Finding the Perfect Angle, Shooting Academy Ratio and Collaborating with Pawel Palikowski: DP Lukasz Żal on Shooting Cold War
Cinematographer Łukasz Żal’s first feature, Ida, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Collaborating with director and co-writer Paweł Pawlikowski, Żal devised a distinctive visual approach that used black-and-white camerawork in the 1.37 Academy aspect ratio.
Żal worked with Pawlikowski again on Cold War, another film using black-and-white and the Academy aspect ratio. He spoke with Filmmaker about the film at the recent Camerimage festival in Bydgoszcz, where he was awarded the Silver Frog for cinematography.
Filmmaker: Pawlikowski took an “Image” credit for Cold War. What does that mean?
Zal: You should ask Paweł.
Filmmaker: He has said that he is responsible for every aspect of the film, including cinematography and production design, and ultimately the image itself.
Zal: He is not trying to transfer the script to the images, but treating the image as part of the story.
Filmmaker: So how do you define your job on Cold War?
Zal: It’s a very symbiotic collaboration in terms of image. It’s not like I did the cinematography just by myself, it’s something we did together. We spent a lot of time looking for visual solutions on how to make this story. A lot of time talking about the script, location scouting, taking pictures, working together about how to tell these scenes.
We spent half a year on that. We went through the script many times. We also met a lot with the great production designers, Marcel Slawiński and Katarzyna Sobańska, making all those decisions in terms of locations, talking about how we are going shoot, what kind of camera movement we will use, talking about colors and textures, woods. I often went with Paweł to the dance rehearsals, where Joanna Kulig [who plays Zula, a singer and dancer] was working with Mazowsze. Took a lot of pictures, recording the rehearsals, and later we were analyzing this.
Everything comes from the story. The image is not like a separate thing just to illustrate the script. And as we are shooting every scene in just one or two shots, so we’re trying to find the proper balance between people and places.
And later on the set, we’re like sculpting, calibrating. It’s not like he’s doing directing and working just with the actors. Maybe symbiotic means we just are making all those decisions together. We didn’t talk a lot about lighting, mostly I was doing that myself. Regarding composition, we’re sitting together by the monitor, together deciding to go down, up, left, right, placing props.
Filmmaker: Why did you decide to use the Academy aspect ratio?
Zal: When we used it in Ida, it was a great revelation for me. This format allows you to create less obvious compositions. In fact, composition becomes more significant. You can create more emotional and symbolic images. Frames which convey story and mood. It’s also great for two shots. In a wide format you very often just place people in the “strong” points of image. So often it’s very, very obvious. But this aspect ratio gives you a balance between the actors and the environment. Especially when you’re doing the scene in just one shot, when you’re not shooting typical coverage. That’s why we’re placing the camera quite high. We wanted to compose more in depth than in width. It’s like a cube somehow, like a box, with many layers inside. We place the camera outside this “box,” looking in, using the depth.
In typical coverage—wide shot, medium, close-up—when you’re using this style, it’s very often flat. Something like Citizen Kane, that is kind of the masterpiece example of compositions in depth. We were using an f-stop of 5.6 and a half, almost 8, and trying to compose everything in depth, having as many layers as possible. Treat the image like a painting or tableaux and try to build a kind of micro-world that somehow condenses reality. For example when Wiktor [a composer played by Tomasz Kot] and Zula are in Paris. We never showed a wide shot, or information shots. When we’re in Berlin, every shot had to be about Wiktor. But we built an entire world around him.
And this format with its limitations, this aspect ratio gives you the opportunity to speak about what is just beyond the frame. The frame becomes an excerpt of reality, a representation of a bigger whole.
Filmmaker: When you talk about depth and layers, can you explain how you separate a character from the background?
Zal: There are a few ways to talk about it. When we are using a quite deep depth of field, you need to separate people from the background through lighting, costumes and production design.
I realized that in Cold War, because of the many concerts in the story, I would have to use different lighting than in Ida, where I used a lot of side lights and back lights. Also, I wanted a link to the 1960s and the way the actresses were lit then.
During the prep I watched old films. A lot of archival footage, films like Casablanca, Jean-Luc Godard and other French New Wave directors, but also Andrei Tarkovsky and Miloš Forman. I looked at a lot of pictures of, for example, Marilyn Monroe, and the Polish star Kalina Jędrusik. I also studied Helmut Newton’s photography, because he was using a lot of beauty light, and was able to achieve an amazing contrast in his photographs. In the photography itself, but also in production design, in walls, faces, costumes, hair, makeup.
I thought, maybe that would be fun. In every film I did before I was always using mostly the side light to wrap people with light. That’s why in Cold War it was a goal for me and the production designers to always have as much contrast in the production design as possible. We even altered locations. For example in the Ministry of Culture, we had the idea to make the walls in the office there dark wood. Also the studio where they are recording the album, the aim was to use wood to contrast with the faces of the actors. In all of the concert situations, we knew there would be a lot of light from the stage, from the spotlights and footlights. So we realized we needed to play with contrast in our costumes, with hair, also with makeup and production design.
Filmmaker: How do approach working in the Academy frame?
Zal: In terms of camera movement, the idea at the beginning was that the camera would be very functional. Not to move camera a lot in the beginning. When it does move, it’s not synchronized to a character or action because the camera doesn’t know this world yet. We are just describing the world, slowly revealing it. We wanted to it to like it was unscripted.
Also this format is nice because without so much width you are able to tell the operator something like, just show things, show one musician, the second musician, and then the third guy — just reveal the film world. Instead of this [holding his arms wide open] we have this [making a little box], so you are able to tell the story with smaller movements. If you noticed, it was a lot of little pans.
So first we are building this kind of mosaic of the world from these different documentary shots. Later it’s a more narrative style. When Zula appears, we follow her. She is our trigger, she is the energy for the camera. When the actors become more emotional, we are also more emotional, with a handheld camera as she sings, for example. In Paris we are with Zula and Wiktor, completely synchronized with them, so we just follow them always.
Filmmaker: Does that Academy frame affect the way you move the camera, the speed or style?
Zal: In the beginning I was nervous, because the film didn’t have a homogenous style, I couldn’t pin down the style. As we were going through the script, I started to feel that the shape of the film was appearing. So I created a chart for myself, first documentary, then something more highly stylized than Ida, but powered by music and powered by dance. That means a lot of movement. Later on we go completely narrative, full of characters, this is called Paris. When Wiktor and Zula are together, just following them with a Steadicam or dolly. And we end up with a kind of metaphorical, symbolic space, wide, when the characters become part of the landscape somehow. They let things go.
When we start to come from the world to Wiktor and Zula, we grab onto them, we are in synch with them somehow, including later when they’re in this crazy, stormy relationship. I wanted to create this vision of being very fixed on something. Like in Paris, I wanted to create how your vision becomes narrow.
Filmmaker: You mean the rest of the world drops away?
Zal: Yes. In the beginning of the film we were using wide and standard lenses, like 28, 32, and f-stop of 5.6 and a half just to have a lot of depth, to feel this space and have a lot of the world.
But in Paris, just be very narrow, like the vision is narrow. The production designers started to laugh at me. “Lukasz, we are in Paris, this is the most expensive part of the film. But we can’t see anything, we can’t see Paris.”
I was okay, okay, I started to feel like maybe we are too bold. Maybe the depth of field is too shallow. But then I thought, we need to fight for this. We are going back to Poland, that’s where we can open the lens once more, let things go and just…
Filmmaker: Put them back in the whole world.
Zal: They became a part of the landscape, part of the universe. They are broken, they are different people. When they go to the church, they are living, but at the same time they’re not, they’re not from this world anymore. I remember the scene where they are taking pills, there was a 20mm lens.
Filmmaker: At one point Zula’s wearing a black wig and singing a cha cha song, and you have a shot backstage with action taking place on three different planes.
Zal: This is what I’ve learned from Paweł. He believes there is always one angle in a location that will reveal everything you need to tell the story. And that was exactly the way it was with this location. We went there two or three times, taking pictures. I’m thinking, how are we going to make this scene? But then there’s that one angle for Wiktor’s shot, he’s with Kaczmarek [an apparatchik played by Borys Szyc] and the boy, and then Zula enters from the rear. We couldn’t do a reverse angle even if we wanted to because there’s no background the other way.
Filmmaker: Did you take a different approach when shooting the music?
Zal: There was a rule, a simple rule. I like to write simple, even sometimes primitive notes for myself. With Zula and music, there’s always the movement, there’s also always power and energy and motion. The music is like a punch, it energizes the camera. The pacing is fast, then it slows, and then the next punch of music. That was our preliminary idea of how to use music, it has this energy that pushes the film forward. It dynamites the film.
With the “Rock Around the Clock” scene, the idea was to shoot it in one shot, because the music is so inspirational, you see the pictures you want when you listen to the music. We felt that it must be one complicated shot with its own rhythms, with its own changes. This scene was a great example of how we were working. We had this area, it was a kind of a theater, a stage in the hotel, old, it was completely destroyed. With the production designers, we decided to keep the walls and old fixtures on them. They built this club, using as a reference that it was a Paris nightclub. They did the whole area, 360 degrees, so we can show everything. We knew we are going to be completely free with the camera, so for the lighting we used a lot of PAR 64 and Fresnel. We also had a lot of old Fresnel from the 1960s which we could use close to the camera, they had the right historic balance. Far away, we used new lamps.
We had a lot of them, because after shooting all the previous concerts, my gaffer Przemek Sosnowski and I had a good understanding of how to use them. When you create a lot of little spots with Fresnel or PAR 64’s, each one is sharp and produces hard shadows. But take a lot of them, say 20 lamps, then you have a big surface of light that is somehow very soft. All those spots become one big light, one big source.
We talk about these subtle issues, people ask how did you intellectualize this approach or shot, but sometimes it’s just an intuitive process. We started with the three professional dancers, that was kind of it when we began working on the shot. We had one day of rehearsals with actors and dancers, without cameras except my little Lumix. During rehearsals, we had a kind of idea for the movement. Later on, when we met on set, we somehow just found this shot after half-day of rehearsals, 18 takes or something.
Filmmaker: Pawlikowski said he changed the choreography at the last moment so it didn’t look designed.
Zal: So we’re doing take after take, and after a while, with all these ingredients, this careful structure, you need to break it somehow, make it so it’s not so designed, for example in the actors’ staging, the camera movement, sometimes with extras. There’s an unexpected movement, something unsynchronized, something strange or not obvious. You capture a piece of life, like in a documentary. It’s what I enjoy the most while working with Paweł.
In Ida once we were repeating a take because an extra, he’s smoking a cigarette the wrong way. He was like a tiny face in the back of the frame. But he was smoking too intentionally, he was not natural. Another time we had a cow in the background of a shot in Ida. The actors were talking doing their dialogue, and there’s this cow like a little bit nervous. We’re doing the take over and over, and Paweł’s like, “The cow was nervous. Allow the cow to get bored.”
What he’s doing, he’s waiting for something, something real. There was another scene in Ida where nothing was working. We stop everything, say “thank you,” cancel all the lighting, rebuild the scene from the beginning. We shoot it completely differently. Sometimes it’s a situation where you need to step back. That’s the way Paweł works, it’s not like a straight road, there are a lot of curves. That’s the way you discover something.
I honestly don’t know how to achieve such truth in a film without working this way. It’s impossible to design everything, to prepare everything beforehand and then just do it. It’s impossible. It’s always predictable. You never allow life in the film.