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

How did you and Ava go about staging and photographing the three marches?

Young: One thing that was clear early on was that this film had to have a very horizontal field of view. We had to be able to capture marches that were about the front lines: rows and rows of people moving in one vector toward freedom. That’s one of the reasons we chose anamorphic and had wide frames. But then, from that wide perspective, we had to compress everything down to the faces of the period. We’ve all sort of generalized the Civil Rights movement as this thing around Martin Luther King, but the Civil Rights movement had many people committed to it at various levels. So it was about finding those interesting faces amongst the crowd that could bring a depth to the story.

Some of Selma’s historical events are horrifically violent, but the way you filmed them is often one step removed from reality, with slow motion or manipulated shutter angles. Break down two such scenes: the murder of four little girls in the Baptist church in Birmingham, and Bloody Sunday, when 600 marchers were attacked with billy clubs and tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Young: In the first scene, it’s really about brutality against the black body. Twenty-four frames per second just doesn’t do it; it doesn’t give you all the in-between brutality that 1,000 frames would. This was our opportunity to say, indisputably, that these moments were brutal. We wanted to slow down the moment to give the audience the opportunity to meditate on it. We also kept the color yellow, which was organic to that church. [The girls are descending a staircase lit through stained glass when the bomb goes off.] That yellow, which represents the color of innocence, gets turned into something morose: The [camera’s] pull-out over the bodies is very monochromatic. Something colorful turns into something very dark and devoid of life.

With Bloody Sunday, we just pulled out all the stops! Shutter-angle change to give more immediacy; slo-mo again, so we could accentuate the brutality. Some of those vignettes, like the bullwhip, required that you see the whip in the air, see the intention as the guy tries to whip this man in the middle of the street. We used smoke as a way to conceal and accentuate all of these vignettes. Instead of seeing hundreds of people, you could really focus on one or two individuals and still feel like you’re in the time. We also used a mix of handheld and Technocrane. The [sequence] starts very precise and tightly framed, then it decays into chaos; toward the end of the attack, you find us way more involved, walking into close-ups with wider-angle lenses and getting right in the middle of the crowd as bodies fall on top of the camera.

What was Selma’s lighting package?

Young: We used 90 percent tungsten, with a few HMIs that were gelled and corrected back to tungsten. Our workhorses were Arri T12s.

Were there any lighting strategies you favored, particularly given your limited time?

Young: The strategy was single source: single source through a window, single source as a toplight, single source with practicals.

Some day interiors have a strong backlight — the Oval Office, for instance. The characters aren’t quite in silhouette, but certainly postures become more important than faces. Another instance is when Dr. King is in jail. What was your rationale?

Young: In the jail, the idea was to remind the audience what it might be like to be in the bow of a slave ship, with that single source of light through the cracks. You get these little subversive conversations between enslaved Africans who are not satisfied with captivity. In the Oval Office, it was really just a way to challenge ourselves to break the clichéd, exhausted approach to photographing the White House. It doesn’t always have to be majestic. And this was reflective of who LBJ was at the time — a man who, for better or for worse, was deeply contemplative. We didn’t feel the need to always see his face, because he didn’t want people to see his face, because he was just so challenged by what was at hand.

You said this was also your hardest film to color grade. What made it so difficult?

Young: Two cameras! [Laughs.] My lighting technique is just not conducive to two cameras, so I had to make up for that in the color correction [at EFilm] with colorist Mitch Paulson.

What was Selma’s most challenging aspect overall?

Young: Just the constant, relentless, everyday reminder that our generation is still dealing with the same issues our grandparents faced. When King tells Abernathy [Colman Domingo] that [opponents] are going to undermine this movement, it makes me think about many things in my life where I’ve felt the same way. The forces that were there to undermine that movement are still alive and kicking.

A Most Violent Year presents quite a different time and place: New York City after the 1970s oil crisis, during a time of white flight, urban decay and high crime. How did you and Chandor approach the visual design?

Young: There’s this amazing photographer from the period who’s still working now: Jamel Shabazz. J.C. and I both had him in our look books, as did Kasia Walicka-Maimone, the costume designer. What his photographs didn’t do is focus on the blight. They’re very alive and refreshing and bright, focused on youthful energy. They’re precise frames with very interesting texture and lighting, and they’re all posed — like, five or six youths in a frame, posing. For us, Shabazz’s photographs represented this beauty tucked within all this decay, and that’s what A Most Violent Year wanted to be: these families in 1981 who were not affected by the economic crisis, but were able to sustain a level of elegance. We were trying to get to the subtext, not the overarching thing, which was a dirty town. We were trying to break the tropes.

You can see that beauty within decay in the trailer scene, when Abel Morales and the Hasidic Jews are negotiating the sale of the oil company. It’s a down-and-out trailer office, but the faces are beautifully lit.

Young: Again, single-source HMIs through the windows, because that would give us a little bit more of that wraparound, a little more elegance in a space that’s not elegant at all. It’s a shady space, but with men who were trying to work at a heightened level — though we know that even at that level, there’s still a lot of dirt! That scene’s important because it’s the first time we actually see Abel. You want to give people an opportunity to know who he is: an attractive man who’s got aspirations. From that point on, you can start to break it all apart. But that was key.

The story was originally set in the summer, but production was delayed to winter 2013-’14, which turned out to be New York’s most brutal winter in decades: 65 inches of snow in three months. How did this affect your work?

Young: Before Selma, I was convinced that A Most Violent Year was the hardest film I’d ever shot! Changing weather patterns within a day, four weather patterns within a scene: snow, rain, sunshine, clouds. It was also physically challenging, because who can concentrate when you’re that cold? I was hurting! I felt like I was thawing out for months after. We had to be very smart about how we covered stuff, shooting into backlight all the time. Mitch Lillian, the legendary key grip, and Bill O’Leary, the legendary gaffer, were so supportive. As much as I worried, I’d turn around and say, ‘Oh! You guys fixed it?!’ They really took me under their wing. I felt well protected. Still, I thought the weather was going to pose more of a challenge in the color grade, but actually [Harbor Picture Co. colorist] Joe Gawler and I were able to get around that with all of the good editing that J.C. and Ron Patane did.


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