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“We Had to Be Extra Quiet Moving Around”: DP Filip Drożdż on Pianoforte

Pianoforte

Founded in 1927, the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition provides the dramatic stage for Jakub Piątek’s Pianoforte. Tracking some of the talented performers from around the world entering the competition, Piątek’s crowdpleasing documentary, which premiered at Sundance 2023, is lensed by his longtime collaborator Filip Drożdż, who discusses his work on the project below.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Drożdż: I’ve known the director, Jakub Piątek, for a long time. We used to work on many different projects together and we understand each other very well. For the last few years, we’ve been working for the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, so when Jakub came up with the idea of making a feature-length documentary film about the competition, I was all in. I already had some basic knowledge about the world of classical music; I knew the places, the people and how to move silently through the labyrinths of the National Philharmonic. 

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Drożdż: Our first idea was to make this film very personal. We wanted to get to know the young pianists and their life outside of music halls. Very soon, we realized that most piano concerts and films about pianists used to be shot completely statically and far away from a given person. This was our starting point for the artistic research for our film: We wanted to stay close to our protagonists, and capture the energy of those young people who are very mature for their age, but still going through the changes and challenges of becoming young adults. We wanted to see how the sensitivity of young pianists is balanced between two realities: the reality of classical music and the reality of today, with TikTok, social media, video games. This determined the aesthetics of our film. Our camera had to be very mobile, observational, yet very smooth. We didn’t want to add any extra expression, just focus on the music and performers. 

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Drożdż: Prior to the shoot, we looked for inspiration, although most piano-related films were exactly opposite to what we wanted to make. The films by Herbert von Karajan, a great conductor and filmmaker, were very interesting and spectacular; still, we planned to focus on people, not music performances. We wanted our camera to feel free, to express the emotions of young people who crave for life and music. That’s why it had to be sensual, transiting between filming music performances and conversations. At an early stage, we realized we had to be in the film—not necessarily in the frame, but as a partner for conversation.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Drożdż: Filming music performances was a challenge, because I didn’t know how we would cut them in the editing room, so we had to shoot very long shots. And we had to be extra quiet moving around! Another challenge was the need to film a few pianists at the same time. We had to organize two or three separate teams that would follow other pianists, retaining the same style of camera work. In general, the competition was a very intense experience, challenging in physical terms, keeping us busy from morning till late at night. As a crew, we also had to build personal relationships with all the pianists, otherwise we couldn’t be part of their very personal experience.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Drożdż: We shot most of the footage on Canon C300 Mark II and C500 Mark II. I chose it mostly because of the image quality, beautiful skin tones and reliability. During tests we chose older lenses, Opton Oberkochen, which have a beautiful blur, good contrast and are still sharp.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Drożdż: We always preferred natural light. But we were not the only film crew at the Competition. There was the public Polish Television broadcasting, and they put their own lamps in different places that were not necessarily good for us. We had to negotiate any changes with them.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Drożdż: For me, the scenes in the final stage were the most difficult to shoot, mostly because of the tension. We didn’t want to disturb the pianists who had been preparing for this moment for years. We had to be very gentle and know when to leave them alone.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Drożdż: We aimed for a natural look with not too much contrast. At the beginning of color grading, we decided to give specific looks to different places, but nothing too obvious. In the Philharmonic Hall, we focused on warm colors because of the wooden walls and red seats. But most of the look was “baked in.”

TECH BOX

Cameras: Canon C300 Mark II, Canon C500 Mark II

Lenses: Option Oberkochen, Zeiss Super Speed

Lighting: Natural light

Color Grading: DaVinci Resolve

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