BlacKkKlansman DP Chayse Irvin on Shooting with Expired Ektachrome and the Spike Lee Dolly
Early in Spike Lee’s collaboration with Chayse Irvin, the venerable director asked his cinematographer if there was anything special he needed for BlacKkKlansman. Irvin answered, “a third camera”—an extravagance on a low budget movie, but one Irvin believed would allow him “to take massive risks on every scene, whether it be a unique angle or the freedom to use a lens that was flawed.”
Irvin embraced that self-imposed mandate for boldness by employing imperfect vintage lenses, “flashing” the image with a contrast-reducing filter and dusting off long-expired film stock. Never one to wilt in the face of risky choices, Lee matched his cinematographer’s audacious spirit by juxtaposing wildly disparate tones to tell the based-in-fact story of a black Colorado Springs police officer who became a card carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s as part of an undercover sting operation. Moments of light comedy clash against chilling history lessons as Lee draws thinly veiled parallels between the prejudices of a previous generation and the re-emboldened racism fomented by Donald Trump’s vision for America.
With BlacKkKlansman still out in theaters, Irvin spoke to Filmmaker about hunting for expired rolls of Ektachrome, epiphanies in the location scout van and why Clockers is his favorite Spike Lee movie.
Cameras – Panaflex Millennium XL2, Arricam Lite, Aaton Penelope, Arriflex SR-3 16mm
Lenses – Zeiss Super Speeds MKII, Zeiss Master Primes, Panavision Ultra and Super Speeds, Panavision PVintage
Film stocks – Kodak Vision3 250D 5207, Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, Kodak Eastman Double-X Black & White Negative Film 5222 and 7222, Kodak Ektachrome 100D
The Shoot – 31 days of principal photography began in mid-September of 2017 and included time spent on location in and around Ossining, NY (standing in for Colorado Springs) as well as location and stage work in Brooklyn.
Filmmaker: The only bits of trivia I know about you on a personal level are that you grew up in Canada and you have jazz musicians in your family. So you were raised by Canadian jazz musicians?
Irvin: Yeah, my mother was a jazz vocalist and my father is a math and science teacher. Growing up with all these musicians around really informed a lot of what I do.
Filmmaker: How long did you live in Canada?
Irvin: Until I decided to move to Los Angeles when I was 25 years old. I’d been working in Canada for several years as a cinematographer, struggling like everyone does when they’re young and trying to make it. So I went down to LA, started all over again and struggled for about four years before I started building a name for myself. At a certain point I found myself traveling all over the world working on different productions and I was spending very little time in Los Angeles. I realized I could live anywhere I wanted to as long as there was an airport close by. So I decided to move to New York about two years ago.
Filmmaker: Looking at the tools you used on BlacKkKlansman—the vintage lenses, the out-of-production film stocks—you seem to have a real affection for the analog way of doing things. Where does that affection come from?
Irvin: I really fell in love with cinematography when I saw [Conrad Hall’s work in] Road to Perdition (2002). After that I started consuming more and more and learning from guys like Hall and Christopher Doyle, and I always associated cinema with 35mm. I became intensely obsessed with cinematography. But even before that, when I was eight or nine years old, my uncle had a VHS camera and me and my brother would make little films.
When I started studying cinematography, I would always press to shoot on film and if I couldn’t shoot on film and I had to shoot video, I would rent a 16mm camera on the side and hire another operator to operate that camera, just to collect this additional material. That really helped me learn how to be a filmmaker.
Filmmaker: On BlacKkKlansman you used the Panaflasher 3 to create washed out, muddy blacks for certain scenes. Walk me through how the Panaflasher works.
Irvin: It was launched a few years ago, but I hadn’t seen it before I was testing on BlacKkKlansman. When I got into the screening room [to look at our tests], I saw these flashed images and was really amazed by them. They were mysterious and hypnotic. I didn’t know exactly where it would play within the narrative, but I wanted to continue on with this journey that I had sparked. So on the first week of shooting I used the Panaflasher a lot, but eventually we used it more specifically for the scenes of the KKK meetings. The way it works is it uses an array of LEDs around a low contrast filter. When the light enters the filter all these specks of diffusion become a source of light themselves. It creates this effect where it gives you very dusty blacks while maintaining the contrast in the midtones and highlights. It was definitely a tool that challenged me in a unique way and I loved that.
Filmmaker: In terms of “flashing” the actual negative, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) still feels like the touchstone for that technique. Did you consider going that route rather than using the Panaflasher?
Irvin: That would’ve been too difficult for us to manage. I think the flashing would’ve had to been done by the lab and [Kodak Film Lab New York] was fairly new. That wasn’t a service that they offered. And even on a feature film [with the budget of BlacKkKlansman], you have to work with products and ideas that can be insured. So it wasn’t really an option, but I actually would’ve loved to have explored that. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an amazing film. It wasn’t a direct influence on BlacKkKlansman, but just the idea of flashing the negative and the reasons why they did it were very interesting to me.
Filmmaker: You did get to test the boundaries of insurable practices by using a few rolls of expired Ektachrome stock, which was discontinued by Kodak back in 2012. How did you track down those rolls?
Irvin: I have an apprentice in New York named Jomo Fray and he had a roll of Ektachrome that really got me excited about the idea of shooting it. Using it felt motivated because of my early conversations with Spike about mixing formats. In one of our first discussions about possible references we talked about JFK (1991). So when I started coming up with ideas, Jomo showed me this roll and I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve got to get more!” I went on eBay and didn’t have any luck finding any rolls that were 35mm. So I posted on Instagram and asked if anyone knew where I could get some Ektachrome. Another cinematographer who was based out of Los Angeles private messaged me and had five or six rolls.
The film arrived during one of our test days and that same day we ended up using it to shoot the opening scene of the film with Alec Baldwin. It was very nerve-wracking because I had no time to test it. The rolls were expired and I didn’t know what kind of conditions they had been stored in. Normally I would’ve had at least a fog test at the lab, or I would’ve shot a little bit of something just to know if the exposure index had shifted a lot or if the contrast was out of control. But I think sometimes you need to be brave, go out there and just shoot it. So I did, not knowing if any of the stuff would come out. But the footage was amazing. Spike was so happy with it. We only had one additional roll after that pre-shoot day, which came from Jomo, and we saved it until one of our last days, when we used it for the “double dolly shot.” It was a different roll from a different batch from a different person so it looks a lot different from the other Ektachrome footage. Kodak is actually coming out with a relaunch of Ektachrome and hopefully it will be available soon because it’s quite striking and I’m really excited to see what they’ve done with it now.
Filmmaker: That “double dolly” shot—which I’ve always just called the “Spike Lee dolly” —comes at a pivotal moment. Did you cover yourself by shooting it on other film stock as well?
Irvin: Yes. We did many, many takes of that shot, because we were experimenting with different blocking and different lighting. Then, at the very end, we shot our last reel of Ektachrome. We hadn’t considered using it in that scene until the last second. The scene was lit with tungsten and the Ektachrome is daylight [balanced]. The scene was almost entirely lit with practicals and the Ektachrome is 100 ASA speed. So [we didn’t have] the right lighting conditions for the stock, but we decided to take the risk, use the Ektachrome and see what happened. And of course, when we got the footage back it totally defied our expectations and we were immediately mesmerized by it.
Filmmaker: It’s got to be exciting to do that “double dolly” shot. There aren’t many directors who have a signature shot—and that is Spike Lee’s. It puts you in the company of people like Ernest Dickerson and Matthew Libatique.
Irvin: It was nerve-wracking for a split second, but then I looked over to my key grip Lamont Crawford. He’s worked with Spike [for decades], so it wasn’t like I had to figure anything out. Honestly, I was just excited to be a part of that shot and I actually think the way it’s used in this film is one of Spike’s best uses of it.
Filmmaker: I don’t know, the one in Malcolm X where he’s headed to the rally is pretty good.
Irvin: (laughs) Yeah, you know what, you’re right. You can’t beat Denzel.
Filmmaker: In the spirit of that sense of experimentation and collaboration you talked about sharing with Spike, tell me about these long van rides during scouting. You’ve talked about how the film evolved during those trips.
Irvin: The best example really is the ending. Every time we were in the vans scouting together on our way upstate in New York, which was about an hour and a half commute, Spike would just throw things out there like, “I think for the ending, the camera goes out the window and it goes to a burning cross.” And then a week later we’re scouting again: “It goes out the window, it goes to a burning cross and there’s a KKK rally from the ’70s.” We would spin these ideas and Spike would get very inspired throughout the process of putting the film together.
Filmmaker: We’re running a little short on time, so I’ll let you pick—do you want to talk about lighting or lenses?
Irvin: Let’s do lighting. My general philosophy has always been to try to give as much space to the actors on the set as possible and not hinder them, or even myself, because I like having the freedom to change my mind if I feel like my intuition is taking me in another direction. So I try to light things in a way that gives me that freedom. A lot of times that means big sources from far away or LEDs close to the actors. LEDs work great because I can change the intensity and color temperature very quickly. By the end of BlacKkKlansman we [had wireless control] on almost all of our fixtures.
We lit most of the scenes primarily with LEDs made by LiteGear, but kind of an older version of what they have now that was just the LiteRibbon itself taped to polycarbonate. We had these strips that were maybe 4’ x 2’ in size and they were so lightweight you could Velcro them or tape them to ceilings, so they require very little rigging. Then by the end of the movie we were also using LiteTiles, which are a new product that is made up of LEDs sewn into fabric.
Filmmaker: Back in July, Ava DuVernay posted this series of Twitter polls asking people to vote on their favorite Spike Lee films. So to finish up I’m going to put you on the spot—give me your Spike Lee Top 5. We can take BlacKkKlansman out of consideration so you can be unbiased.
Irvin: Number one would be Clockers. Number two, Do the Right Thing. Number three, Malcolm X. Number four, 25th Hour. And then for number five, I was going to say Inside Man, but maybe I’ll go with He Got Game.
Filmmaker: Did you see Clockers at a particularly impressionable age? That’s an unexpected choice.
Irvin: Yeah, it was a movie that me and my friends just loved growing up. I still love that movie today. I think it’s a classic.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.