When the cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski became ill, camera operator Lukasz Zal got his opportunity to work as director of photography on director Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida. The film went on to garner the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and a cinematography nomination for Lenczewski and Zal. With Cold War–nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival–Zal continues his collaboration with Pawlikowski.
The exact framing and captured images are extremely important for the director. The images needed to be part of the story. “We like to work together by the monitor. We treat the picture like a painting, a tableaux,” explained Zal. “We are adding things. Removing things. Composing. We work very symbiotic with Pawel.”
Like Ida, the film was shot in black and white, a choice fitting for the film’s time period. The filmmakers wanted the look to be very high contrast. Zal had to work closely with the production and costume designers to achieve not only the contrast, but also varying shades of grey. Some of the original folk costumes proposed for the film were very beautiful in color, but had the same shades of grey when filmed in for black and white.
“Because Ida was black and white, we thought maybe it’s not so good to repeat ourselves by making the film in black and white and in the same format, but very quickly we realized that we wouldn’t be able to achieve such a contrast in color. We wanted to link to the period,” shared Zal “Black and white allowed us to create our own vision of the world. Less cluttered. Less information. It was pointless to shoot in color. Black and white worked the best for this film.”
The filmmakers watched the picture on set in black and white, although the footage was shot in color using Alexa and ultra primes. The filmmakers did a test in pre-production with both Alexa and 35mm cameras side by side. They developed the 35mm stock and found a look that they liked, and then graded Alexa to look like the 35mm film, adding grain and dirt. When screening, they could not distinguish between the two.
“It has the look of 35, but also I think it is has something different. It’s kind of a hybrid,” stated Zal. “I love in 35 that you don’t see so many details in blacks. Also during the grading we were using the color like photographic filters you put on the lens.”
The filmmakers did not use typical coverage. The choices were of a documentary style, trying to create a sense that the events were captured as they occurred. Scenes were generally one or two shots, with many of those shots moving, revealing the world of the scene. Camera moves were rehearsed extensively to get the timing right. Pawlikowski was a perfectionist with every little element, shooting numerous takes until the framing was what he envisioned. There were not many wide shots in the film, which allowed the director control.
Two types of camera movement were used. To get the feel of capturing real life, the movement of the camera was “unsynchronized” with the movement of the scene. Also when Zula (Joanna Kulig) appears, she triggers the camera movement. Often the angle is not on Zula’s face, but rather on the back of her head revealing the reactions she is receiving.
“I wanted to be inside their situation, to feel that it’s true to real life,” said Zal. “You have this little world. We are trying to condense. You are choosing a little piece of reality. You can tell what is beyond the frame. You can suggest a lot. In a little shot, you can control everything.”
To link to the period, the film had an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, almost square. It was also an aspect ratio that the director had used in his documentaries. Zal felt the format allowed “a greater opportunity for composition” than composing the picture in 16:9. The aspect ration was helpful in finding the balance between the people and the space. The camera was placed high to capture many layers and depth, as well as deal with the challenge that the actress was small while the actor was tall.
“I love to work with this format. It is such a creative format.” Zal added, “You can treat the picture not just like a film frame, but more like a painting.”