EXCLUSIVE: Netflix’s first German original series Dark was always going to be a tough act to follow for its creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar. The mind-bending, time-weaving show debuted on the platform in December 2017 and attracted a global fanbase across a run of three taut, satisfying seasons until it concluded in June 2020. Alongside critical acclaim, the series is also understood to have been a viewing hit for Netflix, which doesn’t disclose specific numbers but did reveal back in October that it was the streamer’s third most watched international series in America.
In 2018, Friese and Odar inked a significant overall deal with Netflix that sees them exclusively create projects for the streamer across an initial five-year period. Post-Dark, their next show will be 1899, an ambitious period mystery set on a migrant boat sailing from Europe to the United States. As Deadline revealed today, the project will star Aneurin Barnard, Andreas Pietschmann, Miguel Bernardeau alongside Emily Beecham. We can also now confirm exclusively that the show is on floors at Studio Babelsberg in Germany, and that it is being filmed on a brand new, state of the art ‘virtual production’ facility known as a ‘Volume’.
The stage, similar to the tech notably used on Disney’s The Mandalorian, is 75ft across and 23ft tall, with 4,500 sqft of shooting space. It is surrounded by a dynamic LED backdrop that is rendered in a video game engine (Unreal Engine) in real-time, moving with the camera to simulate a realistic background and sky that creates the illusion of shooting outdoors. Because the whole process is captured in-camera, with effects added in real time, the technology eschews the need for green screen and drastically reduces the post-production process.
The facility, which is operated by Friese and Odar’s sister company Dark Bay (their production company is Dark Ways), has cost a significant amount of money to build, with backing coming from sources including the Investment Bank of Brandenburg and Netflix. Raising that funding was possible because Netflix has also committed to house multiple series on the stage, including at least one season of 1899 (more on that later), over the coming years, the streamer tells us. Dark Bay is Europe’s largest virtual production site and will be bookable for exterior producers once 1899 wraps in November.
“Going forward we have the opportunity for any filmmakers around the world to come to Babelsberg and use the facility. I envision that Germany can become a European leader in virtual production,” Netflix’s director of International Originals Rachel Eggebeen tells Deadline.
Those involved in 1899 are keeping plot details close to their chests, but the premise is that the passengers on the boat, who hail from a diverse mixture of cultures and backgrounds but are united in seeking a better life in the U.S., encounter another migrant boat adrift on the open sea that turns their journey into a horrifying nightmare. Deadline can also today unveil a first teaser for the project:
The series has been in the works since 2018 and began to gain momentum at the beginning of last year, when the pandemic had yet to really register in Europe. As Friese and Odar explain to Deadline from the Babelsberg studio in their first interview about the show, virtual production was not a consideration at that point.
“We are very old school filmmakers. We’re used to going on real locations, using real sounds and stuff like that, that was the plan for this show,” says Odar. “The pandemic really hit us, and we had to discuss how we could do a pan-European show during this time – it was really the worst idea. Quite quickly we realized it would not be possible in the near future.”
Netflix, however, was already kicking the tyres on virtual production. The technology had been put in the public eye through its use on The Mandalorian, though it has existed for a number of years prior to the Disney+ series. In 2020, lockdown and travel restrictions gave the tech a fresh appeal and companies such as Weta Digital and the UK’s Rebellion began to bet big on the idea playing a significant part in the future of production by building their own studios.
In November 2018 Netflix hired Girish Balakrishnan from post house MPC as its Director, Virtual Production, and he is now a part of the streamer’s team steering that effort stateside. It was when Kelly Luegenbiehl, Netflix’s VP Global Franchises, attended a virtual production demo in Los Angeles at the beginning of 2020 that she first cottoned onto the idea that the tech could be interesting for Friese and Odar to look into. “It may have gone in that direction anyway [1899 shooting virtually], but the constraints of filmmaking and travelling [from the pandemic] definitely highlighted this as an exciting route for us to get behind,” adds Eggebeen.
Odar says that upon first viewing the technology they were suitably impressed, but immediately knew that it would be a steep learning curve.
“It is literally a new way of filmmaking,” he states. “We spoke with the team behind The Mandalorian, including the DP [Barry Baz Idoine] to understand the technology more. It was clearly challenging for each department, but we love challenges so we wanted to try it for this show.”
“We originally planned to travel to Spain, Poland, Scotland, all kinds of locations,” adds Friese. “Quite quickly [after the pandemic started] we knew that might not be possible in the new future, so we fully embraced the idea of bringing Europe to us.”
“It sounds like a magic tool, but it’s really, really tricky. It’s like if you’re used to driving a car and now you suddenly have to fly a plane. It’s a big, big difference,” says Odar.
The pair were able to first get behind the wheels of virtual production last summer, with Netflix erecting a test ‘Volume’ at its UK studio hub Shepperton Studios. “Once I stood in the Volume, that was the first time I understood it. That was exciting,” recalls Odar.
“It will really help filmmakers to think of stories differently,” asserts Friese. “Once you start working with it, it makes you write scenes differently, it allows you to explore things you might not be able to explore on a natural set.”
The team still needed to shoot real-life backgrounds to be rendered in the engine and appear on the LED screens, and they travelled to various countries and locations earlier this year to capture that footage. However, it is much more complicated than simply filming the footage and projecting it onto the screens on set, as Odar explains.
“It’s not a projection, you don’t shoot a 360 of a landscape and project it onto LED walls, because you would move in with the camera and the projection would stay 2D,” he says. “It’s about scanning landscapes and turning them into 3D models so you can actually walk through them. If I push the camera towards the wall, the landscape moves with us. It’s about creating 3D worlds in camera that can move and change with you.”
The team also shot plenty of footage on the ocean, and have built a significant physical set for their crucial location – the ship – at the Babelsberg facility. It has been an exhaustive prep process.
“You literally take post-production and make it pre-production,” Odar adds. “Everything has to be decided beforehand, you have to create it, build it, so it’s all ready to shoot in camera. You don’t use any green screen, ideally. I hate green screen, you need so much imagination, and the actors do too. Having it [the location] already on set is a big benefit. And then in the editing you already have it all there.”
Friese also notes the convenience benefit during production. “In terms of light and atmosphere, you can have the sun down for 10 hours if you want, it really helps from a practical shooting standpoint,” she says. That’s an added bonus in the pandemic era of production, with all the extra hoops filmmakers need to jump through to adhere to Covid protocols.
For 1899, Friese and Odar are stepping up from their roles as writer-creator-showrunners on Dark to also solely produce through their banner Dark Ways (Dark was produced with W&B Television for Netflix). Why did they make that decision? “We’ve grown as filmmakers. We’d never done a series before Dark, we learned on the go. We really love challenges so it was a natural step for us to produce as well,” says Friese.
As for Netflix, Eggebeen says the streamer’s experience with the duo on Dark made it clear they wanted to be in business with them “for a very long time”.
1899 was first announced during the European migrant crisis, when high numbers of displaced people were arriving on the continent from regions including the Middle East and Africa to seek safety from conflicts and other hardships. That influence is clearly visible in the plot, which sees the ship’s passengers, a mixture of backgrounds and nationalities, seeking a better life abroad. Friese explains that making the project notably European was also key for its creators.
“The whole European angle was very important for us, not only story wise but also the way we were going to produce it,” says Friese. “It really had to be a European collaboration, not just cast but also crew. We felt that with the past years of Europe being on the decline, we wanted to give a counterpoint to Brexit, and to nationalism rising in different countries, to go back to that idea of Europe and Europeans working and creating together.”
That endeavor sparked the idea behind one of the intriguing creative decisions taken by the duo for this series – to shoot it entirely multilingual, with each actor speaking their native tongue on set. That is also how it will be shown on Netflix.
“Being true to the cultures and the languages was really important, we never wanted to have characters from different countries but everyone speaks English,” Friese explains. “We wanted to explore this heart of Europe, where everyone comes from somewhere else and speaks a different language, and language defines so much of your culture and your behaviour.”
“We just had a reading, partly on zoom, partly with actors who are here [in Germany], and it was such an amazing experience to hear everyone speak in their language, going from Spanish to French to Polish, and have it all come together. I hope it’s going to make English-speaking people learn and love different languages as well,” she says with a smile.
Arguably, that creative decision would never have been endorsed five or so years ago, but the streamers have helped to usher in a new era that sees content from all languages crossing borders more than ever before, including into English-speaking markets, where traditionally non-English content has struggled. Even on platforms such as Netflix, the rise in appetite for non-English programming is increasing rapidly, with such TV and films attracting double the number of viewers in 2020 that they did in 2019.
“Netflix and the other streamers really opened the door to different content from different languages,” says Friese. “That barrier that used to be there, where people didn’t want to read subtitles, that has really changed. There’s so much to discover out there apart from U.S. and UK content, it’s great to hear different voices.”
“1899 is pioneering in terms of its commitment to authenticity of language,” adds Eggebeen. “It’s exciting to be part of a truly international show. There will be points in the show where characters have problems communicating because of the languages – I don’t think it’s something we’ve seen before.”
“We have a lot of translators on set,” she notes. “You couldn’t get more international than a show like this.”
Plotting a mysterious path
Friese and Odar won’t be drawn into discussing 1899’s plot in more depth, but they want to reassure fans of their previous work that this is going to be in a similar vein. “Knowing that we did Dark, everyone can be assured that this is going to be something weird and wild and crazy,” teases Odar.
Will it involve time travel again? “We don’t repeat ourselves, we really hate that, but it’s going to be a fun puzzle for the audience. We are going back to our mystery roots,” Odar adds.
“All the passengers on the ship are travelling with secrets that they don’t want to get out. It’s built like a puzzle again,” adds Friese.
In terms of how long 1899 might run, Friese says the pair are trying their best to make it a multi-season show, but notes that “it depends on the viewers”, as well as Netflix.
As for fans of Dark, don’t expect to see more of that show any time soon, but its creators aren’t entirely ruling out a return. “There’s always a possibility. If you can think it, it’s possible,” says Friese cryptically.
“I’m so happy that there was never a Fight Club 2, it would have ruined Fight Club,” adds Odar. “Maybe in 10 years there’s a great idea that would make sense for more Dark, but right now we feel like we accomplished the work in three seasons. I would be scared to do something that might ruin those three seasons.”
“Maybe in 33 years?” Quips Friese.
“Or maybe a spin-off of Wöller and his eye… as a comedy, what happened to him? Odar jokes.