Creating the Cinematic Musical Numbers of Peacock’s ‘Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin’

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Agnesh Pakozdi is the incredible Berlin-based cinematographer for episodes three and four of the upcoming Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin series, which debuted November 23rd on Peacock. The series follows the original movie’s Bumper (Adam Devine) as he moves to Berlin to continue his music career.

One of the main elements of Agnesh’s work was shooting the over the top musical numbers in the show. One in particular took place in a Berlin art gallery, where there were hundreds of extras performing intricate choreography. They shot this scene in one long 360 shot, and used invisible ramps that were built into the set to get a flying camera effect.

Other stand out moments include a scene where a romantic theater performance with sweeping camera movements all of a sudden switches to a cold nightmare. This required a rapid change in lighting to depict the transition from a dream performance to an actual nightmare. There was also a bar scene where a character is talking about his past where Agnesh designed creative transitions to show time passing.

As a Berlin-based cinematographer, Agnesh is excited to continue using her talents and local expertise on future American projects that film there. 

PH: Hi there Agnesh! I'd love to learn a little bit more about your background. How did you get into the production world? 

Agnesh Pakozdi: Hi! It was quite a long journey, starting back in Hungary. As an economist, I was slowly understanding that my hobby, cinema, could be my profession. It was a crazy idea back then in that spot, as there were no women who ever got the chance to do cinema as a DOP. I got a scholarship to Berlin to make video arts, and I found it exciting to create visual concepts and transform thoughts into images. By that time, I also understood that I didn’t want to be a lone wolf artist, but rather work with collaborators in a crew. I always had weird ideas– I applied for cinematography with a single static long shot of 5 minutes. Lots of things happened in those five minutes, but the jury was outraged, thinking: what does she think she is doing? That’s the spirit I still try to keep – each shot has its legitimacy, peculiarity, and value. It’s never just a closeup or a pickup: it is a shot from a world, and I shoot it like it’s the most important shot of the movie.

PH: Can you share some of your first few projects? How did you "break into" the industry?

Agnesh Pakozdi: I never had the feeling that I really broke into the industry, which might sound funny being a DOP for Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin. I was always an interesting (or weird?) outsider with a special vision on things. A workflow with me is always unorthodox, but I am very open and want to understand the vision to the beats. Once we are there, it’s so fun to create and contribute to the director's vision. I always got further through recommendations rather than self-marketing. 

I shot my first projects during my film studies, a series of experimental shorts. We had access to some 16mm rolls, black and white ORWO material, and Kodak and Fuji rests. As we were really tight on meters, we had to tell the story with one or maximum two takes for a shot. This experience was key in teaching me how to deal with tension well, how to focus the attention on set, and how to reach a level of high concentration. Some of my early shorts were running well at festivals in Europe, and that’s how I made my way to arthouse cinema. The commercial part came later due to my interest in musicals.

PH: What drew you to work on Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin? How did the project come about?

Agnesh Pakozdi: Musicals have always been my favorite. My first short, also shot on 16mm at the academy, was an enchanting no-budget musical. A year ago, we were just prepping the first big musical feature production in Germany when Bumper in Berlin came along. 

I also work sometimes in Hungary, my home country, where there are many service productions and great technical crew. I was operating B-cam and 2nd Unit for the latest feature of Brandon Cronenberg, which was a Canadian – US co-production. Through these chains of connections and recommendations, the main DOP for Bumper, Mike Spragg, encouraged me to apply for this project. I knew this was a great chance to gather a lot of experience in setting up musical scenes. It’s a different workflow and a more complex parallel brainstorm among directing, cinematography, choreography, and set design. I love it. 

PH: Can you walk me through your planning process for shooting? What was it like working with a project where the character was already developed from a previous film?

Agnesh Pakozdi: The process is always similar. Starting with a lot of research. I rewatched the Pitch Perfect movies and studied the looks, the breakdowns (especially from the riff-offs), the camera and light concepts. It’s useful to understand the ingredients of its huge success in a more conscious way. Bumper’s character was developed, but he lands in a completely new environment, which provided a great freedom in reestablishing the looks and design and in finding the best way to depict this fictional Berlin welcoming and/or rejecting Bumper. We had plenty of on-location sets in the city, which give the series its specific look.

PH: What were some of the challenges and opportunities with working with a character/story that was already sort of developed? 

Agnesh Pakozdi: There are great opportunities to play with a character who the audience already knows and face him with completely new challenges. You may play with previous information and recall jokes or situations from his past. Generally, Berlin offered Bumper plenty of chances to expand his character. From the cinematography aspect, we were quite free and bold to create radical looks for different scenes. Some of them don’t feel like a comedy at all; the style is often flirting with other genres. That’s also an aspect which makes this show special and interesting, and it does not take a beat away from its humor.

PH: Can you share how you balance creativity as a cinematographer, and how did you use that creativity to showcase the passing of time?

Agnesh Pakozdi: I have to start this answer mentioning that it was a great preptime with Richie Keen. We were quite tight on schedule for the amount of locations and really complex musical parts. He had a strong vision and an open mind, which is the best base for a constructive, creative workflow. It was our first project together, and we were both very ambitious and going for the best. Even if the stakes and the expectations are high, and you know you are working under great pressure, you have to be able to relax and put out even your silliest ideas. If they don’t land, they still can inspire a really good one. One of my favorites is the flashback of Pieter in the bar, where within a couple of sentences we could tell his past in a funny and creative way by connecting shots and cuts and using impressive movements. Bumper`s fantasies and dreams also offered good opportunities to be bold and cinematic.

PH: What are some of your go-to techniques that allowed you to tell this story? And more specifically, how did you shoot over musical numbers? 

Agnesh Pakozdi: We always connect two scenes or enter a new one with a special idea. Sometimes it’s an impressive crane and steadicam combination, sometimes it’s an interesting revealing movement, or it could also be a visual joke leading us back to the characters. Each musical number has a core idea. The most challenging was the art gallery choreography, where the whole song was a single long shot. We had a gallery full of extras and dancers. The camera shot 360, fluidly switching between close-ups and wide shots, and moved high and low freely in the space where we saw basically each corner. It was a great challenge for the lighting to adjust and follow the whole choreography, but also for the steadicam. We built hidden ramps in the space for the camera to be able to reach this floating lightness and follow the action. 

PH: How important was lighting in the story? How did you manage extreme lighting changes to tell the most succinct story?

Agnesh Pakozdi: Lighting was one of the key elements. Bumper’s character, especially in Adam DeVine’s vivid performance, offered a great stage to play with radical and versatile lighting. The style follows his wild imagination, as well as the rollercoaster of his emotions in those edgy situations that he ends up in all the time. The lighting in this comedy is definitely unconventional in terms of surfing between genre styles. We switch from a glowing romantic revue into a bloody nightmare within a cut. Still it’s a comedy, where the main focus is on the great performances of the entire cast.

PH: What is some of your go-to equipment you used to make this project come to life? (and why did you choose it?) 

Agnesh Pakozdi: We had a great crew and good resources to make this project happen, which allowed us to allocate our resources on the main goal of the shots. As it’s a comedy, the most important thing is to make the jokes work and provide the conditions for the actors’ best performance. I can really say they made us constantly laugh, so I do not doubt at all that we managed this. We used multiple cameras to minimize takes and get great coverage. In other scenes, the accent was more on exploring the space around them, and giving the story a good rhythm and flow in an easy and entertaining way. Here, we worked more with steadicam or with a dolly crane combination. One exception to this was in Bumper’s music video in the theme park. We worked with a postcard montage of different situations because that felt the best for showing their fun. After all, it always depends on the core of the scene.

PH: As with many roles, the ability to adapt is incredibly important. Can you talk me through how you identified the specific needs of each project you work on based on the script, cast and crew involved, and the overall goal for the project? 

Agnesh Pakozdi: I have few but very important conditions to give my best for a project. I need to find a connection for myself to the project, which is my core motivation and inspiration to go ahead. This is the most important. I always think about filmmaking as a privilege. You are trusted with a lot of resources to create something special. You have to be clear about yourself and about what makes you do your best. For me, it is sharing the passion and trusting each other. If we can work on this basis with the collaborators, then it becomes easy to adapt to a vision. It’s a playground for creative minds who can cope with huge responsibilities and at the same time explore and play.

PH: In your opinion, what characteristics/skill set do you need to be a successful DP? 

Agnesh Pakozdi: One reason why I love this profession is because you need diverse and complex skills to become good at it. Having a “good eye” is maybe 10% of the show. You need a strong aesthetical affinity and confidence in establishing a style. By this, I mean to find the right form for the actual content, not your style in general. That’s not your job to describe it–leave that for others. Then you need up-to-date knowledge, and not just about the technical background. You should be a walking library of visual arts. Of course you can and should be intuitive, but you have to know the meaning of what you are coming up with. Besides this, you should be a teamplayer. A good and patient partner and leader at the same time. Flexible, being able to combine, to count with consequences, and still not lose the dream. I have to add here, since becoming a parent, I became a better cinematographer. Patience, multitasking, and logistics on set were second nature to me. 

PH: How do you use your expertise as a Berlin cinematographer for American projects that film in Berlin? 

Agnesh Pakozdi: I worked on several US productions now, starting with CalArts thesis projects while doing my GCI Masterclass in LA, a music documentary in Woodstock with Chris Hegedüs, a short in Seattle, service productions in Hungary, and of course “Bumper in Berlin”. I feel very comfortable on American sets. I see myself as a great asset in Europe, especially in Berlin and in Budapest, being familiar not just with the languages but also with the production workflows and working styles.

PH: Would you like to share any upcoming projects? 

Agnesh Pakozdi: I just finished a feature in Georgia, Caucasus. It was a great experience in a very special environment. We created painting-like imagery around a very rural story about an elderly single lady who makes her own small revolution in the village. I’m also looking forward to an edgy feminist musical with the director of “Aren't You Happy?” in Germany.

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