Lensing and Production Designing "Till"
Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski on the set of "Till"
Perspectives from cinematographer Bobby Bukowski and production designer Curt Beech

When presented with the opportunity to tell the real-life story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old lad lynched in Mississippi in 1955, Chinonye Chukwu as director and co-writer (with Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp) resisted the understandable impulse to focus on Till himself. Instead for the feature Till (Orion Pictures, United Artists Releasing), she sought out the perspective of Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, brilliantly portrayed by Danielle Deadwyler. Chukwu recognized the place in history earned by Till-Mobley, an often overlooked civil rights leader.

“Without her, the world wouldn’t know who Emmett Till was,” explained Chukwu earlier this month in SHOOT’s first installment of its The Road To Oscar Series. Till introduces us to a grieving mom who takes on a sense of purpose as a civil rights activist. Through her heartfelt persistence and eloquence, she got the nation to know and then not forget her son.

Part and parcel of that, Chukwu envisioned a story of hope, depicting the joy between mother and son, using the language of cinema to center on their humanity, to convey “a Black gaze” on what happened. Chukwu focused her energy on creating a humanizing Black point of view as opposed to the camera taking on a voyeuristic bent.

Clearly the casting of Deadwyler was crucial. But Chukwu also shared that other artists proved essential, including cinematographer Bobby Bukowski and production designer Curt Beech. Chukwu said she was initially drawn to Bukowski’s “lighting of Black people and his use of color,” the way he deployed lighting to “show rich depth and definition which was absolutely critical to what I wanted the film to look like. He understood on a deep emotional level what I was trying to do with this film in terms of humanizing Black people, focusing on their humanity, joy, love and community.”

Beech too was what Chukwu described as a “research-forward” artist. The director added that she and Beech had “candid conversations about his own white male privilege, how to challenge that in order to create, to design the sets in a way that encapsulate Blackness and Black people.” She credited Beech with being incredibly collaborative and open, eager to push himself to tell the story in the best way possible.

In this week’s round of Road To Oscar coverage, SHOOT caught up with Bukowski and Beech, both of whom regard Till as a profound experience personally and artistically.

Bukowski shared that from the get-go, Chukwu “wanted to represent the Black world with vibrancy” and not get mired too deeply in “murky shadows.” He noted that “the idea of celebrating Blackness and the vibrancy of those skin tones” were a priority. While the tragedy of the story is inescapable, Till was not visually bleak. 

Bukowski had to adapt, acknowledging that he had to break from the past when his experience with mixed race films found the defaults favoring Caucasian skin with Black skin often represented in a much too confined darker palette. For Till, Bukowski had to do full justice to Black flesh tones and textures, capturing their richness on screen. 

Towards that end, Bukowski deployed a mix of ARRI cameras, including the Alexa LF Mini. He cited the ARRI sensor for its ability to yield a beautiful rendition of flesh tones. The cameras were coupled and balanced with Tribe7 Blackwing7 lenses innovated by cinematographer Bradford Young, ASC. The lenses, said Bukowski, brought a softer focus to the skin, not too sharp or aggressive, translating into a gentleness on faces, showing their humanity.

Bukowski felt close to the story from the outset, born in the 1950s and having grown up in a politically liberal household in New York City. As a young person he was moved by, identified with and became part of the civil rights movement, noting that his mother was a big advocate of the cause.

Of his experience on Till, Bukowski affirmed, “What a privilege it is to utilize one’s art to tell such a pressing social story. We don’t always have the opportunity as artists to ply our art toward something so deeply important to our souls and toward humanity. Sometimes we are involved in things that are purely entertainment. But there was a greater purpose to this film. To be part of something like that is a gift, an honor and a rarity.”

Till adds to a filmography for Bukowski which spans features and television. On the former front, he’s enjoyed success on the festival circuit, perhaps most notably in 2014 when four features he lensed made the cut at the Toronto International Film Festival: 99 Homes directed by Ramin Bahrani; Infinitely Polar Bear directed by Maya Forbes; Rosewater helmed by Jon Stewart; and Time Out of Mind directed by Oren Moverman. On the TV side, Bukowski’s credits include multiple episodes of such series as Gypsy and Weeds as well as a James Mangold-directed CBS pilot, NYC 22.

Curt Beech
Earlier this year, production designer Beech won his first Emmy Award--for the “True Crime” episode of Only Murders in the Building. The series also earned Beech his first Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence In Production Design Award nomination as a production designer. This made him a five-time ADG Award nominee--the first four as an art director for the features Star Trek, The Social Network, The Help and Lincoln.

Now Beech is once again in the awards season conversation, this time for Till, a film which steered away from elaborate construction and went with locations. Till necessitated extensive research, related Beech who became familiar with every single key moment of the story, sifting through photographs and archival films. Every day of shooting, he said, was “full of emotional importance,” carrying what Beech described as “a huge responsibility” to be true to Emmett Till’s memory as well as to his mother, chronicling a developing civil rights movement.

The research went beyond just backdrops and settings--in some cases providing extra inspiration for Beech personally and professionally. For example, he learned very early on in his research that when civil rights icon Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, she was thinking of Emmett Till. “That became something to hold onto, exactly how important his story is,” said Beech.

Creating the historical backdrop and environs was pivotal--with both the North and South of the U.S. captured as places where evil and warmth reside. Racism isn’t a uniquely Southern attribute. The opening of the film, depicting how Mamie and Emmett are treated in Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago  underscores that. And while historical accuracy was a priority, said Beech, Chukwu gave him some license to not be locked into documenting locations in extreme detail. Beech described this as affording him “a bit more freedom to create a visual poem for the movie,” focusing on conveying “the spirit of these places” within the constraints of the filming locations. The bottom line was that the vintage of the environment and scene rang true, and the right set of physical characteristics were present--just arranged differently given what a particular location could accommodate.

Among those Beech credited with helping to find the right locations and in turn “the character of the film” was location manager and scout Kai Thorup.

For Beech the biggest takeaway from his experience on Till was the relevance of the story. “These days when people are trying to expunge these stories from history, it becomes all the more important to be part of telling stories that must continue to be told.” Beech felt this responsibility as production designer on Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and an art director on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. “That gave me the bug for helping to tell important stories. I try to be very choosy of the projects I work on.”

Acknowledging that Till can be difficult to watch at times given the depth of the tragedy, it remains well worth the effort of an audience member to hang in there and experience the story. Deadwyler’s performance is worth the price of admission. “It is essential viewing,” said Beech who affirmed that he wants and needs “to be a part of essential viewing. I have children who I want to be proud of the things that I do.”

This is the third installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 95th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 24, 2023. The 95th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 12, 2023.

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