Why 'Butterfly Kisses' Shot in Black and White with RED Monochrome and Lenses from 'The Shining'
To shoot a disturbing new film that deals with pedophilia, cinematographer Nick Cooke decided to go Monochrome.
Many find pedophilia to be a black and white subject, but British filmmaker Rafael Kapelinski wants to explore the gray. Butterfly Kisses, premiering at Berlinale this weekend, is an intimate look into the dark impulses that undergird pedophilic acts. When we meet Theo, a young teenager living in a housing project in London, it's clear that something's not right. He takes an extreme liking to one of the neighbor's young girls, spying on her from his window and making inroads to get close to her. But is this merely adolescent angst channeled into an object of innocence, or is Theo attempting to stave off the impulse to abuse a child?
Kapelinski, who previously worked at the Camerimage Film Festival in Poland, and cinematographer Nick Cooke explore these gray tones in rich black and white with the RED Monochrome. The camera disorients, often short-siding the characters or framing them such that they are nearly obstructed from view. Between the harshness of the architecture and the black and white hues, the cinematography in Butterfly Kisses suggests both a magical realism and an austerity: the nostalgia for childhood, and a fall from grace.
No Film School caught up with Cooke prior to the film's Berlin premiere to discuss the merits of the Monochrome, shooting unplanned scenes, the problem of pedophilia, and more.
"We used the Zeiss lenses that Stanley Kubrick used in The Shining."
No Film School: How did you and Rafael land on the decision to shoot in black and white?
Nick Cooke: It was funny, actually. I think Raf thinks of everything in black and white; he sees mainly in black and white. So he had always thought of this film in black and white. Then, halfway through, we did a few camera tests, and the film became color again because the location we actually shot at was quite colorful. There were reds and blues and greens, and for a little while, we thought we wanted to capture that.
But [Butterfly Kisses] started changing into a British social realist drama—quite gray overall, and generally shot inside the apartments. Then, we realized we still wanted an element of nostalgia and magical realism to their childhood, so it became black and white again.
NFS: How did you decide to shoot with the RED Monochrome?
Cooke: We tried a few different options. We started with the Sony F55, which is a color camera. We thought about shooting in color and converting it to black and white. But then we also tried the RED—actually, it was through No Film School that I remember reading about the Monochrome. There were a few articles around when I was finishing film school. I always remember it was quite funny because in the comments below people would say, "Why would you have a black and white camera?," and all the No Film School moderators were saying, "Wait until you see. You'll understand why." So I kind of always had that in the back of my head.
As we were testing the cameras—the Sony and the RED—we just discovered that originating in black and white was a bigger commitment and far more daring than shooting in color. We thought, "we'll just go Monochrome and then there's no turning back."
"In black and white, you always need a highlight—you need to have something white somewhere in the frame."
NFS: Do you approach lighting differently because you knew you were shooting monochrome?
Cooke: Yeah, we did approach it slightly differently. One of the things that was quite fun with the Monochrome is that I could use color filters. In black and white photography, particularly when you were shooting with film, people used to make a red filter to make blue skies even darker, for example. You'd put these color filters in front of the sensor, and that affects the overall contrast of the black and white image. So although this film was just black and white, sometimes we had very high contrast with a red filter, or sometimes we had a lower contrast with blue filters. We tried a few orange and greens. That was a really interesting avenue I'd never explored before—how you can change different tones of gray.
Cooke: Then, in terms of lighting— because it's just black and white channels, you can shoot in very low light. We would look for locations that were quite dark but had lots of contrast to them, so we could play with that. The monochrome gives you the freedom to do that. There was always a bit of lighting, but it was quite [minimal]. A lot of the decision-making would be, 'We'll position this next to the street light,' or 'We'll position this in this alleyway because it's lit already.' Then, I would just fill in the gaps. It made us quite quick and quite organic. The thing we always had to look out for was that in black and white, you always need a highlight—you need to have something white somewhere in the frame, whether that be a lamp in the back of the shot or a light that you throw. That's the one big difference.
Also, sometimes in color, when you shoot with low light, you can get quite muted—I wouldn't say muddy—colors when you bring everything down to the lower end of the spectrum. In black and white we found, at least in this film, that didn't work as well. We started to lose characters and lose the sense of the space.
"Because it's just black and white channels, you can shoot in very low light. We would look for locations that were dark but had lots of contrast to them."
NFS: When you were originally looking at the test footage and deciding whether to converting to black and white versus shoot in monochrome originally, what were some of the important visual distinctions that you noticed led to your decision to shoot in monochrome?
Cooke: Yeah, because there's that question: if you're shooting on a RED anyway, why don't you just take that and convert to black and white? Here's what the difference is with the monochrome: because it's designed to look just for those tonal ranges and doesn't have to worry about color, you find that there's lots more information in skin tones. By skipping the color process, you have a sharper image and it receives more information on the image more quickly.
NFS: A lot of the film takes place at night; you were doing a lot of night shoots. Did you learn anything in particular that was helpful to you when rigging your night setups?
Cooke: The film was quite free-flowing and things would change a lot—that's partly also why, aside from the script, I was interested in getting involved. I knew it would be different. The first film I had shot was very constructed and composed, whereas this was going to be changing by the minute. I learned to preempt what was going to happen as early as possible, so if I sensed that something was going to move into a corridor, I would send someone ahead and say, "Just have this standing by in case we end up in that corridor later tonight."
I think with night work, it's the same: just as much pre-planning as possible. You have to think, "Okay, if we're going to end up here or the character is going to go there, then I should have something lighting up that wall, or I need to make them stand out some way."
"When you leave space in the frame, it raises questions."
NFS: Interesting, so you didn't do blocking. Was it a naturalistic approach to directing?
Cooke: Yeah, it was very naturalistic. In fact, even though we had a script, every morning Raf and I would meet in this coffee shop. Then he would write themes on napkins and go, "Okay, this is what we're shooting today." Which is good, in a sense, because as a DP, you don't always get to sit in on that. Occasionally, I could say, "What about this?," or "What about that?" We would kind of sit, have a coffee, and plan.
I think as the film went on, he got freer and freer, so it meant having to match that speed and that tempo.
NFS: You employed a lot of disorienting framing, particularly short-siding.
Cooke: Right, where you've got one character in looking left when you would normally put them on the right of frame. I'm glad you noticed, actually. I think actually every single dialogue scene is shot in that way. We did that because the problem with Jake [the main character] is that no one is really listening to what he's saying. Sometimes he'll say things that may be slightly inappropriate—when you finish the film you understand where he's coming from. By having all our characters short-sided, we thought we made it feel like their attention is elsewhere.
NFS: I found it to be effective on a visceral level. It was unsettling, like you didn't know what was going to happen next, or that nothing was making logical sense.
Cooke: Yeah, it gives you that feeling of wondering what's behind them or where they are going to head to next. When you leave space in the frame, it raises questions.
NFS: In many scenes, characters would halfway out of the frame, or something would be blocking their faces. How did you conceive of these shots?
Cooke: It sort of came out of the locations. The good thing was we were shooting in an estate with three different tower blocks; all of the rooms, all of the flats in the tower blocks kind of were all the same, so even though we were shooting in like three or four different apartments at times, they were the same shape and the same structure. To try and make them feel like they were slightly different spaces, but also make it feel claustrophobic and like we're always looking for the exit. We're looking for doorways. We're just trying to give that sort of labyrinth scene. Again, sort of what you were saying earlier, that I'm not sure where you're heading. Just bringing that level of mixing it up but also making you feel slightly confused and slightly lost.
NFS: Because you didn't shot list, did you ever think about trying to get coverage for your editor?
Cooke: Yeah, there are a couple of scenes where the camera is wandering a lot, and sometimes I would shoot an angle and I would pan down to hands and up to faces. And then on the second take, I would try the opposite of what I had just done.
NFS: What lenses did you use?
Cooke: We ended up using these quite old lenses, super speed Zeiss. Very high-speed lenses, but they were the Mark I version, so you'll notice sometimes when things are out of focus they're kind of triangular in the background. That's just because they had a certain type of iris which they stopped making in the '80s, but we just ended up with a re-housed set. The rental place we got them from in London said, "People complain about these lenses, about the triangles." We didn't care. They're the lenses that Stanley Kubrick used on The Shining.
NFS: What was it about the story that originally captivated you? You mentioned earlier that the story was a compelling reason to get involved in the project.
Cooke: When the film comes out, I think there will be a lot of discussion about the themes of attraction, sexuality, and pedophilia. I'm sure that will come up, but I think what's interesting about the film is that there are people that have these darker inner thoughts and they are there in society. Hopefully, people can think a little bit about what to do before these things manifest themselves.
NFS: Interestingly, before I watched the film, I was at a dinner party and pedophilia came up in conversation. We were talking about a story on the news about a boy who confessed he had pedophilic urges to his therapist, and his therapist immediately called his mom and decided to drop him as a patient. We were all talking about how that's the knee-jerk response to pedophilia in society, but it's also the worst response to it, because that doesn't help that boy work through his impulses. He was seeking help. He didn't want to act on them. In the film, I saw cries of help. You know, he says certain things and tries to attract attention, and people gloss over it.
Cooke: Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, you've got a character or a person, and where do they turn? They can't turn to their parents. They can't turn to their friends. There's nowhere for them to go to.
NFS: Yeah, because it's so stigmatized. I can only imagine those things get worse when you can't tell anybody. We all know that if you shove something in a dark corner, it doesn't go away.
Cooke: When we were researching the topic of pedophilia, we found a researcher in the UK who was tracking pedophiles, especially on the internet. She found a forum where people were discussing thoughts or urges or attractions that they had and were sort of backing each other up and supporting each other not to act on them, not to do anything. She tried to do a whole research project on this community, but because it was almost a positive light on the subject and I guess it's difficult to talk about, she ended up losing her job and her funding.
She was saying, "Look, there are people with these problems, but they can manage it." That, in the UK particularly, doesn't really fit the narrative that everybody is talking about in terms of [pedophilia].