Eldorado in Elsinore

Danish cinematographers and their crews work to the finest conditions anywhere in the world. Even French cinematographers, listening at a packed auditorium to three distinguished colleagues from the DFF during the AFC Micro Salon in February, were astonished to comprehend the superior quality of Danish working lives to that of cinematographers in France, writes IMAGO President Nigel Walters BSC

How this has been achieved is examined in these two articles by Dirk Brüel DFF and their President Jan Weincke DFF. These have been commissioned by IMAGO to encourage all cinematographers to ask, “If the Danes can work under civilised conditions and produce superb cinematography, why can’t do the same?”

Improved conditions for Film Workers

Dirk Brüel DFF gives an overview of the remarkable collaborations and working conditions in Denmark that help to deliver compelling, much-admired TV shows.

All the world has become a stage for Danish Television film series: The Killing, Borgen (The Fortress) and The Bridge (co-produced with Sweden), all took Europe by storm. The Americans are now commissioning remakes as fast as Scandinavia can complete the originals. Author Stephen King has placed three Danish series in his top ten of the TV series which have made the greatest impression on him. He quotes Borgen as being superior to them all, saying, “Whereas in American TV a career/family conflict results invariably in unrealistic victory for the family, in Borgen we get it with no sugar coating; it is as it is in real life.”

On an official visit to Denmark last year Price Charles and The Duchess of Cornwall’s foremost wish was to see the locations of The Killing and meet Sarah Lund, played by Sofie Gråbøl. The Little Mermaid was not on the agenda!

The shooting of these Danish television series is an object lesson for filmmakers everywhere as to how it is possible to provide quality programmes with proper planning, on budget, shooting 40 hours a week with little overtime.

In assessing this achievement the first reason for success has to be the involvement of licensed public broadcasting television. For many years DR, (Danmarks Radio, officially rendered into English as the Danish Broadcasting Corporation) has put its money in producing top-quality television “in house”. A decision was made earlier to hire freelancers from outside who were accustomed to shooting feature films. At the same time a decision was made on the importance of longer preparation and production periods, judged essential to efficient filmmaking.

The Head of DR’s Dramatic Fiction Department, Ingolf Gabold, made his own Dogme rules as to what makes the finest TV series and how they best achieve international recognition. The essential pre-requisite was the role of the writer. Apart from strong identification with the characters, the new Dogme philosophy states that a fascination with the subject is essential together with various ways of living and thinking. Of fundamental importance is a strong master plot, which tells a double story in absorbing ethical and social connotations. The writer has to tell a duel story, the balance of which in relation to the other is always dependant on society’s historical and cultural conversation.

It is not essential to hail from a Nordic country to identify with Sarah Lund or Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen as models of strong and independent women. Atmospheric… shot of a girl shining a torch in The Killing, photo by Tine Harden.

The script was deliberately written during the shooting of The Killing, part one, so that the cast and crew were unaware of the ending of the series. Posing the question, “Who is the murderer? Him or me?”, gave a fresh dimension to the acting. A strong story and time to pace creativity will always be a solid foundation for a powerful production.

The cinematographer on the second part of The Killing had around seven or eight weeks of preparation. This was enough time to establish common ground in collaboration with the director and designer in selecting sets and locations for the first four episodes. The gaffer came on board at least three weeks prior to shooting.

Production on The Killing is structured to enable each team to shoot two episodes of 55 minutes duration. The team is then replaced by a fresh director and cinematographer, and sometimes the gaffer.

Normal preparation time on episodes is two weeks and shooting continues on a five-day week basis for five weeks. The normal working day begins at 8.00 am and ends at 5pm. However, the cinematographer starts an hour earlier for rehearsals and set lighting. Following completion of shooting he is given one week to colour grade each episode.

In post production, the average daily screen time completed in the edit on a TV drama amounts to 4.5 minutes per day, which is faster than the Danish average motion picture, lasting seven weeks, of 2.9 minutes each day.

The Bridge is a co-production between DR and Swedish SVT, which are both public service TV networks. The production is run by two separate private companies, one in each country. During the initial preparation, the project found itself in financial difficulties which resulted in even greater collaboration time between the director, cinematographer and art director. The shooting set-up is similar to The Killing. Each episode takes 14 days, shooting with two cameras on a five-day working week of 40 hours with little overtime. The Bridge has been a huge success and is now in pre-production to be remade in America.


To understand these “civilised” working practises in Denmark it is essential to return to conditions in the 1960s, or earlier, when the country was the home to both American and Danish films, often working seventy hours a week. Compensation for overtime was a rarity. This resulted in a group of young film workers, including directors and cinematographers, forming a Film Workers Association, the FAF. An agreement was struck with the producers to establish reasonable, human working conditions. The common desire of both directors and cinematographers to accept reduced pay during weeks of research and preparation paved the way for the harmonious state of labour relations in Denmark today; a beacon of hope showing future productions an enlightened path to the future.

This settlement is renegotiated every second year and is rigidly enforced by the effective Producers Association, to which almost every member gives support. This has enabled producers to budget effectively. The Danish Society of Cinematographers (DFF) has permanent representation in the board of the FAF to secure the interests of cinematographers. This also ensures regular dialogue with producers and directors.

In the Danish model, freelance, self-employed workers, have the same rights as permanent employees, as well as holding the following benefits: a 12.5% holiday pay entitlement; a 7.6% pension payment from the producer; cinematographer’s authors rights payments for television (see IMAGO.org, Authors Rights, Denmark); membership of an unemployment fund for financial support in periods without work, ensuring a minimum standard below which no worker’s benefits shall fall.

The main points of the Danish motion picture settlement are:

a) A normal working week of 39 hours Monday to Friday, including a 15-min break, paid by the employer. A minimum 30min lunch break is taken without payment.

b) The standard working day falls between the hours of 6.00am and 7.00pm

c) Anti-social hours outside the above times are paid at a supplement of 50% on the first two hours with a supplement of 100% for subsequent hours. However, if the reason for the overtime is “artistic”, as opposed to artists’ availability, there is a straightforward payment of eight Euros per hour.

d) Additional pay on Saturday amounts to 75% and on Sunday 100%.

However, nine and three quarters of an hour can be scheduled in any four days without overtime payment. In exchange the cinematographer has the right to take the fifth day off. The day off has to be just before or after a weekend.

In setting the team the other Dogme Rules of executive Gabold are: The writer and the executive producer choose the director. The writer, the executive producer and the director choose the production designer and they choose the cinematographer. The above collaborate to build the creative team and to construct the overall concept for the series.

The permanent crew around the cinematographer is not large but extremely effective. There are only two or three electricians, including the gaffer on the talented team in support. A focus puller, video assistant and grip are often joined by an additional cinematographer and assistant, making a total team of nine people. The choice of their team is normally the responsibility of the cinematographer. However, the Danes are no more immune to the curse of the late arrival of scripts than anyone else on the planet.

See film made by IMAGO in 2007 about the Danish working conditions.