Cinematographer Yves Bélanger, CSC has been busy since coming off Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club which won Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto Academy Awards in 2014 – the same for Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews for makeup and hairstyling. Since then, he’s lensed The Little Queen, Wild, Demolition and director John Crowley’s Brooklyn. When we caught up with Bélanger he was walking off a location scout for Big Little Lies, a new HBO miniseries starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon – also a Vallée’s project. Even with the exhausting schedule, you still could hear the enthusiasm in his voice when talking about Brooklyn. “I love scripts like these,” said the cinematographer. “It’s a very simple human story that gives the audience so much.”
Adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name, Brooklyn stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey, an immigrant from the small town of Enniscorthy, Ireland. After leaving her only sister and mother at home, she sets sail to New York on a journey that chronicles the difficult decisions she must face as she begins to find her new life in 1950s Brooklyn.
Before production even started, Crowley and Bélanger knew they wanted to approach the film in a realistic and organic way. Storyboards were limited to a few scenes, like the dance halls, lighting was chosen in practical ways that stylized the production design from Francois Seguin and costume design by Odile Dicks-Mereaux, camera techniques were employed to subtlety enhance the storytelling with visual cues, even the cinematographer’s lenses changed with each passing country. “We wanted the film to look beautiful, to make it look real and come alive,” said Bélanger. “For Brooklyn, we needed to be loose and free so we did a lot of handheld work with natural lighting in order to give a sense of realism to the kind of classic yet free look we wanted.”
In capturing the look, a single ARRI Alexa camera (REC 709) was tapped for the majority of the shoot with the exception of the dinner scenes that took place at the boarding house and at Eilis’s boyfriend’s house. Those sequences played using two cameras and were lit with one large light coming from the ceiling above the practical light. “We only had about a day to shoot each of those scenes so I surrounded the light with black fabric so it wouldn’t spill on the set. This way everybody had a nice soft light, a bit top-y, but still nice on a set lit by the practicals,” Bélanger said. The arrangement allowed them to position two handheld cameras at the same time in order to move quickly through the pages. “Each take we had two actors covered and even though it was handheld, we did it in a steady way so it wouldn’t look like handheld. There was no compromise. We had to find a way for it to look great and do it in the time we had, and I think we did,” noted Bélanger.
When production found itself shooting in Ireland the cinematographer looked to older Zeiss lenses to enhance the muted greens and gray tones and lit scenes in a rough way. “We didn’t want to try and control the light in Ireland,” mentioned Bélanger. “Ireland has its own special look and feeling. The light is stark and beautiful so I didn’t use any diffusion. We kept the lighting realistic and used more of a handheld look for framing. Once Eilis arrives in America (which was mostly shot in Montreal) everything is a dream so I shot using very modern lights, diffusion, and Master Primes with a bit of Hollywood Black Magic filter to give it a glow. When she goes back to Ireland I kept it the same because she didn’t change.”
Throughout the project, the approach for the cinematographer was to keep the lighting subtle so the majority of the source light came from the outside with inside practicals balancing the look. “We didn’t want to move equipment. We wanted the lighting to be a realistic 1950s look,” Bélanger said. In a dance hall scene that takes place in Ireland before Eilis leaves for America, the director and cinematographer accomplish this exceptionally well. “When we see Eilis and her friend Nancy looking over to see if a boy will ask Nancy to dance we used a similar approach to the dinner scenes. We had a big balloon overhead covered with a black fabric. Since it was a top light we needed more in Eilis’ eyes. I used a China Ball just out of frame in the same direction of the main light so it would add a little bit of emotion to her.” In fact, the China Ball became one of the cinematographer’s go-to lighting fixtures for Eilis. “She has such a beautiful round face I knew I had to use a round light. I was able to get both of her eyes lit using the China Ball by attaching it to a boom pole. This way, we could always move it and give her a little bit more glow than everyone else,” added Bélanger.
Steadicam and long lenses were also brought in for specific visual cues as well. “The Coney Island scenes were all long lenses,” said Bélanger. “We didn’t have many extras so we had to shoot it in a way that allowed a different depth of field and so the visual effects could add in the amusement park. We ended up using a tripod so they didn’t have to stable off the shot for visual effects.” For the scene were Eilis goes back home to Ireland and visits the beach, a steadicam was brought in to give the sequence a floating feeling around her.
“It was very organic experience for me,” recalled the cinematographer. “I had a really great crew – from the gaffers all the way down – the shoot was great, very elegant. When I get to operate on a movie like this, you get to see so much story in the frame. There’s so much energy there and I want to give them that same energy and love and some lighting back to them.”