The American Society of Cinematographers

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Inside Llewyn Davis
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Presidents Desk
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Inside Llewyn Davis has a unique pictorial texture: skin glows with a smooth sheen, there is an extended range of grays, and the colors are a little desaturated. Delbonnel defined all these details ahead of time by shooting tests and working with Technicolor supervising digital colorist Peter Doyle, an ASC associate member and frequent collaborator, to define the look. “On all the films I work on, I try to have a concept that I stick to for the entire film, so that I know what the DI will be when I’m doing my exposure on the set,” says Delbonnel.

Delbonnel notes that Doyle was essential to defining the look of Inside Llewyn Davis, just as he was on Faust, Dark Shadows (AC June ’12) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, among other projects. For his part, Doyle appreciates the collaborative process fostered by Delbonnel and the Coens. “Bruno and the Coens really look for input, as opposed to [going by] a style guide and a swatch of Pantone numbers and Lee gels,” says Doyle. “This film was all about the mood.”

Doyle explains that the 35mm negative was scanned at 4K on a Spirit Datacine, then downrezzed to 2K using Technicolor’s custom algorithm. During production, he says, the filmmakers received “DI dailies with a full grade,” which enabled the Coens to edit color-timed images. “That meant that when we sat down to do the DI, we had a very clear direction of what was working and what wasn’t,” says Doyle. “It was more of a refining process than a development process.”

Delbonnel and Doyle did the final grade in 2K at Technicolor-Postworks NY, using a Baselight with “a fair amount of custom tools,” some developed by ASC associate member Joshua Pines, vice president of color imaging R&D for Technicolor. The DI was completed in about two weeks.

Doyle’s approach to the digital grade is to put an automatic correction in place that is responsive to the image’s exposure. He gives an analogy to sound recording: “If you’re listening to a classical-music recording and the sound mixer is constantly riding the faders, you kind of feel it. But if they set up really good microphones and just let it go, it becomes more honest — there’s more integrity to it. In the grading world, we sometimes say, ‘You can feel the grade.’ You can feel the colorist riding the blacks and the whites, which is certainly a valid aesthetic. But for a film like Inside Llewyn Davis, performance is everything, and everything else just supports that. Obviously, our grade is a very strong manipulation, but I wasn’t changing it on a shot-by-shot basis, nor was I drawing all those shadows by hand. That’s what Bruno’s lighting was for.”

Doyle is quick to add that this interactive DI approach is only possible with someone as precise as Delbonnel. “This works because Bruno is so meticulous about his exposures. He knows exactly what will happen [in the DI], so he can light for it, whereas if I were constantly bending the gamma and changing everything on a shot-by-shot basis, he wouldn’t really know what his contrast ratio would be. I grade for his lighting, and he lights for my grade.”

Delbonnel likens his digital work with Doyle to a special lab process such as ENR. “It’s exactly the same approach: When you use ENR, you don’t expose normally, you expose for the ENR.”

Doyle explains how they arrived at Inside Llewyn Davis’ unusual pastel coloring and pale flesh tones: “I got rid of the blue channel, which I do a lot these days, and remapped the colors so that the skin tones had just enough of a twist to not be realistic, to be a little romanticized, like a memory. To desaturate the skin would look unnatural, so instead we bent the RGB curves of the negative so the skin tone would be completely neutral with Bruno’s exposure. It’s a very delicate thing to do.”

“This film couldn’t be beautiful or golden — it had to be uncomfortable,” Delbonnel says. “The question was how to come up with a very sad, very dirty image without falling into the extreme of a completely blue winter, which bores me — you know, ‘yellow equals warm, blue equals cold.’ We went toward dirty magentas and cyan, two colors that oppose each other.”

Delbonnel and Doyle also applied a “bloom” to the image, suffusing the highlights with a softened texture. “The bloom was a way to smooth things out, and it was part of the sadness I wanted,” says the cinematographer. “I wanted the feeling of old lenses without coating, with a lot of flare and blooming. You sense that the whites are exploded. Peter and I went very far, and it interested the Coens a lot because the image has an old, rather strange look.”

Delbonnel strove to create an image with limited contrast and a wide palette of gray tones. “There are real blacks, but a very great latitude of grays and very few whites,” he says. “You always need some white to give a reference, like the blacks. To get that big range of grays meant lighting a lot, because you have to expose to get grays.”

He maintained a firm grasp on contrast ratios in interiors and, with more difficulty, exteriors. His goal was to obtain a reduced latitude. “Most scenes have a very low contrast ratio, maybe 5 stops from the whites to the blacks,” says Delbonnel. “There are moments when we couldn’t do it, like the gas-station exterior. I added a lot of frontlight, but some contrast remained. So, in the DI, we darkened the image.”

Delbonnel lit many interiors with simple soft light. Early in the film, Davis arrives at Jean’s and meets Troy, a folk-singing soldier. The Coens shot two angles on the dialogue sequence: one shot going from Troy to Jean with a window in the background, and one on Davis with a dark background. To light Troy and Jean, Delbonnel hung about 6' of unbleached muslin on a C-stand and bounced a Joker 800 HMI fitted onto a Leko fixture. The cinematographer likes the Leko’s small plane shutters, which allow for cutting the light without changing its quality. “You don’t need to diffuse because it’s already so diffused, and it gives what’s needed without fill,” he observes.

Delbonnel adjusted the intensity of the soft lighting to match changing daylight. “Fortunately, it was a gray day,” he recalls. “The name of the game was to balance the source with daylight. We could easily change the intensity of the light by simply swiveling the muslin. We put a second source aimed at the muslin and left it off. That way, we could add level if there was a lot of variation outside.” He also added some negative fill on Mulligan’s right side to shape her face.

By the time the team changed angles to shoot Davis, the daylight was too feeble. Delbonnel had his crew hang a light box with 3'-square LED panels from the windows on the floor above. The boxes were hung above the apartment windows, hidden from the camera for the first angle, and then were lowered to shine through the windows once the daylight faded. Delbonnel added a small Grid Cloth frame close to the actor to diffuse the hard LED sources; the light then fell off in the background. “The lighting is different on him, more directional. I liked it being a little hard.” Though the two angles match, the slightly harder lighting on Davis serves to isolate him from the others.

 

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