Come To The Light: Thelma DP Referenced Classic Paintings and Cartoons to Create A Horror Milestone

Thelma is a supernatural thriller about a young woman unaware that she possesses special powers. It’s also a romantic coming-of-age story that segues in and out of genres like fantasy, horror, and sci-fi. A script so strongly inspired by these elements gave us the possibility to be expressionistic and playful with the light and camera; in comparison to our earlier films Reprise, Oslo August 31st, Louder Than Bombs that have been anchored in naturalism.

There is a moment toward the end of the film which encapsulates our approach to Thelma. Here she has come to terms with who she is and is for the first time in control of her powers. She has broken free from her captivity and is about to give her “blessing” to her mother. For the first time she is now lit by rays of the sun; an almost too strong divine source hits her through the window which illuminates her but also makes her radiate light as if its coming from her self. We referenced the Manga as well as Boticelli’s Annunciation paintings depicting the angel Gabriel emitting God’s light to Maria, even early Superman cartoons, the sun giving him powers.

Until this moment Thelma had always been carefully lit with an almost absent soft subdued light. We never had any hard lights directly on her. A ray of sun often placed in the periphery of the frame or sometimes as a halo on the wall behind her served as a hint that one day she will be illuminated.

When Anja is present, often backlit, she almost emits/bounces off a warm soft light on Thelma, a subtle indication that Anja’s presence is strongly affecting Thelma. These ideas created an approach for lighting the film: to light for the story and the characters’ emotional arch.

We had full control of all lights remotely from an iPad. I operate the camera myself, often handheld, and I was able to adjust the intensity/colors right away without having to bring out the ladder to drop a scrim or a gel. It all worked extremely fast.

Ellie Harboe in Thelma

It is a subtle difference, but we chose the Alexa Studio with its mechanical shutter in order to resemble the motion blur and the cinematic texture that we are used to from motion picture cameras. We were shooting many scenes with strobes where the main character Thelma is subjected to seizure tests. It made sense to shoot those scenes with a mechanical shutter for that reason as well.

We have a one-minute one-take where Thelma swims away from the surface of a lake and travels deeper towards the dark unknown but then in the same shot she gradually approaches a new light source which we finally reveal to be the surface of a swimming pool.

We filmed this scene in a small blacked-out pool. We had to create the illusion in a big wide shot that she was swimming towards the deep and the camera had to end up close behind her, over the shoulder, as she finally hits the surface of the pool.

Ellie Harboe, who plays Thelma, actually swam horizontally in a straight line towards the other side of the pool just a one meter under water, but she still had to swim 35 meters underwater! In post we tilted the image to make it look like she swam vertically at first.

But we would never been able to pull off the light changes underwater without a set of new dimmable underwater LED lights and the new electronic shutters attached to the big HMIs above water. With the lights underwater on each side of the pool we were able to create the illusion of her swimming away from the skylight, dimming down, and then by dimming the other set we created a new light source as if swimming towards a new surface and resurfaces in a new location. Sounds pretty simple, but I don´t think it had been done many times before.

To shoot anamorphic was a big step away from our previous films which have all been shot with spherical lenses that have tried to portray the film’s characters and their milieus as naturalistically and honestly as possible. In Thelma we wanted to show a world distorted and heightened. The characteristics and artifacts of our anamorphic lenses (lens breathing, blurry backgrounds, oval bouquets, distorted corners, bending vertical doorframe) I think helped us to transport the audience to an unsettling place of foreboding.

But we were also aware of the emotional artifacts that the lenses create. In a sense that they can distant yourself from the characters. Anamorphic lenses with all that glass and the longer focal length effect sometimes make movies feel more voyeuristic and can distance the audience. Many times we wanted this but we also had to work hard with the mise en scene to make the lenses work in the many intimate scenes where we had to feel close to the actors yet not distract with the character of the lenses.

Thelma opened in theaters November 10, courtesy of The Orchard.

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