Cinematographers & Cameras: "BlacKkKlansman," Toronto Fest Films, Facebook Series
Chayse Irvin, CSC
Reflections from Chayse Irvin, CSC, Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, Giles Nuttgens, BSC, Xavier Grobet, ASC, AMC

One DP got the opportunity to collaborate with a director he long admired, yielding a film which earned a six-minute standing ovation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Another two-time Oscar nominee lensed an ad campaign for a director which translated into their again teaming on a feature, which debuted at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival.

A third cinematographer shot two features which also made the cut at the Toronto Film Festival.

And our fourth DP lent his talents to one of Facebook’s first original content series, which gained exposure in the TV portion of the Toronto Fest.

Here are insights and observations from Chayse Irvin, CSC, Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, Giles Nuttgens, BSC, and Xavier Grobet, ASC, AMC.

Chayse Irvin, CSC
For cinematographer Chayse Irvin, getting the chance to work with Spike Lee, a filmmaker he’s long admired, was a dream come true. Landing the gig entailed getting Lee’s attention and then taking on sort of a trial baptism under fire. The former was accomplished when Irvin lensed a couple of projects for filmmaker Kahlil Joseph—the “Lemonade” video for Beyonce, and another long-form music clip for artist Sampha titled “Process.” Lee was drawn to both projects and reached out to Irvin when the DP was in Stockholm. He requested that Irvin meet him in NYC the next day.

Irvin made his way to the Big Apple post haste, hooking up with Lee at Yankee Stadium. Irvin had been presented a script earlier in the day which was for a project called Pass Over. “They gave me the wrong script, then I met Spike and we talked about BlacKkKlansman,” recalled Irvin. “He then invited me to breakfast where he handed me the real script for that film.”

As it turns out, though, Irvin first shot Pass Over for Lee—a 10-camera, live stage presentation with a live audience. “It wasn’t anything like a narrative film but it was a shoot injected with a lot of stress,” assessed Irvin. “It was a way to see how he and I handled stress together. It was a warm-up so we could feel each other out, to see if we would work together well. We shot it over a weekend and the following Monday went straight into pre-pro (on BlacKkKlansman).”

BlacKkKlansman dramatizes a true story from the 1970s when the very first African-American police officer and then detective at the Colorado Springs Police Department (portrayed by John David Washington) infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a fellow detective (Adam Driver). For Irvin, the biggest challenge was “crossing boundaries”—depicting “horrible instances of racism” but “balancing that darkness with absurdities and humor.”

The film, continued Irvin, “is trying to find a very unique channel. You’re delving into uncharted territory but you have to trust the process. It’s an engaging film that comments on social issues. I didn’t fully know how good it was until we screened it at Cannes (eliciting the aforementioned six-minute ovation).”

After much deliberation and experimentation, Irvin gravitated to the film medium—a mix of Super 16mm, 35mm, Vision 3 camera negative and even Ektachrome—for BlacKkKlansman. Chosen as the movie’s main workhorse camera was the Panavision Millennium XL2 film camera. Irvin also used the Aaton Penelope, a small compact camera well suited for hand-held footage in cars, and the Arricam LT which was “Panavised” for select scenes. There was also a smattering of some digital drone fare.

Irvin noted that Lee embraced shooting on film, with different elements having fallen in place at a fortuitous time, such as Kodak’s opening of a new film lab in NYC as well as support from Panavision, Company 3 and others who rallied behind the movie. “Spike hadn’t done film for a long time but the choice reinvigorated and inspired both of us.”

Irvin was also directly inspired by Lee. “My biggest takeaway from the experience on BlacKkKlansman is that Spike has an amazing relationship with his crew. He’s constantly working with new people along with a group of artists he’s been working with for 25 years. He has great respect for every single crew member. He’s a papa to everybody. He has created so many careers for crew members. It’s inspiring how he approaches his human interactions on the set. He’s very compassionate.”

Irvin has enjoyed success on short and long-form fronts. His first feature film was Medeas (2013) for which he earned Best Cinematography Debut distinction at Camerimage. Irvin also lensed Squarespace’s “Calling,” which won last year’s primetime spot Emmy Award; it was directed by Miles Jay of Smuggler for agency JohnXHannes, New York.

Jeff Cronenweth, ASC
For two straight years, Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, earned ASC Award and Best Cinematography Oscar nominations on the strength of David Fincher-directed films; in 2011, it was for The Social Network, followed by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in 2012. For Cronenweth, it’s all about story—and that’s what drew him to director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s A Million Little Pieces, which recently debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival.

A Million Little Pieces is based on the initially acclaimed book of the same title by James Frey. However the bloom come off the rose when it was revealed that parts of the memoir about drug addiction and rehabilitation were partially fabricated or embellished. Oprah Winfrey wholeheartedly recommended the book but then rescinded that glowing endorsement, chastising Frey on TV for misrepresenting the facts. Thus the once hot Hollywood property turned stone cold—only to be resurrected by Taylor-Johnson who saw the virtue of the story and its message of redemption.

Cronenweth recalled, “My involvement in A Million Little Pieces is a bit serendipitous as I was a fan of the book when it was originally published.  In 2005 I was approached by Mark Romanek to shoot his version of the story. Soon after that, Oprah and James Frey had the epic falling out and the film project was shelved. So some 13 years later when Sam approached me, I was excited as I had always felt it was a beautiful story with great messages that would one day become a good film, factual or not. As you know Sam directed Fifty Shades of Grey and her producer Mike De Luca (The Social Network) had asked me to consider shooting the film. But it was a near miss because before our first meeting Fincher’s Gone Girl went into pre-production and I never got to meet Sam.”

However, they met last year when Fincher lensed a Givency ad campaign which entailed his collaborating with Taylor-Johnson and her husband, actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson. That positive experience dovetailed into their again coming together on A Million Little Pieces, for which Sam and Aaron Taylor-Johnson wrote the screenplay. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is also in the film’s cast.

No longer a marquee studio property, the film had its share of budgetary constraints. Cronenweth shared, “The obvious challenges were created by a 21-day shoot and the financial restraints that follow. Not to mention making sure that we gave the actors the time they needed to find those intimate and so emotionally exposed performances; this all the while creating a photographic palette that supports the weight of this personal story. I chose to approach this film visually with the attitude that imperfect people in an imperfect world coming to terms with the consequences of their choices needed to be slightly off. I wanted the imagery to coincide with their disruptive journeys. By that I mean I made a few subtle choices like embracing multiple cameras intentionally to limit my ability to make any one shot too precious, forcing compositions infusing a little tension, embracing single sources, all beautifully imperfect. Another challenge was the feeling of a small film; we worked hard at utilizing every resource available giving scale and diversity within our story so you never felt disconnected from the integrity of the performances but still had room to breathe.”

Cronenweth added, “I think that whether it’s a $3.5 million or a $150 million movie, you have to apply the same virtues and integrity...It’s still all about the work you put into the prep, the commitment to aesthetics and the most creative solutions made when obstacles arise. Regardless of the budget, there are no disclaimers in the credits so you are what you make.”

Relative to choice of camera, Cronenweth explained, “I used three Monstro bodies, the newest camera from Red Cinema for A Million Little Pieces predominately because I love the images, how the camera beautifully resolves color and the support RED has always provided. I have shot my last five films with RED Cinema cameras and couldn’t be happier with the images. This movie aesthetically is very intimate and takes place in a majority of low light situations so the ISO and resolution would be very crucial tools to embellish. We framed for 2:40 and recorded at 6.5k knowing it could really become an asset for us down the road in reframing or in this case re-purposing images if necessary.”

As for what’s next for Cronenweth, he’s open to the possibilities—spanning features, TV, commercials, as well as directing. Cronenweth said he scheduled no features in the near future because he wanted to be available for the film festival circuit with A Million Little Pieces. The fest dynamic, he noted, is “something I have never experienced before.” He added that TV isn’t imminent “although on the way back from the Toronto Film Festival I stopped in Pittsburgh to visit David Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt on the set of Mindhunter.

In addition to lensing commercials like the aforementioned Givency campaign for director Taylor-Johnson (who’s handled in the ad arena by production house Hey Wonderful), Cronenweth teams with his brother Tim—a.k.a. The Cronenweths—to direct select spots. The Cronenweths are now with Sandwick Films for commercials and branded content, and just wrapped a six-day shoot in Vancouver, B.C., for a pharmaceutical campaign.

Giles Nuttgens, BSC
Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens also made his mark at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, lensing a pair of films that made the final cut—director Wash Westmoreland’s Colette starring Keira Knightley, and Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest starring Dev Patel.

Colette delves into the life of French feminist icon and literary force Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (portrayed by Knightley), known for such works as “Claudine à l’école,” the 1900 coming-of-age novel that turned Colette’s fictional alter ego, Claudine, into a sensation. It was, however, published under the nom de plume of her husband (“Willy”), the publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars (played by Dominic West in the film).

Nuttgens recollected that he and Westmoreland “had been talking about potentially working together for some years when he had a picture about a working class vampire with Julie Christie. I had met with them as well to talk about Still Alice with Wash and Richard Glatzer (who co- wrote the Colette script) so when this film came up I thought it a great opportunity to work with him, alongside a tight script and two great actors. Wash, Michael Carlin (the production designer) and I talked over how we wanted to approach the look of the film and looked over references from French artists to classic films, such as the work of Max Ophuls, up to contemporary movies that covered a similar period around the turn of the century.  I was determined to avoid as much as possible the overly lyrical period lighting that we see in many films and try to portray the city of Paris and the interior of their apartment with filtered light that was predominant from the overcast carbon polluted Parisian skies around the turn of the century. The limiting factor was the desire to keep the rooms dark and the faces subdued but without it looking overall the end we probably kept the actor’s faces better exposed a little more than originally intended to add a little more contrast to the image for cinema projection which unfortunately, as yet, can’t produce true blacks.”

Nuttgens deployed the ARRI ALEXA with “anamorphic lenses but chose the sharpest ones presently available.  I didn’t wanted to be limited by the dropoff of sharpness towards the edges of the frame—which is typical of many anamorphics when using limited light. We softened lightly the image with diffusion but I didn’t want the image to ever look soft..There needed to be an edge to the film and not to get lost in overly romanticized imagery. We pushed things as far as we could using predominantly candlelight for the first act of the film (before the city became electrified) and this had mixed results...however much we desired to have everything look real, the ALEXA needed a fair bit of help with fill light to soften the effect on the actors’ faces. Alongside that sometimes using so many candles in confined spaces used up a lot of the available oxygen which made working less efficient as well as risking damaging some of the painted ceilings in beautiful locations in Budapest.

“For all of the sconces on the walls we had fake candles, the wicks of which move to realistically imitate flame flicker,” continued Nuttgens. “However, despite our earnest intent, in the end it needed just as much lighting as if we had been shooting on film. I would say however that the biggest challenge was to light the spaces without putting lamps on the floor as we wanted the camera to move through the spaces without hindrance. The opening shot of Colette’s first arrival in the Salon at the beginning of the film sees 360 degrees of the location and it was impossible to rig into the ceilings as they were either formed of wooden carvings or painted beautifully in the late 19th century.”

The Wedding Guest meanwhile was shot almost entirely in India. The story centers on a mysterious British Muslim man (played by Patel) as he makes a sojourn across Pakistan and India. Nuttgens was attracted to the prospect of working with director Winterbottom as well as being able to lens in India. The DP recalled, “I interviewed with Michael Winterbottom whilst I was in London doing the DI for Colette. He had got The Wedding Guest into production at very short notice so was looking around for a different DP from his other films. I obviously knew of his work, he is one of the most prolific film directors in the UK if not the world and his film making process is very particular. The script was sparse and appealed to me straight away, reminded me of the paucity of dialogue that existed in Young Adam, the first film I made with (director) David Mackenzie.

“Apart from getting the chance to work with Michael, it was a great chance for me to return to India but this time, as we were shooting a contemporary picture, we could use everything that was around us as a visual character in the film. Michael doesn’t use clapperboards, nor a script supervisor and we would turn over each morning even before the official call time. It is a much more reactive experience than working on most films; he shoots very fast and although it isn’t 100 percent available light, our lighting is kept as close to zero as possible and the challenge is to try to manipulate, at speed, the lighting in the environment around you. It is an extremely liberating experience and at the end of each day we would have probably twice as much material as a normal film with a full shooting crew.”

Regarding his approach, Nuttgens explained, “There is an observational aspect to the photography on The Wedding Guest and the shooting process was aimed at integrating our characters into the real environment without trying to falsify anything around us. All the people that are in the background in the film were pretty much just there on the street and sometimes trying to assess that we had the material without having someone looking into the camera or at the actors was difficult. Michael had decided that we had a maximum of 20 minutes from putting the camera on the street until the crowds became uncontrollable....this put a lot of pressure on everyone to get everything we needed fast. Many of the interiors however were easier to shoot and in general there was almost no additional light, changing a fluorescent tube in an already pre-existing fixture, putting in a bedside lamp that would become the single light source for the whole scene.

“Our first week,” continued Nuttgens, “was the hardest in a village in Punjab close to the Pakistani border. It was a Sikh village that had to double for a Muslim village on the Pakistan side and we basically lit the whole village, a large one of around 4 sq km, with single fluorescent tubes on the electric power poles coupled with sodium street lights mounted as high as we could. We were not going to use any additional light at any point so we needed to have the freedom to go wherever we wanted at any point within the nights. The images were also enhanced by the fact that freezing fog would roll around 2 in the morning and sat about three feet off the ground. Wasn’t comfortable to work in but added something very particular to this section of the film. As we traveled south, by train bus and plane, the film changed in its look very naturally and likewise by taking the same trip as our protagonists the relation between the camera and them changed too, became more intimate as time passed by. Our crew was less than 20 people and that allowed us to move rapidly not needing much support and this gave us even more possibility to integrate ourselves quietly into the environment.  The visual style of the film does change; in the desert we pushed the images to look hotter but in Goa let the lushness of the green tropical foliage and the red soil take over. Watching the film, one really gets the sense of the trip Dev and Radhika (actress Apte) have taken.”

Nuttgens’ choice of camera for The Wedding Guest was again the ALEXA “but this time,” he said, “with spherical lenses that are faster so that we could shoot with very little light. This made it difficult for the 1st AC Anna Benbow as it means we are working with little depth of field but there isn’t a soft frame in the film.”

Nuttgens’ work over the years has received its share of accolades, including a Best Cinematography BAFTA Film Award nomination for director Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water last year. Earlier, the Mackenzie-helmed Hallam’s Foe earned Nuttgens the Golden Swan Best Cinematographer honor at the Copenhagen International Film Festival, the Kodak Award for Best Cinematography at the Dinard British Film Fest, and an Evening Standard British Film Award nomination for Best Technical Achievement.

Xavier Grobet, ASC, AMC
Xavier Grobet, ASC, AMC again gained exposure at the Toronto Film Festival—this time on the television side for director James Ponsoldt’s Facebook Watch TV series Sorry for Your Loss. Premiering in Toronto’s Primetime program, the show stars Elizabeth Olsen as a widow grappling with the sudden loss of her husband and the toll that takes on her everyday life.

This marks the second straight year that a Grobet-shot piece made its way to Toronto. Last year he lensed director Mike White’s father-son comedy feature Brad’s Status which was nominated for the Platform Prize at the fest. Earlier Enough Said, a feature Grobet shot starring Julia Louis Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in one of his last roles, was showcased as a Special Presentation at the 2013 Toronto Fest. Enough Said was directed by Nicole Holofcener.

Sharing backstory which led to his taking on Sorry for Your Loss, Grobet said, “I had the opportunity to shoot this show after I had a meeting with director James Ponsoldt. We had met before when he was planning The Circle and this was a great opportunity to work together. I liked the material and saw a vision for the show that drew me to accept the offer. I also love the work of Lizzy Olsen and I wanted to work with her as well, she’s a great actress and I found out as we went along that she is someone fun to work with.”

Also drawing Grobet to Sorry for Your Loss is “the fact that It’s one of Facebook’s first original content projects for its platform. This was a good opportunity to learn about it. Even though the show is meant to be watched on the Facebook platform, which means watching it on your phone, I treated it as if I was shooting a show to be screened bigger than that.”

In terms of his approach to the show, Grobet said he wanted to make the storytelling “as evocative as possible, by creating the two worlds that the show portrays—making those memories have their own visual approach to contrast with the reality of the present day.”

For the series, Grobet selected the Panavision DXL2. “I wanted to explore a large format camera to play with extreme depth of field. Even though the show might be watched by many on a small screen, the optical characteristics of a large format camera will translate to a smaller format.”

Grobet said of the work on Sorry for Your Loss, “We had a very pleasant experience, a great crew and the support from production, which allowed us to accomplish the vision and a final show that I am proud of having been part of.”

Grobet’s wide-ranging body of work also includes director Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, episodes of the acclaimed HBO series Deadwood, director Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child, Gil Kenan’s City of Ember, the Will Smith-starrer Focus, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot starring Tina Fey and Margot Robbie. Before Night Falls marked Grobet’s first major splash in the American market, earning him and Guillermo Rosas an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Cinematography. Prior to that, Grobet was best known for his work for cinema in Mexico, scoring four of that country’s prestigious Ariel Awards for his lensing of: La mujer de Benjamin; Sin Remitente; De noche vienes, Esmeralda; and Sexo, pudor y lagrimas.


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