The American Society of Cinematographers

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In a Q&A, Adam Arkapaw details the bold approach he and director Justin Kurzel took to Shakespeare's tragedy.

Unit photography by Jonathan Olley, courtesy of Studio Canal.

Offering an original take on William Shakespeare’s Scottish play, and featuring powerful visuals from cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, director Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth premiered during the Cannes Film Festival as part of the prestigious Official Competition. The film’s director and cinematographer have worked together regularly since their time together at the Victorian College of the Arts in Australia, collaborating on commercials as well as the feature The Snowtown Murders.

Arkapaw also shot the distinctive Australian features Animal Kingdom (AC Oct. ’10) and Lore (AC March ’13), and he won Emmys for his work on the series Top of the Lake and True Detective.

AC reached Arkapaw in London, where he was shooting Kurzel’s third feature, Assassin’s Creed.

American Cinematographer: How did it feel to shoot such a classic story?

Adam Arkapaw: My dad was an English teacher in Australia. I never really understood how great literature was, or why my dad loved it, until high school, when my dad took me away for two weeks to study Macbeth. He showed me the art behind the words and the various meanings that could be deduced from the text. It was an inspiring and eye-opening experience for me as a teenager, the genesis of my love of literature and storytelling. So, many years later, it was really meaningful to have an opportunity as a cinematographer to give back to this play.

Why did you and Justin Kurzel choose to shoot digitally?

Arkapaw: The obvious choice would have been to use film because it’s a period piece, but we wanted the movie to look more contemporary. We didn’t want it to feel nostalgic. So we shot with the Arri Alexa XT Plus [in ArriRaw].

Why did you choose to shoot in anamorphic?

Arkapaw: The aberrations of anamorphic help create an expressionistic and painterly effect. And they also play against the sharpness of [digital capture]. Anamorphic seats the aesthetic somewhere in between a softer film look and a harder digital look. We mostly used Panavision C Series [lenses], and also the E Series. We also carried a Panavision ATZ 70-200mm [T3.5] zoom and an Angenieux [Optimo] 48-580mm [T5.6] zoom.

The anamorphic look varies with the T-stop. Many old-timers liked to shoot between T4 and 5.6.

Arkapaw: At that stop, you [no longer see] the aberrations. I was more between T2.8 and 4. Wide open is a bit much for me. It’s also about depth of field. In general, I like having some depth so you can enjoy the textures behind the actors; I like to see the design in the background of shots. However, I will draw out the actor from the background for a powerful close-up when it’s the right time to do it.

How did you and Kurzel define the vivid looks in the picture? Did you talk about looks ahead of time, or did you propose things on set?

Arkapaw: Justin and I met in film school, and we’ve known each other for 12 years. We’ve probably done 20 commercials together, as well as his two features. So over time we have developed a lot of trust in each other, and we definitely have a shorthand. I know what he likes and doesn’t like. He’s very trusting with me about coverage, lighting and color, to the point where I don’t really need to run a lot of what I’m going to do by him. On occasion, if he was expecting something else, he might say, ‘Why don’t we try this?’ Otherwise, I just know him so well from our shared aesthetic and long history that he trusts me to do what I think is best.

One of Kurzel’s key decisions was to shoot almost entirely on location in Scotland, sometimes in very difficult conditions.

Arkapaw: Yeah, even the locals thought we were crazy! They would stay at home and we would trek in. A lot of exteriors were hour-long walk-ins, often on mountaintops. It was super windy, up to 40 mph. My memory of Scotland is having three layers of waterproof jackets on, with my hood on and my back to the wind, and just watching hail come sideways across my body. Because we were up in the mountains, you could see the storms coming. You’d say, ‘Oh, that looks like it’s 20 minutes away. Let’s quickly get a shot off.’ You would shoot something and then you’d pull your hood up and wait another 20 minutes until the hail had gone through, then go, ‘That other storm looks like it’s half an hour away. We’ll get another shot off.’

You don’t sense that extreme weather on the screen.

Arkapaw: That was a comment from Olly Tellett, my first assistant. He said, ‘I love the film, I love how it looks, but you can’t see how hard it was. I wish it looked harder because it was!’

One of Kurzel’s original premises for the film is that Macbeth [played by Michael Fassbender] suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. How did you represent that?

Arkapaw: When I was 23, I did a documentary in the Middle East and met some guys in Israel who had been in the army and were discharged because they suffered from PTSD. I asked them to describe it. They told me it’s as if every moment lasts an eternity, everything is in slow motion, that it’s almost like a banality, a stillness that you can’t escape — which is terrible. That’s what we explored as Macbeth crashes into his madness.

There’s a moment like that during the battle in the beginning, when Macbeth is immobile and everyone around him is moving in slow motion.

Arkapaw: That battle went through different versions. At first we were scheduled to have 10 days to shoot it, which became six, which became three [laughs]! So we had to simplify it, but sometimes restrictions can be the best thing for your movie.

Art is made of constraints?

Arkapaw: Yes, that was sort of the main slogan in my film school. Chris McGill, the head lecturer, used to quote T.S. Eliot: ‘When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas.’ We had to simplify the battle to one charge where Macbeth went through a number of kills, saw the witches and then had a second run. We cross-shot it, running with him from three different angles, and we also had a [Vision Research] Phantom Flex camera, which gave us about 10 seconds to keep [per take]. We used our anamorphic lenses on it.

What frame rate did the Phantom record?

Arkapaw: I think we shot at 800 fps, but some of it was sped up to about 400 fps in the film. We didn’t have a lot of extras — I think we had about a hundred — and the Phantom helped us in the wide shots of people charging. If we had shot them charging in real time, you’d quickly realize that there weren’t any other people behind them!

When shooting the battle, were you thinking at all about John Toll’s work in Braveheart?


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