Embracing the bold look of PARIAH

The independent film PARIAH, written and directed by Dee Rees, wowed audiences at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival for its brave performances and vibrant visual design. The coming-of-age film follows Alike (Adepero Oduye), a Brooklyn teenager who is hiding a deep secret from her family. Judges honored the film with a Best Cinematography award for director of photography Bradford Young (RESTLESS CITY, MISSISSIPPI DAMNED). Despite a meager budget, the gripping story translated well enough on screen for Focus Features to acquire the film, making PARIAH yet another Sundance success story.

Shot over five years ago on an ARRICAM supplied by ARRI CSC with one day on an ARRIFLEX 235, PARIAH’s alluring look was crafted on 35 mm, a practical choice considering the real locations that were used. “We didn’t want a lot of lights in the space because we wanted to be very, very intimate with these characters,” says Young. “Five years ago, there were not cameras that we felt would give us the textural qualities we wanted and allowed us to shoot in very low, low lights without a lot of noise. The ALEXA hadn’t come out yet and we didn’t have the kind of money to set up lights. I just felt like digital would hold it down, wouldn’t liberate the image as much as we needed.”

PARIAH: Official Trailer

Shot over five years ago by DP Bradford Young on an ARRICAM supplied by ARRI CSC, PARIAH’s alluring look was crafted on 35mm – a practical choice considering the real locations that were used.

In a night scene, Young relied on existing light from inside a bus to reveal the stark, internal conflict of the teenager. “That was shot wide open on an Ultra Prime with available light. It was about a stop under what I needed on the bus, but that added some textural value to it,” he says.

Young and Rees discussed how the look and feel of PARIAH could be used to communicate character. For Alike, the young woman is on a journey to discover her true self. He notes, “We came up with the whole notion of chameleons. They change colors based on where they are, what they step on, or which space they cross through. That developed into the overall mantra for us, mainly in the lighting.”

With this in mind, the filmmakers developed a striking color palette for certain characters. “We were totally committed to embracing color and really wanted something that felt textured on that level,” says Young. “Dee usually described Alike as ‘subterranean.’ She’s in this underworld, hiding. Her skin tone responded to more colors in the blue science spectrum, which tended to be more stylized and other-worldly.”

When asked about a shot or scene that Young is especially happy with, the cinematographer doesn’t bring up the flashier scenes at a dance club or intricate camera moves. Instead, he describes an emotional scene when Alike comes to terms with her frustrations and trashes her bedroom. The actions were unpredictable and he had one take to capture it all.

“None of that was planned. It was one of those things where there were a lot of happy accidents,” says Young, who also served as operator on the film. “I’m really proud of how complicated, how beautiful, how imperfect, how layered that scene is. It’s my favorite moment in the film, because it takes you through so much of an emotional, human trajectory. It was an orchestration of all the things we were doing in the film, with texture, color, contrast, camera movement, being up close and personal with characters -- it all culminates in that scene.”

For Young, who studied film at Howard University, the Sundance recognition was beyond his wildest expectations. He says, “I could not believe it. I still don’t believe it. Our little movie won best cinematography? We had a very lean crew, not a lot of equipment. We were just working small and personal and intimate. I never imagined that it would win an honor for cinematography. I knew that it’d be a stellar moment for Dee on every level. Visually, I was proud of some of the things we were doing, but I never imagined it would garner an award.”

PARIAH will be released in select theaters Dec. 28 by Focus Features.