'Cold War,' 'Roma' Cinematographers on the Appeal of Filming in Black and White

In an unusual year, two B&W films are among the finalists the category, as two nominated DPs weigh in on what they gained by giving up color, from "iconic glamour" to "amazing resolution."
Courtesy of Amazon Studios; Carlos Somonte/Netflix
From left: "The first time we started working," Zal says, "[Pawel] called me saying, 'Maybe you would like to go to a restaurant and fantasize with me about the film and how we start it.'"; Cuaron is the first to receive a cinematography Oscar nom for a film he directed.

The last time a black-and-white film won a cinematography Oscar was in 1994, when Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski won the category for lensing Steven Spielberg's haunting Schindler's List. This year could be the next if one of two cinematographer nominees — Alfonso Cuaron for Roma (Netflix) or Lukasz Zal for Cold War (Focus Features) — claims the prize.

A cinematography Oscar was first handed out in 1928 — to Charles Rosher and Karl Struss for the silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. In 1939, the award was separated into two different categories, color and black-and-white. In 1968, cinematography again became a single category, and Schindler's List has been the only black-and-white winner since.

But there have been several black-and-white cinematography nominees during the past decade, including The White Ribbon in 2009; The Artist in 2011; and Cold War helmer Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, in 2014, lensed by Ryszard Lenczewski and Zal.

Polish cinematographer Zal, 37, had been shooting commercials and documentaries when he was initially hired as camera operator on Ida. But when Lenczewski fell ill early in production and the filmmakers were unable to find someone to replace him on short notice, the director asked Zal to step in as DP.

His work caught the cinematography world's attention when it won the prestigious Golden Frog at international cinematography festival Camerimage en route to Ida's Oscar for best foreign-language film (and a nomination for cinematography). This year, Zal again was celebrated at Camerimage, winning the Silver Frog for Cold War (Roma claiming the Bronze Frog and 2017's The Fortress grabbing the Golden Frog).

Writer-director Cuaron became the DP of Roma when his longtime cinematographer, Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, was unavailable due to the film's 109-day shooting schedule. "I wrote it thinking of Chivo," Cuaron admits. "Chivo said, 'Alfonso, you have to do it.' "

Drawing on recollections of his childhood and the woman who raised him, Cuaron's Roma follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young domestic worker employed by a family in a middle-class neighborhood in Mexico City during the 1970s.

Roma — whose cinematography already has received honors including the Critics' Choice Award — was photographed with the ARRI Alexa 65 digital large-format camera. "Ididn't want this to a be a vintage black-and-white — a black-and-white that would look like something done during the '60s or the '50s," says Cuaron, who also is nominated in the directing, original screenplay and best picture categories for his film. "I wanted a digital black-and-white that would embrace digital — not try to hide the digital quality of it — with amazing resolution and amazing dynamic range and amazing definition."

For Cold War, a romantic drama set against the backdrop of the titular tense period in history, Zal says the filmmakers thought about shooting in color — "but very soon we realized that the contrastive black-and-white would add the iconic glamour to the picture and work much better for this tumultuous love story. Also, we were worried that the color from that period would resemble the mannered look of the old Soviet stock with its unbalanced and washed colors, and we wanted to avoid that."

Poland during the 1960s "was very gray — there was no color at all, and we wanted to draw from that," Zal notes, adding that the filming also emphasized contrast. "As the story progresses, also the contrast increases, lenses are longer and the camera moves more often, becoming more emotional and present."

*** 

Art, Royalty and a Musical Love Story
How to translate a director's vision to the lens and the screen. 

Robbie Ryan
The Favourite 

The most striking aspect to Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s work on Yorgos Lanthimos’ outrageous 18th century England-set dramedy — which won the audience award this year at Camerimage — is the use of ultrawide fish-eye lenses. "Yorgos had used wide lenses in shooting The Killing of a Sacred Deer and was keen to explore using them on The Favourite," says Ryan, who adds that the director also loves moving the camera. "So we researched wide lenses and discovered the 6mm, which was a lovely piece of glass that helped illustrate the distorted, absurdist world of the queen’s court. Her world was expansive but also quite claustrophobic."

Matthew Libatique
A Star is Born 

'It was a common goal for Bradley [Cooper] and me to make a  love story," says cinematographer Matthew Libatique (right, with Cooper). "The dynamics of the relationship is also one of mentor and student, in a way. All that emotion and backstory made me concentrate on the specifics of what was important." Most challenging was shooting the concert scenes at such venues as Glastonbury and Stagecoach. “Bradley wanted to keep the camera on the stage, and he didn’t want to see the audience’s perspective. I said, 'Great, but that’s how I light a stage show.' So I set an overall design from the proscenium view then re-engineered it so it would work on the stage."

Caleb Deschanel 
Never Look Away

Also nominated for foreign-language film, Germany’s post-World War II drama is about an artist, "so that was sort of the inspiration for the way the film ended up looking" says cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.“It’s about lighting and composition and all the things that become a part of a painting." He and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck spent considerable time scouting locations (the film was shot largely in Germany), he adds, which allowed them to explore period references. "We looked at architecture, and we looked at a lot of photographs of that period of time, and we just tried to absorb it and bring ourselves into that whole realm and that milieu."

This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.