Helmrich is famous for perfecting the 'Single Camera Shot' filming style and his related technical camera innovations.
"...you can move inside an event and go with your camera to the right spot, at the right moment,... That’s what the whole single-shot cinema is about: trying to think of the world as a kind of clockwork, a machinery, with everything interrelated. The bigger and smaller things are just as important. In a clockworks you can’t pull out a little gear because the whole thing jams. The solution is to become one of the clockworks.", Leonard Retel Helmrich.
After Indonesian independence the Helmrich family repatriated to the Netherlands during the Indo diaspora. His father, Jean Retel Helmrich, was born to a wealthy totok family in Semarang, Dutch East Indies, fought against the Japanese invaders during World War II and was interred as aPOW for three years. After the war he married a Javanese woman. “It was forbidden,” Mr. Helmrich’s sister and producer, Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich, explained. “They had to get permission from the queen, from the Indonesian government, the Dutch government, the Muslim church, and the Catholic Church. It was Romeo and Juliet.” Growing up, the filmmaker “had a lot of problems because of his dyslexia,” she said. “The teachers were always complaining that he was living in his own world, but already when he was a little boy he made very good drawings.” The family’s belief in him extended to financing “Eye of the Day” and getting involved in other ways. Ms. Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich’s production company, Scarabee, produces Mr. Helmrich’s films; her son, Jasper Naaijkens, is his uncle’s editor — which cannot be any easy job, considering Mr. Helmrich can come up with hourlong shots.
Since then Retel Helmrich’s films have screened and won acclaim at film festivals world wide, garnering major awards for both his drama and documentary work. His awards include the inaugural Grand World Documentary Award at Sundance2005 and the prestigious Joris Ivens Award at IDFA Amsterdam 2004 for his Indonesian feature documentary Shape of the Moon (Stand van de Maan). In 2010 he won for the second time the Grand VPRO/IDFA Award for feature documentary for Position Among the Stars (Stand van de Sterren) together with the IDFA Award for the best Dutch documentary. It was the first time in the IDFA history that a director won this award for the second time. In January 2011 he won again the World Documentary Award at Sundance for Position among the Stars.
Leonard Retel Helmrich has served on the jury of many film festivals, including festivals in Shanghai, Warsaw, Seoul, Sibiu (Romania) and Amsterdam. He has had major retrospectives of his work at Visions du Réel in Nyon, Switzerland, Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire in Montreal and at ASTRA in Sibiu, Romania. He has also lectured and screened his films at numerous educational institutions including the Flaherty Seminar Program in New York and at Harvard University where he was awarded a Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. Leonard shoots as well as directs all his own films and is best known for a philosophy and approach he calls ‘Single Shot Cinema’, which involves long takes with a hand-held but smooth camera moving close to the subject. Above all, in his films, it is the framing and movement of the camera that captures and leads the emotions of the audience. He has taught over 20 workshops on Single Shot Cinema techniques for film festivals, television broadcasters, independent filmmakers, film schools and universities in Europe, Asia, North America, Australia and in Africa. During his Harvard fellowship, he was editing his latest film Position Among the Stars, the third film of his trilogy on contemporary Indonesia. He is currently writing a book about “Single Shot Cinema”.
Single Shot Cinema
Single Shot Cinema is a way of filming that enables one to shoot a scene in one single take using just one camera moving fluidly around the subject recording all the camera angles that express one's personal feeling and perception of that moment. The camera moves steadily and fluidly while constantly changing angles. The idea is to use fast and slow, high and low, close and far camera movements in a single shot within a scene. In this way, the camera movement itself becomes the primary cinematic expression.
"In “Shape of the Moon” (2004) a barefoot man crosses a railroad trestle a thousand feet above an Indonesian valley, stepping briskly along a beam barely wider than his feet. We see him from behind. We see him from above. Most alarming, we see him from the side, by means of a camera that seems mounted in midair. It’s breathtaking, what the subject is doing. But a man with a camera is doing it too." John Anderson, The New York Times.
He was inspired by the French film critic André Bazin whose ideas helped create the Nouvelle Vague films of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. According to Bazin, a moving camera is the essence of documentary filmmaking: “It should not cut up reality, but rather it should show reality in its temporal continuity.” Single Shot Cinema in documentary means catching real life moments while they are happening in one continuous shot with a camera that is moving around the subject. As a result, shots are not edited from one still moment to the next, but rather from one camera movement to the next. In practice this means that the camera movement must have a dramatic purpose. Ideally all footage shot should be usable for editing. In order to accomplish this, the filmmaker should always keep the center of attention within the camera frame. Discussing post-war Italian Neorealism, especially Rossellini's film Paisa, Andre Bazin coined the term "cinematic tact". This was something personal and dynamic which, by virtue of its dynamism, can be compared to the movement of a hand sketching: leaving a space here, filling in there, here sketching around the subject and thereby bringing it into relief. Bazin goes on to say that the camera must be equally prepared to move as to remain still. He describes camera movement in Italian Neorealism as having a human quality, as a projection of the hand and the eye, almost like a living part of the operator flowing directly from his awareness.
“His camera glides through spaces in a way that just seems impossible... Sometimes you stop looking at the movie and look at the shot. But I think it’s delightful." Robb Moss, film lecturer at Harvard.
Anderson, John ''A Master of Impossible Camera Angles'' (The New York Times, NYC, 9 September 2011)