Afraid of going too far ?

A contribution by Simon Gouffault and Olivier Ludot, students at the ENS Louis-Lumière Film School

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Because students from the ENS Louis-Lumière attended Camerimage this year, the AFC offered them the opportunity of contributing in one way or another to the articles that are published on our website and broadcast via our newsletters. Simon Gouffault and Olivier Ludot, of the ENS Louis-Lumière, have written a thoughtful piece on cinematography based on the screening of two television series, asking how far it’s possible to go.

A viewer asked : “Aren’t you afraid of going too far when it comes time to shoot ?” The answer : “Always.” On Thursday, 14 November, at Cinema City Toruń, the pilots for two series were shown : "Euphoria" and "When They See Us". The former, directed by Sam Levinson and produced by HBO, was presented by two cinematographers : Drew Daniels and Adam Newport-Berra. The show tells the story of teenagers living through extreme experiences with drugs, sex, and social relationships. They live in contemporary American suburbs. The rhythm is wild, the camera is constantly in motion, the colours are violets, blues, pinks. “It’s like a long music video,” comments Adam Newport-Berra.
The other series, "When They See Us", is directed by Ava Duvernay, produced by Netflix, and lit by Bradford Young, ASC, also in attendance at the screening. This time, we are plunged deep into the dark days of New York in the 1980s and 90s. A group of young African Americans is unlucky enough to find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. Looking for someone to blame for a rape, the police subjects them to an infernal interrogation. The series fully exploits the style of film noir crime movies (we’re thinking of French Connection, Serpico, etc.). Opting for “vintage” anamorphic lenses, Bradford Young takes full advantage of their various aberrations : strong pumping, chromatic aberrations, geometric distortions, deformed bokeh, horizontal flares, and very visible graininess… A mutilated, organic, living image.

“Filming and lighting a subject that you don’t master can be dangerous.” Bradford Young’s remark resonates. These two series which follow the chaotic stories of American teenagers have opted for very formalistic aesthetics. What place should the image take when you’re dealing with such a political topic ? How to find the right balance ? This provokes the question : “Aren’t you afraid of going too far ?” What does going too far mean, if not a boundary that must not be crossed ? In any case, it does ask the question of the legitimacy we have, we who aspire to become recognized cinematographers, to set our gaze on an event.

"Euphoria" is intended for the audience that it portrays, namely young people aged 16-35. Drew Daniels and Adam Newport-Berra have adopted the codes of the music video to portray this youth : spectacular camera movements on cranes and Steadicam, dynamic editing, a looming voice-off, and a palette of saturated colours… And yet, the story addresses topics such as the rape of an underage girl, drug dealing, and sexual harassment. A remarkable dichotomy. The cinematographers say they were inspired by social media : the way adolescents put themselves on display, sublimate themselves, deform themselves, and deform a reality that is much darker than it appears. Drew Daniels explains : “The teenagers we are portraying live each experience as though it might be the most intense one of their entire lives, and also the last one. Each shot must be made as though it were the most important one in the whole series.”

"When They See Us" is for a much broader audience and the subject is more "political", openly echoing today’s America (a young Donald Trump is shown from archival images in the second episode, arguing that the teenagers should be subjected to the death penalty). There, too, the cinematographer goes after a very particular style and image texture. This deterioration of the digital image (shot with an Alexa LF) bears witness to anxiety and oppression and is the expression of a revolt against the injustice of which the Black community is the main victim in the United States.
In order to obtain his very particular visual effects, Bradford Young worked on the design of an Arri DNA series. This is a service offered by Arri Rental for custom lens creation. They take existing lenses as their basis and they work on their optical lenses in order to obtain the desired effects. There is unfortunately nothing equivalent to Arri Rental in France (only in London, Berlin and Luxembourg) and so this service is not available to us. But it seems that the future of the lens is going in this direction. Indeed, new series by other manufacturers such as Leitz and Zeiss are proposing more and more modular lenses. They are tending towards the best optical quality possible and the manufacturers then provide the possibility of adding blocks of lenses in front or behind to recreate certain defects, according to the requirements of a specific project.

This custom lens service is very exciting and provides the cinematographer with a full palette of tools. Increasingly, visual effects are being recreated in postproduction and this provides the director or the producer ("When They See Us" is produced by Netflix) the opportunity of putting the brakes on the original intent in terms of image. Creating effects while shooting is almost a manifesto today, because no piece of software is as of yet capable of undoing them. What is done is done and it must be carried through to the end. So, lenses are perhaps the last line of defence cinematographers have in being able to control and preserve their image and their intent. We weren’t able to ask Bradford Young the question, but it would be wonderful to know what types of conversation occur between an optician and a cinematographer when such lenses are being created. Now, we’ve got to push for a service like this to be opened in France…

“Aren’t you afraid of going too far ?” With a certain humility, Bradford Young, Drew Daniels and Adam Newport-Berra admit, each in his own way, that they are always afraid of that in a little part of their brain. What they are proving here is that going too far means taking a position.

The thumbnail image above is a still from the trailer of the series "When They See Us".