How a DP Captured the Cosmic Experience of the World's Most Spectacular Fireworks Show
Tobias von dem Borne shot Viktor Jakovleski's film 'Brimstone & Glory' largely in slow motion with Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras and GoPros.
The first shot of Viktor Jakovleski's Brimstone & Glory could be mistaken for a supernova. Actually, it's a firework exploding in slow motion, evoking the rapturous beauty and intoxicating power of the death of a star.
Jakovleski's mesmerizing documentary captures the National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec, Mexico, a town that is said to produce 80 percent of the fireworks for the entire country. Every year, 100,000 people descend upon Tultepec to celebrate San Juan de Dios, patron saint of firework makers. The nine-day festival is a raucous homage to the ephemeral beauty of fireworks and the many dangers associated with the craft. (In 2016, 32 people died in a fireworks market explosion in Tultepec.) Together with Jakovleski, cinematographer Tobias von dem Borne traveled to Tultepec for three consecutive years to embed within the festival. His camera bears witness to the electrifying experience of playing with fire, which for residents of this town is a way of life.
"If you can survive running through a shower of fireworks," reads a brochure, "you'll have bragging rights to one of the most beautiful—and insane—festivals on Earth."
"We shot fireworks as cosmic experiences."
No Film School caught up with von dem Borne to discuss the myriad technical challenges associated with capturing a dangerous and highly unpredictable event.
No Film School: How did you connect with the director of Brimstone & Glory, Victor Jakovleski?
Tobias von dem Borne: We actually studied together in film school in Berlin. I became very close friends with Victor there. At one point, Victor met a painter, who is also a photographer, who had just come back from [the pyrotechnic festival in] Tultepec, where we eventually shot the documentary. Victor saw some photographs and later visited the photographer's studio and his exhibition, where he showed all of his paintings of the festival. Victor was really excited about it. He tried to find out how to get there.
NFS: Did you start filming the documentary the first time you visited the pyrotechnic festival?
von dem Borne: Yes. But the interesting thing was that we actually started filming in a very broad sense. Victor always loved the idea of stumbling into a world we don't really understand. I think we wanted to keep it fresh—not do too much research. We just wanted to find out about the atmosphere there and the structure of the little town. But we didn't know too much regarding how the structure of the film could be, and who would be the main characters.
"This was the main conversation: 'How can we approach something we haven't seen before and we don't really understand?'"
Victor loved the film Encounters at the End of the World by Werner Herzog. I'm a huge fan, too. I re-watched that a couple of times before we went, and even re-watched it in Mexico. That was a kind of approach Victor liked: to get off a plane and have a peek into an area we don't really understand.
NFS: From a standpoint of excitement and discovery, this project seems like a cinematographer's dream. What kind of conversations did you have about the way you wanted to approach capturing the event?
von dem Borne: We watched documentaries—mostly older ones, and mostly shot on 16mm. These were documentaries where you encounter a fresh and foreign environment which is not really well known by the people who are filming. Of course, we watched Werner Herzog documentaries, but also Les Blank.
This was the main conversation: "How can we approach something we haven't seen before and we don't really understand?" The idea was to do long shots, traveling shots, and moving shots, where you really have the feeling that you're actually trying to make your way through something you don't know yet.
NFS: Had you ever shot anything at all like this before?
von dem Borne: No! For Victor, there were two things that were really important: this encounter—this stumbling into this place, and the inner experience of watching the movie.
We shot fireworks as cosmic experiences. They happen very fast in front of the camera, so we shot in really slow motion. Doing that for a documentary was something I wouldn't ever have thought of. Usually, a documentary is, for me, about the place and about the characters. But I never had the idea that this "cosmic experience" could work for a documentary.
NFS: That's what makes the film so entrancing— you do feel like you're in this alternate universe.
von dem Borne: Exactly, right? Also, it gives you time to just sit there and watch, and not to think too much. It's just about letting it happen.
NFS: How did you approach capturing the slow motion? I read it was 1500 frames per second.
von dem Borne: Yes, that's true. We asked ourselves, "How can we be there inside the fireworks? Can we still shoot 1500 frames per second with all the crazy antics of the festival?"
We got in touch with a company called Vision Research. I think they are also from New York. They manufacture cameras for medical research where you need slow-motion photography to capture very fact processes and break them down. They have built a couple of cameras that are used in the film industry, but they are usually very large and have cables and computers and whatnot attached. But [as of recently], they also manufacture very small cameras.
"We asked ourselves, 'How can we be there inside the fireworks? Can we still shoot 1500 FPS with all the crazy antics of the festival?'"
There's one camera called the Phantom Miro. We asked them if they could lend us the camera because it actually works like a DSLR; it's the same size. You can stick photo lenses on it. It has a battery. It has a menu where you can set up things, which is very unusual for these types of cameras.
So that's what we used: a Miro on a stick. We had something that's a bit like a tripod, but it's not entirely fixed like a tripod. It still feels a bit like one.
There's a complicated workflow as soon as you hit the record button. Basically, you're recording two seconds in normal time, and then you show it in 1500 frames. It becomes 30 seconds or about a minute. As soon as you hit the button, you have to download the footage. Every time I hit the button and I thought I got something, I had to go somewhere out of the fire and attach [the camera] to a computer and download [the footage]. So the whole thing was a bit clumsy, but it worked out. It took some time to get used to.
NFS: Did you ever find yourself in a scene where you really wanted to keep shooting, but you couldn't because of the limitations of the camera?
von dem Borne: Not really, because it felt more or less like trial and error. Sometimes things happened too fast in front of the camera, so I was just holding the Phantom and hitting the button and seeing what I actually got afterward. You couldn't even see what it was. We definitely had to repeat shots and try again and again. Sometimes the shots were overexposed. Or they were too shaky. Or too dark. Or just not interesting. So with the Phantom camera, I never felt, "Oh shit, we kind of lost that moment."
But with the other cameras, definitely. It happened all the time. There was so much going on where you think, "Okay, this needs to be captured, and also this." We lost some GoPro cameras because people ran away with them. One GoPro camera was blown up.
"Sometimes things happened too fast in front of the camera, so I was just holding the Phantom and hitting the button and seeing what I got after."
NFS: What about working with the other cameras? What were they?
von dem Borne: There were two interesting ideas we had about what kind of cameras we wanted to shoot on. For one, we love the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera. It's a very tiny camera, and also we wanted to work with gimbals.
The Black Magic Pocket Cinema Cameras are very small and very lightweight. They could fit in this rig pretty easily. Also, you could use these cameras with photo lenses, which we really liked. They capture a great picture, and you can still work a lot in color correction later because there's a lot of leeway you have with the image.
We could buy these cameras—they're not that expensive. We could risk losing them in the fire, which definitely could have happened because we always wanted to be very close to the action. From the beginning, we kind of shied away from renting really expensive cameras, because we knew [we could damage them]. Better stretch the insurance and not the rental house, we thought.
Also, these Black Magic cameras have really small sensors. The image looks a bit like 16mm—more gritty and harsher, which we liked more. Modern cameras with bigger sensors all look a bit soft and flat and too nice. We wanted to have the feeling of roughness and edginess.
Then, we had a couple of GoPros. Of course, they are really small. For instance, this shot where Chincolas, one of the main characters, climbs up these castles.... There was a GoPro stuck to his head. We put the GoPros everywhere. But that was also a lot of trial and error too.
NFS: How did you decide upon the lenses that you used?
von dem Borne: We prepped the whole film in New Orleans with Court 13, who produced the film. They are extraordinary.
We started testing with old 16mm lenses. We also worked with photo lenses and asked ourselves, "Which lens gives us the best focus and the best stop?" We wanted to work with a decent stop but still have enough light.
The lens we used most ended up being a Tokina AT-X. It's a very average photo lens. That was great because we wanted to work in the wide range but since it was a zoom which was also very fast, we could still have a little bit of zoom range where we could get a little bit closer. We basically had two of these in the end because we liked them so much. They were pretty affordable.
NFS: Did you encounter a specific visual storytelling challenge?
von dem Borne: I think the most interesting part was definitely to break down the Night of the Bulls [a feature of the festival involving large, lit-up bulls] into images—how to find our way through it following a character, and finding a narrative line within all of this madness. We shot over the course of three years. The question was always, "How can you bring all of these events together, and also bring together the different perspective of the characters?"
The first year, we just basically tried to cover whatever we found interesting. From year to year, it grew more into a perspective. Do we concentrate on the guys who are building the bull? Do we concentrate on the kids? Do we concentrate on Chincolas, who was this guy climbing the castle and who also has a voiceover narrative line in the film? That was tricky. Why were we shooting? It later turned out that they found a way to do that in editing. I really loved, in the end, how they found that solution.
Within all this madness, we wanted to be with a GoPro very close to the bulls while they are burning and running. I went in there with a GoPro and a certain point, when I had the shot, somebody grabbed the GoPro and ran away with it. I was so frustrated. They were really amazing shots, and this guy just [took it]. We asked around this whole town, and we put an ad on the internet: "Please bring us back the GoPro. You can keep it, but just give us the footage." Nothing!
NFS: What did it feel like to be in the heart of all of that action?
von dem Borne: Actually, in the beginning—the first year—it felt horrifying, in a way. It was really interesting and it had a kind of seductive appeal to it. You would be drawn to the fire, but at the same time really scared. For us, it was completely new. You can get really hurt if you get hit by one of [the fireworks], even if you're far away from them, because they are really speedy and really fast. We were full of adrenaline. I hope the audience feels a bit like this.
Then, the second year, we figured out how this is working. That's where the first little accidents happened. I got burned behind my ear. Victor got hurt on his leg because there was one of these bombs exploding right next to his foot. It took him a couple of days to recover; he was limping around. I think that happened because we weren't as frightened anymore.
NFS: It's pretty haunting when you see the shots of the hands that are mangled from handling fireworks. You get the sense of the imminent danger. What did you learn about the people involved in this festival that surprised you?
von dem Borne: I think the main thing for me, personally, I learned to just see how much they loved this. At the same time, how threatening and how dangerous this is, but how much they love it. They had so many incidents which actually took people away from their families. But they still love it so much. For them, this is bigger than everything else. This was just extremely beautiful to see, to be honest.
NFS: You can feel the enormity of it in the film. It's their whole universe.
von dem Borne: Yeah, exactly. There's no doubt that [making fireworks] is much more beautiful than dangerous for them. There's so much love involved. It's great. It was really awesome to watch.