"Monochromatic Painting", by François Reumont for the AFC

Cinematographer Łukasz Żal, PSC, discusses his work on Pawel Pawlikowski’s "Cold War"

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Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski is back after his highly-regarded film Ida, in 2013 (Oscar for Best Foreign Film) with Cold War, a love story set to a background of music and tension between East and West. His countryman and Oscar nominee Łukasz Żal, PSC, was the director of photography, again in black and white and 1.37 aspect ratio. The film is in the Official Competition for the 2018 Golden Palm at Cannes Film Festival. (FR)
Łukasz Żal et Pawel Pawlikowski sur le tournage de "Cold War" - Photo Łukasz Bak
Łukasz Żal et Pawel Pawlikowski sur le tournage de "Cold War"
Photo Łukasz Bak

Five years have passed since Ida was released. How did you make this new film ?

Łukasz Żal : Cold War benefited from a six-month-long preproduction period between June 2016 and Januar 2017, which was followed by fifty-six days of shooting. All in all, it was about a year, which is unusual for a film… But that’s how Pawel likes to make progress on a project. I travelled with him to Joanna Kulig’s and Mazowsze folk group dance rehearsals, filming test shots, looking for frames, trying to find ways of capturing movement and dance. It was an amazing process. Together we were looking for visual solutions for each scene, verifying what works and what doesn’t and why.
Among that we also had numerous meetings with an amazing duo of Production Designers Katarzyna Sobanska and Marcel Slawinski, as well as with other heads of departments, during which we addressed details, kept each other updated on scouting, and made progress on the meaning and cinematographic challenges of each scene, at the same time the writing was evolving and Pawel took this time to refine his project.

We also listened to music and watched concert recordings by Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, we rewatched films from the The French New Wave and some of Tarkovsky’s films. Because the project was strongly anchored in a specific historical era and places (Paris, Berlin, etc.), we watched plenty of documentary images and archival footage. For example, the choice of shooting in black-and-white was made during that preparatory period. We were considering colour at first, but we couldn’t find the right palette and it struck us that we would have been stuck with a look resembling a GDR’s Orwo film stock. Unlike America, wonderfully portrayed in Tod Haynes’s Carol with its vibrant colours, Poland in that period was drowning in different shades of grey.

Do you feel there are any crossovers with Ida ?

ŁŻ : Certainly, first of all the choice of 4:3 aspect ratio and black-and-white. As well as fixed camera shots that sometimes resemble paintings. Nonetheless, the film really changes in style, as the story progresses. The beginning is more influenced by archival footage from the period, then it breaks with it to go towards something more highly-stylized that might be reminiscent of Ida. The situation changes with the arrival of Zula, as her energy triggers the camera. From that moment camera moves more often and follows the characters who begin to move and become more emotional, as their feelings grow stronger. Unlike in Ida, or perhaps not to that extent, contrast plays an absolutely fundamental role in Cold War. It is present in every layer starting from the construction of the shot and the frame, the way the scenes connect, all the way to the emotional temperature between the characters and the dynamics between them.

With Pawel every scene is like a little film in itself on a micro level. Every layer of the scene has its own spontaneous rhythm and life, yet nothing is unintentional. Such as in the scenes in Berlin, where tons of things are happening in the background and every detail gently revels a piece of the secluded world the characters have found themselves in.

Depth. Do you like playing with it ?

ŁŻ I do. When we began shooting and I told Radek Kokot, our focus-puller that we were going to shoot between 8 and 11, he was extremely surprised ! But I didn’t always keep that depth throughout the entire film. The depth of field changes and focal lengths also became longer, as the story progressed. In Paris we used open apertures around 2, separating the characters from the background, strengthening their of loneliness and alienation. The lenses narrowed down together with the perspective of the characters, the vision became tighter. Towards the end of the film we came back to deep depth of field and wide lenses.

Besides playing with depth, we wanted to avoid the clichéd Cartier-Bresson or Doisneau version of Paris. Our Paris is monumental, luxurious and sometimes hostile. With exception of the scene on the bateau-mouche, whose image echoes those of the river and the field. I really like the dance club sequence when Zula dances to Rock Around the Clock. It was a really fine piece of handheld work done by my cameraman Ernest Wilczynski.

Ernest Wilczynski, à la caméra - Photo Łukasz Bak
Ernest Wilczynski, à la caméra
Photo Łukasz Bak

Let’s return to the primordial sequence in the film…

ŁŻ : That sequence in the fields near the river is, indeed, one of the film’s most important. Firstly, from a narrative point of view, it is the moment where you realize that they’re really falling in love with one another. They find themselves inside of that natural jewelbox, which protects them and provides them a sort of equivalent to heaven. That’s why we found that hilly field with the tall grasses, and the little river that wends its way through the middle. This is also the first time they have an argument – a sign of what is to come in their relationship – and a scene that can be understood as a perfect summary of their entire story. Lastly, it is the first scene where the camera begins to move..., with the long traveling shot alongside the river, while Zula floats on the current… Her strength and her energy fill the frame and from that moment forwards, she doesn’t let go of the camera…

One also often notices the audacious camera choices, with a lot of room above the characters’ heads throughout the film…

ŁŻ : It was a way of giving equal importance to the set and the place, in which the story takes place, without having to include the whole character within the frame. It wasn’t something we did for every shot, but it happened in function of the locations and as Pawel and I constructed our search for the ideal frame… In any case, I find that the 4:3 format is extremely well-suited to that type of composition, exactly like a painting or a poster.

What lenses allowed you to achieve that result ?

ŁŻ : As for the lenses, we hesitated between the Cooke S5 series and their lovely softness, and the Zeiss Ultra Primes (which we’d used on Ida), which are a bit more heavily-contrasted but overall very faithful in terms of rendering. The latter were chosen once again because they give a very neutral image, without flares or deformations, but without the strong sharpness and perfection that the Master Primes sometimes give. I insist on the fact that it is perhaps not the lenses that will provide character or a naturally-seductive image on the first go in natural lighting. You’ve got to work with them so that they’ll give you what you’re looking for. But I feel that their extreme coherence from focal-length to focal-length and their high-performance allow me to do pretty much anything.

Why didn’t you shoot film ?

ŁŻ : Of course, initially we wanted to shoot film, but one of the main reasons we start-ed looking at alternatives were obviously budget constraints. This choice could have ended up being a creative limitation, especially given the way we work. It became clear at one point we would have to do it on Alexa. We wanted to see how close we can get with it to the ideal that is the 35mm, so we decided to compare a 35mm film camera with our Alexa XT in a series of tests using the same lenses, on the same set and with the same lighting. Our production designer built a set based on the apart-ment in Paris and we carried our rehearsals with actors in different costumes and makeup. With different shades of black, white and grey in the production design.
After development and scanning of the Kodak 5219 film, together with the colourist Michal Herman we performed the grading on 35mm and found a look that was satis-fying. Then we decided to find an equivalent on the Alexa and master it to the point it would be hard to distinguish, which is what.
We then perfected a LUT allowing us to perfectly splice the digital images together with the 35mm reference images both in terms of contrast and body. Lastly, on set, two Luts were used, one for the days and one for the nights, which gave us dailies and a final cut that were very close to the image we’d wanted from the start. By re-opening the blacks with masks in function of our needs, or by playing on micro-contrast, the final round of colour-timing resulted in an image that I find very rich, that looks just like film, but which has stronger details in the blacks, especially.

Did you nonetheless decide to shoot with the same nominal sensitivity as film ?

ŁŻ : No, not at all. We set the camera at 800 ISO, sometimes even at 1600, especially during night scenes when we couldn’t shoot with primes and we had to use a zoom lens (for complex camera movements, for example). We were using both the Angénieux Optimo 24-290mm that I prefer to use at minimum 4 or the lightweight 19,5-90mm and 45-120mm that we often set at 2.8 and half. In that type of situation, only speed counts, especially when you’re shooting at dusk, such as the long master shot on the dolly between East Berlin and West Berlin.

Would you tell us a bit more about that scene ?

ŁŻ : It was definitely the most complicated and expensive shot in the film ! Besides the length of the travelling shot, the meticulous management of the extras, and everything that is going on in the background – as I mentioned earlier – an immense green screen measuring 60 meters long and 6 meters high was installed on set in Wroclaw for that scene. I remember that there were eight sparks, each behind a dimmer, so that we could immediately adjust the light because exposure changes after every take. That’s without even mentioning postproduction, where the special-effects teams entirely reconstructed the view on Berlin East synthetically over the green screen. The West Berlin part was done using rotoscoping over the actor. It was a real accomplishment in terms of Pawel’s approach, which is always seeking truth in the image. How can you literally reconstruct a past world using archival footage and mix it with the very real things we filmed ?

What about lighting ?

ŁŻ : What is easy and quick in black and white is that you can mix light sources. I like tungsten lights on dimmers a lot, and there’s no problem using them in this case. But, I didn’t hesitate to mix in Kinos, 18 or 9kW HMIs, and LEDs, such as the Aladin panels, which are quite versatile and can be hidden most anywhere in a set. For the scenes around the music group or the concerts we also used PAR 64s… In short, it was a real mix of sources according to a particular need. As for the method, what I like to do is to adjust the lighting according to what is happening with the actors and the director, always stay open to something special that might occur. My gaffer Przemek Sosnowski enables me to do that by putting every light source on a dimmer and I remain with Pawel at the monitor during takes, writing the film alongside with the light.
I entrust the camera to Ernest Wilczynski, a faithful friend, and that enables me to keep the distance I need in order to build the image together with Pawel.

Łukasz Żal - Photo Łukasz Bak
Łukasz Żal
Photo Łukasz Bak

During the Cold War, between the Stalin-era Poland and the bohemian Paris of the 1950s, a freedom-loving musician and a young, passionate singer live an impossible love story during an impossible era.

(Interview conducted by Reumont on the behalf of the AFC)


Producers : Ewa Puszczynska, Tanya Seghatchian
Director : Pawel Pawlikowski
Cinematography : Łukasz Żal
Set Designers : Katarzyna Sobańska, Marcel Sławiński
Sound Engineer : Mirosław Makowski
Editor : Jarosław Kamiński