January 2, 2014

'Nebraska' Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael Talks ALEXA in Black & White

Nebraska Black and WhiteI'm a sucker for good black and white cinematography. For that reason, 2013 was a fantastic year. We were given a slew of unique independent films shot in black and white, from Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing to Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha. While these films have wonderful aesthetics, perhaps the most gorgeous black and white cinematography of the year came from Phedon Papamichael's efforts on Alexander Payne's most recent flick, Nebraska. Papamichael recently sat down for an interview on the ASC Podcast in which he talks extensively about the processes and intricacies of black and white cinematography in the digital age.

First and foremost, here's the trailer for Nebraska, which gives you brief taste of the unique aesthetic of the film:

And here's the full audio from this month's ASC Podcast with Phedon Papamichael. It's about 40 minutes long, so get comfortable and put those learning hats on, because Papamichael shares some fantastic and practical cinematography know-how.

Nebraska is a traditional character-driven road movie, and Payne had wanted it to be in black and white from the beginning. For Papamichael, the obvious choice for capture format was Kodak 5222 B&W 35mm film. However, as great as the aesthetic might be, shooting in black and white is seen as a risky proposition on the business side of filmmaking due to the fact that some audiences in various markets view it as antiquated. For that reason, Papamichael tested various color stocks and digital cameras, then had his colorist manipulate the footage to see which format could get him the closest to the 5222 aesthetic.

Papamichael ended up choosing the ALEXA and adding a 5248 film stock grain in order to emulate the 5222 stock. The ALEXA proved to be the best choice for the film not only because it gave the cinematographer the look he wanted, but the additional sensitivity allowed some much-needed versatility, which was essential due to the nature of the production (it was shot on location all across the American Midwest). The added sensitivity of the camera also allowed Papamichael the freedom to shoot this film with fairly slow vintage C-Series anamorphic lenses, which further helped define the unique aesthetic of the film.

If you'd like to spend some more time with Phedon Papamichael, here's another recent interview from DP/30. Here, he talks about his relationships with certain directors as well as some various other topics.

What do you guys think about black and white filmmaking in the digital world? Have you seen Nebraska yet, and if so, what did you think of its aesthetic? Let us hear those thoughts down in the comments.

Link: ASC Podcast -- American Society of Cinematographers

Your Comment

40 Comments

IDA - this yrs black and white movie for me, together with Frances Ha. You could take any frame and hang it on the wall.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xyxFsg_rrY

January 2, 2014 at 6:40PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Hillesland

If want to see my skethes to film IDA visit my web www.ryszardlenczewski.pl
Ryszard Lenczewski - cinematographer

February 19, 2014 at 2:56AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Thank you Ryszard.. Your work on IDA is stunning.. Best of 2014 and always great to see others websites.. Cheers, Mate

December 14, 2014 at 11:07PM

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Dana Gonzales
Cinematographer
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I saw Nebraska at the Savannah Film Festival.. loved it. Phedon is one of my favorite DP's. I think the B&W totally served the story. Alexander Payne was also at the festival and did a master class with us and it was super awesome!

January 2, 2014 at 6:50PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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The film may be good.
The picture does not look black and white in the way I loved to see Humphry Bogart or his collegues. The trailer does not show lights the way they could be used, building a tension between light and dark. There is no structure. The trailer does not think black and white, it just lacks colour.

January 2, 2014 at 8:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Richard

I suggest you go see it. Its magnificent.
No, its not the same B&W as the Bogart era, but then even if he'd shot it on 5222 it wouldn't have been either.

January 2, 2014 at 8:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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marklondon

Couldn't agree more. I've seen the trailer in the theatre a few times and it feels like nails on a chalkboard to me.

January 2, 2014 at 9:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Not all B&W has to be noir-esque

January 3, 2014 at 10:49AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Brian

That is a strawman. I did not make that argument.

My problem is that it looks bad, not that it doesn't look like noir. Even in the small image at the top of the screen you can see that it looks like a color made to be black and white. The light coming from the left side of the frame would look much better in colour as the skin tone would clearly separate from the blue sky behind it. In this image it does not separate and relies purely on DOF to do that job.

January 3, 2014 at 4:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Exactly! It was black and white shot for color.

January 3, 2014 at 9:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Nick

Totally agree. Not lit for traditional black and white at all which is why I thought it looked so muddy and washed out. I remember thinking "this crap looks like digital and turned black and white". Never would've guessed I was right.

Terrible film overall, by the way. Except for Bruce Dern, who was great. I don't know what else I expected from Alexander Payne.

January 3, 2014 at 4:35PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Nick

I agree. No, b/w films don't need to be extreme contrast film noir style stuff...but it needs contrast. So much grey grey grey middle grey blahhhh.

It reminds me of most students back in film school (we started out with non-sync black & white before we did color and sound.). No understanding of most students how oppressive and dull grey on grey looks.

January 9, 2014 at 7:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Daniel Mimura

Wait. I was agreeing with Richard who I thought was talking about IDA. I hvnt seen Nebraska, but the trailer looks great. (I'm talking about specifically about the black and white photography of IDA and Nebraska.)

January 9, 2014 at 7:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Daniel Mimura

The films in the Bogart era were shot using bright lamps to create lights and darks. You can't expect to achieve great-looking contrast using only available light. Therefore, shades of grey.

January 10, 2014 at 12:26PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Peter

I saw Nebraska over the weekend. I enjoyed Papamichael's cinematography, but I think they went overboard adding grain in many scenes. Watching on a Sony 4k projector, a lot of the film looked like Tri-X pushed a couple of stops. For me, it was distracting.

January 2, 2014 at 11:23PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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I was thinking the same thing. It felt overall "overexposed" and distracting. Nor had the look of a great B&W film like Touch of Evil or Down By Law.

January 3, 2014 at 9:38AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Bolex16

I know you were aiming for smart. You missed.

January 3, 2014 at 11:51AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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marklondon

And you were aiming to be funny and lost. Although you are the winner the honorary jackass award for being an asswipe.

January 3, 2014 at 5:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Bolex16

At least I'm not profane and vocabulary challenged.
PS: Wasn't aiming for funny. I prefer accuracy.

January 3, 2014 at 6:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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marklondon

Ok, let's move along now...

January 3, 2014 at 6:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Joe Marine
Camera Department

"a lot of the film looked like Tri-X pushed a couple of stops"
If i hadn't seen the film, that would have made me want to go.

January 3, 2014 at 11:50AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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marklondon

I loved the movie and the cinematography. What I didn't like was the color fringing that plagued the screening I attended. Really bad. Don't know if it was a crappy projector or a miscalibrated one. Wonder why they didn't use Red's B+W camera.

January 3, 2014 at 5:43PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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sean

Because the Alexa is far more versatile would be one reason. (Not a RED putdown - it just is).
Or perhaps they couldn't get their hands on the few in existence for this shoot. It hasn't exactly been a major seller.

And yes, must have been a bad projector.

January 3, 2014 at 6:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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marklondon

>Because the Alexa is far more versatile
In what way? Easy buttons on the side for mentally challenged?

>It hasn’t exactly been a major seller.
Still living under rock? http://www.red.com/store/products/epic-x-monochrome-brain-only

January 3, 2014 at 11:26PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Natt

Remember that every film set buys its own $20,000 digital camera!

January 5, 2014 at 6:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Tyler

Well if you like Black and White you should take a look at this music video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A18y6hAIEnI

It was shot with a special B&W Alexa and a Phantom HD Gold. The best Black and White look I've seen in a while.

January 3, 2014 at 9:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Nej

Bayer Alexa is more sensitive than Epic MX Monochrome, right...

January 3, 2014 at 11:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Natt

I enjoyed watching the scenes where the lens would morph the shot. It really stood out in the scene where they were father and son changed seats in the truck, when he lets dad drive. Maybe I just like in-lens effects, I'm not an intellectual in this department I just really enjoyed that focus pull. The thing about shooting black & white is that it automatically creates a surreal experience because it is separates the viewer from the reality existing within the film, pretty clever to apply this surreal effect to something as mundane as Billings Montana and Corn Eating Nebraska. I also noticed that I paid more attention to the subtle expressions due to the black & white, it helped that the casting was spot on.

January 5, 2014 at 2:02PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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wonderwhy

Shot with c-series Panavision lenses...there are tons of imperfections with those lenses (which is why they're awesome.). A lot over even older anamorphic lenses had these huge distortion problems that often led to actors looking like they had the mumps in close ups. Back in the early days, the solution was often...don't film them in close up! But over the years they've continually refined anamorphic optics.

Focus pulls shift the extra optical elements (that help get rid of the mumps and other problems), and that's why they look warpy.

God, I love that look.

January 9, 2014 at 7:32PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Daniel Mimura

Saw the trailer in theater.
Some just feels wrong with the image.
As some have said earlier, it does have that "color movie, made B&W" look.
Not my cup.

January 5, 2014 at 3:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Derply Derp

i don't know why the director would compromise…. just shoot on black and white film…he is an academy award winner..

January 8, 2014 at 5:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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DIO

A more general point is the problem with using colour in cinema itself as opposed to say in the visual arts. A DoP has far less control over colour than a painter does, relying on either the quality of the film stock or the power of the codec if working with digital. Due to the physiological and psychological colour has on audiences certain authors of cinema choose to either neutralise its impact by shooting in monochrome or by simply reducing the palette captured through set design/costume etc.
My own opinion is that black and white makes it easier to lead the eye in terms of contrast (sensitivity to contrast being a far older neurological impulse than colour vision), bypassing the emotional barriers colour tends to generate whilst also negating the painterly superficialities of chrominance. Such contrived colour schemes are lazily adopted in contempoary cinema by directors who favour bombarding audiences with their trite ideas, rainbows of symbolism and ever so clever semantic coercions instead of letting the truth of what is being observed generate its own infinite permutations in the mind of the viewer.
The point being (after much rambling) using black and white for just a "look" is just as bad as using a contrived colour scheme. Unless there is an understanding as to how the aesthetic of monochrome functions cinematically we're all just pissing in the wind.

January 6, 2014 at 10:04AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Lupocide

uhuh...

January 6, 2014 at 3:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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andy

Great response @Lupocide

January 6, 2014 at 12:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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wonderwhy

Lupocide, you have retired the trophy belt for didactic dogma. Impressive creative writing for a priggish Brit, but totally off-base. Did it not occur to you watching Nebraska that the D.P. was trying to communicate the slightly muddy, gritty aesthetic of the American Midwest? I have news for you, the heartland of this country shows plenty of wear and tear; Dern's portrait of a bitter curmudgeon at the end of a misspent life hit every note perfectly - and the visual treatment did not distract with a bunch of cutesy, melancholy portrayals of an America that has not existed for 50 years. When shooting B&W, it is possible to light sequences without trying to make the fucking film look like film noir. How about something elegant and simple? It is far easier to achieve a nice look doing multiple locations in steps of gray than fighting color combinations you have no control over.

January 9, 2014 at 4:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Kodak XX

Thanks for your feedback Kodak XX. Had you actually taken the time to digest the first sentence of my comment it may have occurred to you that I was making a general point about monochrome vs. chrominance in contemporary cinema. I was not referring directly to the subjective decisions made by the DoP during the production of the film Nebraska. I hoped the phrase "a more general point" would have communicated this. I entirely agree that it possible to light a B & W film without it looking "film noir", in fact, I would hazard a guess that all black and white films outside of the somewhat narrow genre of film noir are successful in doing so (Ingmar Bergman for example).
Finally, thank you for researching my ethnicity and nationality before making your ad hominem attack. For your information I live in a region of Scotland which refers to the Union Jack as "The Butcher's Apron". Although this may not be customary in the ex-British colony you currently live in, I live in the hope that one day, after a yes vote in the independence referendum, my people will enjoy the same freedom and autonomy from inbred elitists that you do today :)

February 14, 2014 at 5:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Lupocide

"Nebraska" was probably the most pretentious film I have ever seen. It tries so hard to be understated and quirky. Bruce Dern had a better performance in Coppola's new thriller, "Twixt". Here, he is just underused because, again, the script is trying to hard to be understated. There is ZERO plot, zero backstory(to the point where we are introduced to characters by a quick mention of them and then never brought up again)..arggghh!! It's slow and deliberate for the sake of being profound (which it is not), and last but not least, the black and white completely destroys any saving factor from some of the locations on the road. Totally unnecessary. The contrast is non present. It's like I just watched a cheap imovie video with a standard black and white plug in dragged over the entire sequence with no adjustments from clip to clip. What a joke Nebraska is. Really, I was am still am insulted that this movie is fooling so many people. Shooting it as B&W just adds insult to injury. I was let down hard by this movie. Sorry if I come across like a snob, I'm just very irritated by its growing appreciation. The naked Emperor rides again, I guess.

January 9, 2014 at 8:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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joel

Shooting a color camera like the Alexa is *better* for black and white than black and white film stock. I don't think most people realize this, judging from the comments (as well as all the comments on older posts when the RED monochrome came out). While technically, a b/w sensor out resolves a color image on a CMOS sensor that needs to be debayered...this isn't a problem! REDs and Arris have out resolved double-x (kodak's only b/w negative motion picture stock...which last I heard is the same stock since the 50's...it isn't a newer stock)

Of course it's not just about resolution...the other problem is that you can't do secondary color corrections with black and white source material. I haven't shot as much motion picture footage to switch to black and white, but I've done a lot black and white still photography where you control the image with the color channels acting as your filters. The control you have is amazing! Black and white in the camera requires a rainbow of filters (that may not even be available anymore...definitely not in 4"x5.65")... And the problem is that one color influences every other color---not separately like with secondary corrections. Say it's a blue day and you want to knock down the sky (and a POLA won't work because you're, say, shooting into the sun)...you can use a red filter to knock it down, but if you have a person in the shot, you're drastically altered the skin tones because it's a primary correction and not a secondary one. Modern color makes it so much more feasible to have *more* control than they had in black and white's heyday by altering the color (to control the contrast) in post (for black and white cinematography). Some things that the art department can do on set is paint things/hang things with colors that don't match the actors to be able to dial it up or down its luminance in post to have more separation.

January 9, 2014 at 8:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Daniel Mimura

Hello. Definitely not an ...Alexa, but for a short we shot one and a half year ago, we used an AF101 in B&W mode with a R2 filter on lens (almost) all the time. Shooting in colour the skin tones would not have the "transparent" look we were after.

Link to trailer: https://vimeo.com/48075293 (Link to the movie available on request)

January 11, 2014 at 1:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Tools... All of you.

June 17, 2014 at 11:20AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Steve