Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, BVK on Evolving the Show's Visual Style over Three Seasons
Now in its third season, Berlin Station continues taking LeCarre-style spycraft into the 21st century. The Epix series, produced by Anonymous Content in association with Paramount Home Entertainment, is the brainchild of novelist Olen Steinhauer and depicts the public and private goings-on at the CIA’s base of operations within Germany. The series has reflected and even anticipated real-world events, with the regular cast of characters — which includes Richard Armitage, Michelle Forbes, Leland Orser and Richard Jenkins — in conflict with one another as well as with elements of their own government back home.
This most recent round of shows features an increased quotient of bruising action while expanding its scope to include territories outside of Germany. While showrunner duties recently passed from Bradford Winters to Jason Horwitch (Rubicon), the show’s cinematographer has been with the series since its inception. Director of photography Hagen Bogdanski, BVK, shot the acclaimed feature The Lives of Others as well as Young Victoria. More recently Bogdanski lensed a pair of installments for Starz’ Counterpart and filmed the remake of Papillon.
Studio Daily: Has your approach to shooting the series evolved over three seasons?
Hagen Bogdanski: When we began, it was by seeing Berlin through the eyes of our lead character, returning after being away for 25 years. You were seeing with new but older eyes, because he remembers the city as it was when the wall came down, when he was a young man. Now in middle age, he is having to readjust when taking in this very contemporary-feeling and exciting city. And he has to reconcile these feelings in order to adjust to do his job there. After addressing that aspect, our approach has remained pretty consistent, relying on a great deal of location work augmented by our standing Station set. The big difference this season is that we’re venturing further East, towards more Russian-influenced Baltic states. With the different locations in Vienna and Budapest, things have gotten somewhat more colorful, and there is very much an increase in the frequency and intensity of our action scenes.
When shooting in these other countries, were you able to retain much of your regular crew?
I brought along head-of-departments, then crewed up locally, which is just a part of how business is done. We maintained our established methodology with regard to location shooting. We rely upon a gaffer with LED boxes that can be quickly wheeled in and turned on. The speed of shooting when you’re having to make your schedule with three separate locations on any given day requires that kind of hit-the-ground-running approach.
In earlier seasons, you were primarily on Arri Alexa XT cameras, shooting UltraPrimes.
We changed a little for season three, switching from XT to Alexa Minis. It’s the same chip with the same resolution, so visually it doesn’t make a big difference, but from my perspective, shooting handheld and in tight locations benefits enormously from having the Minis. [The show captures via ProRes 4:4:4 to CFast 2.0 256 GB memory cards.] When shooting with multiple cameras, we can have two of them side by side, or one shooting straight on with the other 90 degrees out.
There’s a lot of aerial work in the first two seasons.
Drones are now part of our established visual language for Berlin Station, and we continue to keep building upon that approach. A company called CDS has provided drones that could carry Arri Minis, and that system saw a lot of use in season two, but they now make semi-professional drones that are even smaller. We used those units for the first time this season, and despite their size, the look was very good, especially during daylight scenes. We also went back to real full-size helicopter aerials as well, in circumstances when that was a better choice due to security issues.
You got the chance to direct an episode this season.
Yes, my gig was for episode 5 [“The Dream of the Four Policemen”]. When directing, you get to have a longer prep, which allows you to become involved with choosing locations and many other aspects beyond casting. All of that was very exciting for me, as was shooting underground in Vienna in the old The Third Man locales.
Obviously the show’s use of locations is a major draw as well as challenge, but the home base is still all handled on stage.
The real constant element over the run of the show are the standing sets for Berlin Station. We’re a little more handheld this season than previously when we see the regulars at this home away from home but the lighting and the look is largely the same one established in season one. There are lots of monitor screens with news updates seen inside the station, and we do all that live on-set. We don’t want to have to worry about people wandering in front of green screens or putting in visual effects later, and I think it helps the actors and with visual credibility as well.
With the increased emphasis on action this season, did you spend much of your prep with a stunt coordinator to make sure that the various story points get addressed during the fights?
There was so much to choreograph and work out that we had two different stunt coordinators handling things. I discussed the story beats, and they worked out the blows by shooting their ideas on an iPhone. I reviewed those efforts myself with the showrunner, then gave input, so that was then revised and brought even closer to the ideal before we actually went out to shoot. Honestly, the refining went on and on, right up till when we actually shot, though early on we can settle which cuts will feature the principals versus stunt performers. This season a number of our regulars underwent extensive fight training, which permitted us to do a lot more with them, though always making sure that they can remain safe is a great concern. My episode had two huge fights — one was in a Berlin subway, while the other was down in those tunnels beneath Vienna. And then there was a big car chase through the streets of St. Petersburg.
Second unit DP and operator Ralph Kaechele has also been on the series from the beginning. Is there a growing trust there that allows main unit shoots to delegate greater responsibility?
Very much so. Each season, second unit becomes more and more involved, when you’ve got more ambitious action to cover. When, due to logistical and scheduling issues, we shot two episodes side by side, their contribution became even more extremely important. On my installment, after first unit had shot five days in a row in Vienna, I went with the second unit on a weekend to shoot under the ground there. Second unit quite often works in this way on the series, and they often get to use the best toys, like the Russian Arm for fast pursuits.
How involved did you become during post for your episode?
Traditionally, the editor makes a first assembly during shooting. Then, two days after wrapping, I went in for four days to assemble a director’s cut. Then it goes to the producers for their cut. I found the editing process to be such a fascinating aspect of filmmaking!
Did you wind up reshaping the material in ways you hadn’t considered during prep and shooting?
It was not so much a matter of reinventing the story, but more in the vein of restructuring things. You might put something up front that is out of time with the rest of the show.
Like the first season opening, which uses material from the end of that season?
Yeah, though on my episode, the producers decided to intercut sequences that I had playing on their own, sequentially. It was a rather brilliant notion on their part, one that made the visual aspect of the storytelling much more exciting. Whether it is a matter of luck or design, when you wind up with collaborators that enhance your work, it becomes one of the greatest of blessings. Getting the chance to direct was very enjoyable and I was much appreciative of the opportunity.
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