Niki Waltl – Thanks To An Oscar Nom for the Documentary Navalny, Cinematographer is in the Spotlight
Thanks To An Oscar Nom for the Documentary Navalny, Cinematographer is in the Spotlight
by Brad Balfour
With Oscar night fast approaching – this Sunday, March 12th – it's time to get inside some of the nominated films in various categories such as Best Documentary Feature. Among those nominees is Navalny – which details the struggle of imprisoned Putin opposition leader Alexey Navalny. The film shines a new, brighter light on his plight in a way a basic news story can never accomplish. Along with the praise for the film, its cinematographer Niki Waltl has also garnered attention for his fine visual work.
Austrian born and bred, Waltl first picked up a camera as a teenager. As part of the '90s popular skate and snowboard culture, his videos first sparked his interest. Once he started shooting his friends when participating in both winter sports, he got a taste of filmmaking. In 2010, Waltl moved to Barcelona to study Direction of Photography (DoP) at the Centre d'Estudis Cinematografics de Catlunya (CECC). Revealing a talent for camerawork, he got commissioned work for such major companies as Converse, Nike, GoPro and Vans. He also produced commercials and other productions for Habitat, Element Brand, Chocolate – some of the biggest skateboard companies worldwide. This filming took him to China, South Africa, Morocco, Kyrgyzstan and other parts of the world.
Through noted below-the-line professional Frank Berger, Waltl received training in film lighting in Holland, who was Robby Müller's gaffer for several years and worked with legendary Danish director Lars von Trier. Today, Waltl went on to work worldwide as a freelance DoP, with a focus on character-driven documentaries and fiction films. Navalny, the 2022 documentary – which tells the tale of imprisoned politician Alexey Navalny, controversial dissident and Vladimir Putin's arch opponent – has been AAC director of photography Waltl's most notable work. After it premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and won the Audience Award for Best US Documentary and the Festival Favorite Award, it started racking up more accolades and nominations including the BAFTA award for best Doc. And now, Navalny is nominated for the 2023 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary.
How have all these awards and nominations changed your life? Basically, we've been on a journey with this film since it premiered at Sundance last year, screening it at festivals and promoting it. With the recent nominations, this journey has kept going and I was able to meet many great people on the way. Sure, new doors have been opening for me as a cinematographer. I'm very thankful to be a part of this project. The success of the film is also bittersweet, as Alexey Navalny is still in prison, in solitary confinement in a Russian gulag. It's because of him and his bravery that we even got to make this film. Did you ever think the film would get such a reaction? In a way, yes. As soon as I got the call to work on this project I knew that this is a defining story of our time and that a film about it will possibly find a very big audience. At the same time, it is all quite unreal. That the reaction would be as big as it is now, with the Academy Award nomination, and winning the BAFTA, I mean nobody expected that. I'm rather speechless.
What do you think made Navalny such a contender? I think it's a combination of things. First and foremost, because of the urgency of the story and the popularity of Alexey Navalny. The whole world was following what happened with his poisoning, his recovery and the developments after. Also, the war in Ukraine has indirectly made our film more relevant. But it's also a good film on its own merits. I really like the work of our director Daniel Roher and what he created with the team. The editors (Langdon Page and Maya Hawke) did a great job, the same with the music composed by Marius de Vries, and etc.
What were the most difficult scenarios to shoot? Maybe the phone call scene. We shot it at 4 am for logistical reasons and thought we'd be back in bed after 15 minutes of shooting as the prank idea probably wouldn't work. What followed was the now almost infamous phone call that went on for about 40 minutes. I had the camera on my shoulder the whole time and was giving my very best to operate it as well as I could. 40 minutes is long for a handheld take! What cameras were used and how was this like or different from other films that you've shot? It was shot mainly on RED cameras. I own a RED Gemini so bringing that to set was a no brainer. Documentaries are more like that – cameras get chosen for practical reasons. On narrative projects there's more time for testing equipment and choosing which tool is the best to help tell that specific story. I was very happy with the RED here though. We did rent the large format version for the interviews (RED Monstro) just to give the interviews an extra special feeling and look you know.
What did you learn about the whole political situation in Russia? On the one hand, I see the complexity of it. The current political situation in Russia is based on a long history that obviously dates back to the Soviet Union and times before that. There's a lot to learn and it's an ongoing process as things keep unfolding in Russia and Ukraine. On the other hand, things seem simple – I do think things can immediately change for the better the moment Putin's regime is taken out of power.
How has this whole experience influenced your direction professionally and personally?
I actually think that working on this film has changed me personally much more than professionally. The time we spent with Navalny, his family and team, the developments we were allowed to witness – this all has had a deep impact on me. It's a bit like waking up to the reality of the world we live in right now. It does feel like it's on fire and that it's important to be aware of developments, to have an opinion and stand up for it.
Do you think the film can affect Navalny's future, good or bad? I do hope and believe that it has had a positive effect for him. So many people know about his story now. I mean, he was in the news before that, obviously, but the film keeps him there. As we know, Alexey Navalny is still in prison, where he continues to be one of Russia's fiercest anti-war activists and we can't allow him to be forgotten in any way. The film definitely helps with that.
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