“The Horse is Constantly Looking at the Technocrane”: DP Andrew Droz Palermo on The Green Knight
In The Green Knight, King Arthur’s hedonistic nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) leaves the comforts of Camelot for an epic quest to confront the titular verdant specter.
Based on the anonymously authored 14th Century poem, the latest film from David Lowery (The Old Man & the Gun, A Ghost Story) invites a multitude of interpretations. I construed it as a journey from the imagined invincibility of youth to the shadow of mortality eventually cast upon us all—a reading no doubt colored by 18 pandemic months of wondering if a trip to the grocery store would kill me.
Days after my screening, I was still digesting the film’s surreal singularity and pondering potential meanings, a fact that seemed to please The Green Knight cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo. “That’s one of the things that I love about the movie and the place I like to be as a filmmaker,” said Palermo. “I like to make a movie that inspires people to have conversations and disagree about interpretations.”
Palermo and I spoke about the making of the film over Zoom, where I was greeted by the visage of a hirsute Sean Connery from the campy 1984 Green Knight adaptation Sword of the Valiant.
Filmmaker: Is your Zoom avatar from Sword of the Valiant?
Palermo: (laughs) That’s right. I’ve been using that for like the last two years, which very few people have recognized. I didn’t watch the entirety of that movie, but I did scrub through it before we shot and thought, “Yeah, I don’t think we need to be too worried.” (laughs)
Filmmaker: When we talked for A Ghost Story, you told me that David Lowery wrote that film’s 1.33 aspect ratio into the script. Did he come into The Green Knight with any preconceived ideas about format or aspect ratio?
Palermo: Large format was certainly on the table from the very beginning. However, the aspect ratio was up for discussion. We were back and forth between 1.85 and 2.40 all the way up until pretty close to shooting. We could both kind of see it either way, but ultimately decided to go with 1.85 just so as to not look like so many other epics. Because Dev is a singular character through so much of his journey, we wanted a little more height in the frame compared to a really wide frame, where he could feel very small.
Filmmaker: Did you discuss going with 1.33 again?
Palermo: No, it was never on the table. I think we felt like we went there already [with A Ghost Story], though [that ratio] could’ve been quite lovely with one person on a horse. So, there could have been a justification for it, but it always felt like we were trying to make something a little more modern. That was part of our choice in camera and lensing as well—not being afraid to make it feel of this era as opposed to trying to make it feel antiquated.
Filmmaker: For that lens choice, you went with the Arri DNAs to go with the Alexa 65.
Palermo: We looked at a lot of different lenses. We looked at Arri lenses, at some rehoused Hasselblads, and a bunch of stuff from Panavision, who I use often and I love their glass. We just really liked the quality of those DNA lenses. I liked the way that things rolled out of focus on them. They do have a pretty strong chromatic aberration, which I didn’t see as much in our limited lens testing, but the shift on the edges can be a little unpleasant. It was just something I had to watch out for sometimes and make sure I didn’t shoot too wide open [in certain situations].
In addition to the DNAs we had two lenses from Arri called T-Types, a 58mm and a 77mm. Nearly that entire sequence at the end of the film, where Gawain is imaging this future that could be, was shot on the 58T. If I needed to use a different lens so I could go a little wider, like when the Great Hall is being attacked. I would put a little Vaseline on the lens so it still felt really soft toward the edges like the 58T.
Filmmaker: I haven’t heard of those T-Type lenses before.
Palermo: It seems like every camera house, if you say, “I’m looking for something special,” they’ll dig into their vault and start pulling out all these random Frankenstein lenses. You put them up on the camera and they’re just incredible, even if sometimes it’s too intense and not really what you’re looking for. At Panavision, it’s like [Vice President of Optical Engineering] Dan Sasaki opens the back cabinet and they’ve got all these insane lenses that might have no housing on the outside, or it’s clearly three types of lenses mashed into one. So, Arri has these lenses called the T-Types. I’ve tried to pull them for commercials a couple times since The Green Knight and been unable to get them because they’ve been on other shows. They have a really extreme falloff on the sides. If you’re not center focused or stopped way down, everything turns into mush. Two shots come to mind to show how extreme those lenses are. One is when Gawain’s bride arrives and is standing in the court with her handmaidens. She’s the only thing in focus even though there are other people on the same focal plane [but on the sides of the frame]. Then there’s another shot where Essel [played by Alicia Vikander] is older and sees Gawain in the city square and everything fades away behind her.
Filmmaker: The Arri Rental website talks about how those DNAs can be individualized, which I guess is kind of their version of Panavision’s “detuning.”
Palermo: Arri kind of put it on a scale of 1 to 10, from very optically perfect to very characterful. I went with like a 5, kind of in the middle of the road. So, they’re moving the elements within the glass to introduce imperfections. I think that’s always been the thing that’s so lovely about lenses like the Panavision C Series. The imperfections are what makes those lenses beautiful. The fact that they’re not optically perfect is what a lot of cinematographers right now enjoy, feeling some of that character instead of being just so clean from edge to edge.
Filmmaker: The Green Knight was originally supposed to premiere at South by Southwest in March of 2020 before the fest was cancelled because of the pandemic. When the theatrical release date ultimately got pushed, Lowery went back and re-edited the movie and added quite a few new VFX shots. Did you have to go in and essentially regrade the movie again after that?
Palermo: It wasn’t a full regrade, because most of the shots David was using were already present [in one of the previous edits] or were shots that we already colored at some point. There were many times where I went in to color in advance of the SXSW deadline just to get ahead, because David was going to be cutting all the way up to the festival. So, throughout the different versions we’d at least touched most shots. There were very few shots that just appeared out of nowhere that I’d never seen in the color bay. So, it wasn’t a huge endeavor, but we did spend about another two weeks, including all our HDR finishing. By that time, David was already on to Peter Pan & Wendy and I was the only one able to see The Green Knight projected, so I kind of was David’s quality control. I did take that opportunity to revisit a few shots with my colorist, Alastor Arnold, that had been bugging me in the interim. Sometimes in color, you go down a path where you start building and building, then realize by the end of that process that it can end up making it feel false. The very first shot of the movie had really not been sitting well with me because I’d tweaked it too much. So, Alastor and I went in and tried a much less aggressive approach and I was so much happier. There were a few other scenes where we did the same, including the look of the final act. We approached them again, with a softer touch.
Filmmaker: Do you mean the final confrontation at the Green Chapel, where you have kind of a tobacco filter look?
Palermo: Exactly. I didn’t want to revisit what [Apocalypse Now cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro had done for the end of [Captain Willard’s] journey, but I wanted to approximate it based on my memory of that film. I wanted to get the feeling that the image was almost feverish.
Filmmaker: Since you mentioned Storaro, let’s talk about another one of his films, Ladyhawke. It was one of my absolute favorites growing up. After not seeing it for years, I showed it to my son a few months ago and was floored by how distinct that movie looks, with the barrel distortion and the 180-degree field of view of the Technovision anamorphics Storaro used and all these crazy orange and pink skies.
Palermo: Yeah, it’s gorgeous. It was one of the films in my lookbook for The Green Knight. There’s a lot of anachronistic things in that movie too, and we were inspired by that because we just couldn’t afford to have every costume or location be period accurate. That kind of freed us up to just have fun, and that included the way I lit. The presence of magic in the world of The Green Knight also gives you the freedom to be creative with the color of the spaces and the light.
Filmmaker: Let’s break down your lighting approach to one of those spaces, the Round Table hall where the Green Knight presents his challenge to Gawain. This is the biggest of your few set builds in Ireland?
Palermo: Yeah, that was a very difficult set for me. It was difficult in color timing too for light continuity, because so much happens. We went through the alphabet three times with all the set-ups for that scene. Gawain needs to come in, have an intimate conversation, then the Green Knight enters and the light changes—the firelight goes out and suddenly there’s the presence of magic. Then, at the end, the Green Knight exits and the fire re-emerges. It was incredibly hard for me to track where we needed to be with the light at all times. You didn’t want to end up saying, “Oh, we need another shot back in the ‘no firelight’ set-up” [after we’d already moved on]. So, I tried to build a very versatile lighting set-up. It was three SkyPanel 360’s overhead in a soft box, and I had an 18K Alpha HMI that was a beam shooting straight down. The fire on the torches was done by FX, then each window had a number of Dino lights shining in. Depending on where we were looking or where we were in the scene, I would turn on or off certain units and maybe bring in another SkyPanel as a key or fill. It was a very, very difficult scene with not nearly enough time given how complicated it was.
Filmmaker: There’s a CGI fox that accompanies Gawain for a portion of his quest. Was this the first time you’ve dealt with an entirely CG character?
Palermo: I’ve had limited experience with a full CG character from shooting Strange Angel, the show David and I worked on together, but never to this extent. Often David and I would sit there with a laser pointer to show where the fox might scamper to, and that would help us determine where the camera needed to pan or where I needed to frame. They also had a taxidermied fox—I’m not even certain that it was a real fox, but knowing David it probably was not—and would plop him wherever I was going to put the camera. That helped me tremendously with lens size, proximity and light. They would carry this taxidermied fox through all the light that we expected him to be in so they could get a sense of what his fur needed to look like in postproduction. I think without that reference I would’ve been completely lost, because you just don’t have any sense of scale sometimes. I’m actually on a show right now where there’s a lot of CG characters, and often I’m setting up a frame, then they’ll put in the [scale] reference and I’m always wrong.
Filmmaker: When Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon came out I remember that film’s DP, Bojan Bazelli, talking about how much they relied on natural light. For the day exteriors on The Green Knight, did you take a similar approach?
Palermo: I rarely brought out much in terms of exterior lighting. That’s been my preference lately as well. I might bring out a light for someone’s eyelight, or maybe a bit of fill if a bounce wasn’t doing it, but it’s really not doing a ton of keying. What we would do is shape the light with negative [fill]. The Green Chapel is a good example of that. That’s almost entirely natural light, but I had a Condor over the top of that church and wherever the camera was looking it would always be behind camera, so that Gawain or the Green Knight were always sort of backlit. We would only augment that if we were losing that natural light. Ireland’s weather changes on a dime, so you had to be prepared to fire something up for continuity. I would also bring in a small eyelight attached to the lens or just below the lens just to give a little glint in the eye. Eyelights were pretty key in this movie, actually. Any time the Green Knight or Saint Winifred were in the frame, I tried to give them an eyelight. Any time there was a little bit of magic in the world, I’d try to give them a little glint in their eye.
Filmmaker: One of the first movies I remember seeing in the theater as a kid was Excalibur. It probably stands out because my mom scooped us up and made us leave early during the final battlefield scene, which is just strewn with bloody dead bodies. I was reminded of that scene during the long tracking shot where Gawain meets a scavenger [played by Barry Keoghan] on the remnants of a corpse-covered battlefield.
Palermo: David showed me a phenomenal long tracking shot through bodies in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and said, “This is kind of what I’m thinking.” I immediately thought, “Oh shit, that’s going to be tough given the scope of it and our resources.” We lined up the shot, rehearsed it and put out a bunch of mats for the Russian Arm to drive on. It was kind of a mud soup out there, because it had been raining a bunch. When we were lining it up, the weather couldn’t have been better, but when we were finally ready to shoot the clouds broke and now there’s a rainbow over the battlefield. The horse also would not stay on his path. It kept wanting to come toward the camera because he saw that it would be easier to walk on that path [than the muddy route we wanted him to travel]. If you watch the film with this in mind, you’ll notice that the horse is constantly looking at the Technocrane. Every time I watch that shot I can’t see anything except that horse staring back at the crane. (laughs)
Filmmaker: Any other scenes you want to talk about before we finish up?
Palermo: The scene where Gawain meets Saint Winifred in her cottage is, I think, my favorite of the movie. David did a New York Times “Anatomy of a Scene” about it. It came together so nicely in both the interior of the cottage and the exterior, which I think is my best work in the movie. The interior was a challenge that I laid down for myself: what is the absolute minimum amount of light I can put on the screen and the audience can still understand what’s going on? I wanted it to feel like when you wake up from a slumber and the room is still dark and you can’t really sort out what’s in front of you. The exterior was almost the exact opposite of that battlefield shot we were just talking about, because everything came together perfectly. The weather was perfect. The setting was amazing. There’s a long side dolly shot that is my favorite of the movie where they’re emerging from the cabin and there’s this great streaking moonlight coming through fog and these tendrily trees and they’re all casting shadows. That’s the way that I wanted the whole movie to look—so much like a fairytale.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.