Authentic filmmaking

The success factor in advertising 2021: authentic filmmaking. It was an honor and an absolute pleasure to talk to Stefan Kleinalstede the documentary filmmaker and CEO of SEMICOLON Digital Studio about authentic filming. Personally, I believe that this is where the potential lies, especially for digital communication. 

Sinja Grimme CEO & Founder FARBE BLAU Creative Communication in a talk with Stefan Kleinalstede, Documentary Filmmaker & CEO Semicolon – Digital Studio 

Sinja Grimme:What is the drive of filmmaking of the future and present? 

Stefan Kleinalstede: Your background of experience in brand communication at BMW is completely different from the one I have with Red Bull. Nevertheless, we agree that the theme of 2021 is “real, authentic, honest filmmaking.” The authentic and the credible is what classic advertising used to be. Cool. 

Sinja Grimme: What’s your personal story, how did you get into documentary filmmaking? 

Stefan Kleinalstede: I worked as a freelance filmmaker for many broadcasters and documentary formats. Since 2008, I have been intensively on the road with my team for Red Bull. We have turned the Red Bull X-Fighters from a niche product into one of the big world series. Our job as filmmakers is to take the helmets off the athletes, sit them down somewhere and ask them about beliefs, superstitions and rituals. Find the person, the personality in the extreme athlete. We even asked about fear management. So we traveled to over 50 events on four continents. And it was always about the real thing in the spectacular. 

Sinja Grimme: Do you see a difference between storytelling and documentary film? 

Stefan Kleinalstede: That’s a fine question. Let’s put it this way, there is an intersection between storytelling and documentary in general. But it’s not that every good documentary necessarily needs storytelling. Sometimes you actually just have to be there, like with our “Queens of Botswana” for Arte. The stories of women dressing in leather, listening to heavy metal and rebelling against entire villages and societies is its own story that doesn’t need dramaturgical staging. 

Sinja Grimme: For me, storytelling has always been important in filmmaking in the past, I wanted to be authentic, but I also always looked for the hook. Do documentary film and storytelling contradict each other? 

Stefan Kleinalstede: Storytelling is our tool and our job. The basis of storytelling is trust between the people behind the camera and those in front of it. If I build trust with my protagonists, I have the opportunity to accompany them in a documentary way, to demand authenticity and they can offer authentic action. I am then not dominant with the camera, but withdraw. Like in our new documentary series for Amazon Prime Video, “Inside SG Flensburg-Handewitt.” 

If I have characters who behave authentically, I can still build a dramaturgy by developing a hero’s journey on paper beforehand. I know exactly what milestones my boys will face next year without having to sacrifice the real thing. 

Sinja Grimme: What exactly do you mean by hero’s journey? 

Stefan Kleinalstede: The Hero’s Journey is a classic concept of dramaturgy. After a hero experiences a test on his journey. This necessarily includes a low point! The journey ends with the transformation of the hero. 

Sinja Grimme: So storytelling and authenticity don’t contradict each other? 

Stefan Kleinalstede: No, quite the opposite. If you want to make it really serious and sophisticated, you have to have room for both. You need a master plan. We’ve been telling stories for so long. It would be really unthinkable to show up for the shoot in 2021 and say: let’s see what happens today anyway… ­čśë 

Sinja Grimme: What is the difference for you as a filmmaker between a classic commercial and a documentary? 

Stefan Kleinalstede: The smile of the protagonist. 

Today we produced a little clip for Red Bull in which a Formula 1 driver stops on the race track and does donuts and creates lots of smoke, tires squeal and then he drives away again. In the commercial, afterwards, you have the hero – there’s the guy stands up to the camera and says “Buy the deodorant!” Then you’ve sold that. What I like is that our Formula 1 racing driver drives away with squealing tires and you hear him laughing in the background and he’s just having fun like a big boy! That’s not staged, you hear him laughing in the background over the team radio and that’s the story for me, the icing on the cake. What advertising doesn’t do is tie in personally with the athlete, it can be self-deprecating or self-aware – it has to be authentic! 

Sinja Grimme: In large companies, people are often worried about an open-ended outcome, afraid of failure and that it will damage the image. How do you judge that? 

Stefan Kleinalstede: Fear kills creativity. The synergy with Red Bull is so good because they have been doing this successfully for so many years. Many Red Bull athletes are creative in what they do, even though they do it under extreme pressure. The guys, jumping motorcycles over ramps at 50kmh and doing extremely complicated tricks in the air in the middle of the burning glass, in front of 50,000 people – broadcast live to the whole world. The space for creativity must always remain, if you are not creative and have the joy of artistic creation, you will not be successful. And that’s the same for us filmmakers, it should never be perfectly scripted. 

Sinja Grimme: I did motorsport communications for a long time. There, success is an important topic. How do you deal with failure? What can develop from that?  

Stefan Kleinalstede: Look at the positive examples, such as “All or nothing” on Amazon Prime Video. It’s a very simple concept: one football team, one season, all access. Sometimes they win, but mostly they lose. And the stories are always compelling when you’re close. Whether in exhilaration or pain. “Drive to Survive” on Netflix works the same way. The defeats are what captivate you, that’s when unbelievable things happen. 

In the first episode of “Drive to Survive,” Team Haas F1 is a likeable underdog next to the giants of Ferrari, Mercedes & Red Bull. They almost dominate the race. Then they actually manage to fail to properly bolt the wheels on both of their own cars during two pit stops! Just before the epic victory, you fall into the deepest valley. After all, reality works on the Hero’s Journey concept. 

Sinja Grimme: How important is the team for you? What is the role of the cameraman? 

Stefan Kleinalstede: Artists, athletes, the personalities we get in front of the camera are all people and I think on our side – from the production team – the connection to the people is just as important as the personal demand on the performance. That applies to a cameraman just as much as it does to a sound woman. We have a sound technician who has now wired the coach and players of the German Handball Champions for 75 days of filming. You’re very close to it. You have to fiddle in their ears, put on the chest strap, even when they’re sweating. Every team member has to develop a personal connection with the people who are in front of the camera. That’s why it’s important for the technical team (camera, direction sound, lighting, etc.) to get along with the people without any distance. This is a trust issue. You demand trust when you start shooting and you have to pay it back with trust. 

Sinja Grimme: How important is post production? 

Stefan Kleinalstede: The post production trade has changed completely in the last 10 years. In the past, we would say we were shooting and it was clear what the film would look like. It was simply cut in a linear way, in other words: in the right order. Now so much is possible – a lot of artistic potential can be unleashed. We decouple much more. The editor gets the opportunity to look at the material and then develop his own composition, a dramaturgical production with the layers of music, sound design, rhythm. Wonderfully, I have some great colleagues in the team! 

Sinja Grimme: Next Friday we will go on a shoot together and make a film about museums in the current situation. You’ve done so much sports, how does it feel to suddenly be talking about art? 

Stefan Kleinalstede: I’m really looking forward to it! As always, we bring our equipment with us. And we are masters of our own craft. With this, we provide the framework, build a stage, so to speak, on which our artists will then realize themselves. That will certainly be an adventure!