Jojo Rabbit is director Taika Waititi’s satirical send-up and equally sober analysis of Nazi fanaticism told through the whimsical musings of an aspiring Hitler Youth. With Waititi in the scene-stealing role of Adolf, 10-year-old protagonist Jojo Beltzer’s imaginary friend, the film is loosely based on the young adult novel Caging Skies, about a Jewish girl hidden by a German family during World War II. It features Roman Griffin Davis, in his screen debut, Scarlett Johansson, and an entourage of Nazi nitwits played with darkly comic precision by Sam Rockwell, Stephen Merchant and Rebel Wilson.

Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. was captivated by Waititi’s script, which he read one night while doing reshoots on his last film, The Hate U Give. He was on a Skype call with the director the following day. “For me, the whole thing happened really, really fast,” he says. “I went back home for four days before flying to Prague to start filming.”

We asked Malaimare about shooting in extreme low light with the Alexa SXT, the challenges of working with first-time actors, and what Waititi did to on set to get the best out of his youngest stars.

StudioDaily: What made Prague the ideal location for the film?

Mihai Malaimare Jr: It’s interesting because I’m from Romania, and the architecture is very similar. It felt familiar to me. Lucky for us, the Czech Republic was very careful with the way they let people install air conditioning units and dish antennas, mostly keeping them from public street views. So in these cities there that we filmed [Prague, Ustek, Chcebuz and Zatec], we could shoot pretty much in 360 without having too many elements to remove. When we took the cars and the street signs out, it definitely looked like the photo references of Germany from the 1940s during the war.

What did those references include?

Taika and I spoke quite a lot about the use of color, and the references came from everybody: the art department, production design, costume and makeup. I remember I had quite a shock when I first saw color footage from World War II, because we’re so used to seeing images from the war in black-and-white. All the costume samples and art sketches were full of vibrant color. I talked to Taika about how we could actually use that saturated palette to our advantage, to show Jojo’s world at the beginning of the movie, knowing that we wanted to mute the palette towards the end for the war scenes.

We’re seeing his world through his eyes, too, so at the outset, it’s a kind of personal Disney World of his imagination. 

Pretty much! 

Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis, right) and his imaginary friend Adolf (director Taika Waititi) in an early scene from the film. Training camp director Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) looks on.
Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Tell me more about how and why you shot your widescreen images on the SXT.

We were shooting 1.3x anamorphic for 1.85:1. We did a lot of tests and went all the way from 1.33:1 to 2.40:1. We felt that 2.40 was too overly cinematic for our story, but we still wanted to keep the quality of anamorphic, which creates a certain velvety look in the skin tones and it does amazing things with the backgrounds. There is a way to use 2x anamorphic and cropping for 1.85, but you often lose the most interesting aspect of the lenses that way. We used the Hawk V-lite squeeze anamorphic 1.3x, and they allowed us to [achieve] a real 1:85 anamorphic ratio.

The attic room, where Jojo discovers Elsa hiding, was lit very differently from the other sets. How did that setup evolve?

We had a conversation about the attic room in prep before we built it. It was interesting because we realized that it would be strange for the audience if they didn’t know when it was daytime or nighttime in that space; it can not be pitch black every time. We worked off the idea that building a few vents at the bottom of the roof would allow us to see some daylight filtering in or a beam of sunlight reflected in a subtle way. That still allowed us to keep the space fairly dark but you could see a difference between day and night. For the nighttime, we went with candles and petrol lamps. For those scenes we used a set of spherical lenses called [Vantage One] T1, which allowed us to shoot wide open at T1, so it was more like a Barry Lyndon approach. The lenses are also made in Germany, so it was nice to have that support nearby when we needed it.

What was the trickiest part about working with the child actors? 

The kids were really terrific. Roman is unusual because, even though this is his first film, he grew up in the business [his father is cinematographer Ben Davis]. It was also the film debut of Archie Yates, who plays Jojo’s friend Yorkie. Inevitably, every single first-time actor will look straight into the camera at one point, but we never had this problem with Roman because he grew up around cameras. He was never intimidated by two big lenses pointing at him the whole time. The only challenge was the schedule, due to labor laws, for the young actors. They can only work 8 or 9 hours a day, including break time. This made it tough on the other actors because most of the time when you know you are running out of time, you can just use a photo double and shoot over the shoulder with the other actors. But what that means is probably their closeups will be toward the end of the day and they’ll have to act with somebody that’s not Roman, for example. Once we discovered that, it was our safety net, but definitely not ideal for the adult actors.

Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is the radiant — and colorful — heart of her son’s world.
Photo by Larry Horricks. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

How did Waititi make his youngest actors feel comfortable on set?

Through a lot of rehearsals, mostly, then just blocking and figuring out how to shoot it. We only storyboarded the war scenes. This allowed all of the actors, but especially the kids, all the freedom in the world during rehearsals to search for the best way to convey the scene. We got so many interesting ideas from them during that process. I think you can see the results in the acting, because there’s nothing worse than telling an actor, “You better hit your mark or else you’re not in the light.” Our approach was to let them explore the scene first, and getting the ideas from them so we can figure out how to shoot the scene. It made everyone more comfortable on set.

What was your favorite place to film?

Definitely Jojo’s house, but particularly the hallway. I loved the way the wood panels would reflect the light and the way everything worked together with the wallpaper and all those practicals. It really felt amazing, no matter where you point the camera. Everything looked great in there.

As you mentioned earlier, the end of the film shifts to a much more muted palette. Did you do that in camera as well as in post? 

It was a little bit of both. We definitely played with the color temp feature on the lights and in camera. We also did some grading for the dailies before finalizing everything in the DI.

Malaimare used a Vantage One T1 lens to capture the low-light scenes featuring Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) and Jojo.
Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

What did you appreciate most about Taika Waititi’s style as a director?

He had a rule that there were no cell phones allowed on set, and that created a really interesting working environment where everybody’s paying attention and people are talking to each other. Another thing I loved was that we did projected dailies, which very rarely happens these days. We didn’t do it every day, because we did have some very long production days. But on the other hand, if you do it once a week or twice a week and have everyone in the same room, it really pays off. It’s so different when you’re by yourself in a hotel room watching dailies on a small screen. It’s a totally different experience, even when it’s a small screening room. You get to experience the film the way the audience will, and that lets you see and react to things much differently. You can better judge focus and lighting. Pretty much everybody, from the production designer and costume designer to producers, was invited to the screenings, depending on how long of a day it was.