December 27, 2018
in theaters

How Large-Format Cinematography Made 'If Beale Street Could Talk' an Immersive Experience

James Laxton, the cinematographer of Barry Jenkins's 'If Beale Street Could Talk,' reveals how shooting 65mm helped tell the devastating story.

To watch If Beale Street Could Talk is to be let into a self-contained universe of love that's continually threatened by outside forces. Based on the 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, Barry Jenkins's film is the story of 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James), the latter of whom has just been incarcerated on false rape charges. Throughout the film, Tish and Fonny fight to preserve their tender union, gazing at each other through a glass wall in prison while they ponder the amalgamation of injustices that led them to this separation. (Much of the film unfolds in flashback.)

Yet despite the somber circumstances, Beale Street is a luminous film. It exudes warmth in depicting the particular nuances of black love—an intimacy often marked, and here, threatened to be extinguished, by racism. Much of the film's emotive luster is owing to the film's cinematography. James Laxton, the DP, is a longtime creative partner of Jenkins's; the two attended film school together, where they learned to speak the same language of cinematic expression. Together, in Beale Street, they create imagery that is romantic and immersive, and that does justice to a deeply felt story.

No Film School caught up with Laxton to discuss how his choice to shoot 65mm large-format was informed by perspective, how the characters' love underlies the film's aesthetic, how he covered an exceedingly complex scene of dialogue between nine characters, and more.

No Film School: This film is based on a James Baldwin novel. The cinematography felt almost novelistic, like it was trying to capture the essence of the novel. I can imagine that's a very difficult thing to translate when you're sitting down at the drawing board trying to figure out how that happens digitally. 

James Laxton: You're right. It's a challenging film in some respects. When you talk about adapting novels, we oftentimes think of adapting it for a screenplay or maybe even performance. Not necessarily with the cinematography. For this, we attempted to do exactly that. 

When I read Baldwin's writings, I find he writes with this wonderful ability that I think Barry also has: He can speak with such an immense amount of strength and power but also be specific. The way we tried to do that, visually, was to have the camera move and be lit with heightened reality, and also with a patient perspective. I wanted the [dialogue-heavy] scenes to be a lot more careful in design and precision towards the fluidity of movement. That, coupled with how light plays on people's faces—there's a delicacy to it. The cinematography was designed with a great deal of love and affection. Also, patience. That’s how we try to speak in a similar vernacular to how Mr. Baldwin expresses himself.

"Barry revolves around this idea of immersiveness—trying to find a way to bring the camera inside of conversations, and not just be a fly on the wall observing, but to be almost in a first-person perspective."

NFS: You mentioned the lighting. To me, it felt like you lit the actors’ faces so that they glowed—there was a warm halo around them. Not a halo in the technical sense of the word, but that's how it felt to me as a viewer, emotionally. Can you talk a little bit about that approach?

Laxton: A lot of the choices, as well as being delicate and precise, also had a great deal to do with presenting the kind of love and affection that Fonny and Tish have for one another. This love became such an important part of our process.

The movie's about a lot of different subjects. I'm not black, and I'm not from Harlem, and I'm definitely not from Harlem in the '70s. I do know what family love feels like. I know what first love feels like. I think the attempt visually was to provide a loving context to the story—to the way in which faces were lit—that, hopefully, audiences could identify with. We hoped the audience would understand everything else Tish and Fonny were going through that understanding of love.

"I don't think we set out to make realistic depictions of spaces, but we do set out to make truthful ones."

When I think of love, I think of warm, lamp-lit spaces where families can eat around a table—whether that be Tish's mother's and father's apartment, or the family of Fonny and Tish with Daniel, when they have a meal around their table. Both of those scenes are warm and lamp-lit. They are delicately presented, with a sort of romantic [sensibility] to them. That heightened sensibility is part and parcel to the work Barry I do together.

It's similar to that heightened reality I think we were trying to go for in Moonlight. Barry talks about this a lot. I don't think we set out to make realistic depictions of these spaces, but we do set out to make truthful ones. 

Technically, we were just trying to pay very close attention to color temperature, for example, using the Kelvin scale to present particular warm hues that both would be flattering to our actors and actresses, but also to give this romantic, family love feeling towards how light plays upon scenes and spaces.

'If Beale Street Could Talk'Credit: Annapurna Pictures

NFS: How do you communicate this love, precision, and heightened reality through the camera movement?

Laxton: The camera movement in this film is quite specific and definitely done with more precision, for example, than maybe we did with Moonlight. That had a lot to do with the visual language that we were trying to present. There's a strength and delicacy to this film that, again, has everything to do with love.

The way the camera moves behind Tish and Fonny as they leave the restaurant, and it's raining, with the red umbrella over their heads…the camera's pushing back behind them, toward us. In my mind, that movement is so reminiscent of old, classical ‘40s or '50s Hollywood films. I think that scene resonates because we place these two particular characters within this particular story through [the lens of] this romantic iconography, or visual memories, that we all have as image consumers.

The camera movement in that scene is quite different from the way the camera moves in the scene with Daniel and Fonny over the dinner table, where Daniel is talking about the last couple of years in prison. It's still precise in its movement, but it's definitely very different, and that has a lot to do with what's going on in that scene. There’s a darker tonality to the subject matter. The camera's patiently panning back and forth in this tension-filled space.

"We didn't want to just place the camera in a corner of a room and pan around the space and just record the performance as if it were a theater play."

NFS: How did you apply this patient intentionality—this romantic precision—to scenes that were inherently challenging to cover? I’m thinking of the scene at Tish’s parents’ house, for example, where there are nearly ten characters talking over each other constantly. So many moving parts.

Laxton: It was very hard. They're wonderful scenes. I love them desperately. They were very hard to do for Barry and I, visually speaking. The actors did such a great job, and that's very clear. For us, for what we needed to do visually, that was a challenge because we didn't want to just place the camera in a corner of a room and pan around the space and just record the performance as if it were a theater play. We wanted to make sure we were still paying close attention to how we would tone the story visually. Barry revolves around this idea of immersiveness—trying to find a way to bring the camera inside of conversations, and not just be a fly on the wall observing, but to be almost in a first-person perspective.

'If Beale Street Could Talk'Credit: Annapurna Pictures

Laxton: The way in which we did that definitely proved challenging. We had to ask the actors to be patient with us in those scenes because we had to shoot a lot, to be honest with you. It's a lot of coverage. It's a lot of different eye lines, different angles. It's not as if one of the characters is talking to one or two of the other characters in the scene. Everyone's really talking to everyone. It was really important for us to find a way to ingratiate the camera within each of those perspectives. 

It would have been much easier, like I said, to just place a couple of cameras in the corner and observe. But that wouldn't have been how Barry and I express ourselves visually. 

"The way Baldwin speaks, with his strength and power and delicacy and nuance and specificity, all at the same time…that matched large-format photography."

NFS: Can you talk about the differences between how you lit and covered the various locations and sets? You had very different spaces: really small, cozy family spaces, and then you had the big, airy basement apartment. Then you had the cold, fluorescent prison, for example.

Laxton: For the prison, we definitely paid close attention to bringing in fluorescent-based technology, or maybe mixed LED technology, to mimic the fluorescent look. 

Then there was Fonny's basement apartment. Fonny finds objects and finds ways to make art out of them. The lighting in those scenes is very much like that. It's bare bulbs scattered around the apartment. They flare the lens a certain way. It's warm and they're Tungsten-based bulbs, as many homes are lit with. But there's a bit of a rawness to it because so often there's no lampshade on them. That has to do with Fonny’s roughness and craftiness in how he's designed his living space and his working space.

We tried to make sure we were tackling and approaching each of these spaces according to, of course, what the realism and the truth of these spaces were, but also to provide emotional context, as well to represent what these spaces could do for us narratively.

'If Beale Street Could Talk'Credit: Annapurna Pictures

NFS: How did you land on your decisions for cameras and lenses?

Laxton: We shot the film on the Alexa 65, which is a large-format camera. That decision was referencing Baldwin's writing mixed with Barry and my interest in immersive photography. 

The way Baldwin speaks, with his strength and power and delicacy and nuance and specificity, all at the same time…that matched large-format photography. It's high resolution, high dynamic range, and also has a wide field of view, which I think allowed that strength to come into play with how images were captured. 

The wide field of view that large-format photography creates aided so much in finding that immersiveness that Barry and I are always after—how we’re trying to put the camera inside of conversations and in keeping with character perspective. You're able to place the camera within a room, and you feel like you might be on a 50 millimeter lens, and you're in a close-up with an actor, but you see a lot more of both top and bottom and left and right of the screen than traditionally you would with a 35 mil sensor. All of a sudden, you feel so much more immersed in their world.

"The shallow depth of field was a great advantage, because this is a first-person perspective story."

NFS: Are there any particular considerations that you have to be mindful of when you're shooting large format?

Laxton: Quite a few things. Because of the way the camera works technically, you have a much more shallow depth of field than you would with just 35 mil lenses or camera systems. That can be good or bad. When you're doing a two-shot or a three-shot of someone, I'll argue with [cinematographers] who say, "You have to shoot with a deeper F-stop." Maybe you just need to have a little more light in the space to provide that ability to shoot at a deeper F-stop.

For us, though, this shallow depth of field was a great advantage, because this is a first-person perspective story. Tish narrates the film. Just like in Moonlight, our hope was to isolate Tish at times and find her alone in the space, or alone with Fonny—the two of them within the larger context of New York City. Depth of field is one way to do that. In a sea of people, if you have a shallow enough depth of field that only brings focus on one character, maybe in this case Tish, you can hopefully have the audience empathize and engage with her in a way that we felt was important to the storytelling.

'If Beale Street Could Talk'Credit: Annapurna Pictures

NFS: Speaking of shooting in the city, there were a few night shoots on the street. How did you approach those technically?

Laxton: It was just about trying to create tone. Night shoots can be challenging because you need to provide enough light to a space that might otherwise not expose properly. But in a weird way, that's more of an advantage because all of a sudden you get to create your own world of light and not just rely on what practically might be available. They're really an opportunity to create your own tonal atmosphere.

We tried to continue to provide those loving tonalities of color and contrast that sucked us into that love story between Tish and Fonny. These contrasting tonalities would represent love in one case, or fear or conflict in another.

NFS: Were there any particular references to paintings or photographers that you drew upon to help embody this period?

Laxton: I'd be remiss to not mention Roy DeCarava who obviously photographed Harlem in similar eras to where this film is placed, both in the '60s and '70s, and I think even after that as well. Also, there's Jack Garofalo and Camilo José Vergara. Both those guys were shooting color in the early '70s, doing a lot of documentary work of Harlem in that era. Roy's work was very influential in terms of how we lit the film. The last two, Camilo José Vergara and Jack Garofalo, influenced the tones and the color spectrum.

"[Night shoots] are an opportunity to create your own tonal atmosphere."

NFS: Can you think of a scene in particular that would illustrate the way that you and Barry work together, in terms of process? 

Laxton: We go in each day with a shot list. There's never a day that we don't have a guideline for what we need to accomplish. But we definitely tend to deviate at times when it feels necessary. 

We begin the day with a camera up and running as quickly as possible and start making choices based on, maybe, the light on a certain day, if it’s coming from a different place than we thought because we were behind schedule. Or maybe it's cloudy that day instead of sunny. 

It's funny; Barry and I go back so far that there's more of a doing and less talking when we're on the set working together. We oftentimes make choices through the act of creation rather than having long-winded conversations about what might work and what might not work. We're tactile. We're reactionary to our environments. I think that really goes back to our history and just how long we've been friends—how long we've been collaborating at this point.

'If Beale Street Could Talk'Credit: Annapurna Pictures

NFS: What is your history, exactly?

Laxton: Barry and I went to film school together. We were roommates for a while in film school and we've been making films together for the last 20 years. We did Medicine for Melancholy years ago, and Moonlight, but even before that, we were making short films, having conversations about photography or paintings or movies we might have seen. 

I think at this point now, we know each other so well that there's not a lot of need, I'd say, for any sort of long, developmental conversations. It’s more just getting out there and starting to make choices.

NFS: That's such an incredible place to be at with somebody creatively.

Laxton: I feel so lucky. When you learn a language for the first time—when you are learning English, for example, maybe you grew up in Oklahoma. You grow up with an Oklahoma accent, or a dialect that's unique to that space. When you go home for the holidays and you see your friends from 20 years ago when you were in high school, you flip into certain conversations and ways of speaking that's are unique to the way you grew up. You do it without thinking.

Barry and I learned the language of moviemaking at the same time, in the same space, with the same references. I think we share this [cinema] dialect of that because of that. We slip effortlessly into a certain kind of language of camera movement or light or lens choice. That comes from those early days of being in film school together and learning to express ourselves at the same time.

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