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In the Julia Child portion of “Julie & Julia,” viewers are transported back to Paris of the ’40s and ’50s via … eyebrows?
“Eyebrows really show a period,” the film’s makeup supervisor Kyra Panchenko says. “I was into shaping the eyebrows and making them very penciled, because that’s how they were in the ’40s.”
Typically, when people talk about what makes a period film period, they focus not on makeup, but on the efforts of the costume designer and the art department. It makes sense. First, their efforts are readily apparent and often rich with subtext. In the biographical drama “Coco Before Chanel,” it’s hard to miss production designer Oliver Radot’s sets for the Catholic orphanage where Chanel spent a portion of her youth. They not only beautifully evoke the late 19th century setting, with their rows of black beds and stark white walls, but they also foreshadow the simple elegance of the designs that would one day make her a legend in the world of couture.
The creation of period clothing and sets also tends to involve exciting voyages of discovery like the one “Coco” costume designer Catherine Leterrier undertook to find the proper fabrics and accessories.
“All the little buttons, even the threads to embroider, don’t exist anymore,” Leterrier says. “I had people looking for me at different flea markets. I was lucky enough in France in some remote places to find stocks of old fabrics, and I had the tweeds specially woven in Ireland.”
Costumes and sets are clearly the stars of period films, but, as “Julie & Julia” demonstrates, other crafts can also play a significant, if subtle, role in establishing time and place.
Early on in the CG-animated Disney-Pixar film “Up,” a young Carl Frederiksen sits in a movie theater in the 1930s, watching the newsreel footage exploits of his hero, Charles Muntz. Given that the visuals were crafted entirely in the virtual world, it was all the more important that the scene have a ring of vintage sonic authenticity. To achieve that, sound designer and sound recording mixer Tom Myers transferred the soundtrack for the faux newsreel to optical film, then re-recorded it as it played back in a theater auditorium to give it a natural, old-fashioned wow and flutter.
For a later scene in an elderly Muntz’s lair, the filmmakers wanted the background music to sound like it was coming from an old-fashioned 78 rpm record, so Myers took a piece of music by the film’s composer Michael Giacchino, had it pressed on to an actual 78, then recorded it as it played back on a vintage Victrola.
“There are other ways that you can do that now (with computer plug-ins) and some are very successful,” Meyers says, but director Pete Docter wanted more organic techniques, “because that authenticity is really important to him.”
When it comes to editing, period authenticity is more of an ethereal concept.
“It’s not so much about pace and rhythm when you’re dealing with cutting choices and cutting performance, it’s being aware of character motivation on the smallest level, because people in that time and place are motivated by things that may be different than what we’re motivated by today,” says Jeffrey Ford, editor (with Paul Rubell) of “Public Enemies,” about the Depression-era exploits of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his gang.
The visuals Ford and Rubell were working with on “Public Enemies” were anything but vintage. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti shot the movie with the Sony CineAlta F23, a lightweight HD camera with extreme depth of field. The fluidity of movement and a hyper-real image provided by the camera lent the film a look and feel that’s almost the antithesis of the static and stagey cinematic aesthetic of the ’30s.
Nonetheless, Spinotti took care to see that the lighting was period-correct.
“In ‘Public Enemies,’ one of the visual themes is that at night the cities were much less lit than they are today,” Spinotti says, “so there are wide areas of shadows and faces are not lit in a bright way in most streets situations. For example, “there’s a scene in which Dillinger goes through some streets of Chicago in a long motorcade, and we shot it with only existing street lighting and some lighting inside the car.”
For some scenes, such as Dillinger’s climactic demise in front of the Biograph Theatre, modern streetlights with sodium lamps that give off an orange glow were replaced with period-correct streetlights, which give off a more white light, while streetlights in the distant background were color corrected digitally in post. But in at least one instance Spinotti employed a vintage technique to affect the quality of light.
“There’s a scene where they take Dillinger to Indiana on an airplane and the press and the police are waiting for him,” Spinotti says, “and we lit the whole scene with powerful flares, which is what the newsreel cameramen used to do in that era when they were on location.”
In “Bright Star,” which explores the romance of between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), cinematographer Greg Fraser’s re-creation of fire-based period lighting of the day — typically supplied by candles, fireplaces or oil lamps — was much more involved.
In some scenes, Fraser used groupings of small candles to mimic the work of larger candles. But at times that wasn’t practical, so he fashioned a “firebox,” containing 10 60-watt household bulbs in an enclosure with colored gels over its openings.
“Part of my study of firelight is that it doesn’t just flicker, it also moves and jumps and plays like a small animal in a fireplace,” Fraser explains. “So you have brighter areas that kind of create shadows and they sort of dance on an actor’s face. I tried to do the same thing with the firebox.”
To give the visuals in “An Education” a look evocative of its 1961 setting, cinematographer John de Borman relied not on light, but optics — specifically, a set of vintage Cooke S2 lenses that he had used on his previous film, 2008’s “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” set in the late ’30s.
Examining vintage photos during preproduction for “Miss Pettigrew,” de Borman found the images to “very beautiful, and the beauty was because the fall-off of focus is very quick,” he explains. He found that the S2 lenses, with their limited depth of field, created a similar fall off.
“It immediately gives you a old-fashioned look by just (using the lenses),” de Borman says, “and then, with lighting and with coloring and all that other stuff, you help it along more.”
Sometimes, however, what looks like a period affectation is nothing of the sort, as is the case with the groovy orange-yellow tint of the interior light in “A Serious Man,” set in the late ’60s.
“That’s something I just like to do with interiors,” says the film’s DP, Roger Deakins. “I just think they’re more natural with warm light.”
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