The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents February 2015 Return to Table of Contents
Presidents Desk
Q and A with Bradford Young
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Sundance 2015
ASC Close-Up

Bradford Young discusses the cinematography of Ava DuVernay's Selma and J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year.

Photos by Atsushi Nishijima. Selma photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures, Pathe and Harpo Films. AMVY photos courtesy of A24 Films.

Bradford Young’s expressive, naturalistic cinematography is reaching its widest audience to date. After making his mark on contemporary dramas like Pariah (AC April ’11), Middle of Nowhere (AC Nov. ’12), Mother of George (AC April ’13) and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (AC Sep. ’13), the D.C.-based cinematographer currently has two period films in release: Selma and A Most Violent Year.

Selma recounts the three months in 1965 when Martin Luther King Jr. (portrayed by David Oyelowo) helped organize the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to pressure President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) into taking action on black voting rights that were being thwarted by local governments despite having been signed into federal law. “How do you film a myth, a speech, a holiday?” asks director Ava DuVernay. “We tried to get underneath and find an ordinary guy who did extraordinary things.” She also widened the script’s focus to include King’s “band of brothers,” underscoring the movement’s breadth. “It’s called Selma; it’s not called King,” she notes.

Shot in all five boroughs of New York, A Most Violent Year is set in 1981, the bloodiest year in the city’s history and a time of rampant corruption. The story throws a spotlight on the competitive intricacies of the heating-oil industry; as he did with Wall Street in Margin Call (AC Oct. '11), director J.C. Chandor creates a suspenseful drama within a complex, morally expedient business milieu. At its center is an upwardly mobile couple: Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who tries to play clean, and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), who doesn’t mind some dirt on the crooked ladder to success.

American Cinematographer: You first worked with Ava DuVernay on 2012’s Middle of Nowhere. At its New York preview, you said, ‘Every time I’m by her side, my life has changed in immeasurable amounts.’ How so?

Bradford Young: I find myself growing up, not only as a cinematographer, but as a human being. When we did Middle of Nowhere, I found myself understanding how important love is in our everyday lives. Selma helped me understand how important selflessness is.

You also said that Selma was the most photographically challenging film you’ve ever done.

Young: Ava is a maverick filmmaker, but she’s very precise — she’s not interested in making experimental films. I knew we’d be doing quite a bit of conventional coverage, and smack dab in the middle we had the Bloody Sunday scene, which the movie hinged on. I knew we didn’t have enough days or resources and would have to be very creative within our time constraints. That was the technical challenge. But it was also going to be spiritually challenging. It was bittersweet. A lot of things Dr. King was speaking about are [still] happening to us now.

You’ve long had an interest in lighting black faces and exploring the full spectrum of color in the African diaspora. In Selma, that dovetailed nicely with Ava’s interest in ‘the texture of people,’ in bringing to the fore King’s collaborators and the thousands who marched to Montgomery.

Young: Ava and I are concerned with nuance. Just as she’s interested in the small bits and pieces of characters’ lives, I feel a lifetime commitment to my community, to capturing the nuance of who we are. I’m not interested in broad strokes. Just in our day-to-day existence, society puts a lot of broad strokes on us anyway: This is who black people are. It’s very easy to marginalize us if you generalize us. But if we can dig deep into the macro level, it gives us a greater depth of humanity. That’s where our paths connect.

What are the most common mistakes when filming black skin?

Young: I don’t think it’s about a technical deficit; it’s an emotional deficit. It’s consciousness that’s missing in the equation. The way the story is being told trickles down to the way people are being photographed. If you don’t know or care about the people in front of the camera, I don’t expect you to be very meticulous about how you capture them on film.

You’ve previously spoken about underexposure as being key.

Young: It is. We cinematographers are trained that black is a deficit, that it eats light. But black skin has a very particular level of reflectance and specularity, so here it’s actually the opposite: It also reflects light. Cinematographers often just direct-light a black actor, because they’re scared there will be a lack of exposure. My approach is never to direct-light; it’s always been to bounce light, so that it gives the skin an opportunity to reflect the environment. So for me, it’s about finding ways to bounce light or create more subtle strokes of light. Once that bounced light reaches your light meter, it’s technically ‘underexposed,’ but really what we’re doing is decreasing the light so we can increase the richness of the skin tone.

How do you deal with skin tones that are miles apart, like in the scenes with Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King [Carmen Ejogo]?

Young: After all these years, a lot of it is instinctual — just trying to find the happy balance. But I also have my go-to color palette. We know that amber reflected off skin tones enhances them. That’s part of the reason I’m big on using practicals as my main lighting source: [They provide] the perfect amount of richness. This amber wash always gives me a place to start. Another go-to is cyan. If I’m lighting a day interior, I tend to lean the color balance toward daylight, meaning that if I’m shooting tungsten film, I won’t correct it. I think that sort of overexposure in the blue layer of the film adds another level to the skin tones. With digital, I rarely shoot at pure 3,200K or 3,600K. I prefer 4,500K because it gives me a fair amount of blue but doesn’t knock away all of the warmth in the frame.

In Selma, when we created our initial LUT with Tom Poole at Company 3, we found that cyan helped. [Costume designer] Ruth Carter came in and had quite a bit of cyan, aqua and blue in the frame; she and [production designer] Mark Friedberg, who have done this a million times before me, were well aware that when you’re dealing with these sorts of skin tones, you’re dealing with lighting value and you’ve got to enhance it with something in the frame that takes people’s eyes away from what can be perceived as underexposure or a lack of density. We found that cyan is a very key color, because it allows us to go deeper and richer.

What were Selma’s visual touchstones?

Young: Ava said to me, ‘I want this film to have a Kodachrome look to it.’ That was very generic. But then she went out and found a specific reference: Paul Fusco’s ‘RFK Funeral Train’ photos. That was the main inspiration for the whole look of the film. He shot all this amazing Kodachrome footage of people gathered on the tracks as the train went cross-country. Everything was very under, but then there’d be these pops of primary color. People were holding American flags, and the red in the flag was very rich. But the skin tones and foliage in the trees were all very subdued. Tom had those photographs before we started shooting, so we made our viewing LUT lean toward that Kodachrome look.


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