On Location for Heima with Alan Calzatti

When Dean DeBlois (best known as co-director of Lilo and Stitch) got a phone call from the manager of Sigur Ros, the Icelandic music group with the otherworldly sound, he was pitched anything but a conventional music-video project. An all-Icelandic crew had followed the band from village to village last year, photographing a series of performances that would be compiled into a concert film. Main problem was, once the footage was compiled, nobody liked the results. The band was ready to abandon the project when DeBlois – who had been in contact seeking to direct a music video for them – got the call for help.

After looking at the footage, DeBlois decided to hook up with cinematographer Alan Calzatti on a salvage mission. The two of them headed into Iceland and shot about 10 days’ worth of new performances and stunning footage of Icelandic exteriors. The new shoot was combined with some of the existing footage with the help of editor Nick Fenton, who managed to draw something coherent out of the material. “Eventually, it came out better than I thought,” says Calzatti.

The result is a reportedly stunning, trancelike documentary that combines the band’s music with concert footage and awesome landscape photography. Calzatti is modest (“Obviously,” he says drily, “we tried to stay away from making it look like a Travel Channel show”) but reaction to early screenings is good, and online fan sites are abuzz with anticipation. Watch the trailer, below, then read the Q&A.

What format did you shoot?
We had to continue shooting on the same format – HDCAM PAL, 1080p25, using the Sony HDW-750. And we did all the post-production in PAL at my place and at Riot in Los Angeles. So the whole project was done in L.A. in PAL. Everyone was laughing at me.

What was your strategy on location?
I haven’t shot tape in many years. I usually shoot film. I really shot the HD for telecine. I shot it very flat, so it looks really crappy originally. But it was done for telecine. I do a lot of stuff at Riot, so I knew the colorist, and I knew exactly what we were going to with it.

Where did you get your equipment, and how much did you have with you?
We ended up getting it from England. It seems like that’s what everybody does [in Iceland]. I had to do the budget for all of that – I had to sit down and figure out how much things cost in pounds. We got some grip stuff in Iceland. Normally we had two cameras with us, and some days, for the performances, we would have as many as seven. None of it was shot with playback. As they were performing, everything was recorded, audiowise. Sigur Ros feel strongly about not doing playback. I think the recordings were really good.

I operated one camera, and there was another operator with me. I took two cameras because I didn’t really trust them. We were driving all over Iceland. We’d get caught in crazy storms, and sometimes you’d feel like one of those guys on a polar expedition. But the cameras held up.

How much of the final film is your footage, compared to the original crew?
Well, there is a lot of their footage of performances. They shot for two weeks straight. But look at it this way – of the stuff we shot, 90 percent of it is in the film. The original crew, Magni Agustsson and Steingrimur Karlsson, were not involved in the production for the past six months. At one point the DP contacted the management and said, “I was shooting with a 2.35 aspect ratio.” Well, we released at 16×9. We just took their footage and used what we could out of it. Obviously we threw away the songs that had poor coverage and used the songs with decent coverage. They shot from tripods in the back rows and zoomed in on the group, so it’s very minimal.

Dean and I directed and shot, and we also did all the post-production ourselves. I did tons of After Effects work, cleaning stuff out of the frame like an HDCAM box sitting on the shelf. And a lot of the time-lapse stuff, I had to pull the cars and moving people out of the shot. The editing and mastering was done in Final Cut.

Directors of photography don’t usually do hands-on work in programs like After Effects.
I did post for years – unfortunately. [Laughs.] But it was really hard to share the director of photography credit after all of that kind of stuff. Or share the director’s credit with somebody who dropped off the project six months ago. It’s just not fair. In 2007, the director of photography is more than a person who walks around the set smoking a big cigar. There’s post-production, the whole tape-to-tape process – if you’re a DP, you’re there from the beginning to the end.

The trailer shows a mix of landscape footage performance footage. What kind of experience were you trying to make?
To make a concert film really interesting you don’t want it really structured and very linear. This is a little crazier, just like Sigur Ros. It does tell the story of Sigur Ros going across Iceland and playing these little villages. They’re really concerned about the environment, and some of that is seen through the film. There’s this dam that was going to be built, and the whole area was going to be flooded – so they did a protest concert. Also, this is the first time you really see them talk normally. We tried to capture the real people, making them relax, waiting for the right time to really talk to them. Sometimes that meant shooting in places where we didn’t really want to shoot. This is the right time, so let’s do it right now and make it work. We had to get the maximum out of them. They’re just regular guys and we want to show the real people. We have Jonsi talking and being himself. When you actually hang out with them, that’s what they’re like. But when you put a camera on them they become different people.

How did you decide when to use the various landscape images?
Well, some of those relate to songs. I talked to the group a lot about how they actually see the songs. They have songs they refer to as “the gold song,” or “the red song” or “the blue song.” It’s for no real reason except they can kind of see color through their music. So a lot of that was done in telecine – you’d start with a greenish tone and build up to a gold tone at a certain point in the song. The film has about six or seven different looks, very different from one another.

Sigur Ros were in telecine the whole time. We brought them here for all of the post-production. They were doing all their sound mixing for the film at POP, and we were doing the tape-to-tape across the street. We only had a week to do it. They were crossing the street every day, and they had a lot to do with the look of the film. Jonsi [singer-guitarist Jon Thor Birgisson] is an artist, and a lot of the other guys do a lot of painting and things.

And your strategy while shooting was not to set looks in camera?
Yes. We shot with high-speed Zeiss film lenses, regular primes. We stayed away from wide angles, even though when you’re in Iceland you really want to pull the wide angle out, but it was really just 18-85. Most of it was shot with a 35mm and an 85mm. I didn’t use any filtration – sometimes some ND grads for the skies. Just minimal stuff, not really going crazy. We really wanted to manipulate it in the Da Vinci, not in camera.

Was it the same for the concert photography?
Basically. A lot of it was, obviously, lit by the lighting people that light the show. A lot of it was also shot by the first team that went out, and the original director and DP did not really work very well with the people who were lighting the show. So a lot of it is pretty straightforward. What we tried to do is actually capture Sigur Ros as close as possible as we could be to them physically. We actually had a camera track in really close in proximity to the band members and Amiina, which is their string section, to give you this super-close and personal. You’ve got big performances with the cameras very far away from them, and then this whole other thing which is the opposite, very personable.

There’s also a whole section in the film that is shot at a really old coffeehouse, in a remote part of Iceland. They invited their closest friends to this closed performance and performed on this tiny little stage at this coffeehouse. They did a couple of songs, and we filmed that. So we had their best friends and family packing this place, watching Sigur Ros doing an acoustic set. For a lot of people who’ve seen the film that is a big moment.

Was it tricky to get the band to trust you?
When we came up with this idea, Dean and I both knew that we had to do interviews with them. Originally Sigur Ros and the management were looking at certain films that they really liked. One of them was Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii. Another one was Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Those films are not very structured films. The group really didn’t want to do any interviews. Until we actually got to Iceland we weren’t sure if we were going to do them or not. Once the group met us and we talked to them and made them at ease, they said OK we’ll do it.

Also with Sigur Ros it was a little weird, because this was supposed to be a fully Icelandic production. Some of the money came from the government of Iceland. Now, the director is Canadian and I’m Russian. And the editor is British. So the political thing was a little weird. All these foreigners were coming in to do our thing in Iceland. It’s such a small place – everybody knows each other. But I don’t think anyone thought it would turn out as well as it did.

You mentioned the Pink Floyd film, and this one seems to have the same grandiose, epic feel.

Iceland is beautiful, and part of it is because the sun is so low in the sky all the time. You get the magic hour all day. And the volcanic landscapes, the desaturated tones, browns and reds, it’s really crazy. It’s a bit like Hawaii. It’s not really hard to shoot. Anywhere you point the camera, things look good. We really wanted to do that – but at the same time we wanted it to be tied to the group so that it doesn’t look like we’re trying to do a commercial. Variety‘s review said, “It’s not as good as Koyaanisqatsi.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s not where we were going with it at all.” Come on, we’re just music video guys!