Creating a world of Blacks and Whites

By Miguel Angel

THE PROJECT’S BACKGROUND

A while ago I received an email from a person who was looking for help to shoot a small and independent experimental project.

He attached a trailer shot by himself envisioning how he wanted the project to look.

That person turned out to be Shane Europa and after watching the trailer I absolutely fell in love with it and wanted to know more.

After a couple of mails we agreed on meeting up to talk about the project a bit more, to see what kind of direction he wanted the project to go towards and talk a bit more about the artistry and the references behind it.

The day we met I was completely blown away by him and the knowledge he had (and has) about classical cinema, expressionism, photography, art and culture in general, all self taught.

When I got to his house, he was reading: “Every frame a Rembrandt” from Andrew Laszlo, a book that he told me, that he had read plenty of times before and insisted on giving to me.

I feel it is very rewarding when you can discuss things that you have a passion about with a person and you connect straight away.

What started as a “let’s talk a bit” soon got into “let’s keep talking about movies and art movements while we have dinner”.

It is worth noting that Shane has never directed anything until now, The Trap is his first take on directing a project.

THE PROJECT

The project itself, “The Trap”, is a journey through the mind of a young woman and her memories, fears, secrets and thoughts that she accumulated and experienced from her childhood to her adulthood and how mankind makes us become what we are even if you fight against it.

Shane envisioned it as a very contrasty and bold black and white film where darkness and light meet and collide.

Those words together with the trailer that he shot by himself were the starting point of my thoughts when I got home.

MY REFERENCES

If you have been following my still super young career or flicking through the projects I have worked on and my personal still photography portfolio you might have noticed that I am not afraid of darkness and I really love black and white.

My photographic journey started thanks to a very good and stubborn teacher (Carlos Rodriguez) who taught a 20 something kid how to see in black and white and spent a lot of time teaching him old processes and the really difficult to understand (at that time) magnificent zone system, which I still use on a daily basis.

Before I started studying black and white photography and visual arts under Carlos, I became mesmerised in college by the work of Albrech Dürer and how he was able to create wood carved prints just with two tones, black and white (We had an “Arts” subject in college and I was very happy I took it for two years, well, actually, 5 years )

Dürer´s work had me researching for years about how to create something similar in still photography when I started studying it, which led me, obviously, to lithograph photography, a really interesting way of seeing the world just in two colours, black AND white.

It sounds like fun, right?

Thanks to Carlos I started experimenting with litographs, especially with Kodak Kodalith Ortho Film and soon I became fascinated and amazed, both, by it.

Litographic photography, for me, is a way of creating and crafting a vision through your inner thoughts, of experimenting with your rawest desires and being able to raise your voice and create something very different.

The process of shooting with such a limited tonal scale is really difficult but challenging and reassuring, you have to know beforehand what you want to get out of the lithographic film and need to understand how colours and life work in black and white plus the development part is even more important as Kodalit gets the right density when developed really fast hence you need to keep an eye on it all the times.

Being able to understand contrast, range, tones and light in litographic photography is a process that takes a lot of time but once you get to know it, you are engaged in it and need to experiment with the film further.

I also think that in the era of digital cameras, really quick turn arounds, loose framing, amazing results in natural light and people being able to capture images in raw to make a lot of changes in post-production, it is a refreshing experience being able to compose carefully and thoroughly an image and then lighting it for a classical black and white look which is a lost art, and if you can get to be bold and dark, the better.

If we take a look at the looks that classical cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Nicholas Musuraca, LaShelle or the so well – known John Alton among others created and mastered for their directors, it is something that you don’t see very often nowadays in the new wave of cinematographers coming out of schools. however, I am still amazed at how incredible and powerful their images are just with natural light, I think I would not be able to do something like that!

That is the reason why one of my favourite directors is Bela Tarr.

The movies that he created, with the help of his crew, are very set and rehearsed and you can tell that he likes people being lit with cinema lights as well as creating shadows and a very specific mood for each of his projects.

On the other hand, being Spanish means a lot in terms of arts and I think that one of the biggest influences that any Spanish artist has is Picasso, he was a master at creating shapes and textures and developed several techniques throughout his career.

The one that I was interested in the most for “The Trap” was “The Black and White” period, where Picasso rejected all the colour and produced magnificent art pieces with a limited palette.

And of course, THE photographer, Sebastiao Salgado, there is nothing to say about him because, well, he is Sebastiao Salgado, the master behind black and white contemporary photography, under my point of view of course.

We are shooting the project in 4 blocks due to my schedule.

The first and second block were shot two weeks ago (3 days) and the week before that week (1 day), we finished shooting the third block just last night and I had some very difficult sequences (for me) in it.

The last block will be shot in Galway on the 15th and 16th of August.

Anyways, the frames below are the images I came up with for the project.

Let’s see if I got something from my references!

THE TECHNICAL STUFF

Camera: Blackmagic 4K

Lenses: Canon photography lenses

ASA: Mostly 200ASA but a couple of shots where it was 800ASA

Acquisition Format: Prores 444 HQ

Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1

Colour grader: Windmill Lane (Eoghan McKenna)

Keep in mind that for the 1st and 2nd block the total crew has been just the director and myself, with an extra person (the producer) giving us a hand with the board.

For the 3rd block I was very lucky because one of my friends from Spain just came to Ireland to live and I asked him to help us out with the lighting as he is a fabulous gaffer (Sergio Fuidia), so that makes 3 people!

THE RESULT

The images are not graded yet, I just desaturated them and applied a bit of contrast in Davinci (maybe too much in some ha)

Dream Sequence

The dream part is where we see the journey that our character has gone through, the reasons why she is the way she is, why she grew up like she did and the fears she acquired through her childhood.

I was able to apply some of the tricks that I learnt from my commercial work to distort the image in camera.

Shane wanted to use a lot of smoke as he thought that it was going to enhance the graphical look even further.

I have to say that I do not particularly like using smoke on sets or while shooting, as opposed to some other people who are masters on creating magnificent images with it (like Mr. Janusz! Hi there teacher!).

I prefer searching for shapes and textures without it because I feel it is more natural for me, however, Shane is the director and he likes smoke so I like smoke.

Learning when to use smoke, how to use it, how much is too much and all those things are things that I had to learn quickly while shooting, and I had a lot of fun using loads of smoke and haze in these first two blocks!

Frame 1

Lighting Setup

 

I had a M18 through a full silk on the right hand side, behind our young actress, Lola.

The M18 was around 4 meters high and tilted down so I hit the back, the arms and the hair softly and gently enough to separate her from the background.

I then brought a Joker 800W with a full chimera and a light grid cloth silk to the left hand side of the frame so I could create an edge of light on her slightly and carefully overexposed so I could burn the spaces between the leafs.

There was a lot of overcast natural light and I decided that I wanted to go further so I brought a couple of large black flags in front of her to take out light.

Then, I placed a small polyboard in front of the cameras and slightly below her so I could bring a subtle softness and light to the extended arm.

The “veil” you see in the right – hand side is a tripod placed in front of the camera

And the highlights that you see around the branches are from the Joker.

Frame 2

Lighting Setup

Then we moved to the interior of the tree.

Shane wanted to do a frontal shot with just one visible eye, to show in detail what is going on with her.

I decided that I wanted to maintain the direction of the light just because that left part of her was going to be the most visible part during the shot.

Because of that, I maintained the M18 in the same side, however, I moved it a little bit to give her some sort of side light.

I used half silk instead of full silk because we were moving towards the night – time and natural light started to fade away.

I knew I wanted to see her eyes well and I placed a piece of depron in front of her so I could see its reflection in her eyes.

If you take a look at the frame carefully you will see the small piece of depron out of focus

Although in the frame chosen you don’t see the light that the joker is giving to her on the right-hand side we see that part of her in a “lateral dolly” shot that we did right after finishing the one on the tripod.

Frame 3

The following shot was Lola turning around and we were fully in darkness already.

We were all very tired but we needed the shot.

It is one of those moments where you have to compromise your lighting because of the time and I didn’t have a problem with that.
At the end of the day I think that as a cinematographer you have to give the most that you can to the director and if at some stage your lighting times mean that he is not going to be able to get what he wants, then you need to be ready to understand that he needs to shoot.
With that in mind, I lit as fast as I could to get something interesting and although I missed some highlights in the tree branches we got what we needed, everything matches and everybody was super happy because we had a really productive and positive day.

Frame 4

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Lighting Setup

 

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Again, the M18, was very handy for the above shot as I wanted to create just a side light in her face and let the frame embrace the darkness as there was going to be a lot of smoke in the background.

I placed our Joker in a way that the background had a bit of light and it definitely helped.

Frame 5

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Frame 6

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Lighting Setup

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These two frames were great fun to achieve.

We shot the two above frames the day before, when we shot Lola giving us her back (Frame 3).

However, the weather was very changeable and I knew that Shane was not really happy with what we achieved, neither was I.

The morning before bringing the lights back to Cine Electric (our lighting rental supplier) we had been shooting a rooster in a lot of different positions and doing what roosters do.

It was a great time but it started to rain so we decided to finish the 2nd block, have lunch and give the lights back.

1 1/2 hours later, we were about to start eating when the sun started to shine and there were no clouds in the horizon (well, it is Ireland so that means that 1 minute you have a beautiful blue sky, the next is raining a lot) and I turned to Shane and said: “Get the camera ready, let’s re – shoot the garden shots again!”

He grabbed the camera, Lola (our actress) got ready, I placed the lights and we started to shoot for about 30 or 40 minutes.

When we were happy with everything we packed again and, suddenly, it started to rain.

As I said before, Shane loves smoke and we had two smoke machines for the above shots, one for the background and another for the foreground so we could get the shafts of light on the left-hand side of the frame.

For the close up I put the polyboard closer to her and directed a 2K towards it, it wasn’t enough tho but I got lucky and she received the lovely reflection in her eyes from the Joker.

I knew I was not going to be able to overpower the sun patches (although I had a T5.6 / T8 stop) and I had two options, either underexpose everything to bring the sun patches to a normal reading and bring back the shadows while grading or let them go, I chose the latter.

The reading was 85% in the zebra reading that the camera has so maybe there is a little bit of information there and I will be able to bring it down a tad when colour grading (or not).

I hope you enjoyed the reading and don’t forget to come back next week to read the second part!

Have a good day!

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