Lensing "Cold War," "The Favourite," "Gotham," "Beyond"
Lukasz Zal, PSC (photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)
ASC Award nominees in features, TV reflect on their work, collaborators

One cinematographer’s reunion with a director resulted yet again in Best Cinematography Oscar, ASC and BAFTA Award nominations.

Another DP scored his first Oscar, ASC Award and BAFTA nods for his initial pairing with a celebrated filmmaker.

A third lenser received his sixth career ASC Award television nomination--four of which have been for projects in collaboration with the same director.

And our fourth DP just garnered his third career ASC Award nom in TV, continuing a run which began back in 2009. 

Here are insights and observations from Lukasz Zal, PSC, Robbie Ryan, BSC, ISC, David Stockton, ASC and Jon Joffin, ASC who are all up for ASC Awards on Saturday (2/9)

Lukasz Zal, PSC
Lukasz Zal, PSC recently picked up his second career Best Cinematography Oscar and BAFTA Award nominations, along with a third ASC Awards nod. Zal’s awards trajectory began several years ago unexpectedly when he was set to be a camera operator on director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida. But cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski fell ill, prompting Pawlikowski to ask Zal at the 11th hour to take the lensing reins. In his debut as a feature DP on Ida, Zal went on to share Oscar, ASC and BAFTA nominations with Lenczewski in 2015. Additionally on the strength of Ida, Zal and Lenczewski won the ASC Spotlight Award, an honor reserved for under-the-radar indie features and deserving work on the festival circuit.

In subsequent years Zal went on to shoot a number of features before his latest credit, a return engagement with Pawlikowski--this time as the sole cinematographer on Cold War (Amazon Studios)--which lo and behold earned Zal another ASC, BAFTA and Academy Award nominations trifecta.

Cold War is a love story between Wiktor (portrayed by Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) who meet in the ruins of post-World War II Poland. With vastly different background and temperaments, they are fatefully mismatched yet still seemingly condemned to each other. Set against the backdrop of 1950s’ Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris, this tale centers on a couple who even when together are separated by politics, character flaws and cruel twists of fate.

Zal dovetailed seamlessly with Pawlikowski on Cold War. The two had developed a creative and visual shorthand on Ida, which continued with even more depth upon their Cold War reunion. “I found Pawel to be very open when we collaborated the first time,” recalled Zal. “We discussed physical, psychological, all aspects of cinematography. We discovered a lot together on Ida, doing full justice to the story and mood. It was like a creative meditation to work with him. We’d sit at the monitor together, review the work. It was almost like painting a picture. We would add fine touches, figure out what we could do to make what we saw better. We were constantly painting, almost like sculpting the look and feel of the film. And that very much carried over to Cold War.”

That carrying over took on more dimension as Zal said he benefited from six months of pre-production on Cold War, affording him and Pawlikowski the opportunity to fully map out what needed to be done. Zal researched the art and politics of the era. He even spent time test shooting the famed Mazowsze folk group’s dance rehearsals so he could properly depict Zula’s early path to stardom which was with a Polish folk group. This influenced how the DP approached movement and dance in Cold War.

Also during pre-pro, the decision was made to shoot Cold War in black and white. Initially the director and DP were inclined to shoot in color but the time period, the colors of the day--or lack thereof--the plotline and its energy brought them again to the haunting black and white they had created so successfully in Ida. But Cold War was dramatically different as the camera moves far more extensively than in Ida. The camera is not so static and mournful as in Ida. The characters are dynamic--physically and emotionally--in Cold War, and so is the camera.

Zal noted that ultimately they resisted using wide shots to set a sense of place. Instead the emphasis was on capturing that sense of place by focusing on the characters’ behavior. Locations weren’t depicted as part of a travel film but rather for how people felt within those environs. This character-centric approach conveyed the stark reality of each place.

Originally Zal and Pawlikowski envisioned shooting Cold War on 35mm film. But budget considerations had them going the digital route, deploying the ARRI Alexa. “We could have shot 35 but in order to do so we would have had to come up short in budget elsewhere--maybe shooting fewer days or less money for other aspects. Pawel likes to do a lot of takes and we needed the flexibility to keep shooting.” 

Zal added that digital lensing could be seen immediately on a big monitor with highly defined images. He and Pawlikowski could see what they had captured, and get to “painting” on that monitor “canvas.” Zal affirmed that when taking that painterly approach, he didn’t try to mimic--but rather was inspired by--the look of 35mm film. Contrast came heavily into play, noted Zal. “Contrast is in every layer from the construction of each shot, the way the scenes connect, all the way to the emotional temperature between the characters and the dynamics between them.”

Robbie Ryan, BSC, ISC
Last month The Favourite (Fox Searchlight) earned Robbie Ryan, BSC, ISC his first career Oscar, ASC Award and BAFTA Film Award nominations. This came on the heels of the Yorgos Lanthimos-directed feature garnering the British Independent Film Award for Best Cinematography as well as the Audience Award at Camerimage. 

The Favourite marks Ryan’s first collaboration with Lanthimos. Right out of the gate, the two were simpatico--particularly about going with 35mm film. Ryan deployed the Panavision Millennium XL2, the Arricam Studio and Arricam LT cameras. Ryan said that he and Lathimos felt film is more conducive to effectively using natural light. Film, assessed Ryan, “represents contrast, definition and color very much as the eye sees it and in some cases can see in the shadow much more than your eye can.”

Ryan related, “I learned a heck of a lot shooting The Favourite for Yorgos. If you’ve got the right location, you do not need lights. It’s better you don’t have them in some respects. We had some scenes with nothing but candlelight. The majority of night scenes had some kind of flame as natural illumination.”

The cinematographer observed, “Candles bring in a whole new color, especially night versus day. I’ve used natural light before with a bit of balance but for this film we stayed away from balance. It was incredible to see it begin with very bright windows backlighting an actress and then see that their faces were still exposed--they were even more beautiful. It was a lesson in the value of not using anything.

Lanthimos, noted Ryan, always wanted to shoot with flame as illumination “whether it’s a cauldron, a candle or a fireplace. These were all very much the only sources that lit the film. If the candlelight didn’t light the background, he wasn’t worried as such because it was the foreground that needed to be lit.”

The Favourite takes us to the early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing, pineapple eating and other offbeat indulgences are thriving with people of wealth. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their budding friendship gives Abagail a chance to fulfill her ambitions and she will not let anyone or anything stand in her way.

Helping the actors and their performances stand out were the shooting environs. “The texture of the walls in the palace,” said Ryan, “had tapestry and dark wood that was incredibly helpful as were the black and white tiles. All of that helped accentuate the skin tones of the actors--they had quite pale skin and it helped them stand out even more. The actors really shone from the light. It felt like an artist’s studio with the bright source light. It was lovely because it wasn’t hard to get a lovely look to the place thanks to the design of it. Also, 35 millimeter really likes black as a color and we embraced that. The density of the whole nighttime footage is really important in that respect and lovely for it.”

Ryan also thanked Stephen Murphy whom he described “as a fantastic DP” who came in for a week or so and worked on a number of night shoots. Murphy helped out when Ryan was called away due to the death of his father during the shoot. 

With The Favourite, Lanthimos built upon his experimentation on a prior film, Sacred Deer, seeking “a vibrancy to how the camera moved,” explained Ryan. “We had wide lenses moving all the time. There was a sense of the entirety of a location via wide lenses” which at times made the characters seem almost “stuck in these huge rooms, like Hotel California where you can never leave. It kind of helped the whole story.”

A key discovery was the Panavision 6mm lens. “Its distorted view,” noted Ryan, “helped underscore some of the absurdities in the world of Queen Anne’s court. We used (ultra wide) 6mm lenses--the 6mm lens is a piece of art, made with very high-end glass. It transcends the usual fish-eye look, not super aggressive or too bendy. For this movie, it was a fantastic storytelling device. In the same frame, it exposes every inch of the luxury and power of Queen Anne’s palatial surroundings, yet there’s also a real claustrophobic sensibility; the characters are isolated, almost imprisoned in the location. It was just what Yorgos wanted: small characters trapped in a big space--the wide lenses not mere gimmicks but integral to that experience. The camera movement is a big part of the film, a little bit observational--almost another character.”

The film was shot in an atypical manner, with Lanthimos and Ryan constantly seeking out different angles and perspectives which went a long way to making the film feel different, fresh and at times unsettling. You never quite know what’s coming next. “Yorgos doesn’t like conventional coverage,” related Ryan. “He’s very keen on creating a specific language using unexpected angles. We shot from either extremely high or extremely low angles, with the camera’s view wide enough to show all the action occurring in a room at once. It was great! We had a clear room without all the gear and equipment that tend to build up. It was refreshing to have a room with just Fiona Crosbie’s exceptional set design and the actors. I had to get the panning right every time. That was challenging but I enjoyed it. It was all about precise timing.”

The Favourite adds to a rich filmography for Ryan which includes Philomena for director Stephen Frears, Ginger & Rosa for Sally Potter, Catch Me Daddy for Daniel Wolfe, Jimmy’s Hall, The Angel’s Share  and I, Daniel Blake for Ken Loach, and Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights and American Honey for Andrea Arnold. The collaborations with Arnold have yielded multiple honors, such as a nomination for Best Technical Achievement in Cinematography from the British Independent Film Awards for Fish Tank, Best Cinematography distinction from the Venice Film Festival, the Camerimage Bronze Frog Award and Best Technical Achievement in Cinematography from the Evening Standard British Film Awards for Wuthering Heights, and a Cannes Jury Prize as well as a British Independent Film Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography for American Honey.

David Stockton, ASC
David Stockton, ASC just earned his sixth career ASC Award nomination, the latest coming for the “A Dark Knight: Queen Takes Knight” episode of Gotham (Fox). This marks the second nomination Stockton has received for Gotham and the fourth nod he’s garnered for TV directed by Danny Cannon--the other three being the Gotham pilot in 2015, the pilot for Nikita in 2011, and the Eleventh Hour “Resurrection” episode in 2009. Stockton’s remaining ASC Award noms were for Chase in 2012 and Alcatraz in 2013.

“Danny and I have evolved and nurtured a shorthand over the years,” related Stockton. “It’s a shorthand that eliminates any guesswork as to the approach we are going to take. That makes me feel very empowered to move forward, to feel at liberty to develop techniques that will allow us to capture the mood we want. It allows the energy to be spent not on trying to land on a consensus of what the images should be, but rather to go forward without hesitation on what the story needs, freeing the director to work with the actors as we all serve the story.”

Stockton attributed his ASC nomination to the collective talent assembled for Gotham. “It’s a reflection of everybody involved in the production,” he affirmed. “I get a lot of credit as a DP for work that is very collaborative. Without everybody involved, the nomination would never happen.”

Beyond Cannon and showrunner/episode co-writer John Stephens, among the many collaborators Stockton credited were camera operators Gerard Sava and Alan Pierce, DIT Rob Strait, gaffer Frank McCormack, key grip Luis Colon, and the full grip and electrical team. “Without their mettle, creative contributions, dogged professionalism and technical expertise, this episode doesn’t get nominated,” said Stockton who deployed the ARRI Alexa XL and the Alexa Mini on Gotham. For the “Queen Takes Knight” episode, Stockton opted for Panavision Primo lenses. 

As for his biggest takeaway from his experience on Gotham, Stockton shared, “My hope is that I learn something everyday I go to work--it can be technical or now more frequently it’s about how to communicate more effectively with cast, crew, directors, writers and actors. Communication on a film set is something I’m focusing on right now. Through clear communication, you eliminate waste, enabling cast and crew to put their energy toward making a better production and a more powerful narrative.”

Stockton also challenges himself to learn. “I make sure I can accomplish a day’s work as a professional. Somewhere in there, though, I pick a scene or a setup a little outside of my wheelhouse, looking to discover happy accidents. This helps you grow.”

Jon Joffin, ASC
Last month the “Two Zero One” episode of Beyond (Freeform network) landed Jon Joffin, ASC his third career ASC Award television nomination. The first two came for episodes of The Andromeda Strain in 2009 and Alice in 2011.

Beyond introduces us to Holden (Burkeley Duffield) who awakens from a 12-year coma to discover new abilities that thrust him into the middle of a dangerous conspiracy. Holden needs to figure out what happened to him over the past dozen years and how to adapt to a world that changed dramatically while he was away.

Joffin started on Beyond for its second season, brought into the fold by director/executive producer Steve Adelson who has camera roots. “Steve is a Steadicam guy who used to work with (cinematographer) Wally Pfister, which included films by Christopher Nolan.” Adelson gave Joffin the Beyond opportunity. 

Joffin is gratified over the ASC nomination that sprung from that opportunity, noting that the recognition is a high honor. He feels the same way about being an ASC member. “I’m thankful to this day that I was invited into the Society,” said Joffin. “Every time I see my emails with ASC on them, I feel privileged.”

Joffin was surprised over his latest nomination. “I was shocked because there’s so much deserving work out there. This nomination means a lot, especially when you look at this category (Episode of a Series for Commercial Television). I know all the other guys (nominees). Nathaniel Goodman, who’s nominated in this category (for Timeless), called to tell me about my nomination. The nominees have all been talking to each other. I recently heard from Thomas Yatsko (nominated for an episode of Damnation).”

The other category nominees are Ben Richardson for Yellowstone, and Stockton for Gotham.

Joffin deployed the ARRI Alexa as his primary camera on Beyond, paired with Leica lenses. He also owns an ARRI Maxima which he opted for to take on a challenging sequence in the “Two Zero One” episode. The Maxima is a three axis electronically fully stabilized high performance gimbal. The Maxima’s compact design and center of gravity can give a new level of freedom to cameras when it comes to access. The Beyond sequence starts with a flashback showing us a kid sleeping in bed during a bad storm. His father comes into the room and takes the child downstairs to safety. 

“I had to do all this in one shot, going through an old farmhouse, a very narrow space, starting at an upstairs level, along a landing, down a flight of stairs, down to the main level where a door rips off when the storm hits hard,” said Joffin. “We’re going through three rooms to a back door. Though it’s a 25-second or so sequence, we spent a whole night doing that shot. We had to light it just right to make it look good. We didn’t want it to be handheld and herky jerky. The Steadicam wasn’t the right tool because of the narrow environment. We went with my Maxima, shooting with Alexa, using anamorphic lenses. The setup was heavy once the camera was on it. We used a slingshot to transfer some of the weight onto the operator’s back.”
Joffin cited the yeoman work done by camera operator Chris Fisher. “He’s a really strong guy and was able to hold the Maxima rig and go with it. We did 25 takes and he didn’t complain at all. It was a challenge but super rewarding to see it come together.”


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