Chayse Irvin on Shooting Blonde in Digital Black and White and God’s Creatures in 35mm Color
This week, Netflix’s Blonde and A24’s God’s Creatures head to streaming and theaters, respectively. The digitally-shot Blonde is a highly stylized look at the life of Marilyn Monroe, shifting aspect ratios and alternating between color and monochrome while employing extreme wide angle lenses, body cam mounts, infrared and more to expressionistically convey Monroe’s perspective. God’s Creatures is the antithesis—austere and somber, captured on 35mm, with an observational point of view distanced from the main characters, a mother in a small Irish fishing village whose life crumbles after providing a false alibi for her son. The films do share one thing in common—cinematographer Chayse Irvin (BlacKkKlansman, Beyoncé’s Lemonade) behind the camera.
Filmmaker: Blonde director Andrew Dominik’s last two features were shot by Roger Deakins [The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford] and Greig Fraser [Killing Them Softly], so he’s a filmmaker who seems to have fantastic taste in cinematographers. Do you know what led Dominik to you?
Irvin: Andrew was friends and associates with a director named Kahlil Joseph, who’s also an artist. Kahlil and I have done a bunch of work together—longer form installations at museums and music films. Andrew and Kahlil were both apprentices of Terrence Malick. Andrew did second unit for a limited duration on The New World until, I think, he was fired because he wasn’t in the DGA [Directors Guild of America]. Kahlil worked as a behind the scenes videographer and an editor on [Malick’s] To the Wonder. So, they met through Terrence.
Filmmaker: You shot Blonde pre-COVID and God’s Creatures after?
Irvin: Yeah. Blonde wrapped in, I think, October of 2019. COVID hit maybe four or five months later. Then God’s Creatures was started around the first week of January in 2021.
Filmmaker: The two films couldn’t be any more different in style. God’s Creatures is observational, with a lot of longer lenses further away from the actors. It’s a very invisible style. Blonde’s aesthetic is anything but inconspicuous.
Irvin: Yeah, they had very different styles and both had their own challenges. In a film like God’s Creatures, where you’re using observation, that style hits its [zenith] when you start to express the inner experience of the character through the mise en scène—through the color of the walls in the kitchen, the light, the use of negative or positive space in the compositions. You’re not articulating that language through point of view. You’re articulating it through the mise en scène of the film, and that is really challenging. It’s really fun as well, but it’s actually more challenging in a way [than a film like Blonde] because it takes a little bit more pre-conceptualization.
On Blonde, the challenge was, “How do we create a window for the spectator to travel through that’s very much Marilyn’s point of view?” That point of view is this distortion of reality. Back in the day they called it manic depressive, but that’s been altered to bipolar now, she had been diagnosed with something like that. So, for example, during her relationship with The Playwright (Adrien Brody), it’s so happy at the beginning to the point of absurdity, then, in tragic and grief-filled moments, it’s so dark and it’s so painful.
Filmmaker: You shot Blonde digitally and God’s Creatures on 35mm. How did you choose the format for each?
Irvin: It was tricky on Blonde because I do this thing I call woodshedding. It’s a jazz term where you isolate yourself and come up with harmonic devices that take you out of the ordinary and keep them in your pockets so you can pull them out during a set. I was developing a bunch of ideas like that to use in Blonde. I would shoot black and white film, Double-X and then Vision 3, and I felt like that recreated certain images from her life more authentically. However, when we got into the real nitty gritty of getting the shoot done, one of the challenges was Marilyn’s dialect. We wanted to protect Ana [de Armas] and give her the chance to support the film and the dialect by shooting extended takes. I think the choice [to shoot digitally] came out of that. Also, Andrew had done some episodes of Mindhunter, and he felt more trusting shooting video after that than he had in the past. So, I think Andrew and I did conflict on [of film versus digital]. In the end, Andrew requested what’s called a “Pepsi Challenge,” where we shot Alexa, Sony VENICE and a little bit of film, and we viewed those tests in a theater. No one knew which footage came from which camera except me, and the VENICE is the camera we ended up selecting [for the color portions of the film].
I tried to use it as an opportunity to shoot video in a unique way. For example, there’s a shot where Marilyn is going to see JFK. She’s in a hallway and the camera swings around her, then bumps into a guy’s chest. For that, we used the Sony Rialto setup [where the sensor block is removed from the rest of the camera but is still tethered by a cable]. I was holding the camera and running around while I was carrying the rest of the camera body as a backpack. Also, for particular eyelines that were shot/reverse shot type of sequences, like when Marilyn meets The Athlete (Bobby Cannavale), I would put the camera on a sliding base plate that moved horizontally and literally slide the camera right in front of her, right next to her eye, so close that it was very much a representation of point of view. I was basically trying to exploit the camera for its virtues as a digital format and experiment with things that couldn’t otherwise have been done as efficiently on film.
Filmmaker: The Venice has dual ISOs where you can shoot at either a 500 or a 2,500 base. In keeping with that idea of exploiting what that digital camera can do versus a film camera, did you shoot at the higher ISO?
Irvin: I shot almost the entire film at 2,500 using a device that had come out at the time that was demoed to me, a Cinefade. It’s a handset that controls a variable ND. The way I ended up working it out is that I shot the whole film with that ND in, which would’ve re-rated the camera at a stop and a third less than what it actually was. Basically, even though I was shooting at 2,500, the actual sensitivity was 1,000 because of the ND. So, it wasn’t that much of a difference than if I’d shot on film, and I lit it as if I was shooting on film.
Filmmaker: How does the Cinefade work?
Irvin: It’s two polarizers, one that [doesn’t move] and one that rotates. What’s unique about this particular product is that it’s been calibrated, and on the handset you can adjust it by thirds of a stop or whatever increments you set it to. I used that same device on God’s Creatures, so it’s not a tool that’s unique to the format you’re using. I used it really extensively on Blonde as a variable ND and also used this function where you can sync the Cinefade with the iris motor so that the ND changes with the iris.
Filmmaker: Do you use that feature when you want to change the depth of field in the middle of a shot but not change the exposure?
Irvin: Correct. There’s a body mount shot of Marilyn where we used it. She’s talking to The Playwright and he’s like, “Darling, we’re so distant from each other,” then all of a sudden he goes out of focus in the background.
Filmmaker: For Blonde and God’s Creatures, I only see one camera team listed in the credits. Did you shoot both single camera?
Irvin: I try to only shoot single camera. [With multiple cameras], I find that you get can stuck into a real formulaic language of just doing two overs and that’s not that interesting to me. That said, I do always try to have another camera body if we’re shooting Steadicam or working with different camera modes so that we don’t have to rebuild [one camera for multiple modes]. On Blonde we didn’t have two camera teams, but we did have two second assistants, Sean Kisch and Max Deleo. Max was always the rigging second. So, whenever we were going to Steadicam, he would be informed a shot or two before and would have it built, so it would always be ready to go and we were never waiting on camera. I try to commit to that way of working on every film, where we’re never waiting on camera and we’re able to respond out of intuition and react in the moment of inspiration. In the past, I’ve done work where you might have an idea that’s really inspired, but then you go into this place of neurosis where you’re negotiating in your mind about how much time it’s gonna take. How many crew members am I going to need? You start thinking about the costs of acting in that moment of inspiration and by the time you act on it, that inspiration is gone and it becomes something more preconceived. I want to be able to pick up any tool and react in any way. I’m not as connected to the concept of storyboarding and preconceiving everything.
Filmmaker: In Blonde, you’re shifting between black and white and color and also between different aspect ratios, often multiple times within a scene. My best understanding is that the color is more for the private life, the Norma Jean side, and the black and white is more Marilyn and her public life. But those don’t seem to be concrete rules that the movie always follows.
Irvin: We didn’t want to completely define any rules because I feel like when you start to make things symbols, those symbols have a definite meaning. We didn’t want to create definite meanings and tell the spectator what to think about it. It was never structural that way. We wanted it to be a bit formless and structureless, which violates the traditions of cinematography and filmmaking. So much of what I learned and admired from other cinematographers was their structure, how they could articulate and create an identity for a film based off a consistent use of lighting or palette. We were basically throwing all those rules out the windows. That in itself was a metaphor for how Marilyn was experiencing and reliving her life. I took that from the core of the [Joyce Carol Oates novel]. In my interpretation of the book, you relived Marilyn Monroe’s life at the moment of death, and she was basically hallucinating her entire life as she was dying. So, all these emotions are pushed to absurd levels. It’s of a distortion of reality based off what she’s experiencing emotionally in that moment.
Filmmaker: When would you make the decision about what color or aspect ratio a shot would be in?
Irvin: During blocking. Andrew and I would discuss the scene and he would often have an idea of how it needed to be done, in color or black and white, and sometimes within scenes we mixed it. It was very intuitive.
There were a lot of questions early on, because Netflix has a rule [about shooting in] 4K and the black and white Alexa camera that we were shooting with [the Alexa XT B+W] was not 4K natively. So, they wanted to know exactly the percentage that was going to be black and white because they allow a certain percentage [to be less than 4K]. Later in the preparation of the film, I explained to them something technical about how the black and white Alexa has no Bayer pattern filter. It just captures luminance, whereas all digital cameras that are not monochrome have a Bayer pattern. It basically uses a filter to diffract the light into a pattern of red, green and blue, then it blends those together to make an image. But say you’re composing an individual’s face—well, their face is primarily made up of red. If you’re capturing mostly red, there’s only 1K of red in the Bayer pattern. So, I said to the Netflix, “If you use that equation, the way you need to think about the black and white camera is that the Alexa monochrome is the highest resolution [black and white] camera in existence right now, because it’s just capturing all that red, green, and blue information at the highest resolution it can capture it, because it’s not using the Bayer pattern.” They agreed, and after that we were free on the set to do whatever we liked.
Filmmaker: There is a scene in Marilyn’s house that is shot in infrared. How did you achieve that?
Irvin: In addition to their being no Bayer pattern filter, the Alexa monochrome also doesn’t have an optical low-pass filter or an infrared block filter. So, the camera can shoot infrared, which is not a visible light [that the human eye can see], but the Alexa can capture it. I shot those infrared scenes, where [Marilyn) wakes up and there’s people in her house, with an infrared light on top of the camera, but Ana could not see [it]. The set was completely pitch black. There’s an infrared light shining on her face, but she’s not reacting to it because it’s not perceptible light. It makes her pupils dilated.
Filmmaker: Yeah, they almost look completely black.
Irvin: Exactly. Her irises are open, whereas normally if there’s a light shining in your face, your iris would crunch down to protect your eye. So, there’s all these things that the camera can do that color cameras can’t.
Filmmaker: The notes I was sent about the film say that you didn’t do a “traditional color grade.” What does that mean?
Irvin: Andrew and I had a conversation early on and he said that he did not want to do a DI. We did end up going through the DI process, but it was more an attempt to figure out what the possibilities were. As we explored, it became clear that a [traditional DI] would be wrong. Imagine making a film that’s using this idea of really fragmenting, creating complete distortions and twists of different aesthetics and psychological spaces, then just smoothing it all out. It felt wrong, and in the end we reverted back to the intentions we had on set in the dailies.
For the first maybe two or three weeks of production, I was collaborating with Benny Estrada, my longtime dailies colorist. He was doing dailies, but I would also share in the duties. I had a color suite on the camera truck and our digital data manager would download the footage for me, and every day after wrap I would stand on the truck and color grade the images. Then I would send that project file to Benny, and he would open it up at EFILM, add halation and LiveGrain, then render that out. We did that process for a few weeks until Benny was completely in harmony with what I wanted, then neither of us really deviated from those choices and what Andrew and I were seeing on set.
Filmmaker: Let’s shift over to God’s Creatures. Tell me about the village you shot in. Were there any sets or is the entire film shot in practical locations in this region on the coast of Ireland?
Chayse: It was all practical. Our directors, Anna [Rose Holmer] and Saela [Davis], searched the planet for a fish factory that existed within the right community, and they found one in Donegal. It turned out the space had been out of operation, so it was free for us to create. Inbal Weinberg, our production designer, went into that factory and altered the colors and created that [second floor] area where the office is for the manager. That didn’t exist. She built that staircase and all that stuff. There were some skylights that existed throughout the space, we blocked them and I created my own skylight through some artificial LED sources over two of the workstations. That’s how it was lit.
Filmmaker: Was the pub you shot in literally the only pub in town?
Chayse: I don’t remember seeing any other pubs. I was grateful we shot there, because it was like a five-minute walk from where I was staying. The locations were not all in close proximity to each other. The fish factory was in this remote area near the water.
Filmmaker: I love the color contrast for the exteriors of the bar, this mixture of red and blue. You created that at the location?
Irvin: Yeah, we chose those colors. Like I said before, we were using the mise en scène to support and articulate the psychological experience of the characters. Those colors were chosen to make certain suggestions to the spectator, like the red in terms of color psychology is a silent warning.
Filmmaker: There’s a plot point in the movie about how treacherous the tides can be out on the water when working an oyster farm and how quickly those tides can turn on you. How difficult was it to shoot out there?
Irvin: Extremely challenging. We lost equipment in the water and a lot of damage was done. My key grip, John Foster, had his nose broken by the crane. I remember seeing him on the truck and he just snapped it back into place. He’s this big Viking looking guy and it was just like he couldn’t care less. If you’ve ever walked in waist deep water for 15 minutes, it’s exhausting. Just to get to the location where the trestles were was extremely difficult. Those oyster bays flood and then recede, flood again and recede. It felt like when you are shooting at twilight: it’s really intense because you’re rushing, rushing, rushing, but doing that for 12 hours a day instead of just 30 minutes at twilight. It worked out very well, but it was extremely hard. We also got very lucky because the few days before we shot out there, it was really sunny and we were afraid that our whole ending scene, which had been written as a storm, was gonna be blue skies. But during the three-day window that we shot, it was overcast and there wasn’t any wind that became dangerous. On our tech scouts it was very, very windy and I remember our stunt guys and the marine team being like, “If it’s this windy, this is not shootable.” So, that was a big gamble and we got lucky.
Filmmaker: Let’s finish up with a specific shot. There’s a push-in on a windowsill at the house of Emma Watson’s character where the curtain is in focus but not the view out the window. As you’re pushing in, a bird lands on the windowsill. The bird looks too real to be CG, but it also seems like it would be very difficult to get an actual bird to land at just the right time in the dolly move and then look up. How did you get that shot?
Irvin: That was a trained bird, and we only did a few takes because the light we were trying to capture at dawn [was fleeting]. That’s the moment where the film shifts. It’s almost like this premonition happens where [Watson’s character] can sense as a mother that something’s wrong and something’s happened, then you see how it deteriorates her identity and her bond that she so wanted with her son [played by Paul Mescal]. That was a really important moment in the film.