A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
As the 2015 Sundance Film Festival gets underway this week, we look back at last year’s auspicious feature film debut by writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour with A GIRL WHO WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. Billed as an Iranian Vampire Western, the film wowed audiences with its surreal imagery and absorbing performances. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent used the anamorphic format in black and white to transport viewers into an otherworldly realm. Production captured on the ALEXA Studio in ProRes 4444 4:3 2K mode with a variety of older lenses supplied by Panavision.
In this interview, Vincent talks about shaping the look to one of the year’s most visually arresting films. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is now playing in select U.S. theaters.
Captured on an ALEXA STUDIO, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is billed as an Iranian Vampire Western. Lyle Vincent’s black and white anamorphic cinematography transports viewers into this otherworldly realm from writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour.
As a DP, what drew you to this project?
I was very drawn to the script and the visual potential. I met with Lily and heard her ideas and references for the film. She had an amazing look book and already had the whole extended story and comic book world in place. Needless to say, I was very excited to be a part of this film.
What were your early conversations with Lily like about the film? What did she want to do in terms of style and look?
She was very clear in the main influences of the film and visual style it should follow. The main film references were ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, RUMBLE FISH and WILD AT HEART. It was always black and white and anamorphic widescreen from the very start. We also wanted the film to have a very classic and beautiful feel, but also at the same time very contemporary and gritty. We were careful to never have the visual style ever dominate over the characters or story -- rather, always supporting them and enhancing them.
Why was anamorphic the right choice to tell this story?
As I said, Lily always saw the film in anamorphic and I completely agreed and did everything I could to support this from the beginning. A lot of it came from the widescreen framing of the classic Westerners (even though most were 2-perf) and the anamorphic photography of David Lynch/Fred Elmes collaborations. We both loved the abstract aberrations and distortions that come with shooting anamorphic and I think they fit perfectly within the world of this film.
Did you do any testing beforehand? I imagine shooting black and white you needed to be even more careful about lighting, makeup, costume and production design choices.
We did do some testing on the actual locations before hand and set up a B&W LUT and a workflow. I used the ARRI Look Creator to make a very contrasty B&W look and then loaded it in the camera so that all the video outputs had the applied look. Sometimes I would freak Lily out and turn off the B&W look to show her what we actually recording. It was a very washed-out half-color image that was worlds away from our film. It was always nice to know we had plenty of info to dig into though. Also, yes it is true, that all the choices on makeup, costume and production design were carefully chosen for B&W. Luckily, Lily was very savvy in this regard and knew how colors would translate. We also used a Canon 5D with a B&W profile to test things and get used to how things change.
Since the project was shot in Farsi, what were you looking for in terms of performance since you were shooting in a different language?
This is something I'm used to because I shot a long feature in China. I actually think sometimes it helps not to understand everything. You get to hone in on the visuals and really see the actors' body language and how they are moving in relation to the surroundings. I also think once you get immersed enough, you understand everything that’s happening emotionally and that is the most important thing.
What did you do during the color timing process?
We timed at Runway Post in LA with the wonderful colorist Zach Medow. I basically made a Resolve LUT from our look profile that we used on set as a starting point. But when we really got into it, we found we were able to pull out more of the nuanced tones to create a painterly feel yet keeping the desired strong blacks. One thing I don't like in some black and white photography is when everything is gray without a true black and white tone in the frame. At the same time, we didn't want it to feel too heavy or overly contrasty -- which was something that Lily was very specific about. I think we found a very nice balance of both and it supports the storytelling.
There's a scene where our hero follows a man and then mimics his movements. It's funny, yet unsettling. Can you talk about shooting this scene?
This was all on Steadicam by the amazing Scott Dropkin. We basically shot from both characters’ sides to create an escalating effect and the sense of dread in being stalked, yet with a little humor mixed in. I think it came out well and is effective. This was lit -- like all the night exteriors -- with one 5K and the practical street lights at the location.
Why was ALEXA the right camera for this project?
The ALEXA was the only choice for this film because of our needs and limitations. Firstly, anamorphic was a must and we really wanted the full frame anamorphic to exploit all the original qualities and imperfections of the format. Secondly, we had a very limited budget to make this happen. This goes for camera format and lighting. The ALEXA gave us the option for both. We could shoot 4:3 to compressed ProRes (which luckily had just been released at the time) and shoot at a very high ISO without degradation. Most of the night exteriors were shot at 3200 ISO. This is not something I would do with a color film, but it worked perfectly for black and white. All the nasty colored noise was crushed or eliminated, what was left was a very organic and filmic quality.
You shot anamorphic despite a small budget. For the indie filmmakers out there, do you have advice on how to accomplish big, cinematic visuals with limited means?
I think a lot of people get intimidated by anamorphic because they think it's so expensive. The beauty of our new high sensitivity cameras is that we can now afford to shoot at a deeper stop in available light and be able to see what we are getting. Also, with all the older anamorphic lenses available again we have many economical options. At the same time, if you have a great script and great actors to make it come alive then any format -- if used creatively -- can enthrall and capture the audience. There will never be a question of what format under what budget. Fortunately, we are in a time with so many options to create and capture cinema at any budget.
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