Cinematographers & Cameras: Lensing "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Waiting for the Barbarians"
Tobias Schliessler, ASC
DPs Tobias Schliessler and Chris Menges discuss their approaches, collaborators, cameras

A tale of two cinematographers--one whose feature is currently in the Oscar conversation across varied categories, the other already a two-time Academy Award winner with professional achievements that also include a number of lifetime achievement honors.

The latter DP is Chris Menges, ASC, BSC who shares insights into his latest feature, Waiting for the Barbarians (Samuel Goldwyn Films).

And the other DP is Tobias Schliessler, ASC who shot Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix), a film that is among the most talked about contenders this awards season. Menges and Schliessler shared with SHOOT their approaches to the respective features.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
With an adapted screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson based on the award-winning play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom--directed by George C. Wolfe--marked the last performance on film by Chadwick Boseman who passed away last August at the age of 43 from cancer. Boseman made an indelible impact on audiences worldwide as well as those with whom he worked, including Schliessler. Among the highlights for Schliessler during shooting Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a moving scene in which Boseman’s character, trumpeter Levee, tells the story of his mother being raped and his father’s murder at the hands of a group of white men.

“I was mesmerized by Chadwick’s performance and can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever photographed something so emotional. At one point Chadwick walked into an extreme closeup and the look in his eyes expressed so many years of pain. It gave me chills. (Camera operator) Kirk Gardner was on the slider and instinctively kept pushing in closer. I had a small eye light on Chadwick but suddenly felt I wanted to bring up the intensity to complement his performance--at that moment it magically started coming up. I turned to my dimmer operator, Eric Androwitch, who was sitting right next to me and my DIT Curtis in the DIT tent. He gave me that nod ‘I got you’ as he was bringing the light up on his board. That’s how this movie was--we all were on the same page and had to be in sync as the performances were too precious for anyone to make mistakes. This put a lot of extra pressure on my 1st ACs, Willie Estrada and Dan Schroer, and my dolly grips, Kyle Carden and Tim Christie, but everyone did a fantastic job. It was the beautiful collaboration with all crew members that made this movie so special.”

While everything came together for Schliessler during that pivotal scene, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom--set in 1920s’ Chicago--had the DP feeling slightly uneasy going in given the constraints of its primary venue. The majority of the film takes place in a basement band room and recording studio where Ma Rainey, a celebrated blues singer (portrayed by Viola Davis), and her four backup musicians (Boseman as Levee, Colman Domingo as Cutler, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, and Glynn Turman as Toledo) are set to record her new album, including the single “Black Bottom.”

Schliessler explained, “The only part of the project that had me a bit apprehensive--and I think most DPs would feel this way--was that literally over half of the story played out in a 23x18 foot windowless rehearsal room in the basement of a recording studio. The room was described in the script as ‘INT. BAND ROOM. BASEMENT. IT IS A WINDOWLESS SUBTERRANEAN ROOM. ONCE A STORAGE ROOM. NO AIR. NO LIGHT.’ 

The cinematographer continued, “I questioned myself--how could I make this contained room with no motivated light from the outside visually interesting? I knew there would be practicals, but for half the movie it would be one look in the same space which felt daunting to say the least. Before I talked to George (Wolfe), I called the production designer, Mark Ricker, to find out just how set George was on not having any outside light coming into the room. Mark empathized with my creative concerns, but confirmed that George was dead set on this decision- he wanted the four musicians to feel trapped in the room like in the underbelly of a slave ship with no connection to the outside world. This made complete sense for the story and was impossible to argue with.  My fears of lighting this space and keeping it interesting was one of the first things I brought up with George when we spoke. I thought it might cost me the job, but felt I had to be honest with him about my concerns. I confessed I didn’t yet have any ideas on how to make the basement scenes visually compelling and his response was ‘If you already knew how to do it, where would be the challenge? And then why do it?’ I loved this answer and knew I was in great hands with George.” 

Thankfully Schliessler also formed a bond with Ricker who had the two main sets, where 80 percent of the movie takes place, built on a stage in the 31st Street Studios in downtown Pittsburgh. Schliessler recalled that while the plan was to build the band room set on stage, Ricker wanted to show him and Wolfe an old bourbon and barrel warehouse as inspiration for the texture and color of the brick walls he was going to construct. “As we were exploring the space,” noted Schliessler, “Mark walked into a small storage room and called for George and I to join him. In the room was a tiny 1x3 foot window close to the ceiling. The sun came through at a perfect angle and illuminated Mark like a Caravaggio painting. We all responded in awe of the beautiful natural light and within moments agreed that a tiny window in our set would make a considerable difference. George justified the addition of the window by placing it up high like in this storage room--a portal to an unreachable outside world for the characters.

“I now had a motivated light source that would alleviate my initial fear. I designed the whole look around the window, using 1x20k, 2x10k, 1x5ks tungsten Fresnel lights and multiple narrow par cans through the small window. If the light was too hard for closeups on the actors I’d cover the window with different diffusion frames - it varied from Hampshire, opal and 250. For fill light we used a 12x12 softbox above the set with ARRI Skypanels, which allowed me to change the color temperature and intensity levels from the dimmer board. There were practicals on the walls which I used as additional light motivation for the areas where the window light didn’t reach. For eye lights I used a combination of LiteMat 4s, 8s and Chimera pancake lights right on the floor wherever was out of the way of the actors or camera. In some cases the old school Chinese lanterns with 250 watt photofloods came in handy. 

“With my biggest lighting challenge of the room solved,” continued Schliessler, “my next task was figuring out how we would shoot the blocking of the scenes in a 23x18 foot room with four actors, their musical instruments and sometimes 8 to 10 pages of continuous dialogue. George compared the blocking of the actors to a boxing match, but instead of gloves, they used dialogue to take swings and hit hard. This was extremely helpful and immediately gave me ideas for camera movement and coverage. To make sure the actors could perform long sections of dialogue and monologues uninterrupted, we shot with two, sometimes even three, cameras. Kirk Gardner was my A camera/Steadicam operator and Dino Parks was my B camera operator, both of whom I had worked with before and trusted immensely.” 

Schliessler also benefited from the deep trust and support he received from up top, including Netflix and producers Denzel Washington and Todd Black. Schliessler noted that he, longtime friend Black and Washington had earlier worked together on The Taking of Pelham 123 and had a positive experience. For Ma Rainey, Schliessler wanted to deploy a 15-foot Chapman telescopic arm with a remote head to help capture actor performances. “Originally our budget didn’t allow for the Chapman arm but I felt strongly that we needed it. I had already given up but then Denzel Washington offered to pay for it personally and it showed up the next day. I was shocked. Never in my career has a producer trusted me so much that I needed a piece of equipment to make the movie better that they paid for it themselves. Feeling fully supported by everyone, the three weeks in the space that originally made me the most nervous ended up being one of the best experiences of my career.” 

Schliessler chose the Sony Venice camera for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The DP tested lenses and filters to deploy in concert with Venice. He remembered using the Bronze Glimmer Glass filter by Tiffen in tandem with an antique suede filter on a commercial which was flattering on darker skin tones. That combination ended up being the choice for exterior scenes in Ma Rainey. For interiors, Schliessler lost the antique suede and only went with the Bronze Glimmer Glass. After putting varied lenses through their paces, Schliessler opted for Zeiss Supremes, explaining, “We had planned a lot of focus pulls between actors especially for the long dialogue scenes in the bandroom and the Supremes had the least amount of lens breathing. Additionally, we wanted to use wide lenses for close ups and the Supremes had the least amount of distortion on the wider end. For these reasons, along with George (Wolfe) not wanting to distract the audience from the performance with strong lens characteristics, the Supreme primes felt like the right choice.” 

Schliessler concluded, “I’d much rather be on a movie set than on a vacation--because of those moments we have with actors, the collaboration with everyone.” Cast and crew came together with a great sense of purpose on Ma Rainey which the DP said was a special project. August Wilson delves into issues of race, religion, art, segregation and the exploitation of Black recording artists. Everyone involved in the film felt a deep commitment to doing justice to the story.

Legendary eye
Menges is a four-time Best Cinematography Oscar nominee, winning twice--for The Killing Fields in 1985 and The Mission in 1987. Menges was nominated again in 1997 for Michael Collins and in 2009 for The Reader (shared with Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC). Menges also has four ASC Award nominations thus far----for The Mission in ‘87, Michael Collins in ‘97, The Boxer in ‘98, and The Reader in 2009. The very next year Menges won the ASC’s International Achievement Award, presented to a cinematographer who has made enduring contributions to the international art of filmmaking.

Last year Menges received the 2020 IMAGO Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cinematography. The Imago honor is just the latest of a series of lifetime achievement awards for Menges, including from the British Independent Film Awards in 2001, the British Society of Cinematographers in 2012, and Camerimage in 2015. As for the BSC Awards themselves, Menges has five career nominations, winning for The Killing Fields. The other four nods were for The Mission, Michael Collins, Dirty Pretty Things and The Reader.

Additionally Menges earned a BAFTA Film Award for Best Cinematography in 1985 for The Killing Fields. Seven years earlier he garnered a BAFTA TV Award as Best Film Cameraman for Last Summer. Menges has four other BAFTA Film Award Best Cinematography nominations--for Local Hero in ‘84, The Mission in ‘87, Michael Collins in ‘97, and The Reader in 2009.

Yet while those laurels are considerable, Menges isn’t inclined to rest on them. His latest film is director Ciro Guerra’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which premiered at the 2019 Venice Film Fest and then was released on VOD by Samuel Goldwyn Films in summer of 2020.

With a screenplay by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee from his 1980 novel of the same title, Waiting for the Barbarians is set in an isolated frontier settlement on the border of an unnamed empire where a magistrate (portrayed by Mark Rylance) becomes increasingly disturbed over the way the imperial military led by a ruthless colonel (Johnny Depp) treats the native people whom it deems “barbarians.” The torture of a young “barbarian” woman spurs the magistrate to a crisis of conscience and an act of rebellion, for which he has to pay a price.

Menges was drawn to the story, initially by Coetzee’s book, back in the mid ‘80s. “It is a searing indictment of the oppression of indigenous people by a colonial power,” said Menges who many years later was asked by Guerra and producer Michael Fitzgerald to be the cinematographer on the film. Menges noted that he had “a good working relationship” with Fitzgerald, having lensed for him The Pledge directed by Sean Penn, and The Three Burials directed by Tommy Lee Jones.

The DP related, “Great screenplays energize your imagination.  When I read a script, I spend days imagining and drawing and writing and this was a special screenplay about ‘the elusive terror of Kafka.’  Michael with Ciro and designer Crispin Sallis had  spent a considerable time searching for the perfect location--a remote fort on the edge of a large empire  with indigenous people living in the mountains beyond. After a long search they found the ideal location--an old  fortified house/farm due south of Marrakech, close to the towering Atlas Mountains in Morocco.”

Menges opted to deploy two Alexa SXT cameras and one Alexa Mini camera on Waiting for the Barbarians. He noted, “After many locations scouts, Ciro and I agreed that we should shoot with a widescreen format and we opted for 2.39 to 1.  It became  obvious that as we had a shoot of 37 days, entirely on location, on the north side of the Atlas Mountains during the winter of November/December, that we needed great quality lenses and of a fast speed that would enable us make the schedule. I chose the Cooke series 5i lenses which have a great beauty with a fine edge and fast at T1.4. The choice of zooms was that champion Optima 24 to 290mm T2.8.”

Menges found his collaboration with Guerra gratifying, sharing that he was eager to team with the director. “I greatly admired the film Embrace the Serpent directed by Ciro in 2004--we have in common anthropologist friends--so I was intrigued and anxious to learn new tricks from a fine storyteller.”

As for his biggest takeaway from working on Waiting for the Barbarians, Menges observed, “What I learnt from working on the film was to remember how much I love the Sahara desert: The vast high contrast light at midday, the ebbing of twilight as night approaches, the wind in the snow peaks lifting.  I learnt that at age 78 [at the time he was working on the film; he is now 80] it was a joy to work long days with many creative spirits.”


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