Belfast cinematographer breaks down the ways black-and-white gives the film clarity and naturalism
The past is rarely black-and-white. But in Belfast, it is.
The highly personal film from writer-director Kenneth Branagh follows 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) as his family grapples with the onset of the nationalist conflict known as the Troubles in Northern Ireland. As Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) debate what is best for their family's future, Buddy tries to make sense of the shifting world.
The moment cinematographer Haris Zambarloukous read Branagh's script, he pictured depicting the script's view of the past in black-and-white (though there are a few contemporary and fantasy sequences in color). The two have collaborated on films together for over a decade now and shared a fondness for shades of grey in their work.
"We decided on it together in a way," Zambarloukous tells EW. "We have worked in black and white in the past — sections of our films have had black and white. Death on the Nile starts in black and white, the first 10 minutes. So, it was a language we knew well, and our mutual love of black and white is for similar reasons. So when I read it, I did suggest to Ken that straight away, one of the first things we talked about was, 'Should we do the contemporary part in color, and [the past in] black and white?' He was like, 'I've been thinking the same things too.'"
From there, they worked together to create a palette that feels a blend of glossy Old Hollywood glamour and kitchen sink realism, all accomplished on a low budget, quick shoot nestled between COVID lockdowns in the U.K. in summer 2020.
With already many critics' associations award nominations to his credit, Zambarloukous is poised to get some Oscar attention. But before he dives into the whirlwind of award season, we called him up to discuss the creative choice and how Belfast differs from a wide range of awards bait shot in black-and-white this season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why was it important to Branagh to shoot this in black and white?
HARIS ZAMBARLOUKOUS: We were both thinking in similar ways. One of the things that I love about black and white, and I know Ken likes this as well, is in our filmmaking, we always try to remove any distractions. We try to minimize movement. We try to minimize the set dressing, and really have you focus in on the performances and the actors. Of all the things that black and white does, it amplifies the emotion that's there and it seems to be a more lucid, more direct way of feeling what the actors are feeling. It's less descriptive than color. You don't get as much information, but you gain something else. In particular with great performances — you can't add an emotion when it's not there — but when it's there, it seems to be a very immersive way of capturing emotion.
Was there a specific emotional tone or mood you wanted to go for in contrast to other ways to utilize black and white?
We certainly wanted to be a slightly more glossy black and white. It had to be really clear. I don't think a 10-year-old child sees things grainy. They have quite a clean view of the world. So that was one thing we wanted to do. In terms of the technical aspect of it, it was definitely large format, very clean photography. You feel every freckle and every detail. Ken calls it forensic photography, and that's a very good word for it. We wanted a really wide scope of where our blackest black and our whitest white was to have every bit of gray in between that. We'd really work with the skies and how we could darken those, or how we could pop the faces that teeny bit. That was definitely something I learned from watching and reading kind of about Joseph Walker, who was [director Frank] Capra's cinematographer. He always had a way of giving people a third of a stop extra brightness just to make them pop a little bit. So, we stayed within naturalism, but we wanted to add something magical in that too.
It's very well cataloged that this is inspired by Ken's childhood. Did you look at a lot of photographs or images from his own childhood and how much did those influence the look of things?
I didn't look at photographs, but we literally walked the streets. We walked; we cycled; we went to Belfast; we stood where he would stand. We really took that in, and it was a moving experience. It's not your typical location scouting. This was our eighth film. We're open with each other and share our past together, but there's something about when someone opens up about their past or something that had an impact on their life and is candid and is open that always leaves you a little vulnerable. But it also opens up to the other person, that gateway of conversation and engagement where you also share your past and what has impacted your life. So there was the filmmaking aspect of this, but there was also candid conversation about what's important in life and why am I who I am.
You mentioned this glossy effect, and that really felt like Old Hollywood to me. A lot of the film shows us how Buddy processes things through cinema. So was that also intentional and part of why you chose that look?
It certainly was. We've had to do a more classic Hollywood look on some of our films. So, what I was curious to try and do is to take very naturalistic lighting, almost no lighting, almost like a Days of Heaven approach, and create our contrast and our lighting through our placement within a space. If I wanted someone brighter, we would talk about this with Ken and we just staged things closer to a window. It really was naturalistic lighting. It is not a usual approach. You would usually say, "Let's place them where we want to. And then let's use artificial lighting to create the tone and the contrast." Old Hollywood films were lit with artificial light. What we wanted to do is try and recreate that look using naturalistic lighting and available light. That was a dance between me, Ken and the actors and the placement; that it would all be symbiotic.
At times, the film can feel almost like a news reel — in the market riot, for example. And then other times, it's much more romantic and nostalgic. Were there certain things you were doing to help us distinguish those moments?
The biggest thing that we did was be really still in those key dramatic moments, the emotional moments. You let shots go longer, let natural light play a part. If it was a cloudy day or a day where the clouds would go in and out and that had an effect, we'd let that fluctuation of light play. And we would keep long shots and slightly wider shots. We felt that by doing that, we earned the kinetic shots, the riots, et cetera. You have to exaggerate things in order to make an Irish film in a way, where you got to celebrate the joy and the victory. You really mourn the losses. Once that mourning has really taken place, you've got to have a kinetic dance. It was those kinds of emotions and that celebration of life that we used as an influence to how we would shoot a scene, and when we'd be intimate, when we would be silent, when we'd listen, and when we would be kinetic.
Did you shoot on black and white film stock or convert it in post?
We did shoot digitally, and it's our first digital film. There is a reason I prefer capturing in color, and it's to do with how effective I can be in the color correction process. I can key into certain colors, for example, a blue sky, and assign a tonality to it, a level of gray. I can actually key a face that has a little bit of red in it, which all faces have, and make it a little brighter, a little darker. If I had do this with black and white film, it would be a very, very lengthy process where you'd literally have to rotoscope around areas and change the tonality. This makes it much quicker. And we had limited resources, limited time. The only advantage I see in capturing in black and white is if you don't want someone to change it, which we didn't have that issue.
You also have these moments that are these bursts of color. Were those something Ken had in the script? And how did you decide where to place those and what you wanted them to signify?
Those were completely Ken's ideas. He thought that that was quite a unique way of doing things, and that that really was from his imagination. He always felt that he escaped in these films and that movie-going was a burst of color in his life. He wanted to infuse that in the black and white and make it specific to the film that he was watching.
You also have an extraordinary depth of field, especially shooting with a lot of natural light, as in a shot where Buddy is looking out a window and Ma and Granny (Judi Dench) are in focus in the background. Was that something that you wanted throughout, or how did you decide where to utilize it?
That was certainly something we thought about from early on and we wanted to use wider lenses closer. But we could have not done that if it wasn't for Jim Clay's [production] design. Jim Clay built sets designed for us to do that, where we could stack things up. Ken was always talking about that military presence that was just everywhere in Belfast at the time — a beautiful contrast of everyday life going on while a military presence is scattered through. The way that Jim's sets were made, he would allow that. We had very limited sets, but within those sets, you could look out into the alleyway and therefore, you could place a soldier walking in the alleyway behind the homes. You could do a scene in the backyard, but they were specifically made to look into the living room so that you could have another thing going on in the living room.
It reminds me a lot of Gregg Toland's work. Was that a touchstone?
Yes. You don't need to go too far in your lenses either. There's a clarity to it and there's a silence to it. It's also a way to not do too much. When you go with too long a lens and no depth of field, you're almost imposing something on the film. You're forcing where and how people look. We found a minimalism and a clarity, but at the same time, we allowed things to happen. Certainly, Gregg Toland was a master of that, as was Arthur Miller in a film like, How Green Was My Valley. There's quite a few films that I've loved that play with the frame. And I wouldn't just call it depth of field. It's a depth of field in both the blocking and the production design. I could have had all the depth of field in terms of focus, but if we never placed people there or action there, it would've never been seen.
Westerns and High Noon and Shane, and those sorts of films come into the action a lot. Were you using any of those as an influence?
All the films you see in the film were references. A Belfast street, a terrace street, is quite similar to a Western street. It was easily juxtaposed, but those streets are very much like that. They had an end to them and they were terraced and quite symmetrical. We certainly wanted to echo [those films], but it's something that you actually see in Belfast. Those influences fell naturally into the film because we allowed enough elements to exist that you could do it effortlessly.
This year has a really astonishing number of films in black and white. There's Belfast and The Tragedy of Macbeth and Passing and C'mon C'mon and probably more I'm not naming. Why do you think it's so popular it right now?
It's finally getting the regard it should have. Because we did this after lockdown as a personal film and we felt that we could make this the way we wish to make it, we were given the courage to just enjoy the moment and the opportunity and make the most of it. For us, this was a moment to do something in an uncompromised fashion in the way we thought would best tell the story. In terms of as a global thing, I do think that in photography, black and white has never stopped. Portrait is always best in black and white. I wouldn't say that now you see less black and white photography in print, in magazines, in billboards. Motion pictures always had the option once color was introduced. The filmmaker chose and slowly, that seemed to go away. I would say, when you look at all these amazing films, they're all very different aspects of black and white. I wouldn't say that they look in any way similar. They look as different as the many color films that were made this year.
Do you think that there is a possible pitfall for it to become like a parlor trick or a trend in some way, and how do you avoid that?
At the end of the day, the biggest issue with most films is what's the story and what's the performance? If you try to stay true to the story and try to stay true to the performance, then the way you tell it is your individual take on it. Two filmmakers could make the same script in black and white and it would come out so different. I was grateful for this opportunity to shoot something with a majority of it being in black and white. You take that opportunity and make the most of it. And you never know what the next project will be.
A version of this story appears in the February issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
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