The American Society of Cinematographers

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Black Swan
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Resident Evil-Afterlife
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Matthew Libatique, ASC and Darren Aronofsky renew their collaboration with the dark ballet drama Black Swan.

Photos by Niko Tavernise and Ray Lewis, courtesy of Fox Searchlight. Frame grabs courtesy of Technicolor and Fox Searchlight.
Black Swan focuses its lens on Nina (Natalie Portman), a New York City ballerina vying for the lead role in a postmodern interpretation of Swan Lake helmed by demanding artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). Having dismissed his previous prima ballerina, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), Leroy seeks a lead dancer who can embody the innocence and grace of the White Swan and the eroticism and cunning of the Black Swan. Though impressed with Nina’s moves as the White Swan, Leroy feels she is too guileless and repressed to capture the nuances of the darker part, and his eye falls on a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), whose overt sensuality makes her Nina’s main competition. Strangely drawn to her rival, Nina forms a risky friendship that agitates her neurotic mother (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina. Nina’s stress causes her to experience terrifying hallucinations that send her into a psychological tailspin. 

To realize this dark story, director/writer Darren Aronofsky reteamed with Matthew Libatique, ASC, his collaborator on Pi (AC April ’98), Requiem for a Dream (AC Oct. ’00) and The Fountain (AC Nov. ’06). Libatique recently met with AC in Los Angeles to discuss Black Swan

American Cinematographer: When did you and Darren begin discussing this project, and how did it evolve? 

Matthew Libatique, ASC: This property was around for a while. It was originally called The Understudy, and it was set in the theater world. Someone approached Darren about it after Requiem for a Dream, but at the time, it didn’t seem as exciting to me as some of the other projects he was being offered. It wound up on the back burner, but it stayed in his mind, and when he started to get interested in ballet, he thought he could resuscitate the project and set it in that world. 

How has your relationship with Darren progressed? 

Libatique: I think we respect each other a lot more now. We used to abuse each other a little bit because we knew each other from film school. When we’re shooting, our relationship is a professional one, not a friendship, and it should be. Luckily we’ve always been able to draw on similar references, which helps to focus us in the same place.

Did it feel strange to move from big Hollywood projects like the Iron Man films back to an indie?

Libatique: That was probably the best part of the process. I liked that I could come off something as big and chaotic as Iron Man 2 to do something like Black Swan, which was a 40-day shoot. You can take some of the techniques you’d apply on a bigger film and simplify them. On Black Swan, I knew we’d be dealing with small spaces, and that I’d probably have to provide 360 degrees of coverage. A beautiful thing about working with Darren is that he has a visual style in mind, and he’s very clear about what he’s trying to do — there’s no coverage ambiguity. In fact, I wouldn’t even call what he does coverage. His style is more like the European style: you only have a few bites of the apple, so you make them all count.

What were some of the influences on the film’s look?

Libatique: One of our early reference images came from our collaboration with Rodarte, the fashion designers who created the movie’s costumes. The image was a cube that was pristine on the outside, but had all of these spikes within it. That provided the central metaphor for the movie: a beautiful ballerina who’s holding this pain inside her. There was a yin-yang to the concept that’s reflected in the movie’s black-white chiaroscuro.

Polanski’s Repulsion was also a reference, but Darren and I have talked about that film many times, so it’s always been an influence. We talked about The Red Shoes, of course. I looked at a lot of Kieslowski in terms of the atmosphere and tone, mostly the Three Colors trilogy [Blue, White and Red]. We also looked at a lot of dance films. Darren sent me a foreign documentary by director Donya Feuer called Dansaren (The Dancer), which has a lot of the long-lens, ‘camera in the corner’-style camerawork we wanted to employ. At the beginning of Black Swan, there’s a scene that shows Nina scuffing up her shoes, and that image came straight out of The Dancer.

What was your primary focus during prep?

Libatique: The most substantial work I did in prep was to spend time planning out the dance sequences with [choreographer] Benjamin Millepied, Natalie and some other dancers. I shot all of that rehearsal footage with the Canon 5D Mark II, which gave me references for the shots we wanted to make. I also figured out a lot of the mirror shots during prep, because we were rehearsing in a room with a three-sided mirror. We worked out how to transition from Vincent to Natalie, or how to do a Texas switch with Natalie — we’d shoot her double from far away and then come around Vincent’s face to reveal Natalie, or we’d have Vincent in focus in the foreground watching Natalie’s double, who was in soft focus dancing in the distance, and then we’d transition over to a closer reflection of Natalie dancing. It’s called a Texas switch because in old Westerns, they’d have a stuntman do a stunt and then pop John Wayne into the frame.

Where did you shoot the dance sequences?

Libatique: All of the ballet performances were done at State University of New York Purchase College, which had everything we needed, including dressing rooms, cinderblock corridors and the large rehearsal space. We didn’t have the ability to use moving lights there, so we basically used what they had: spotlights, cyc strips, Source Fours [Lekos] and Par cans. Mo Flam was the first gaffer on the show, but he had to leave to do another movie, so John Velez took over.

How did Super 16mm fit your creative agenda?

Libatique: Darren likes 16mm because it’s small, he can do handheld, and he doesn’t have to wait around for camera setups. We were using real locations, so it helped in that regard, too. The apartment Nina shares with her mother was right next to Prospect Park, and we moved the camera in as though we were documenting real people’s lives. We made it a point to travel from kitchen to hallway to foyer to bedroom to bathroom, but the space really dictated the kinds of moves we could make. I think 16mm creates interesting texture, especially if you expose it correctly. Harris Savides [ASC] is probably the master of it; he’s always pushing the negative so you can see it in a perfect way. One of my goals was to show the grain in a way that was craftsmanlike. I didn’t want it to look underexposed; I wanted it to look like it was a choice, and I think that comes across.

I considered shooting on Kodak [Vision2 200T] 7217 with a rating of 400, but after tests I opted to go with Fuji Eterna Vivid 500 [8647] and 160 [8643]. I liked how both stocks looked at their box rating in terms of grain and color separation. I had used Fuji on My Own Love Song, and I liked its color properties, so it was really my first choice, but I just had to find out what it would look like in 16mm. Every movie is different, and Fuji just worked better for this one because of the costume colors and our overall palette, which included green, pink, white and black.

It was a single-camera shoot except for maybe one day, and our main camera was an Arri 416, which we used with Arri Ultra Prime 16 lenses. We used a Canon 7D or 1D Mark IV for all the subway scenes; I could just carry a 7D and shoot on the subway all day with a very small crew. I did some tests with my wife beforehand to figure out my ASA, my stop, and how I was going to deal with the focus. I didn’t use any rigs with it because I wasn’t trying to shoot in the traditional way. I tested a bunch of different exposures and then brought the footage to Charlie Hertzfeld at Technicolor, who put it in the system so I could look at the highlights, the moiré and the resolution. Then I went back to the drawing board to do more tests. The 7D has more depth of field than the 5D, but I needed that because I didn’t have a follow-focus unit and needed to work really fast. I shot everything documentary-style. I did all the focus pulls by hand, and we’d just look at it on the camera’s monitor. I ended up shooting on a Canon 24mm lens at 1,600 ASA to get as much depth of field as possible at a stop of T81⁄2.


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