It’s my pleasure to introduce one of our kickass Inner Circle Members who works and resides in Germany. Olaf Markmann is one of our many members from around the world who has worked and clawed his way through freelance, learning many tough lessons along the way to make a career in this industry. Olaf knows what it takes to put everything on the line for his passion, and because of that tenacity, I’m honored to present a spotlight on him. Check out Olaf’s story below. He tells us about his experience working on a few defining films over the years that changed his life. And let me tell you, it’s one hell of a story! Just remember, English is not his first language! Read on, be inspired, and join us on the inside so you can take your own work further. Enjoy!
Olaf Markmann – Director of Photography – Germany
I started out as a trainee in a small video production company. We worked for banks, an energy supplier and small businesses around my hometown. I also started studying Media. In 2000, many people were fired due to economical reasons and there I was – forced to be a freelancer, which I never intended to be.
Having said that, very quickly I became aware of the fact that beyond the small lighting package that my former company owned, there was so much more to know, learn, and win lighting-wise. So, I made a decision and worked on as many student films as a gaffer and electrician as I could afford to do in my free time. Remember, I had a life too and had to eat from time to time.
I was lighting the short films with my friend Marco, who is now my go-to gaffer in Hanover. He has now the most reliable rental house and reputation for film lighting in lower Saxony, but that’s another story.
Let’s jump forward some years. I shot a lot of commercials, music videos and short films, and a feature film (5DII) that gained me a lot of interest.
For one company, I had shot a little narrative part for a larger documentary, and they asked me to do a little teaser of a Zombie movie. That was an offer I could not resist. Zombies – where do I sign?
These guys were ambitious. It was 2013 and we’re shooting…
“Spore of the Dead” (Synopsis)
While the two mineworkers Thomas Square and Jim Townsend were preparing a blasting operation deep in the “Mount Logan,” they discovered something unusual. During the drilling, a small natural underground chamber opened, releasing a dark gaseous fluid all over them. A look through the small hole revealed the source of the mysterious gas: A large prehistoric fungus covering the whole inside of the chamber. Even though, they were finishing their work and got back to the surface. Under the shower, the two men are realizing that something wrong is happening… Little fungal spores are growing out of their skin, taking control of their mind, their bodies and forcing them to start a cruel massacre. Soon the deadly spores are condemning the drinking water of the area, which reaches the small town “Gredosa.”
We shot the movie in Brunswick and in the Harz Region which stand for Canada in the movie. 5 days were scheduled. Not only will we have Zombies, which look incredible, we will also have a sex scene, explosions, SFX Make-up and a 2nd Unit.
I never shot with a 2nd Unit, because I never had to. Now, I had to command and transport my vision to another DoP to shoot parts of the movie.
Our main actor was Damien Chapa, which some people might know from the movie “Blood in, Blood out.” I was nervous. So I prepared. I overprepared. My focus was: whatever question will arise on the first day of shooting, I will have an answer.
So as our first day approached, I had to command my lighting crew, my grips, the VFX Department, the SFX Department, the Art department (who built a fake bathroom), and I also had to make a small motion control head work, so the VFX could integrate a Digital Version of Damian when he transforms. And I had an Hollywood actor on set too. Thank you. Anything else?
The day started, and to work with Damian was a pleasure. VFX was great. BUT – The SFX Special Make-up took three times 90 minutes to build another part of the Zombie transformation. No one told me. My team looked at me. We used the time to prepare the next day and moved on. My Highlight on this day was when Damien Chapa looked at a replay of his performance and said: “Thanks for making me look good.” I was honored. After that he told us some old stories from a movie with William Fraker, ASC. What a great day.
We shot the sex scene in a room beside the fake bathroom. Closed Set. Never had it before. We lit it like a cheap motel. Very Dario Argento-like. Colorful. Great pictures. Even the actress from Italy loved herself. Second Set. A Small Shower. Phantom Highspeed Camera from Dedo Weigert. 500fps. 18000 Watts inside of 8m2. My gaffer burned us to crisp. We almost melted the window frame outside.
Fast Forward. Pack the gear, move to the Harz Mountains.
A Big Shower from the mining industry. 2 People fighting in the shower. High Speed Camera. 300Fps. Fake wall with tiles. Body smashes in it. Stunt Coordinator. Fake Blood. Great Fun. After 12 hours we had to shoot at -14° — an almost naked actor walking through snow. Wrap.
First Actor takes 6 hours in Makeup to get his Full Body Zombie Mask. And fake Black Iris. The Iris didn’t work, it was too small. Post had to track the eyes and make them black.
Early call from the director. The Stunt team, who also, by the way, did parts for “Stauffenberg” in Berlin had an idea for an additional stunt and we wanted to quickly do it before principal photography started. After having heard what they suggested, I was summarizing:
“So you want me to sit on the co-driver’s seat and make a whip pan through the windshield, where we crash into a burning stuntman, who lands still burning on a second camera? All without breakfast? Let’s go.” We did it. We succeeded.
Fast forward. Big crossing. Mayhem. Zombies taking over. Car accident. Big explosion. Crane work. Crash Cam, Dashboard Cam, Highspeed. 9 Cameras altogether. Was I afraid? No. Respectful? Absolutely. After our safety briefing. We rolled. I had to command them all. The car was approaching. It flew and turned over the other prepared cars – and – nothing happened. No explosion. Oops. One Cable on the remote broke. Long faces. Was that it? Car still usable. Stuntman ok. Let’s do it again.
And we rolled. The heatwave from the real explosion was beyond imagination and I was thinking: I never want to do anything else than this again. THIS is so much fun. After that some more Footage and then the sun was gone.
The mine. Because there was so much snow in the harz mountains, it was impossible to get the lighting truck down to the mine’s entrance. We learned this when we arrived. Quick solution. My car, where the camera gear was loaded in, will be used as a shuttle car. They drove 6 times up and down that icy hill, until everything was at the mine’s entrance. Then, load everything into a trolley and drive it down into the mine. 10 times. At least. Freezing cold. Of course.
Next step. Power. When my gaffer opened the heavy current’s cap, water was pouring out. Ok. Power and water. Bad idea. Cancel the heavy current. So we had to lay simple household cables over 200 metres. Did I mention we were shooting with the RED ONE MX? ISO 320?
The director had some problems with the actors, because they changed some dialogue in the script, but they didn’t tell him. Until that was solved, we waited. And prepared.
The Teaser and Trailer can be seen at:
What I learned in these 5 Days, what we all learned in these days is, preparation is key. I can not emphasize this enough. It doesn’t matter how much you are prepared for the day, maybe all can work out totally different, but you need to be focused of what lies ahead. If you’re not, you can only react and not lead. But that’s what you have to do. More than anything, I learned that lesson on that shoot. You are the leader of all departments, they all rely on you, they have a question, after the director, they come to you, because you keep it all together in the frame. If you are clueless, then all hope is abandoned. But if you lead wisely and well prepared, everyone will follow and give their best, too.
After that shoot, I did a lot of commercial and green screen work with RED Cameras.
Fall 2014. A director as a reference from my gaffer approached me to shoot his long time suspended script. Horror. Again. But different. He wanted it dark. He wanted almost all in a single take. Like an intimate Play. One House. One garden. One Man. One Woman. One Cat. That’s it. That sounded interesting. I’m in.
A long search for the house began. We found it. A long conversation with art department and costume began, concerning color, textiles fabrics and so on. This all was very inspiring and I really liked the work. My gaffer was in. My 1st Ac was in. My Dolly/Grip was in. My 2nd AC was in. My go to rental house gave us a great deal on the new FS7. Testing began. At the beginning of shooting we had just ONE card for the FS7 to shoot on.
So now we’re shooting.
Peter runs over Susanna’s cat with his car. Feeling guilty he helps her bury the cat in the backyard. They form a close emotional bond, which soon leads to a romantic relationship and subsequent pregnancy. But there is no bliss for this couple, as there is something very strange about this pregnancy …
It was January and usually there wasn’t much work to do, but to prep this little short film. We were facing 7 nights of ice cold shooting in February, so I did my best to keep the working hours to a minimum, as no one gets paid and I wanted to be as prepared as I could.
We shot in a small house where we had 4 rooms on the ground floor to shoot and the first & second floor to keep production and the rest of the crew.
Shooting went really well, as I took pride in the fact, that we wrapped every morning after 10 hours, including lunch. Just one night we came into overtime, this was, when the cat was the star of the night. Things weren’t really going bad, but a cat is a cat and an animal trainer is an animal trainer. You can work with an animal until one point, and then there is a point where things are falling apart. Be aware of that. The trainer told us in advance, so we reduced ourselves to just a couple of shots with the cat. It worked.
I apologize, I don’t have lighting diagrams because my gaffer and I scribbled the lighting in the printed Shot Designer Pages. This speeded our communication and kept us flexible when we had our discussion about the lighting.
- Wendy (192x650w)
- Dinolight (12x1KW)
- M40 HMI
- M18 HMI
- 2,5k HMI
- 1,2 HMI
- 5K Tungsten
- 2K Tungsten
- Kinoflo Divas
- Rifa Light 1K
- Smaller Tungsten Units
I was very lucky that I had the chance to do a lighting test with our leads. What I discovered was that when I keyed our actress from the left, she appeared fragile, positive and warm. When I keyed her from the opposite side, she appeared mean and malicious. Because she played these 2 parts in the movie, I was very happy to be able to play with these findings. From now on, I will always do lighting tests. I heard it before, but you have to do it before you believe it. Oh, and a Wendylight seems to be gigantic in output, considering 192 lamps, but we found ourselves saying: “It could be more..:”
Our main reference for color and contrast was the Australian Horror Movie “Babadook.” My director wrote me an email during the post production, thanking me, because the movie looks exactly the way he wanted it to.
When the time came to grade this baby, we had the honour and privilege to be invited to ARRI in Munich. The director knew someone from the old times, who was doing color there. We were grading in their Number One Grading Cinema. So I was sitting on a 15 foot sofa and watching the movie on a 30 foot screen. Nothing is better than that. Big Time.
In 2016, right after the Berlinale, I was attending a color grading session for another short movie in Berlin and I thought, ‘Maybe I can ask Vantage Film, Manufacturer of the HAWK Anamorphics, if I can do a little lens comparison while I’m in Berlin. I called them a week before and they were incredibly supportive. I made a list of lenses I wanted to test, and they tried to get them to Berlin. One of the employees drove the lenses personally from the south of Germany to Berlin, which is some hundred miles and definitely not common sense. I was fortunate.
This was my list:
Another friend of mine, also a famous colorist (digitalcolorist.de) called a model and there we were, enjoying a fabulous cappuccino and having all the equipment you dream of to try and test it out.
I also ordered the special glass filters that they invented, because I read about them in American Cinematographer. Matthew Libatique used them on “Straight Outta Compton” and I was curious.
We tested skin tones, we shot color charts, we shot indoors, outdoors, with extreme backlight with natural skylight and straight into the lamp. I made two videos with the material shot, which I already talked about in the Inner Circle. They can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/179721536 and here https://vimeo.com/180837199 2017.
In February, we shot a funded sci-fi short film about a dystopian future. Drones in the air, hologram monitors, enhanced human capabilities, two-class society. The world dominated by a major corporation.
The story called for a super clean, clinical look. And maybe anamorphic. So I called Vantage Film again and I was fortunate enough to have the ability to offer them some money for their support, if they were willing. They were. Instead of just renting a pair of lenses, they fully supported our movie with everything I wanted. I even had a director’s viewfinder. Big Time. Once Again. When on prep Day the 29 cases arrived, it was like christmas for my 1st AC and me.
I was once again very well prepared, due to the fact, that there would be a green screen in almost every frame. I talked a lot to the VFX Guy, the director, and my gaffer about how to effectively rig and light the screens.
Preparation was key. I storyboarded every scene in shotpro which was a great help on set, as I could just give the notes to my gaffer. They can prelight and I can do some pickups outside in the meantime. It was also a great help for the director, because he could clearly see, what I had in mind, and the VFX guy knew where problems could occur or not.
Here are some examples from shotpro and some framegrabs. They are not graded, they are straight out of the RED.
Were there problems on set? A lot.
Big problem? Overtime. We made an immense amount of overtime, because the art department was undermanned. This problem was unfortunately not solved until the last shooting day. On the last day, we had a one-shot Steadicam Shot and needed every bit of daylight we could get, because the set was all glass and we had a lot of extras to lead.
My gaffer came up to me saying: “I know this is not your fault, but we need 11 hours rest and you need the daylight tomorrow. I cut the power at 19:30.”
It was 13:30. No Frame Shot, 2 Scenes to go. Alright. Give me the storyboard and wipe out all the nice-to-haves and let’s concentrate on the important.
Our director had never been more focused, the actors on point. We made it in time. We shot the last frame at 19:35.
What did we learn from this? Every team, as mentioned before, involved in the process, needs to be as prepared as yourself, in order to get the job done. If one link is weak, the chain is weak. Because it was a non-profit production, there was nothing I could do to support the art department, but the bigger problem was, that the young boss of the department didn’t see where the problem was. She tried to solve it herself, with overtime and energy. In this case – this was not enough. But we made it.
A week after wrap, the VFX guy sent me a message, saying he tried to work on our most complicated sequence and it worked perfectly as intended.
More BTS can be seen at:
The last project that literally took a couple of years off of my life is a movie called:
“Deep in the ice of the Antarctic, a team of geologists uncover an old Nazi laboratory still intact where dark experiments had occured. In order to conquer the world, the Nazis created modified sharks who were able to fly and whose riders are genetically mutated, undead superhumans. A military task force called “Dead Flesh Four” – reanimated US soldiers who fell in Vietnam – is put together to prevent world downfall.”
So here we are. 2014. Back in the days. The production company I shot the Zombie movie “Spores” for called me once again to support them. I just came from the gym, and talked to the producer, he said we’re working on a movie. It’s a movie with Nazi Zombies. I said ok. I heard that before, but, he continued, ‘You’d never guess what they’re riding on… Flying Sharks.’ Err. Ok. I’m curious. How in the world are theses sharks able to… whatever, sure. Impossible to resist.
First, they hired me as the second unit, because they gave the project to another DoP from Berlin, but alright, you guys are cool, I’ll help out.
In 2014, this was supposed to be a trailer. Once again, to collect money.
They ordered the interior of an airplane, built it on a gimbal and shot. I was there for some bluescreen 2nd unit shots and everything else. So, when on the 5th and last day of production we had to move to another airplane museum, to shoot a cockpit. Due to time constraints, I jumped in and completed the day.
That all sounds not too unfamiliar, right? But here’s the clue. We shot for 4 days in Oberhausen, a small village in Germany. Why? Because there was Europe’s biggest convention for horror film fans, the “Weekend of Hell.” We had some horror movie stars already there, so we built the gimbal with the plane into the hall and moved on. We had a lot of horror movie stars in front of the camera, which was really awesome. One of the managers said: “I have seen a lot of things in my life, but to move production to the stars to even save the flight costs and hotel is simply brilliant.”
To make a long story short, the trailer came out in May 2015 and they made a whole lot of pre-sales in Cannes. The trailer looked awesome. They had a kickstarter campaign, which raised up even more money than they wanted. I moved up to the DoP with the former DoP being my 2nd Unit.
We shot another week in October 2015, with some WWII scenes, a big dialog scene with an actor called Oliver Kalkofe, who is THE best known and respected comedian in Germany. We had 4 sets with him on one day. We made a little overtime, but we made it. A month later we were again in Oberhausen, attending again the “Weekend of Hell” and tracking some actors. This time it was simple blue/green screen, as they would appear on a big screen, kind of a Skype-like conference. The start was very hard, as Michael Madsen refused in the last minute to play the General. But no problem, Tony Todd (Final Destination) stepped in his place. When the first actors agreed to come to us, all other actors came too, asking to have a role in “Sky Sharks.” It was my greatest pleasure to work with Amanda Bearse from “Married with Children,” which I liked when I was very young and Naomi Grossman from “American Horror Story.” They all were spectacular. I was there in a small green screen room and simulated everything from the Oval Office, to a sunset, to a TV Studio and Day for Night. It was 5 Days of great fun.
In July 2016, we shot another week with a lot of green screen and stuntmen and a Lamborghini and car trailers and had, once again, a lot of fun.
You might say, ‘Hey, didn’t you start in 2014? When is this film finished?’ Well, let’s move on to September 2017. After a big makeover of the script, we shot the final 25 Days of “Sky Sharks.” The production company rented a gigantic hall in Brunswick, where they live, then bought a half jumbo jet. Yes you read that correctly — a half Jumbo Jet. They built portions of the Nazi Warship called Himmelsfaust. They built a gigantic green screen and 2 other sets. We even shot 5 Nights a Zombie Attack in a Vietnam War Camp.
We had a lot of Explosions, tons of blood, body parts, fighting choreography, burning stuntmen, extreme Zombie makeup, and had a blood massacre in the Jumbo. And did I mention we also shot in a Transall?
Right now, the movie is in post-production and I’m not allowed to show any photos, but you can see something on my Facebook account: https://www.facebook.com/olaf.markmann.5
If you’re searching for “Sky Sharks” on Instagram, you can see a lot more from people who clearly didn’t understand the NDA.
Cameras: Black Magic 4k, Blackmagic 2.5 K, Sony FS700 / Odyssee, Canon 5DII, Sony F5, Red Scarlet MX, RED One MX, Red Dragon 6K, Sony FS7 & Atomos Shogun, Sony A7SSII & Atomos Shogun
Lenses: Canon EF 24-105, Compact Primes 18-100mm, Zeiss Super Speeds MKIII, Fujinon 19-90, Walimex/Samyang 24-85mm, Leica R Cinemodded, Tokina 16-28 PL Zoom
Well, there you have it! Thank you Olaf for sharing some of your many experiences with our members. Olaf brings up many good points where extensive planning makes all the difference, and how simple innovations are key to getting the best quality image. I hope you all enjoyed Olaf’s many anecdotes of filming in Germany as much as I have. Until next time!