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An Interview with Jakob Ihre

Jakob Ihre is a cinematographer known for his work on films including Louder Than Bombs, Thelma, Oslo, August 31st, Reprise, The End of the Tour and Lola Versus, as well as acclaimed series Chernobyl. I spoke with Jakob about his early inspirations, collaborating with Joachim Trier, and shooting Chernobyl.

Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line?

Not really but I was always mad about cinema and even of filmmaking. In my early teens I went to the library and got hold of all the American Cinematographer Magazines. For some odd reason at this small library they had backlog from many decades which I could access. I photocopied texts and stuck them on my wall. For some reason I never realised in high school that this hobby of mine could be turned into something professional. So while I was reading those magazines and watching loads of movies, I thought I would study psychology for five or six years but prior to that I had my military service in Sweden. At the time it was almost compulsory for every 18 year old, but I managed to escape it somehow. So in that down time I had a before I had to start my studies I thought maybe I should work a bit.

I got a job as a runner in a production house which produced the Swedish version of America’s Most Wanted. It was a TV programme where the journalists had to do interviews with the police, the victims and eye witnesses of the crime and in the second half of the day we had a few hours to do a reconstruction of the crime. Many of the journalists were not that interested in doing the reconstructions, more focused on the journalism I guess. After a couple of months assisting on these shoots the budget of the show dropped radically and they couldn’t afford the freelancing TV cameramen, so they thought okay let’s give the camera to Jakob as he is very keen and mad about the cinema . They quickly sent me on various camera and lighting workshops and at the age of 19 I became the in-house cameraman- By then I’d forgotten about my place at the University of Uppsala.

Are there any particular films, or cinematographers who have really inspired your work?

I guess when I was 15 or 16 I discovered Citizen Kane. That was maybe the first cinematographer’s name I remember, Gregg Toland. I was more fascinated by how much they talked about, of course they talked about Orson Welles a lot, but there was a lot of writing about the collaboration and their partnership. Tolands work was mind-blowing of course but I realised that that you need a supporting director with a vision who strives with the cinematographer in order to achieve excellence in cinematography. Then of course here in Sweden, Sven Nykvist was always a house God, so to speak. Of course I was inspired by his cinematography, but he really gave you confidence in the way he made you understand the partnership, but across continents. He worked in so many different parts of the world, while Gregg Toland was in Hollywood I guess all of his life. Sven Nykvist was someone who travelled the world looking for the interesting projects. If there was a great director, or an amazing story somewhere in the world he left everything back home. So that was really inspiring while keeping himself loyal and available for Ingmar Bergman all those years was also quite fascinating.

When I started out it was Harris Savides who was my big hero. He shot for Fincher and Gus Van Sant. His work has always been very inspiring. At the same time, the more grandiose cinematographers, the big Hollywood spectacle cinematographers, like Janusz Kamiński have always been very inspiring, in the sense that he’s doing something no one dares to do. Maybe it’s just the stories but he is so operatic and grandiose in lighting, but it really works with the films he shoots with Spielberg. I admire his confidence and his guts to be so big. You watch some of those movies and are really aware of where the lights are coming from and it’s very contrary to what you’ve done yourself, but at the same time that inspires you and you admire him that he dares to take so much space.

You worked as cinematographer on Reprise. Can you tell me more about this experience, and how the opportunity came about?

We are both from the same film school. We were flat mates while we were in London. We both went to National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield. We became friends there and we made a short film together called Procter, and then we just kept in touch. While I worked on shorts and features in the meanwhile he was working on a script for Reprise. He worked on that script and when that got funded at the time we had been doing commercials together, post-film school. So we kept in touch that way. We remained good friends and we grew together. Our collaboration has taught me so much.

You collaborated with Joachim Trier again on Oslo, August 31st. Which camera did you use to shoot the film, and do you have a preferred camera/kit?

We were actually meant to do Louder Than Bombs after Reprise, but the funding for that didn’t work out at first. In that gap that came up we quickly got Oslo, August 31st.

These three films are highly personal movies for both of us. Sometimes you think you’re shooting your own or a friends life somehow. They’re very close to you and that goes also for the aesthetics and for the approach - they are all about your own visual upbringing somehow. You have very few references in a way. You want to stay away from references because those films are a contamination of what you have learnt or what you like. When we shot Reprise everything that that had inspired through the years and had formed us was somehow in Reprise. The references and influences had shaped me until that point but when starting on Reprise you want to discover the film with your own eyes.

We ended up shooting on film and with very sharp Arri Ultra primes. When you shoot the way we shoot with them, at times with very short depth of field and a lot against windows and if you use them in not very good circumstances then they become quite interesting. You shoot them in a harder front light or with a deeper stop then they are quite boring, If we had shot with older lenses they would have broken down too much. Oslo was also shot on film and on the same lenses.

Towards the end of Oslo, August 31st there is a beautiful shot of Anders and his friends cycling around Oslo. As Anders clings onto Johanne, we see his friends on the bike ahead of them, releasing the fire extinguisher spray into the night air. How did you capture this shot?

Well that had been planned from the very beginning to be shot that way. It was shot with what’s called a Russian arm. Basically the camera is on a stabilised remote head that is attached on a vehicle. I was sitting in a car operating this camera remotely. When we shot that scene we had some technical problems with our gear. I think there is a cut in the sequence. It was actually meant to be a one-take. At that time when we shot the film it was quite expensive to pull that shot off, with the remote stabilised head. That was quite an interesting tool to use this in a fairly small film. With Joachim’s films he uses many different techniques, he used hand-held and had dolly shots and even these remote head shots. He’s using all this within the scene.

You have shot all of Joachim Trier’s feature films. What makes this relationship so special, and do you plan on collaborating together again?

We develop together and we constantly want to get better. By being together for so long and coming back to work together, we have this possibility to improve and maybe talk about mistakes and wrong decisions that were made last time. We are able to have an open evaluation of our work. What did we do wrong here, or what should we try this time? In the end that makes you a better filmmaker and that has been so interesting that we have been able to work together for so long.

We were meant to shoot our fifth film together this summer, but I can’t actually do that one because of family reasons.

You recently worked as cinematographer on Chernobyl. What was the most challenging aspect of shooting the series?

I thought that the most challenging aspect would be working with a director I hadn’t worked with before. How to partner with the director, how to get on creatively, and how do I gain his trust? From the beginning that was the biggest challenge I thought. In the end, and from the very beginning it worked out really well. Then of course there were lots of technical challenges and the length of the shoot was a challenge, how to keep the momentum and how to stay creative and stay honest. It was one of those projects where everything worked out, everything gelled so well.

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