Making of “Navalny” Documentary – Behind the Lens Interview with DP Niki Waltl

Making of "Navalny" Documentary – Behind the Lens Interview with DP Niki Waltl

Life is the best storyteller. But some events are so unbelievable that if they inspired a fiction film, nobody would buy it. That’s what documentaries are great for. In 2020, when the Canadian director Daniel Roher came across the story of the Alexei Navalny‘s poisoning and the secret investigation that started building around it, he knew it had to be filmed. Following the Russian opposition leader during his rehabilitation in Germany, Daniel and his team literally captured history unfolding before their eyes. After its successful premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, “Navalny” received a lot of praise as well as an Academy Award nomination for “best documentary feature film”. The Oscars ’23 will take place on the 12th of March, and ahead of it we talked with the film’s cinematographer Niki Waltl, AAC about the making of the Navalny documentary.

Niki Waltl is an Austrian director of photography working worldwide focused on character-driven documentaries and fiction films. In this interview, he breaks down the most exciting scenes from “Navalny”, shares his cinematographic approach to the documentary, and talks about challenges during the shoot.

Making of the Navalny Documentary - Niki Waltl, the cinematographer
Niki Waltl on one of the “Navalny” sets. Credit: Lorena Mühsam

Making of the Navalny documentary: cinematic look and feel

CineD: First things first. How did you come to this project? Did you know at that point who Navalny was, what he did, and his story?

Niki Waltl: Actually, the director, Daniel Roher, and our producer, Odessa Rae, found me through a film production in Berlin for whom I work from time to time. They met Alexei shortly after he woke up from his coma in the Charité hospital. Following a tip from Angela Merkel, Navalny went to the Black Forest for rehabilitation, so filmmakers needed someone close to South Germany and the agency recommended me.

I knew who Navalny was. I wouldn’t say I’m a political expert, but I very much follow the news, and the story of his poisoning broke through all the COVID-19 agenda. You could sense that it was an important story at this moment in time, so I agreed to film it straightaway and was excited and a bit nervous when I first drove there to meet them. Although it was my first time working with Daniel and Odessa, the moment I walked through the door of our rental apartment, we kind of fell in love with each other.

CineD: How did you approach cinematography on “Navalny”? When you first met Daniel, did you sit together and discuss it, maybe set some rules for the visual look?

Niki: In the beginning, I was literally thrown into this project because everything happened so quickly! I remember arriving in the afternoon and we began shooting the next morning. There was no time to prep or exchange moods and references, as you would normally do. But during the first days of shooting, we created something like a little manifesto on how we would approach this documentary visually.

Making of the Navalny Documentary - Niki Waltl, the cinematographer, setting up the cameras
Setting up the cameras. Credit: Daniel Roher

One rule, for example, was sticking to prime lenses instead of zooms to create a cinematic look, and it’s also why we mostly worked with open apertures (around 2.0). This was challenging, of course, but I think documentaries are rather forgiving when something is slightly out of focus. In addition, we shot practically everything handheld—except for the interviews—to give the scenes an alive and direct feeling.

Another thing that Daniel and I had in common: we wanted to do something a little bit unusual for the visual look of “Navalny”. You know, get away from a too-classic documentary or television approach. For instance, we aimed for moody lighting and feeling for the interviews and shot various unexpected angles. I think this is well shown in the key interview with Alexei.

Breaking down some of the notable scenes

CineD: Yes, let’s talk about this interview and its setup in more detail. What was your idea behind it and how did you achieve it technically?

Niki: I always start by nailing down the framing for the main camera. Here, Navalny looks and talks directly into the lens. This visual decision was a two-day discussion between Daniel, me, and the producers. Breaking the fourth wall—you rarely do it in these kinds of interviews, but in the end, we agreed that it was a great idea. It gave the shot this kind of intimate feeling by putting the camera and the viewer in the position of the listening bartender. I knew this would be possibly the most important interview I shot in my life, so we took ample time to pre-light and set everything up nicely.

Regarding the closeup framing, I always try to shoot into the dark side of the face. There was also a mirror directly in front of Alexei. The C-camera shot into it, which gave us an unusual angle. We also had the fourth perspective—slightly above Navalny, an observation kind of angle.

Making of the Navalny Documentary - 4 angles of the key interview, film stills
Four different angles for the interview with Alexei Navalny. Film stills from “Navalny”, 2022. Credit: CNN Films / Warner Bros.

CineD: And what about the most extraordinary scene in this documentary, where Navalny makes prank calls to his supposed killers pretending to be a security services boss? How do you shoot something so intense and significant, without knowing what can happen?

Niki: That’s an interesting point because we don’t speak Russian. I was on the A-cam, Daniel was on the B-cam, and we communicated through eye contact and simple sign language with each other. And yes, we did not understand what anyone was saying while we were shooting this scene, but we already knew the protagonist and our characters quite well. So, 3 minutes into the phone call, you see people’s jaws dropping to the floor; you sense that something very special is happening, and you are totally concentrated. I was thinking to myself that I hope my battery doesn’t die. (laughs)

It’s also about developing intuition during these kinds of moments. You have one eye on the viewfinder and the other eye looking directly at what’s going on, and you try to react intuitively as much as you can. And yeah, it’s important to capture the person speaking, but as a DP on documentaries, I discovered films should also contain enough shots of people listening and reacting. Sometimes, an emotional reaction is even more crucial than a verbal action.

Making of the Navalny Documentary - reaction shot, film still
Maria Pevchikh reacts to the phone call. A film still from “Navalny”, 2022. Credit: CNN Films / Warner Bros.

Capturing spontaneity in the making of the Navalny documentary

CineD: Apart from the interviews, have you also had other staged—or better said—planned scenes?

Niki: We didn’t want to be too intrusive, so everything we shot was quite natural. A classic Cinéma vérité approach where the camera follows characters and captures what’s happening. Sometimes you might direct people to sit in the right spot for certain conversations, but that’s it mostly. One scene, which was our idea, is when Alexei Navalny runs in the snowy forest. We thought it would be a great visual metaphor for showing how Alexei is getting stronger and fitter again, preparing himself for his return to Russia.

Making of the Navalny Documentary - Navalny runs in the snowy forest, captured from the drone
A film still from “Navalny”, 2022. Credit: CNN Films / Warner Bros.

CineD: And what about the really cinematic investigation board with all these threads and photos? Was it your idea?

Niki: No, the suspect board was there as an actual part of the investigation going on at the time. It was very helpful. But of course we knew it could also be a strong visual storytelling tool for the film. We worked on setting that up together, and I also added some simple lighting to make the setup feel more cinematic. While Maria Pevchikh was placing the photos on the board, we asked her to shoot a brief sequence, and that’s how it got such a “detective film” look.

Making of the Navalny Documentary - setting up the suspect board, behind the scenes.
Working on the suspect board. Credit: Niki Waltl

Challenges of capturing authentic moments for the documentary

CineD: Okay, but if you mostly filmed spontaneously, how could one imagine a schedule for such a shoot?

Niki: You know, I cannot even imagine it myself anymore. At some point, we began writing diaries, because it was definitely the craziest shoot I’ve ever been a part of. Things were happening all the time. We were moving around our characters—Alexei, Maria, Christo Grozev (investigator journalist from Bellingcat), setting up interviews and just trying to shoot as much as we could. We knew we only had a limited time with these people, and a very small team, so our shooting days ran up to 18 hours for 2 months. It was like a hurricane you try to move along with. Chaos, but in a liberating way.

CineD: In documentaries, it’s always important to catch authentic moments. But it’s not that easy for the characters when a crew always follows them around. What was your approach to making yourself invisible while filming?

Niki: First, we wanted to be close but not too intrusive with the cameras. We chose longer lenses. Our go-to ones would be 40mm and 85mm. That let us observe and catch everything that was happening and still keep a bit of a distance.

Also, I think it’s important to be nice to people, give them a feeling of trust and show them respect. There should be a certain integrity about what you’re shooting as well. Other than that, it’s small things: when the camera is rolling, you try to move slowly around the room, to be as quiet as possible, and to make people forget about you. What also played into our cards is that Alexei Navalny (as well as his team and Christo Grozev) is accustomed to having cameras around. He is a public person and an experienced user of social media.

Making of the Navalny Documentary - preparing the interview setup with Christo Grozev, behind-the-scenes
Behind-the-scenes of the interview with Christo Grozev. Credit: Niki Waltl

CineD: Speaking of other challenges. Have you ever felt unsafe or afraid during the shooting phase?

Niki: Yes and no. I mean, after we shot the phone call, there was a moment where I felt: wow, things are getting pretty wild here. But then you put everything into perspective. It was so inspiring to be around these people, who are so brave and willing to go so far. They fight for the truth, fight for freedom, and fight so hard for a better future for Russia that watching them makes you forget about your own fear. I just tried to support them as much as I could.

On the technical side in the making of the Navalny documentary

CineD: Please tell us a bit more about your gear choices for this documentary.

Niki: I personally own a Red Gemini, so that was a no-brainer for me. I think it’s a great camera for documentary work, so we shot most of the vérité scenes on it. For the interviews, we wanted to stay in that environment but give them an extra special look, so we rented the Red Monstro—8K, full frame—as a main camera for that purpose.

I also own a set of Sigma cinema prime lenses, the full-frames. These are very fast 1.4 lenses, and we shot most of the film on them, including the interviews. They are also very clean and sharp, so personally, I like to put slight diffusion filters in front of the lens. My go-to here is the Glimmerglass (1/2), but we also used Pro-Mist filters. (Author’s note: if you want to read more about diffusion filters and their effect, we wrote about some of them here).

CineD: What about the footage management on set? I assume it was a lot of material. What was your workflow there?

Niki: As we wanted to keep the team small, for most of the shoot Daniel and I were the DITs ourselves, other than the interviews where we asked for help. It was particularly interesting regarding the primary interview with Alexei Navalny. We shot it in Freiburg, and the closest postproduction company that could help was in Stuttgart, one and a half hours away. They decided it would be faster to offload footage in the studio than on set, so our DIT would shuttle back and forth to pick up the mini-mag cards from all the cameras during the snowstorm.

Talking about the future

CineD: Huge congratulations on all the awards and nominations the documentary is getting. Do you remember your initial reaction to the news about the Academy Awards?

Niki: It was a beautiful moment, but at the same time bittersweet. It’s quite painful to know that the reason we could make this film in the first place is because of Alexei Navalny and his bravery and deception, and he is still in jail, sitting in solitary confinement. On the other hand, the Academy Award nomination is, of course, very important and keeps him in the news, and we can continue to tell his story to more and more people around the world.

Making of the Navalny Documentary - picture of Niki with Alexei Navalny, behind-the-scenes
Alexei and Niki, behind the scenes. Credit: Lorena Mühsam

CineD: And after the Oscars, what are you up to next? Do you have another big project coming up?

Niki: Yeah, I’m already shooting a couple of new documentary projects, both international and Austrian. I’m also looking forward to the near future when I will have my first chance to shoot a narrative feature. That’s where my passion also lies and what I’m very much drawn to.


CineD: What would you wish for the audience of the Navalny documentary?

Niki: I think the message of the film is very clear. Alexei Navalny puts it into words very well at the end of the movie, and I agree with him.

In the last moments of the documentary, Daniel Roher asks Navalny to record a message in case he is killed or imprisoned after he returns to Russia. Alexei’s words are: “My message is very simple: don’t give up, you can’t allow yourself to. If they decide to kill me, it actually means we are very strong. Remember that together we have an enormous power, and we have to use it. So don’t give up and don’t be inactive.” He was detained directly at the airport upon arrival in Moscow in January 2021 and is still in prison. The documentary is available for streaming on HBO Max and some other video-on-demand services.

Have you watched “Navalny”? What do you think about the documentary and its cinematographic approach? Let us know in the comments section below.

Feature image: a film still from “Navalny”, 2022. Credit: CNN Films / Warner Bros.

UPD: On the 12th of March, “Navalny” won the Best Documentary Feature prize at the 95th Academy Awards.


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