NAVALNY’s Bittersweet Success – An Interview with Cinematographer Niki Waltl, AAC

Editor’s Note:

Niki Waltl, AAC is the Director of Photography based for the Oscar-winning documentary “Navalny” which was primarily shot with SIGMA CINE lenses. Shortly after the awards ceremony, we spoke with Mr. Waltl about his work on the film via videoconference and followed up with an email exchange to learn more about his work on this project. The interview below has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Niki Waltl, AAC, left, ready for a day in the field. Photo by Josh Izenberg.

Can you give us a quick intro of yourself?

I’m a cinematographer from Tirol, Austria. I work on documentary films, as well as narrative projects and commercials.

How long have you been working as a cinematographer? Was that always your goal?

I’ve been working as a full-time cinematographer for a bit over 10 years now. I studied sports management in my early twenties, but that’s where I realized that business isn’t for me, and that I really wanted to become a professional cinematographer. I was already shooting skateboard and snowboard videos at the time and then decided to study direction of photography, which I did at the CECC (Centre d’Estudis Cinematographics de Catalunya) in Barcelona, Spain.

Is documentary your preferred style?

I definitely love to shoot documentaries, it’s liberating to move around quickly with a small crew. At the same time there is a certain magic to the workflow of narrative shoots, where you are be able to light situations, to block scenes and work with actors.

How did you get involved in the “Navalny” film?

A Berlin-based production company suggested me to the producers of “Navalny” when they were looking for a DP.

Niki Waltl films a scene using his SIGMA CINE 40mm T1.5 FF lens. Photo by Joseph Courey.

How much control did you have over camera and gear choices?

Pretty much full control, actually. But it was an easy decision, as I own some gear myself and that happened to be very fitting for this film. That was a RED Gemini camera and my set of SIGMA FF CINE primes. Then we also rented a full frame RED cameras to shoot the interviews (RED Monstro).

Which SIGMA CINE lenses were used in this production?

My FF CINE prime set consists of the 20, 28, 40, 85 & 135mm lenses. For the verité scenes, we stuck mostly to the 40mm on A-camera and the 85mm on B-camera. For the interviews, we used almost all these focal lengths at some point, and also rented the 24mm and 50mm, as we shot the interviews with up to four cameras.

Why / how did you choose SIGMA CINE primes for this project?

As this film is a political documentary that plays in contemporary time, we felt like we wanted a clean image. The SIGMA lenses gave us exactly that. Also, they are very fast and can be shot wide open without any problems. That was great as early on Daniel Roher, (the director) and I agreed that we want to shoot this project with a short depth of field.

SIGMA CINE prime lenses were an ideal choice for this film, thanks in part to their shallow depth of field at T1.5. Photo by Joseph Courey.

Did you have the ability to prep or was everything on the fly?

We did prep the interviews quite meticulously, especially the main interview with Alexey Navalny in the bar. We actually went in a day early to pre-light and set it up with time. There are a couple more scenes that we prepped, like Alexey running in the snow as well as Maria Pevchikh setting up the suspect board. Also, I put up a simple Chimera light in the room where we shot the phone call. But I’d say the majority of the film was captured in a classic verité approach, without any prep.

Where do you go, in your toolbox of skills, to create the image you want when you are limited?

I definitely feel most limited when I can’t control the light, which is the case on most documentary shoots; but then you can still try to work around it. For example, by trying to schedule daytime exterior scenes in the morning or late afternoon instead of shooting in harsh noon light. Also, you can always look for the right direction of the light. Personally, I prefer to position my camera in a position where my subject is back or side lit.

How long were you shooting “Navalny”?

For about two months.

Did the intention of the film change at all while you were shooting it?

It might sound strange, but this film really felt like history was unfolding in front of our eyes. Things were changing and developing all the time and we tried our best to stay on our feet and react to this as good as we could — meaning you try to capture as much as possible and to your best abilities. So I think a big part of the intention of the film was found later in the edit, when there was more time to reflect on things.

Were there any serious concerns for the filmmakers while making this film?

It was very important to keep this film secret while we were making it. That was the case all the way until the premiere at Sundance, where the film was not even announced until the very last minute, in order to prevent any possible actions of sabotaging it.

What are your ultimate goals for the films you make?

My goal as the DoP is to find a visual language that fits and supports the story. Shooting films is a very collaborative process, so together with the other departments working on the film, I want to be a great tool to help tell that story. At best everything falls into place at the end and together you are able to create something special.

How does it feel for this piece to be recognized with such a prestigious award?

The success of this film is of course a very special experience for us filmmakers; but that is bittersweet in knowing that behind the powerful story I have helped to tell, there is still a man suffering in prison at the very moment. It is because of the bravery of Alexey Navalny, his family and his team, that we were even able tell this story.

What advice would you give to your younger self entering this career?

Always be kind, work in the light department for some time and shoot lots of still photos.

“Navalny” Director Daniel Roher, Director of Photography Niki Waltl, and the title character, Alexei Navalny himself.

“Navalny” is now streaming for viewing on most major platforms.

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