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Contender – Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Black Swan.

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Matthew Libatique, Black Swan\’s director of photography.

A few lucky folk in Hollywood get to work on both summer blockbusters and critically lauded dramas, but few get to do that in films released just a few months apart. But it’s been that kind of year for cinematographer Matthew Libatique.

He served as DP on Iron Man 2, for director Jon Favreau – providing a sequel to his own work for the director in the first installment – and then re-teamed with director Darren Aronofsky, with whom he’d last worked on The Fountain, for this fall’s Black Swan.

Black Swan is the Natalie Portman-starring tale of a ballerina becoming undone on her way up to a starring role in Swan Lake. As surreal, or at least, unsettling as the film is – with its deliberate blurring of the lines between what’s happening in the real world and in the lead character’s inner life, Libatique says the film “afforded (him) the ability to move to naturalism,” after working on the hyperbolic adventures of metal-suited millionaire Tony Stark.

Just as the emotional template of the movie is structured between ostensible real events and those that Portman’s character, Nina, imagines, the film itself is pitched between the events of its main narrative, and the rehearsals and performances of Swan Lake within, each commenting on the other.

“We had a live performance to portray,” Libatique says. “Instinct told me I didn’t want to distract (from it),” including some dazzling 360-degree sequences as Nina is circled while dancing, in an increasingly controlled-yet-frenetic way, on stage.

Shots were planned in advance with Aronofsky, and then often reworked – “the dance choreography and camera choreography working together,” as Libatique puts it.

“Darren made some connections,” between the two types of choreography, looking at rehearsals, and then would “figure out the shot,” while Libatique would “evaluate it from a lighting perspective,” and coordinate with the two camera operators, one of whom worked handheld.

“There were a lot of moving parts,” he says, between the lighting, dance, and final composition of shots. It was “challenging on all levels. The most impressive was Natalie,” he continues, “she needed to be conscious, acquainted” with the camera moves worked out by director and DP, since, after all, “we didn’t want her to do two takes of a dance performance.”

A more vérité approach was used for other parts of the film. Though mostly shot on Super 16mm, Libatique deployed a Canon 1Ds Mark V for shots inside NY’s subways, wanting to be “as clandestine as possible,” especially since it’s “tough enough shooting on New York streets” – to say nothing of regularly running subways.

Libatique likes the art of collaboration, from preproduction and camera rehearsal, as in Swan, all the way through postproduction, which was more critical with his Iron Man work, since so much of an FX-heavy film is done – scenes finished and lit in post.

Once “good lighting has been established, you make sure you establish yourself as a collaborator.” In something like Iron Man that means “being responsible for shooting plates,” and then giving notes on mood and texture.

“You can’t give up,” he says, echoing – in a much easier and more humorous way, the ethos of the dancers in Black Swan – “or what’s the point? Then, it’s just a gig.”

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