The American Society of Cinematographers

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Martin Ahlgren
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Jeffrey Jur
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ASC Close-Up

Bessie


Cinematographer: Jeffrey Jur, ASC



This article was adapted from two previous American Cinematographer interviews with Jur, one published in the June ’15 issue of the magazine, and one published here after he won a Primetime Emmy for the project.

Jeffrey Jur, ASC, is no freshman when it comes to the ASC Awards. He won previously for Last Call and Carnivàle and received two other nominations for Carnivàle and Flashforward.

It was Jur’s work on HBO’s Carnivàle that led to Bessie. Based on the true-life story of blues singer Bessie Smith (played by Queen Latifah), Bessie is set in the same era as Carnivàle, and HBO executive Len Amato recommended that Bessie director Dee Rees meet with Jur to discuss the project.

Once Jur came aboard, he and Rees spent two days discussing every aspect of the visual style, which included looking at paintings by Archibald Motley, an artist of the period. “The paintings evoke a musicality and color palette we took from,” said Jur. Flashy, high-gloss musicals were decidedly not an inspiration. “Dee and I were trying to get something more authentic because we wanted to show how Bessie’s music changed the world and how her life was reflected in her music,” said Jur. “Our idea was to contrast the public Bessie – glamorous and shiny, with a big, raw voice – with her difficult internal life.”

Jur shot with an Arri Alexa Classic. “I felt the Alexa would best capture all the color and tonalities I knew we would encounter, particularly in the high-contrast theatrical environments, which had dark, smoky backstage areas and bright spotlights onstage. I love how this camera rolls into the highlights and reaches down into the shadows in a natural way while still retaining character in the light.”

He turned to Panavision Primo primes and zooms (19-90mm and 24:275mm), as well as Panavision Flare lenses. “The camera needed to be physically close to Bessie for the close-ups,” he asserts. “You can be tight on a 100mm or 200mm, but you [can] feel the disconnect, like you’re observing from afar. The wide shots were done on a 21mm or a 27mm, and the 19-90mm is a beautiful lens even on the wide end, which made it perfect for using on the Technocrane to get shots of the audience and stage.

“I was lucky to have a great camera team: A-operator Paul Varrieur was in total sync with my style of framing, composition and movement; Steadicam operator Joseph Arena danced the camera beautifully through all the musical numbers; and first assistants Larry Gianneschi IV and Anthony Cappello were incredible, getting perfect focus on those first takes without rehearsals that are so common nowadays.”

Panavision Flare lenses, which range from 14mm to 135mm, are traditional Panavision primes from which the original coatings have been stripped; in some cases, the power coating of the lens’ interior has also been stripped to accentuate reflection and decrease resolution, contrast and saturation. These became the perfect tool for the flashback sequences in Bessie. Utilizing hard backlights that would strike the specialty lenses, Jur deliberately caused flaring to help tell the story of the singer’s rise to stardom.

“We did all the theatrical lighting ourselves,” said Jur. Historically, Smith’s stage performances were lit by footlights and a simple overhead wash. In the 1920s, calcium light (limelight) came into being. Jur turned to standard 100-watt household footlights in custom-made housings, along with HMI spotlights, to replace the traditional carbon arcs. For performances later in Smith’s career, he used LED Pars for more dramatic and saturated color. “I felt the style of her performances should be an authentic part of the historical drama, not overly stylized or contemporary in any way.

“I relied so much on my gaffer, Dan Cornwall, who was a true creative partner, whether he was executing these elaborate stage-lighting plots or designing a difficult rig to simulate movement on various interior train sets.”

Principal photography was 35 days and was completed on soundstages and on location at many old theaters throughout Atlanta, including the Tabernacle, the Strand and the Fox. “I feel that the film acquired a spirit from such places,” said Jur.

Here is the 4-minute clip reel Jur submitted with the telefilm:

 

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