Zach Kuperstein shot the desolate setting and menacing story of ‘Barbarian’ with ZEISS Supreme Primes and a CP.3 to match the story’s low-light looks and large format VENICE sensor.

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Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein shot the 2022 hit horror-thriller ‘Barbarian’, directed by Zach Cregger for Boulderlight Pictures. The film follows a menacing series of events at – and under – 476 Barbary Street in a downtrodden neighbourhood on the outskirts of Detroit. The lead character arrives to find a suspicious stranger already staying in her Air BNB. Once she discovers a hidden underground tunnel, things go from bad to worse.

The production team’s first challenge was to re-create the burned-out suburbs of Detroit in Bulgaria, where the film was set to shoot. “I had never been to Detroit and, looking at the reference photos, I was shocked,” Zach Kuperstein said. “I hadn’t known that such a neighbourhood existed.”

Production Designer Rossitsa Bakeva enthusiastically set about bringing the desolate setting of the film to life. Abandoned run-down houses are crowded to either side of the hero house, which is jarringly well-maintained. “Finally, a few months later we ended up going to Detroit. Driving around the streets, I was relieved to see that we had actually captured the look.” 

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First VENICE Project

‘Barbarian’ was the first project Zach shot with the Sony VENICE I. “I'd never used the VENICE but I'd heard rave reviews from other DPs. I needed it for the low light, shooting at 2,500 ISO without concern. I also wanted fast lenses to use with it, considering all the sequences in the tunnels, lit only with flashlights.” He decided on the ZEISS Supreme Primes and a CP.3 to accommodate the large format sensor and low-light requirements. “I wanted fast lenses, and I wanted the look to be sharp and present, and feel different from other work that I've done.” 

The camera package came from Magic Shop Rentals in Bulgaria. Unfortunately, the rental house did not have the 18mm or 21mm Supreme Primes. But because of the film’s many wide-wide angle shots and scenes, it would be impossible to shoot without going wider than ther Supreme Prime 25mm. After testing several other lenses, they offered Zach the 15mm CP.3 ZEISS. “That hit the mark for a 15mm, and it turned out to be really helpful because we needed that lightweight lens to shoot with the gimbal later on,” he said.

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In the past, Zach had often opted for vintage lenses or lenses with unusual characteristics, but on ‘Barbarian’ the Supreme Primes were just what he wanted. “I think it's all about the closeups and just the presence of the lens and sharpness and how clean it is. There's nothing between the viewer and the image. In Barbarian I wanted it to be very direct with a what-you-see-is-what-you-get style. These lenses did a great job of that, giving us low distortion and the clean lines of the stairs going up.”

Distinct Environments

Zach and his director Zach Cregger approached the look of the film by emphasising the three distinct environments – upstairs, downstairs and the flashback. “The upstairs should have a very controlled, deliberate camera movement, consistently building suspense. There's a lot of tension in the air. But downstairs, it’s fast-paced, almost ridiculous. The camera movement is over the top.” Then for the memorable flashback sequence, the filmmakers created stylised, extremely wide-angled shots, very distinct from the rest of the movie.  

“For lighting, I often look at Roger Deakins’ work. ‘Prisoners’ has a lot of good flashlight work in it. When Jake Gyllenhaal's character goes into the basement with the priest, I love the way the flashlight is creating a silhouette, then highlighting something and revealing things,” said Zach.

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Eerie flashlight lighting characterises the horror of Barbarian’s underground tunnels. Fast lenses were key to his approach. “I was a little worried to bring the Supreme Primes to Zach Cregger because they don't flare that much. But he said, ‘I don't want any flares from the flashlight. That's too much.’ With the Supremes, there's minimal flaring, so it was nice to be able to have control of that and keep it very clean and pristine.”

Tight Moves

The CP.3 15mm also came in handy in unanticipated ways. Zach describes using the Rialto VENICE Extension System with it. “We did some of the stuff in the underground pit with the Rialto because it was pretty tight, and the handheld operating required fast moves.” The Rialto allows you to separate the image sensor block from the camera body by up to 5.5m through a cable connection. The resulting smaller form factor is easier to use in small spaces.

Other notably tight spaces included the various car interiors, especially in the flashback sequence. Zach said, “The Rialto is still fairly big and heavy, so balancing it with the Ronin RS 2 was a challenge. In one scene, we needed to pass the camera through a narrow car window.” His team improvised a way to hold the RS 2 sideways and coordinated a delicate handoff, where the camera started stationary on a set of apple boxes before being lifted by the operator and passed through the car window to Zach inside.

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He said, “Because the operator was cabled to the camera, he had to sit on the windowsill and the best boy grip held him against the car as it started to drive. I’m just very grateful that that lens was tiny and that it all balanced.”

‘Barbarian’ has been a particular success, grossing $45 million at the box office against a $4.5 million budget. It is available to watch online with HBO Max. Zach calls it “a horror movie for people who don't necessarily like horror movies.”

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