Capturing America in Black & White: Phedon Papamichael Talks 'Nebraska' Cinematography
A little while back, I shared an ASC podcast that featured Nebraska cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. In that interview, Papamichael talked about many of the cinematic techniques behind the well-received Alexander Payne road movie. For those of you who love to hear cinematographers talk about their work and the theory behind it, you've probably seen many of the fantastic interviews that Cinefii puts together. Well, dear cinematography geeks, the fine folks at Cinefii have done it again, as they've just put out an extended interview with Phedon Papamichael in which he reveals even more of the techniques that he used to bring Nebraska to life.
Even though I've probably embedded the trailer for this film more times than I could possibly count (I'm bad at math, ok), here's the trailer for Nebraska once again.
Last time we talked about Papamichael's work on Nebraska, we focused on his camera choice of the ARRI ALEXA, which was necessary because shooting with black and white film was out of the question due to certain foreign markets' need for color distribution. Papamichael shot the film in color (with some interesting techniques that he talks about below) then converted it to black and white. He then added grain and varying amounts of contrast through the coloration process in order to mirror the aesthetic of the Kodak 5222 black and white stock.
Here's the Cinefii interview with Phedon Papamichael. In it, he covers everything from his personal cinematographic influences to all of the fun technicalities of how Nebraska came to be. He also has a profound insight about the craft of cinematography towards the end, so stick with it.
There are a few major takeaways from this interview. First is how the production used color, both in terms of how the production design team prepped the locations and how the scenes were lit, in order to make the post production and coloration processes as versatile as possible.
I was excluded from being able to use colour filters the way you do traditionally, you know orange, yellows and reds because I had to protect for the colour release version. So I couldn’t just throw a red filter over it to pick up the blues in the sky and increase contrast, so while I was testing our footage with [my colorist] Skip, he said "You should consider using some colours on the set that I can isolate and identify and grab and manipulate individually. The more chroma and the more primary colours there are like the reds and greens, then the easier for me to grab those."
Papamichael also shares an interesting insight about the craft of cinematography towards the end of the interview.
The biggest challenge for a cinematographer is, everyone can make certain things look great and make one location look spectacular, but when you put it all together and you watch a movie back in an hour and a half or two hours, there’s a consistency. We have to create, everyday when we go to work under so many diverse conditions, in one day it’s raining and fogging and sunny and, you know a bad location, a small location, large exteriors and you know, when all that flows together in one story that there’s a consistency to it.
When you're just getting started as a cinematographer, it's really difficult to create a sense of consistency through every project that you undertake. Some shots or entire scenes might be the perfect images for telling your story, while others might fall flat. Developing a sense of consistency in your work by making sure that every image you create serves the story, no matter the obstacles that stand in your way, is a sure-fire way to have an excellent career as a cinematographer.
What do you guys think of this interview with Phedon Papamichael? What techniques do you use for shooting black and white? How do you maintain cinematic consistency from scene to scene when shooting a project? Let us know down in the comments!