On the Shooting of The Sacrifice
"Vördnad för ljuset"
(In Reverence of Light), by Sven
Nykvist and Bengt Forslund. Albert Bonniers Publishing Company, ISBN
91-0-056316-1, © Nykvist/Forslund 1997. The following comprises
pages 181–188 of the book (excluding all photographs), taken from the
the chapter "From Tarkovskij to Woody Allen." This
excerpt translated from Swedish by Trond S Trondsen of Nostalghia.com.
It is translated and published here with the kind permission of the authors.
A Japanese (re-)translation is provided by Kimitoshi Sato of Japan.
The photo below is taken by Lars-Olof Löthwall, and is
used with his permission.
A personal motto of mine
is "It is never too late." Many, as they reach the age of sixty start
to feel as if they are at the end of themselves, the official
retirement age is fast approaching. Thanks and goodbye.
But, those of us who are freelance and rather independent often do
not think along those lines. Creativity surely doesn't cease at a
certain age. Many artists, composers, authors, and filmmakers are still
active will into their eighties - not to mention actors and actresses.
The fact is that I received some of my most exciting assignments, and
did some of my best movies, at an age usually associated with
retirement. It began with Andrej Tarkovskij's The
Sacrifice, 1985, and continued the
following year with Philip Kaufman's film adaptation of Milan Kundera's
novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, followed by
some years of cooperation with Woody Allen.
I had a great admiration for Tarkovskij (1932-1986) ever since I saw
his fresco on the icon painter Andrej Rubljov. It was a true revelation
to me when I saw it for the first time. Pure image magic! His exile
from the Soviet Union led him, by chance, to Sweden via Italy where he
in 1982 did Nostalghia with Erland
Josephson in the lead role. They became good friends.
Anna-Lena Wibom of the Swedish Film Institute was also one of his long-time
friends. In Cannes in 1984 Tarkovskij was invited to shoot his next
film in Sweden. He had several potential film candidates, but in the end the choice
fell on The Sacrifice, which was
written for Erland Josephson.
My friendship with Erland, combined with Tarkovskij's admiration for
Ingmar, resulted in me being asked if I wanted to be the cameraman. It was
not a difficult choice at all, in spite of the fact that at the
same time I was offered to shoot Out of
Africa with Sidney Pollack. Erland and I
even invested our artists' fees back into the film and thus became
co-producers through our mutual corporation. It was not at all good
business, but certain experiences are well worth the money, and,
besides, I received a prestigious prize in Cannes for the film.
From a personality point
of view, I and Andrej got along very well indeed. We started out by
watching each other's movies. His appreciation for Bergman, and mine of
his movies, caused us to muse on the many obvious differences. I could
see that he obviously was not very interested in lighting. To him, of
primary importance were composition, camera movements, the literally
He was not even interested in the actors. He blamed this on his
shyness, combined with language difficulties. The important thing to
him became choosing the correct types of people, with a particular kind
of look, and to see to it that they had the right way of expressing
themselves. Close-ups are also strikingly rare in Tarkovskij's movies.
He preferred to see the actors' movements at a distance, almost
choreographed, and alway in the center
of the frame.
This caused our working relationship to be somewhat strained during the
first few weeks of shooting. As opposed to in the case of
Ingmar, Tarkovskij had no prior knowledge whatsoever of the location of
shooting until he got there and could sit at the camera and plan and
direct its movements. This would often take hours.
Add to this, that only when Tarkovskij had made up his mind on how he
wanted things, could I come in and set the lighting. And since the
shots at hand were more often that not extended tracking shots, things
could take an inordinate amount of time. One must deal very carefully
with what is only seemingly unchanging exterior lighting. In addition,
there were the associated changes in image definition and contrast
which the assistant cameraman had to learn to deal with.
But when the images had finally been recorded, there were as a rule a
considerable amount of minutes of exposed film in the camera. It was a
different way of working and the result bears witness to the fact that
one way may be as good as, or better, than another. Great artists go
their own ways. And the photographers role is to yield, it is always
the director's wisdom that counts - if indeed he knows what he wants.
And Tarkovskij knew what he wanted. He had a scene he had dreamt about
doing for a long long time, for ten years, he claimed. It was to be the
final scene of The Sacrifice. The main
character's house burns down to the ground before his very eyes, he
apparently goes insane and is taken away in an ambulance. The entire
scene was supposed to be done in one single take while the camera moves
along a hundred meter long rail. We had special-effects people brought
in from England as there was a requirement in place that the house
burn down in eight minutes and ten seconds sharp. Otherwise the film
cartridge would run out.
For an entire week this scene was meticulously rehearsed. We had
decided to not shoot the scene under sunlit conditions, and so we were
forced to get up at two o'clock in the morning, do a few test runs, and
then to commence shooting the scene at a carefully selected moment just prior
Approximately half-way through the take, my assistant yells out, "Sven
- the camera is losing speed! We got twenty..., now we're at sixteen
frames per second! What shall we do?"
Just to be on the safe side, in case problems should arise, I had
deployed another camera approximately midway along the rail, so I said,
"Swap the cameras!"
Within thirty seconds he had changed the camera and we continued
filming. Tarkovskij had not noticed that we had changed camera, nor had
the majority of the others. They were all watching the fire, and when
it was over and the ambulance had made its exit everybody cheered over
the fact that everything had turned out so well.
Then I got to tell about what had happened. Tarkovskij almost cried.
The film was immediately developed to see if we in spite of everything
could use some of the existing material. But, there was no way.
Whatever the case, it was definitely not the sequence Tarkovskij had
dreamt about for all these years - and it was even supposed to be the
climactic sequence of the movie.
We really didn't have the funds to re-build the house and to do a
second take. Long discussions ensued, where even Erland and I were
involved in our roles as co-producers. The actors were fortunately
still under contract for another while. We received some additional
funding through our Japanese co-producer, and in the end we all decided
to give it another shot. Nothing is impossible, as Ingmar Bergman was
fond of saying. It was his gang behind the camera here. The house was
This time, however, I requested of Andrej that he agree that we build
two sets of rails, and that the shoot should, just to be safe, be be
shot simultaneously by the two cameras mounted at slightly different
elevations. For an entire day we rehearsed with both cameras to ensure
that they both moved in identical manner. We shot the scene one morning
when everything seemed just right, but at the same moment Andrej was
about to yell "Camera!" the sun appeared.
Tarkovskij shouted, "What shall I do?"
I said, "Look, there's nothing you can do,...!
The sun is coming out, the house is already on fire - and we're on our second
Fortunately, it turned out just fantastic. As the smoke billowed forth from
the house the sun shone right through it and generated some truly great
shading on the ground. It was a lucky strike indeed that the sun
appeared - entirely to our advantage, and Tarkovskij was exceedingly
pleased when he saw the end result.
While certainly a
stubborn perfectionist, he was also willing to be corrected, at least
by people that he trusted. It turned out, actually, that he at times
was remarkably bound up by what he had once learned at the Russian film
I recognized this exact phenomenon from my earlier cooperation with
Barabas and Polanski, these also deeply affected by Eastern European
film schools, perhaps the best schools in the world, with their much
stricter set of ingrained rules than what is commonly found in the
western world. At times there were purely practical reasons for such
differences. For instance, Barabas and Polanski wanted to do fine
tuning of color balance on-the-fly, directly in the camera, as opposed
to later in the laboratory, which certainly is better and simpler, but
then again the standards of quality at eastern laboratories were hardly
the same as in the west. In this case they did yield to my suggestions.
They seem to have been taught that tracking shots should be employed as
frequently as possible - I have rarely done as many tracking shots
as I did with these three directors - shots which do indeed hold
undeniable cinematic value. But in the case of Tarkovskij, the school
had taken it so far as to even forbid the use of such a practical tool
as the oblique pan.
One of the first images we were to shoot for The
Sacrifice was such a shot. We were to pan
across from a close-up on a glass of water and then up on Erland
Josephson who was sitting at a distance away. Tarkovskij vehemently
insisted on first tracking horizontally along the tabletop and
subsequently vertically up to Erland, which of course took a much
longer time than if we went at an angle up from the glass of water and
right on to Erland's face. Only when he saw the alternate take did he
admit that this was indeed the better approach.
As a rule, however, it was Tarkovskij's own visions that counted even if he
at times had a hard time communicating them, partly due to the language
barrier - he had to constantly work through an interpreter - but
primarily due to the fact that he first and foremost wanted to
communicate emotions, moods, atmosphere. By images,
not by words. He wanted to impart a soul to objects and nature. Here he
actually went further than Bergman ever did.
Once I understood this, it became a true delight to work with him and
we ended up becoming very close friends. He also saw how my lighting
had the effect of amplifying his own vision. I remember, among other
things, how well we worked together when we after the shooting was
completed performed the, to the movie so significant, color reduction
in the laboratory. In the same way Ingmar and I did in A
Passion, and he himself had done in Nostalghia,
we removed from certain scenes almost sixty percent of the color
content. A cameraman's work is indeed not done until there is a
properly lighted and approved opening-night copy. Good lighting people
in a laboratory are invaluable. Nils Melander of Film Teknik has been
my great support during all my years of working in Sweden.
my work on the color reduction on The
Sacrifice eventually caused me to meet one
of my big director heroes, namely the Japanese Akiro Kurosawa. There
were at one time serious plans that he, Fellini, and Ingmar Bergman
were to do a period movie together. Ingmar and Fellini met in Rome, but
Kurosawa never showed up and in the end the movie never materialized.
Some years after The Sacrifice had
been released I received an offer to shoot an industry commercial
film in Japan. I had not previously had the opportunity to work there,
the job was well-paid, and I saw the opportunity of perhaps running
into Kurosawa. So, I took the job.
I am unfortunately a rather shy person, one who does not usually
initiate making contact, so when my assignment was all but finished two
weeks later, it looked like I would be going home without having met
Kurosawa. But, once again, I was in luck. Kurosawa was at that time
close to eighty years old (b. 1910) and was about to receive some
prestigious national achievement award. A large party was being thrown
in his honor. The organizing committee, which had taken notice of the
fact that I was in town, actually invited me.
The Sacrifice had, as you know, been a
Japanese co-production and the picture had been the object of much
attention when it was first screened in Tokyo, which was only shortly
prior to my visit. Kurosawa had seen the movie - and lo' and behold
suddenly he was the one interested in meeting me! He absolutely wanted
to know how we had managed to work out the color reduction.
As soon as we had been introduced to each other he pulled me off into a
separate room where we could sit undisturbed during the dinner and
discuss color reduction processes. One never forgets such an evening.
I also asked him why he never showed up in Rome. "I was too shy," he
said, "Bergman and Fellini are way too big for me."
In Reverence of Light — The book's dustjacket (left) and titlepage, autographed
April 24th, 2001 by Sven and Bengt. The subtitle reads "On film and people, in
conversation with Bengt Forslund."