What began as a pastime with childhood friends became a full-time passion for Dutch-Indonesian cinematographer, film director, and NYU Abu Dhabi Associate Professor of Film and New Media Leonard Retel Helmrich. Armed with an 8mm camera at the age of 13, he explored Amsterdam, creating movies. "I've always loved film," he said.
Now, 40 years later, Helmrich is known not only for his successful documentaries, but also for his Single-shot Cinema technique, an unobtrusive cinéma vérité approach to filmmaking in which each scene is filmed using one camera that swoops in and spins around the actors, flies in and out for extreme close-ups and wide angles, and shoots from many perspectives at different speeds, all in one shot. In addition to the movement of the camera becoming the vehicle for cinematographic expression, "the scene is continuous," Helmrich said, "and because of the movement, everything is connected."
Helmrich likens this interconnectedness to the inner workings of a clock. As such, the smaller gears are of equal importance to the larger gears, and if one was to remove a single component, the clock wouldn't run. It is this connection, which binds interrelated elements into a whole, that allows the viewer to travel within a scene, inside an event, to a particular spot at a specific moment.
It's also about the perception of reality. "I noticed that film is typically taught as a segregated reality, and then in editing you have to make believe that it is a whole," Helmrich said. "I think this is a mistake. You should shoot it as a whole and then the way you segregate it is up to you. You should film the way you perceive something — as a whole with interrelated elements. As a result you can feel that everything is interrelated and express your personal feelings and perceptions of that moment." In short, Single-shot Cinema is about how filmmakers perceive the reality while filming, not in how they present the film.
For Helmrich, the technique goes further than film. "It's actually more a philosophy," he said. "It's a way of looking at and perceiving the world around you, recognizing that everything is connected. It may be very far off," he laughed, "but it's a feeling. And I want to bring across this feeling in my films."
This feeling is often conveyed with the help of Steadywings, a camera mount invented by Helmrich that places the weight of the camera between one's hands to allow for stability and maneuverability while filming. Using the wide-set, multifunctional handles, the camera can be easily and safely moved from one cameraman to another, and folds up to accommodate filming in or through small spaces. The flexibility of the mount also enables Helmrich to execute complicated maneuvers, including orbital camera movements (instead of panning), which circle around a point of interest and move from one interest point to another in one smooth flow. Often found in video games, but not yet introduced into mainstream film language, these movements eliminate many physical limitations in camera work, allowing a film to be shot not based on specific scenes, but on camera movements that feel intuitive and natural, thus creating an intimacy unmatched in other filmmaking styles, Helmrich said.
You should film the way you perceive something — as a whole with interrelated elements. As a result you can feel that everything is interrelated and express your personal feelings and perceptions of that moment.
Helmrich has directed one feature-length movie and four documentaries, the latest of which, Position Among the Stars, garnered him a Best Documentary Award at both the 2011 European Film Awards and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and a World Documentary Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The final chapter of a trilogy 12 years in the making, Position Among the Stars follows an Indonesian family living in inner-city Jakarta and tells a moving story about the religion, politics, and economics of the country through the intimate portrayal of each character.
Currently, Helmrich is filming a 30-minute 3D documentary in the UAE, for which he has developed new techniques in order to incorporate his single-shot theory. "The camera movements that I have developed for Single-shot Cinema are really good for 3D filming because it requires continuous scenes," he explained, "but with 3D you always have to calibrate the camera, you are shooting with two cameras simultaneously, and the cameras should be at a fixed distance from one another for every shot." Thus, problems arise when moving the cameras, a fundamental feature of Single-shot Cinema. "You can only make tracking shots; moving in and out and toward small objects is more difficult," he said.
However, inspired by Steadywings, Helmrich is testing a new mount based on the Steadywings mechanical system that will bring the cameras closer and further away from each other without losing the calibration. It is still a work in progress, but he has had positive results so far. "It's very important, as camera movements are required to tell the story," he said.
Based on the abstract works of Emirati artist Wasel Safwan, whose large-format paintings are influenced by architecture and composed of contrasting geometric shapes, volumes, and colors, Helmrich's 3D film will follow Safwan's creative process and observe "how he absorbs his inspiration from the world around him," Helmrich said. According to Helmrich, Safwan's art is much like his own filming style. "Even though it's a different art form, it's the same kind of philosophy," Helmrich explained. "He paints as if in one movement and tries to interrelate elements in each painting." Based on the success of the short film, Helmrich will consider transforming it into a feature in the future.
Helmrich is working with NYUAD student Weichen Zhu, NYUAD Class of 2015, whose short film, The Blessing — created with fellow classmate Umair Saad — was selected for the 2012 Zayed University Middle East Student Film Festival. Together, in the Netherlands, they are conducting research on 3D film technologies and collaborating on another of Helmrich's projects: a film about the last herring fishermen in the Netherlands.
Interested in the ways that older methods of storytelling can incorporate new technologies, Helmrich will continue to surprise his audiences by developing new techniques and pushing the boundaries of film. "Film is always new, never dull," he said. "It's never following standard rules. It's always trying to adapt from your own perspective. During film school, I realized that films are typically made in a very strict way. But I found out that the more you understand the rules, the more you can gain in expressiveness because you know when not to follow them."