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Contrast and Unity in Wonderstruck


Ed Lachman and operator Craig Haagensen. Photo credit: Mary Cybulski
Ed Lachman and operator Craig Haagensen. Photo credit: Mary Cybulski

In Wonderstruck, based on Brian Selznick’s book, renowned Cinematographer Ed Lachman artfully photographs the interwoven stories of two 12-year-old deaf children from different time periods, who run away to New York City searching for what’s missing in their lives. In 1977, Ben, deaf from a recent accident, follows clues to find his father; in 1927, Rose, deaf from birth, seeks to reconnect with her mother. At the end, the two stories merge into a beautiful narrative that honors the imagination of children.

 Oakes Fegley as Ben in New York City’s Port Authority (screen grab)

Oakes Fegley as Ben in New York City’s Port Authority (screen grab)

For Lachman, the challenge was to visually portray the thoughts and emotions of both children. Both stories are “mirrored in the use of images to depict sound.” The viewer experiences Rose’s 1927 world as a black-and-white silent film, intercut with Ben’s world incolor in 1977 as he experiences life as a newly deaf person.

Lachman had previously worked with Director Todd Haynes on Carol, Mildred Pierce, I’m Not There, and Far From Heaven, so they already had a well developed method of collaboration. “We looked to create the visual metaphors for deafness.” Todd does a lot of visual research, from which he creates a ‘look book’ that illustrates his ideas including the politics, history, demographics, art and cinematic language of the time periods. “He makes the world so specific in it’s details that you feel you’re present in the moment, rather than in a romanticized, clichéd stylization of it.” According to Lachman, the look book creates the emotional structure of the film.

Millicent Simmonds as young Rose in The Museum of Natural History. Photo credit: Mary Cybulski
Millicent Simmonds as young Rose in The Museum of Natural History. Photo credit:
Mary Cybulski

The golden ‘20’s, before the Great Depression, was a period of optimism and prosperity. In the 1970’s, New York City was in economic decline and physical deterioration. For the 1977 story, they referred to the “dystopian films of the ‘70’s” for inspiration, including Midnight Cowboy, Mean Streets, The Conversation and The French Connection. Lachman also brought to the table the work of large format still photographers of the time, such as Joel Meyerowitz, Mitch Epstein, Len Jenshel, Joel Sternfeld, and Saul Leiter, who were “experimenting with different color temperatures with color film in different light sources” (fluorescents, sodium vapor, daylight & tungsten). “We did everything possible to create a gritty street realism in a documented style.”

Lachman chose to use the “tools that were available at the time” to help illustrate the two different worlds. “The 70’s look of urban realism and raw camera movement was contrasted with the black-and-white studio lighting and balanced formalism of framing with orchestrated movement of the 1920’s.” He and Haynes referenced movies from the “apex of the silent film era,” including The Crowd and The Last Laugh. For the film-within-the-film, they referred to The Wind.

Most of the 1927 footage was shot on Kodak 5222 Double-X (250 ASA daylight and 200 ASA tungsten). Rather than make a monochromatic image transferred from color film stock, Haynes and Lachman chose to shoot with black-and-white negative, because of the exposure contrast and grain structure. “We wanted to tell the story through film negative because of the cinematic times we were representing.”

One of Lachman’s favorite shots, he admits, was actually a mistake. “When Rose comes into the city for the first time, I was riding the exposure where she walks up from the boat terminal, and then it pans around and you see the city in the background. The sun came out behind a cloud in the middle of the shot, so I missed my timing with the diaphragm change – it was over four stops. We did another take, but then in editing, Todd said, ‘No, I like it,’ because it emphasized Rose’s experience of her arrival.”

Lachman shot the black-and-white footage with his vintage Cooke Speed Panchro lenses, which sometimes created a “halation around highlights.” For exteriors, he added yellow, orange or red filters to increase contrast in the blacks. For interiors his solution for increasing contrast was fairly unorthodox: He used the LL-D filter, which reduces UV light as well as warming the image without losing any stop. To emulate the lighting of the 1920’s, he lit with mostly tungsten Fresnel lamps, creating harder direct light. The Museum of Natural History in New York City made an exception, because they admired Brian Selznick’s book, and allowed the team to shoot there – with many limitations.

We were only allowed to shoot at night. We had to load in at 6:00 PM and then load out everything in the morning each day.” These constraints led them to shoot all the museum sequences (color and black-and-white) with the Arri Alexa Mini rated at 1280 and recording ProRes 4:2:2. “I wanted to utilize the low light levels already existing in the museum and shoot in places we hadn’t planned.”

In order to match the black-and white digital footage with the Double-X, they applied LiveGrain texture in post production, which is unique because it “tracks the highlights and shadows, making the grain smaller in the highlights and larger in the shadows,” approximating the look of film stock.

Since Ben is newly deaf in the 1977 story, they “removed the audience from the objective experience of the hearing world, by using handheld and floating shots to create the boy’s subjectivity in his urban environment.” They shot handheld on the streets from either a Western dolly or wheelchair, often over-cranking. Lachman’s lens choices were his older Cooke 20-100mm and 25-250mm zooms. It was important to “isolate Ben in his first experience in an urban setting,” so he also shot with his converted telephoto still lenses: Canon 200mm, 300mm and 400mm as well as the Olympus 180mm. The Canon K35 prime lenses were used inside the museum; “I like the flare and the color shift,” he revealed.

To emulate the gritty realism of late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s films, Lachman chose Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 and 250D 5207 pushed 1-stop. As a radical departure from the standard, Lachman “used tungsten outside with the 85C, or with no 85, and 250D on interiors, partially correcting the color in post, which gave it a different color quality.”

Lachman, who began his journey in art school, was always “interested in how you could use color as a thematic in storytelling as a psychological tool.” The scene when Ben arrives by bus at New York’s Port Authority was shot in an ex-cruise line terminal using a mixture of Cool White fluorescent tubes with Lee 104 Deep Amber gel in practical fixtures, “which created a dinginess” that looked like the mixed color temperatures (cyans and yellows) of the 1970’s Port Authority.

The diorama was the “most important part of the Museum,” because it linked the two stories. “The wolf at night was extremely low light,” so again, they used Cool White fluorescents with Lee 075 Evening Blue gel in Kino fixtures to match the existing nocturnal light of the diorama.

The Queens Museum, which houses the 9,335 square foot 3-D map from the 1964 Worlds Fair, with over 400,000 miniature buildings, posed other challenges. At the suggestion of his gaffer, Lachman used Arri S60-C SkyPanel LED lamps set up on the second floor walkway to control the color temperatures by DMX, in addition to two tungsten balloons and Source-Fours for accents. To get the overhead shots of the map, they used a 15‘ Techno Crane, with a “Revolution snorkel lens for the macro shots of the buildings.” Fortunately, they got permission to use a “drone for the shots that were farther than 15 feet.” On the “first drone shot, it kicked up 40 years of dust.” In addition, “the art department re-created some of the buildings in the studio for inserts.”

All the miniatures, except for Rose’s cardboard buildings were shot with the Alexa Mini. Lachman worked with DP Ivan Abel and his long time gaffer John DeBlau, to help match the lighting between the first unit photography and miniature sets. The live action miniature “puppets” controlled with strings and rollers, allowed them to shoot everything in camera, without the use of digital animation.

In Wonderstruck, Ed Lachman humbly asserts that Todd Haynes has “honored the imagination and resourcefulness of children showing their language of communication, be it through hearing or deafness… I know my images would not have been the same without the valued collaboration with Haynes, production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Sandy Powell, editor Alfonzo Gonzales, composer Carter Burwell and my crew.”

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