Cinematographer Bradford Young's Career on the Rise With 'Selma,' 'Most Violent Year'

Selma DP Bradford Young - H 2014
Atsushi Nishijima

Selma DP Bradford Young - H 2014

Director of photography Bradford Young, 37, has been turning a lot of heads in recent years. He earned cinematography awards at Sundance in 2011 (Pariah) and 2013 (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Mother of George). And now the Louisville, Ky., native’s latest films, Selma and A Most Violent Year, are both generating awards season attention.

On Monday, best picture hopeful Selma (which opens in limited release Dec. 25) earned a place on AFI's list of 2014's best films. And it recently received Spirit Award nominations in categories including best picture, director and cinematography. Meanwhile, A Most Violent Year (which debuts Dec. 31) was named the year’s best picture by the National Board of Review.

Selma, directed and co-written by Ava DuVernay, is a historical drama about Martin Luther King and the marches in Selma, Ala., that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Young, who studied film at Howard University under filmmaker Haile Gerima, is grateful to see the enthusiastic response to the movie. “The fact that Ava was able to craft the film and people are appreciating it is great. That’s all you can really ask for. [Awards attention] is not something you plan for when you are shooting,” Young said. 

Read more Cinematography Roundtable: Roger Deakins and 5 Other Top DPs on Film vs. Digital

This is the second feature collaboration with DuVernay, for whom Young previously lensed Middle of Nowhere (2012). Young said the director wanted Selma to be “very calm and disciplined” in its approach, and the cinematographer aimed to give the images a “period, Kodachrome-esque look.” In particular, Young said he found inspiration in photojournalist Paul Fusco’s collection of pictures taken from Robert F. Kennedy’s Funeral Train, of the citizens who lined the route. He also took cues from newsreel footage of the incidents depicted in the film.

Selma was lensed using an Arri Alexa camera with old anamorphic lenses, largely on location, with a few sets for scenes such as those that take place at the White House. Locations included the Edmund Pettus Bridge where the Bloody Sunday incident actually happened.

Images include a Technocrane shot that drops down to the protesters on the bridge and into an eye-level view of King (David Oyelowo). Said Young: “It’s the triumphant moment when our heroes cross the bridge without state or federal interruption; it needed to feel big and intimate and iconic.”

Of a shot when the protesters arrive at the State Capitol in Montgomery, he related, “Those are the only shots in the film where you have that amount of people moving toward camera and the camera backing away from them. That’s sort of a grammar, that the push from the protesters is power enough to move people. In the rest of the film’s march scenes, we’re moving in on them, which says so much about the pushback that they got.”

Another favorite scene for Young is a quiet, reflective one that features Oyelowo smoking on a porch. “It was about putting him in the most simple, human space possible — a place of contemplation and meditation, at night and alone doing something most didn’t see him doing, just smoking a cigarette in simple light. We just used the one lightbulb in the ceiling of the porch. It was one of the moments where we didn't necessarily feel we had to see his face. It was about not letting the lighting be distracting and bringing attention to how contemplative the moment was.”

In contrast, J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is a crime drama set during the '80s in New York, which was photographed with the Arri Alexa and anamorphic lenses. Said Young: “It was about photographing folks with money, living in the city at a time when it didn’t have money.”

Once again, he found inspiration in photography, in this case, the work of street photographer Jamel Shabazz. “It’s an interesting mashup of the elegance of humanity in spite of the decay of the city,” Young said. “And those photographs had a warm, yellowy, upbeat quality to them.”

Summing up, Young said he was thrilled to have had the chance to work with both directors. “I was a big fan of J.C.’s work. I loved Margin Call and I thought All Is Lost was a super compelling film. … Ava is my friend but also an artist that I really believe in. They are incredible filmmakers; I couldn't ask for more.”

Twitter: @CGinLA