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The making of Rainbow Angel (Regenbogenengel)

It all began with a number: the statistics on how many young people committed suicide shocked me. I felt a measure of responsibility to do something to help.

As a filmmaker I thought the short film medium could be a wonderful way to work with youngsters and this is what finally happened. It is my personal success.

Rainbow Angel is being shown in schools because it works especially well with young people. Psychologists and people working in suicide prevention with young people use my little movie. The young people (and this was my original idea behind the concept) don't have to talk about themselves. There is a movie between them and the person asking questions. They can discuss the issues and their worries but don't have to reveal their own situations.

Making the film

I studied film making in Hanover, Germany, (my home town) and Rainbow Angel was my final work at the film school. I shot two other short films. My first, Seventh Heaven, was on 16mm. And the second, my pre-diploma movie, At the End of the Day, was on Super 16mm. Rainbow Angel was shot on 35mm. I always wanted to shoot on 35mm. I knew this would be short. I could do it on 35mm, cinemascope with Dolby SR sound because it was sponsored by a Postproduction company in Hamburg to the sum of 7,000 Euros. I had the opportunity to do professional colour grading and I also have the film on HD now. Even though I shot on 35mm they made it possible to convert it to digital and then back to celluloid. This is how the big movies and blockbusters are done. They are shot on 35mm then transferred to digital for special effects, colour grading, detailed control (right down to changing someone's eyes from blue to brown for example). It was very interesting.

The actors

Patrick in bathroom. Joshy listens.
I was scouting locations at my old school where I took my University entrance diploma. I had the chance to shoot there in the sports hall. As I set off home I passed the playground where people were gathering after school. Patrick was sitting there in the middle of this clique of young people. I knew he was perfect for the older brother straight away. My heart was beating. I was a young woman and they were a group of teenagers. I felt too shy to speak to them. So I walked past three times and they began to notice me because I was staring at them. But then I plucked up courage and went straight up to him, introduced myself and told him a bit about the project I wanted to shoot. He was fine with it. He wasn't yet eighteen so I contacted his parents for permission. I found Joshy, the younger brother, at Stage School. I did not expect to find a small boy that sweet and angelic. Children go to that school to act, dance and sing. There are three age groups - from three to five, from six to nine and from ten to thirteen years old. Joshy was in the youngest group. He was so sweet, jumping and playing and hiding in the corner. He had so much hair and such little feet that I thought he would topple over. He was full of energy and joy and I thought - he is the right one. I contacted his parents. I visited Joshy a lot of times. I wanted to become friends with him and it happened naturally. We did a lot of things together: we went to the zoo and had treats. So we trusted each other and this became the basis for our work. He was five when we shot the film.

Working with the actors

Joshy sees Rainbow Angel At the start I wrote a children's script edition of the story of Rainbow Angel because I did not want to confront this little child with a sad story. I wanted to protect him from that. So I rewrote it as a fairy tale especially for Joshy. And I read him this fairy tale many times. I told him that if he wanted he could be a part of this fairy tale. He agreed and was happy with the idea. In this story, his brother was a real Rainbow Angel. At the end of the film Joshy believed that he watched his brother spread his wings in wonderful colours and that he would fly to the rainbow. I wanted to let him believe in that. He was very excited to meet his 'brother'.
Patrick talks to Joshy The first scene we shot was the one in the bathroom. It was a confrontation for both of them. Of course they had a chance to say hello before we started to shoot but I wanted to use the anticipation that had built up in Joshy over weeks. I think you can see in his eyes the way he adores his film brother, the way he is proud that his brother is a real Rainbow Angel. So I used the magic of this moment and fixed it on celluloid for ever. I am very happy with it. In the development of this scene, we dived into the fairy tale and he really acted. I helped him and reminded him of course, but then he entered the role and he knew he was making the movie. So he acted sad because he knew that his brother had to leave him one day. This was Joshy's acting and I think he did it wonderfully.

Joshy and Patrick hug Patrick had never done any acting but I knew I did not have to make things hard for myself. I wasn't searching for an extroverted actor. When I saw this boy sitting in front of the school I saw an introverted teenager and that is what I wanted for the older brother. He already had this in his own personality. So I used it. And why not? Directors don't have to insist on one hundred rehearsals a day to get what they want. You can take advantage of what life offers and use the natural character traits of a person for a role. What's more, in real life, Patrick has a small brother. So he had an instinctive feeling and maybe some sadness at what it would be like if he wanted to say goodbye to his real brother. I helped him create these thoughts and emotions before we shot.

As a director you can awaken these emotions and then see them at their best in the acting. Even in the sports hall, Patrick acted very well. We also did some physical exercises for example to examine how the body responds when we are afraid. I was standing in front of him, breathing like crazy with mouth open, mouth shut; eyes open, eyes shut; flickering. We tried to identify all the things the body might do. When he arrives home in the film he is out of breath. I made him run. 'Run for your life' I said. And he ran for 20 minutes. Sometimes it is not enough to awaken the emotions that help the actor get into a scene. Sometimes you also have to support them with physical activities. I learnt this instinctively.

I studied film making for five years. I learnt skills such as lighting, sound, camera, editing and screen writing. But directing? Can you really learn directing? I question that. I think a huge part is instinct. You always have a unique, special person in front of you and you have to find a key to this person - how to awaken the emotions you need and how to bring out the character from the script. It is very fine, sensitive work.

My work with actors starts much earlier than filming. By the time we are on set we have already discussed everything about their roles. When shooting, especially with youngsters, you don't have much time. So we were very focussed. We lit the rooms before Joshy and Patrick arrived so it was all ready.

When Joshy speaks, he is repeating the fairy tale he has heard and talked about lots of times. But of course when he was on a huge set and everything was new I needed to help him and remind him. Sometimes I needed to start a phrase and he completed it. We were a team. He once said 'Oh Anna if I had known that film making was this exhausting - but I like it.' I also said 'Joshy we are a team and we help each other'.

Joshy looks at camera The scene where Joshy looks at the camera was deliberate. It is part of the concept. We shot some scenes where he was not allowed to look at the camera. This was hard work. He was allowed to look anywhere but at the lens. Then finally he was allowed to look at it because I wanted him at this point to talk directly to the audience like a little angel who looks down on us. He was very pleased when he was finally allowed to look into the lens. It was like getting a chocolate after all the effort. He could see himself in the big lens. I told him to look at and talk to himself.

On set I always tried to hide myself in some way. Sometimes I reminded him of what to say but I always did it so that he could not see me and did not fix on me too much. I was his rock in the sea and if he could see me maybe he would have looked at me more often. So I had to be just a voice from somewhere.

Use of colour

In sports hall Joshy in playroom
The scenes when Patrick, the older brother, experiences violence, were filmed in cold light (e.g. the sports hall and when he comes home and no-one is there.) I wanted to convey his inner feelings with that bleak outer light. The children's room is bathed in warm light. Also with the help of the specialists from the postproduction company we slowly de-saturated the colour chronologically from the start to end of the film. (When watching the film you are possibly not aware of this consciously but it affects you subconsciously.) It is a cinematic device to support the sad story. I think that a lot of our experience of film is absorbed subconsciously. This is how film should be. You should not see things explicitly but feel the emotions.

The jump

The jump from window. Don't remind me of that. I had a stunt man (Ecki Epstein), who was a professional wrestler. He knew how to fall. The whole team (costume designer, set designers, sound, cameramen etc.) held the edge of a large mat. Then we had a ladder. Patrick climbed on the ladder higher and higher. We were very nervous but our stuntman Ecki said 'You can do it, you can hold him'. Patrick trusted us and let himself fall onto this mat. So we knew we could do it because the ladder was the same height as the window. In addition I bought 50 boxes from Ikea to make two levels of boxes underneath the mat. The whole team held the mat again. I stood behind the camera and he jumped. At the end I would have liked to keep the shot a bit longer, maybe 3 seconds but I was so worried that I ran forward. Everything was fine. This was the hardest sequence. After all, it is only a movie and I could not bear for someone to be hurt.


The music was composed by Michael Nierada, who studied music in Hanover. When I presented my pre-diploma movie in Hanover at a Film Festival for up and coming film makers he waited for me. He gave me a cd of his music and said he would love it if I would listen to it. That was in 2005. I liked the songs but couldn't use them on any project. Then when I made this film I listened to the CD again and it had this track on it. Meanwhile he had moved and was studying in Leipzig so we organised everything by telephone. We installed a separate server where I could hear the music and give him my ideas on what he sent me. I gave him the actual edit and he tried to synchronise the music to the edit. It was step by step, a long process.

Finally when it was very close I did one last cut, frame by frame with the music. The film is one with the music. The heart and spirit of the music is the same as was on his original cd but it was rewritten for the film. Michael was very sensitive to the story and we did not want to smother the movie with music but rather support the emotions. I am very happy with the collaboration. There were three main meetings when he came to Hanover so we could sit together and watch the cut together and he could tell me his ideas. But the rest was done at a distance and worked very well.

Looking back

With hindsight I would shorten the running sequence and the cycling sequence.

Adult audiences question the lack of grown-ups in the film, but I wanted it to be from the point of view of the young people.

I am proud that the film supports suicide prevention, encourages awareness of the problem and breaks down the taboos around the subject. There has been lots of research into suicide by psychologists. There seems to be a change in the level of violence in schools but we do not know why this is.

- Anna Kasten

Rainbow Angel won a 4-Star Award at BIAFF 2010.

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Page updated on 04 October 2011
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