinema. He had lots of filmmakers he would reference like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Carlos Reygadas, Bela Tarr, Lars Von Trier, Amat Escalante and classics like Tarkovsky. It’s hard to think of one specific film. We had a lot paintings and old photographs from the north of Iceland and books as well. Sjón’s novels were very important to us. It’s kind of mix of all that put together.

“Valdimar wanted to have a very distinct colour palette”

How would you describe the look of the colour palette in the film?  

It was very important for Valdimar to have a very distinct colour palette, and he wanted to follow it religiously. He had lots of different photos, which we narrowed down to maybe 30, and then made a collage of all those together. Then we digitised it and lowered the resolution to nearly nothing, to just blocks of coloured pixels. It was a way for me communicate with him, this shade of green, or this shade of blue, or whatever. That was shared with all the other departments very early-on. All the props, wardrobe and production design was based on this, and everything was super-unified in terms of the look.

What was your approach to lighting the film?   

I think the biggest light we had was 12K HMI. Other than that, we relied on natural light as a base and augmented it. We used all the LEDs we could get which had CIE 1931 coordinates in the setting. I’m a huge fan of colour metering. When we were shooting over summer, the midnight sun had a particular shade of blue to it when the sun was below the horizon, even at 3am. It gets to really cool temperatures, beyond 20,000 Kelvin and it bounces off of all the green of the mountains surrounding the farm. It had this really weird but beautiful natural colour. 

Give us some details about your selection of aspect ratio, cameras and lenses?

We used the ARRI Alexa Mini and shot on ARRI Master Anamorphic lenses. Those lenses were perfect because Valdimar isn’t a fan of the usual distortions and flairs which you usually get from other Anamorphic lenses. Shooting in tight spaces, it was really nice to frame Noomi with a 50mm Anamorphic instead of a 25mm spherical. The prologue was shot on Master Primes and we had one specialty 9.8mm lens. 

“It was a very small and intimate shoot”

Did you operate?  

It was a single camera production and I operated. It was a very small and intimate shoot. Noomi had just come off of a Hollywood feature before she came to the island. I don’t think she’d done a shoot this small, ever. 

Did you encounter any challenges with the locations?  

We shot in this valley in the north of Iceland called Hörgárdalur, which is about an hour out of the closest city. It was important to find a location that felt really isolated. Valdimar had found an abandoned pig farm there, and we made a deal with the owner to fix it up. The weather was extremely challenging and there was no cell phone reception. We had one location, which was a lake up in the mountains for the boat scene. We had to hike up the mountain for about an hour-and-a-half with all our equipment on our backs. We shot the film over three seasons and we finished the winter scenes in February just before the pandemic. We were really lucky.

What was the most challenging sequence to shoot?  

There’s a scene in which Noomi and Hilmir’s characters are walking down a field holding the baby lamb, and the mother sheep is following from behind. Valdimar had a very specific image in mind, where the characters are framing the composition on each side and the sheep approaches out of the mist between them.

In pre-production I had very high doubts we would be able to achieve this in camera, but Valdimar was determined we would succeed. We had planned all sorts of back-up options to shoot this in layers and composite the elements together, but in the end we got it in the third or fourth take. If you look closely far in the background, you might notice the farmer who owns the Mother Sheep hiding in the grass in a camouflage net.

Obviously, figuring out how to make the lamb do this and a baby do that was super-challenging. But we were ready for that because we had planned out all of the scenarios, and also had the amazing Peter Hjorth as VFX supervisor. The creature grows from infant to around the age of three during the course of the film, and we had multiple child actors and several counterpart lambs to go with the children. To fit all these pieces together perfectly was a huge undertaking.

What were your working hours like during production?   

We kept to 12-hour days. We would shoot lots of times during the nights. One of the advantages of shooting in the spring and summer up in the north of Iceland is that the sun never sets. We were cheating, we would shoot night scenes during the day and day scenes during the night. The schedule was about 35 shooting days, but spread over three seasons.

What’s the best advice you’ve received? 

One of my teachers at AFI, Bill Dill ASC, used to say “If everything’s a close-up, nothing is a close-up.” And I can’t agree more. Pull that camera back! And this saying goes for everything. If the camera is always moving, it’s never moving. If you can keep effective tools of cinematography tucked away, you can then utilise them at an impactful moment in the story.


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