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Shadows Under Strain: DP Lol Crawley and the Cipher of Vox Lux

Vox Lux

When it comes time to “punish” the image of a film, say with filtration, grease (generously applied to the front of the lens), or underexposure, cinematographers regress from their dear and safe technical jargon and assume the barbarous dialect of medieval executioners. They don’t just underexpose their picture to see how it reacts under strain, they “suffocate” it, “break” it, and “destroy” it — sometimes in spite of itself. The digital image is nary embraced and mostly worked against, its sterile lines deliberately corroded and beaten to a duller moosh. Cinematographer Lol Crawley BSC (Ballast, 45 Years) tortures the film stock until the blacks bleed shades of blue, a method he employed on The Childhood Of A Leader, his first collaboration with writer/director Brady Corbet.

Reunited for Vox Lux, the two negotiated a 22-day schedule with the discipline implicit to shooting film. Corbet, utterly assured, asked solely for the coverage that he envisaged in the edit, and Crowley, knowing Corbet’s taste and his approach to Vox Lux from their previous work and discussions in prep, was there to execute. In that way, they managed the brevity of their deadline. Trusting Corbet’s guidance, it was not always the DP’s job to question or thoroughly discern the motivation of Corbet’s direction. When the director referenced a shot from The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, Crowley knew exactly the angle Corbet wanted and how to execute it, but perhaps not — at least totally — why. Of course, this is not true of his comprehension of the entire film, but for these instances of relative mystique, Crowley provides us his informed interpretation. We begin by talking about Crawley’s first film, Ballast, shot in the States.

Crawley: It will always hold a dear place in my heart, and I owe a great deal to Lance Hammer [Ballast’s director]. Audiences and filmmakers still have great affection for the film. We screened it at Sundance in 2008 to an incredible reception. You know Harris Savides? He sent me an email saying it was one of the best films he’d seen that year. It was my first film, and I was like “I’m done. What’s next?” That was crazy. I was blown away, you know?

Filmmaker: The work you’re doing with Corbet looks unlike, at least, any of the recent films coming out that I’m watching.

Crawley: I hope that’s a good thing.

Filmmaker: Your work at the lower end of the 35mm exposure curve (the fast falling shadows that are exclusive to film) is a tenet of the language you and Corbet constructed for The Childhood Of A Leader and now Vox Lux. Is the use of these inky, fast-falling blacks in Vox Lux an advancement of their use on The Childhood Of A Leader?

Crawley: I don’t feel that there was a direct intention to unite the two films with an overall aesthetic, and in both films it’s very important that the exposure is motivated by what we want these worlds to feel like. Both films examine dark, difficult themes, and both Brady and I are drawn to a largely naturalistic style of lighting and exposure. While there are some bright and sunny scenes in Childhood, motivated by the change in season, generally it felt like the correct decision was to explore the darker end of the exposure curve as opposed to something lighter and more celebratory. I think [the darker content] is where I gravitate to. The scripts that I read I pick because I gravitate toward a certain reality that’s recognisable to me or a familiar type of realism. I started my career working with non actors and predominantly available light so I tend to remain fascinated and comforted by this approach.

I can be more specific. With The Childhood of A Leader the period of the time motivates a lot of the interiors. You have an oil lamp and just the beginnings of electricity. Half of the house is functioning with electricity, and half of it is oil lamps. I’m trying to keep it as faithful as possible to a historical accuracy or naturalism, and because I’m doing that I’m not trying to put moonlight in to compete with that, for example. I always think as soon as you light something as small as a match in these environments that any ambient light or the slightest moonlight is obliterated. So I’m just trying to keep it as close to a certain reality as possible. Another thing, there’s always been this idea that cinematography owes a debt to photography. Of course it does, but what I’m trying to challenge are those rich blacks you aim for when you talk about photography. If you look at a Rembrandt self portrait for example, the artist wouldn’t use a pure black to achieve a shadow but would instead build it up with other colors such as brown or purple. 

So what I was trying to do was to underexpose the negative and then try to pull it up, so that you’re asking something of the dye layers in the film. You’re trying to get different colors to form the shadows. So why don’t we look at painting rather than making the rich blacks super important? Why not approach it in a different way? So in The Childhood Of A Leader, I wouldn’t necessarily say that there were “inky blacks,” but that there was more color in them than other films. I wasn’t necessarily trying to do that on Vox Lux — it wasn’t the same point. I was quite happy to use inky blacks. When [the shooter’s] walking at night that’s the boldest I get in that film. I’m quite happy for him to be in an absolute void. I don’t want to see the trees even though I know they’re there. Part of that is me keeping it real because I grew up in the countryside, and that’s what it feels like walking at night. But secondly, he’s isolated, there’s nothing going on in his world apart from him at that point.

Filmmaker: Can you talk more about how you pushed color into the shadows of The Childhood Of A Leader?

Crawley: For the majority of The Childhood of A Leader I underexposed it by about one-and-a-half to two stops, even in exterior day scenes. That way, if you’re sort of pushing it there and trying to pull it up, you’re sort of breaking down the modernity of modern stocks. There were other things that came together to make that film feel successful in its period nature. I’m trying to destroy — I’m trying to punish it in someway so that it sort of falls apart and behaves like it’s struggling. So if you push down the film by underexposing it you’re trying to suffocate it, but then you’re also trying to bring it back to life with the other hand. When you do that it just can’t deliver a true black. It’s just giving you what it can which is these other colors.

When you underexpose on film, traditionally what happens is that you see the blue layer first. So if you’re trying to get an image out, what happens is, if you ramp it up in the grade the blues are the first thing to come through, so you end up with all this sort of [blueish] grain. It doesn’t go milky gray like digital.

Filmmaker: Can that be gauged with some consistency?

Crawley: Well the blue always comes through first in the dark shadows of the grain when you start to underexpose the negative. You have three dye layers, so it has to do with how each one responds. In saying that, browns and purples and other colors also appear. In the DI you can obviously key into that blue and change its color to a certain extent, but essentially that’s what I was trying to do — lets not go rich blacks, let’s try to make it more painterly in the shadows.

Filmmaker: In the school shooting sequence we don’t see Celeste until after the teacher is killed and the shooting has begun. The camera doesn’t even show that she’s in the room until the start of the tragedy. It’s a reveal that conveys she’s born out of the event and was nothing before it. Is your and Brady’s preparation such that you did not shoot coverage of Celeste in the classroom up until the moment that she’s shown? Or is this an editing decision?

Crawley: It’s faithful to the script as far as I remember, so it’s premeditated… It wasn’t like we shot scenes with her. There was never a plan to see her before, and it was never scripted that way. When we came to the day of shooting that scene, or perhaps it was the days leading up to it, I was playing more traditional. I thought, “We’re playing on the teacher, do you want to cut back [to Celeste and the students]?” It felt bold, and I wasn’t necessarily sold on never seeing the kids. I thought it might come off, not as a stylistic choice, but like we did it because we couldn’t afford it, or some logistical reason rather than creatively. Anyways, I was completely wrong. It obviously works very well.

Brady is a director who has a very strong idea about how things are covered. He’s not dogmatic, but he has a strong vision. He will always try to cover something as simply as he can. I remember him saying something to me on The Childhood Of A Leader, which was the first time we worked together, when I, not challenged, but supportively suggested [laughs] that we might need another shot in a scene. He said, “I don’t ever want to cut to another angle unless it gives the audience more information.” I suppose I could’ve argued with him that it would give you more information, but you already know the kids are there, so what are you really telling [the audience]? Is it more important to deny the audience see Celeste? His decision was to deny it. We never covered it. So there is no footage of Celeste tuning up her instrument [like we see of the other students].

But I think your reading of the scene and your reading of a lot of this film is very interesting. I think that’s what film theory does. I know people challenge film theory because they think, “Well you don’t understand what it’s like on the day. We just didn’t have a choice.” But I don’t really think that matters. The validity of film theory is that you’re understanding the language of the film, even if they are things the filmmaker’s didn’t necessarily intend.

Filmmaker: And I think our intuitions are often often working in favor of the grammar we set out to develop on set.

Crawley: But then that still assumes that it’s always there in one’s psyche. That’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s just happy accidents or it just happens. You try to have a plan, an approach, and a philosophy but sometimes things just offer themselves up on the day. Sometimes you can’t do something you wanted to do on the day, and in hindsight it makes sense. One thing that sometimes happens is that the aspects that you thought you really got and nailed often don’t work in the context of the cut and the things you thought completely screwed up do work. That always keeps it exciting for me, at least, even if it’s often very stressful.

Case in point, in Vox Lux, [the scene] where the kid is walking at night — and at this point I feel like I’ve been pretty brave with the exposure — we got a report back before we saw the first rushes that there was nothing on the negative. Brady was like, “Ah! Don’t worry, they always say that,” and I was internally more unsettled. We went in to the dailies color session in the early hours of the morning and it was the most sobering experience. It just didn’t look the way I thought it was going to look. Out of context and without any sound, it was just four people in a grading booth watching a dot move left to right on a screen [the cars headlights and street lamps are the only part of the image that hasn’t fallen into complete black]. But in the context of the movie it works very well. I didn’t intend some of those shots to be quite that dark. I’ve shot so much film now, but it’s often still terrifying.

Filmmaker: I always hear anecdotes about some the greatest DPs scaring/kidding themselves.

Crawley: That’s what’s depressing about digital. You think it would make you a bolder D.P to be able to see the image. You’d think it’d make you’d say, “Lets go farther. Lets go farther.” It doesn’t. I don’t know why, but you’re a lot bolder — I am anyway — when I shoot on film.

Filmmaker: I have a friend who is a frequent DIT of Fred Elmes. There was a job Fred couldn’t take him on and so he called my friend repeatedly with questions, horrified — as if it he hadn’t been honing his craft his entire life and as if he weren’t one of the best!

Crawley: I know! That’s another thing. One can become overly reliant on the DIT! I shot a film over the summer, The Secret Garden, which was on digital, and I kept catching myself asking the DIT, “How does it look? Is the exposure okay?” And it’s like fucking hell! Why am I doing this? It’s unbelievable. I would never question myself that way shooting film because there’s no one to else to turn to.

Filmmaker: When Celeste is ushered into the world via ambulance and an entourage of police cruisers, is it meant to evoke a kind of sickened, celebrity motorcade?

Crawley: No, but again, I think that’s a really interesting reading. I don’t know, maybe Brady has a different idea. He does have these visions for things. He knows what’s going to happen and how. He’s great, and it doesn’t stifle my creativity at all. I’d much rather have a director who knows what he wants. But it is really interesting, I hadn’t thought of that at all, this idea of a motorcade. One thing I did consider about that scene, though, [happens] at the end of the sequence. We’re panning on a zoom lens and they get away from us. We’re widening out and we’re widening out — remember that moment? What I always liked about that was the futility of it. All of these people rush in to save lives and everything like that, but actually, if you take a step back it’s pretty ludicrous. We’re all these small creatures trying to change things. There’s a suggestion of futility in that shot I think. But again [laughs] that wasn’t necessarily discussed. It’s just what I think about it. It’s just as valid as anyone else’s reading.

The use of the 8mm rectilinear lens came out of the fact that Brady wanted to shoot on wide lenses. He was showing me references like Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut shot with wide lenses on steadicam and then we kept getting wider and wider until Brady asked, “What’s the widest we can go?” And I said, “There’s an 8mm rectilinear lens.” It’s a wide angle but it doesn’t distort like some wide angle lenses, or like a fisheye lens. Then I put it on a stick [director’s viewfinder] for him to see, and he walked around with it and loved it. It’s a progressive thing. So where does it have a home? I like it, but what is it and what’s the choice?

There’s the idea that it’s almost like the narrator’s vision or the devil’s vision. It’s revealed in the end that she’s [Celeste] made a Faustian pact with the devil. Which, rather than it being this omnipotent, god-like, heavenly gaze, it’s more of like a darker searching wide. You could argue that it’s that malevolent perspective. But there was no hard and fast rule [for when we used the lens]. It’s an emotional response. Sometimes it just sort of feels correct, I think.

Filmmaker: But sometimes you are saying something like, “This pan on a pull out evokes the futility of man” before and while you’re designing the shot, right?

Crawley: It depends on who the director is. Sometimes Brady just tells me that this is how he wants to do it and I’m not always going to ask, “Why? Why?” I’m also not the sort of DP that will challenge a director in that regard. This is their movie, they’ve been writing it, they’re editing it, I’m not the sort of person that feels so assured about my different vision of a film that I will spend the day arguing it rather than executing it.

If I feel that I don’t fully understand a scene or that I may have a better idea, then I’ll question the choices, but my job is not to essentially say I know how to do this better all the time. Because if I were directing I think that’d be an infuriating relationship. So yeah, most of the time you understand what the intent is. Sometimes I don’t care what the intent is, I light the shot, and I don’t challenge how we’re doing it. And then some time it occurs to me, either while I’m shooting it or after, what I think the shot’s evoking.

Filmmaker: I like that you can still watch Vox Lux, despite your heavy involvement, with some mystery and room to interpret.

Crawley: I don’t see how that’s different from music or any other art. I don’t think it is. Sometimes I like how I’ve put the lights together and how it makes something feel, but I can’t necessarily articulate it better than that [laughs]. It’s like looking at a painting and knowing you like the way you respond to it, but that you can’t put it into words. I mean it’s a different language right?

Filmmaker: If the perspective of the film is omnipotent, is that a framework within which a lot of your photographic choices took place? Sometimes the images show the contrary of what Dafoe describes — or perhaps he sometimes describes them ironically.

Crawley: No. Not at all [laughs]. I knew it was in the script, but I wasn’t conscious of it in that regard.

Filmmaker: Then is it more a variable perspective that fluctuates, perhaps between characters, depending on the needs of each scene?

Crawley: Not really. For this movie I’m prepping at the moment there’s been conversations about there being a development from one perspective of a character to another. But. I think in working with Brady there’s less — it’s not like there’s less involvement at all creatively — but it’s not sitting down and going, “How are we going to shoot this scene?” He knows how he’s going to shoot the scenes [laughs]. So, if it was a different filmmaker, maybe I might lean into those different perspectives. It’s also not that he’s just dictating where I put the camera, but I’m not conscious of it in the same way. If you see what I mean?

That’s what I think makes his films and any strong director’s films so specific, that only they can tell the stories in their way. Other people can tell a story in a very accomplished way, make a great genre pic or whatever. But I think this feels like Brady’s work, and it’s identifiable.

Filmmaker: And so you can trust him to have it all worked out?

Crawley: Yeah. Not necessarily all of it, some of it’s on the fly, but yes, I didn’t pin it all down. I wasn’t going shot for shot motivating which perspective the camera was coming from. The only exception to that is the idea of the 8mm lens.

Filmmaker: As you’ve said [in your Kodak interview] time periods are not made distinct by “in-camera” alterations but by the natural changes in location and so forth. What did prompt in-camera evolutions, and why does it make sense for those things to be done in-camera — besides the fact that in-camera changes for period can feel so contrived.

Crawley: I honestly don’t remember any conversations where we were like, “Let’s shoot this anamorphic and this spherical,” for example, or have a certain color palette here and another there. That approach felt too arch, and I don’t think the film suffers for that. It’s a bit of an obvious and overplayed way of expressing two time periods.

Initially we discussed shooting the entire film on 65mm, right [laughs]? That didn’t happen largely due to equipment availability and costs. The second half was going to have a greater sense of modernity and a cleaner aesthetic and a cleaner look. We did explore that in the second act when we got into Manhattan. We shot on a cleaner 50ASA film stock. But we also shot two perf for some of the grungier moments like when she’s backstage and she’s throwing a tantrum. So we didn’t change the format but we did shoot two perf. The smaller negative results in a tighter field of view, so it feels a little more claustrophobic, and it’s perhaps a little grainier. But it also meant that our mag lasted longer. So that handheld shot I did where she comes out of the van and takes the elevator down is all in one shot. There’s no stitching in there, there’s no VFX.

Going from four to two perf gave us twice the amount of shooting time. I try not to make decisions based off of logistics, or those kinds of things purely, but it all helped. I’m lucky that my camera operator Sam Ellison is a beautiful, delightful guy and a very good operator.

Filmmaker: How are you with your operators?

Crawley: I like to operate. I always have enjoyed operating, especially handheld shots. And sometimes, like on Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom for instance, some of these projects are just too big and the schedules are too tight. There’s a schedule on my shoulders and an operator on set, why should I try to do everything? My eye is good and my sense of composition is strong, but I don’t need to be the one that’s physically operating the camera every time. I think for everyone the rule of thirds applies. If you’re doing a landscape shot and you have 2/3rds sky wherever in your rule of thirds or however you cut it, it’s an odd person that’s going to do something wildly different. I don’t like to undermine the operators by telling them [to move the frame] “Left a bit. Right a bit” but I probably do tell them [to move the frame} “Left a bit. Right a bit.” That’s probably infuriating, but it’s like, sorry, I’m the DP so… [laughs]

Filmmaker: Are you coming to set with your light meter underexposed two stops? How do you expose?

Crawley: No, I do that on set. What I do is I keep it the same. I don’t change the ASA or anything like that. I keep it all correct because it’s easier for me to keep track of it. Then I’ll literally take a stop and a half off of it. Generally, I’ll shoot night scenes close to wide open and for everything else I shoot between wide open and T4 at the very most. T2.8 ½ is usually as far as I like to go. That’s where I work on the exposure level. I just sort of gauge it by eye, I know it, and I’m used to doing it. Sometimes I get really bold with it but most of the time you just get used to what the light meter levels are. Or, say I’m shooting 500ASA, I’ll take a reading at 800 or whatever and it’ll say T1.3 or T2 and I’ll know that it’s a stop and half under that.

But when I first started, the idea of underexposing that much horrified me. I actually had directors push me to be bolder and bolder. With Ballast, the short films, and the debut feature I shot in the UK with Duane Hopkins, he was the one who was like, “Let’s go anamorphic, and shoot wide open, and not light it, and push the film.” And people were like, [Imitating a sobbing voice] “Oh you can’t shoot anamorphic wide open!” But it’s like why not? Who says? Nowadays it wouldn’t cross my mind to be so constrained, but I remember I used to be like, “Oh no. Of course you can’t.” But you can [laughs]. You can do whatever you want.

Filmmaker: Are you saying you liked to stay between wide open and a T4 on Vox Lux or in general?

Crawley: Oh no, all the time. I’d rarely shoot at a stop of T5.6 or T8, I just don’t enjoy the way the lenses behave like that. I don’t like that much depth you know? Maybe not never, maybe I’d do it, but I just generally like a shallower depth really. I’m not somebody who’d light a scene at night for a T4 or T8 and grade it down. But a lot of people do, and a lot of people probably get better sleep than I do at night.

Filmmaker: Looking up at the verticality of skyscrapers then looking down on Celeste in her recording booth (the same high-angle looking down on her later on the treadmill). Talk about the dynamic and motivation for these shots?

Crawley: Brady definitely knew he wanted to be looking down on her in those shots. There were film references. Sometimes he’d say a film and I’d just know. I think that one was The Passion of Joan of Arc. There’s a lot of religious connotation in Joan of Arc and there’s a religious connotation in this film, a sense of celebrity taking over for religion. Even going back to The Beatles saying, “We’re bigger than Jesus.” I mean who knows, I didn’t direct the movie. But you’re looking down on somebody looking up, the omnipotent gaze, and if you look at old religious paintings there’s the looking up at Christ or looking down, you know? So I didn’t analyze that too much. Brady would say, “This is where the camera needs to be.” And I’m not going to say it should go somewhere else because I don’t have a better idea or a clearer understanding of that scene than he does. We don’t have a lot of time. So let’s just put the camera there.

Filmmaker: In your interview with Kodak you talked about using the protracted steadicam work to evoke a seamless transition between the image Celeste projects to the public and the one that exists behind closed doors. As an icon, her psyches also been bound to the world’s. I think it makes sense.

Crowley: Sometimes it’s like you’re trying to find your way into a film and lock into what it is. You do that for every film but it’s at different points. I remember the point that I felt like I really locked it in. So Celeste is displaying herself to the world as we all do but in a heightened sense as a celebrity, with all of that turmoil beneath that. On top of that is the product that is the performer. That’s echoed a couple of times in the film where it’s like stepping behind the Hollywood sign. The front of it is glitzier than the back right? So all the backstage stuff, and all the back hotel stuff, and all the brickwork — you come out of it into the facade of the hotel that’s all surface. Those things are very important because they echo her. So seeing all the underside of the stage and backstage happens at pretty specific points. One is the back of the hotel where it’s brickwork and kitchens and then its suddenly the stuff that only the public sees. That happens again when we go down into the dressing rooms and the third time is when we follow Celeste out from her dressing room and onto the stage.

Filmmaker: On the final 12-minute sequence being shot in what I perceived to be flat, almost concert-video-like, compositions…

Crawley: Brady wanted an emotionless camera that let the performance play out in wides and long lens shots from behind the audience. I remember him using the word banal, and wanting to feel removed from it emotionally rather than making it feel like a more traditional concert film. But it’s a long sequence, and I felt at some points we had to feel a more emotionally responsive camera. I think we sort of argued between these different things. I think it works well, but — I mean ultimately you have to ask — what is this 12-minute sequence doing at the end of the film?

Some people told me they thought she was going to get shot because of the current climate and the attack in Vegas, the attack in France. I hadn’t really even thought of that. Whether Brady intended that I don’t know. But then people ask me, “Well why it was going on for 12 minutes?” And I don’t really know entirely why it’s going on for 12 minutes. She’s such a car crash up to that point that the fact that she can just turn it on and it doesn’t fail — I think there’s something worth seeing about that.

We had four camera operators on that. I don’t know what else to say except that technically what we did was — I had shot some Arcade Fire shows years before and I managed to license the footage. We shot that in Earls Court, which is an arena that doesn’t exist in London anymore. This meant that we already had the wide shots, which we could drop Natalie’s performance into, and those were shot on a soundstage in New York.

Filmmaker: Crazy.

Crowley: We were very lucky to have that audience footage.

Filmmaker: Twenty-two day schedule! Limited film. How intensive is your pre-production with Brady?

Crawley: You know, the thing that would have killed it is more coverage. Every time you do a shot on someone and you have to do a reverse shot, and then you want to move in for tighter work, you’re doing at least twice as many shots than you would’ve done, which is twice as many takes and twice as much time. So that’s the killer. There are other directors who’d go, “Oh I don’t know” so overshot it to save themselves hoping they could find it in the edit. Chris Doyle has always said this thing: “Coverage means you don’t know what you’re doing.”

While we’re shooting, we’ll come up with shots on the day as well. But Brady knows what he needs, and I’ll try to riff on that and come up with ways to make it better. That’s your job, I think, as a DP. You throw out ideas and hopefully they stick and have some merit. If they don’t, you’re probably not good at your job, or you’re not the right person to be shooting the film. But I don’t care if [an idea] falls on the floor. If I cared that much I would direct a film. My job is to not be precious about my ideas being cast aside. The way that that director tells the story is fine by me. If I’m listening to what they’re saying and we’re looking at the references and I get what that is, most of what I say will be of some use.

Filmmaker: How are you about choosing your focal lengths?

Crawley: It’s something I do intuitively really. I don’t think about it too much. I certainly know that if I’m doing handheld I’m somewhere between a 32mm, a 40mm, or a 50mm if I’m shooting spherically, and around a 65mm or 70mm if I’m shooting anamorphic. I like how the world feels like right about there. Sometimes I might be wider — there are some 8mm handheld moments in the film. And I guess I’m never in a position where I go super-wide to super-long lensed, and I generally don’t shoot lots of long lens stuff. Although, saying that, we had a long lens shot of Jude, Raffey and Stacy Martin walking towards the camera in New York.

But a lot of that is by necessity. You’re in New York and you’ve got Jude Law. I think we called it a Tootsie shot. I think it also feels like an ’80s shot. So I don’t know, I just get the Artemis out or a viewfinder and look at it and don’t examine it too much. You get to a point where — and I don’t want to sound wanky — it’s like picking up a brush or a pen. It’s a tool, and it becomes a little bit intuitive. You don’t really over analyze it. Or maybe I just talk about it with such familiarity now that I talk about it much more than I realize. It’s quite nice; it’s like driving a car. If you were like, “What gear are you in on a stick shift?” I’d go: “I don’t know I was just driving the car. I guess I might’ve been in first.” That’s the only way I can sort of describe it.

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