February 20, 2024

Bonus Episode: Past Lives cinematographer Shabier Kirchner

In this bonus episode of The Cinematography Podcast, we interview Shabier Kirchner, the cinematographer of Past Lives. The film is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

Past Lives, written and directed by Celine Song, is about childhood sweethearts reconnecting as adults after many years. When cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, who is from Antigua, was sent the script, it immediately resonated with him. “Past Lives was not just a standalone amazing script, but I found myself in the material. A lot of what I was going through, being an immigrant to the US, being from the Caribbean, reconnecting with a friend, falling in love, all of that stuff was happening while I was reading the material and it just felt like it was written for me.”

Shabier and director Celine Song had an amazing first conversation, and he wasn’t aware that she’d never made a film before. Fortunately, they had an extensive amount of time to prep the movie, and they chose to shoot on Kodak 35mm film. The film takes place in New York and Korea, and they knew they had to shoot it out of order, starting with all of the New York scenes which take place later in the story. Shabier and Song also spent time discussing how to use the language of the film to express what the characters were experiencing. Past Lives tells a story about how relationships change over time. Shabier chose to translate this into deliberate pacing with long tracking shots, keeping the lighting natural and simple. In the film, natural elements tell the passage of time as well, through rain, clouds and the changing light. Even the characters Nora and Hae Sung tell a story about time in their movements. “We were speaking about the final scene in the film, and I asked Celine a question of what direction should they walk? In a very Celine fashion, she (said) ‘Well, they should walk right to left because that is into the past. And she should drop him off in the past and then walk from left to right back into the future and up the stairs.’ That very small and simple moment in our conversation led and informed the entire language of the film in terms of how we move the camera from left to right.”

Shabier broke out as a cinematographer a few years ago on director Steve McQueen’s five-part anthology series, Small Axe, winning a BAFTA for lighting and photography. The series tells both real and fictional stories about London’s West Indian community in the 1970’s and 80’s. McQueen chose to treat each episode as a series of small films, rather than a TV series. They would discuss and prep one, scout it, shoot it, break for a week, then begin prep for the next episode. Starting with Mangrove, the longest in the series, they shot in order as much as possible, with Lovers Rock next. Shabier says it was a nice release for the crew’s pent-up emotions on Mangrove, which dealt with anti-police protests and then the trial of nine Black men accused of starting a riot. They knew they could put joy and energy into Lovers Rock, a much simpler story about a house party, love and music. Shabier thinks McQueen structured the shoots for Small Axe in a way that was very smart, creating a serious mood when they needed to be serious, and lightening the mood as needed.

Past Lives is still in some theaters and available on VOD. https://a24films.com/films/past-lives

The Small Axe series is on Amazon Prime.

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras www.hotrodcameras.com

The Cinematography Podcast website: www.camnoir.com
Facebook: @cinepod
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Twitter: @ShortEndz

February 24, 2021

Sean Bobbitt, BSC, on Judas and the Black Messiah, working with director Shaka King, working with director Steve McQueen on Hunger and Shame

Sean Bobbitt thinks good cinematography is composed of a series of very carefully crafted and decided upon images. He began his career as a news camera shooter, but once he began to work on documentaries and features, Sean learned that each shot is not just coverage to edit together. After working in news and documentary for several years, Sean decided he wanted to transition into working on dramatic films, so he took a cinematography class with acclaimed cinematographer Billy Williams, and it changed his life. He knew he wanted to become a cinematographer. He soon got his first feature film job working on Wonderland, directed by Michael Winterbottom.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a gripping biographical drama about FBI informant William O’Neal and Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton. O’Neil is a small-time criminal who agrees to go undercover for the FBI and infiltrate the Chicago headquarters of the Black Panthers. O’Neal’s tips directly result in Chairman Hampton’s assassination in his bed by police in 1969. Sean found the script gripping and incredibly relevant to today’s ongoing issues of racial inequality. He realized he knew little about the Black Panthers and this chapter of racial injustice in America, and he needed to help tell the story. After reading the script, Sean met with director Shaka King, who brought hundreds of stills of the Black Panthers and talked Sean through the screenplay. Together, Sean and King began to explore what they wanted to visually create. The photographs became the basis for the look and color palette of the film. All the color photos were Kodachrome or Ektachrome, so they had a slightly faded look. Sean wanted high contrasts with punchy primary colors and worked closely with the DIT to get the color grade for the look he wanted.

Previously, Sean had worked on a few biopics with director Steve McQueen, such as 12 Years a Slave and Hunger. Sean finds McQueen a very unique artist and a fantastic collaborator. They’ve worked together for so long that they are very good at communicating on set. McQueen loves long takes, and really began exploring those with Hunger- the film features a 16 and a half minute take, based on the idealogical concept that if you simply hold the frame, the audience begins to project themselves into the action. If there’s no cut, the audience can’t be reminded it’s a film and can’t be let off the hook. Sean learned to compose very considered frames where the action happens. One of the main concepts of the movie Shame was that most New Yorkers live their lives in high rises in the air, and the characters in the film only came down for sordid reasons. Most of the takes in Shame are also very long and purposefully make the viewer feel uncomfortable.

You can watch Judas and the Black Messiah in select theaters and streaming on HBO Max. https://www.judasandtheblackmessiah.com/

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com/ep114/

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com

Website: www.camnoir.com
Facebook: @cinepod
Instagram: @thecinepod
Twitter: @ShortEndz