Posted on March 22, 2021

By Matthew Skala

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has been on my mind for a long time–the dark painterly aesthetic has been a consistent draw. It’s an aesthetic that I’ve always thought of as “my thing,” but it only works for certain films. I think the appeal comes from an intense degree of creative control over what we reveal and don’t reveal on the screen. 

Darkness is the Cinematographers canvas. It is not to be confused with thematic darkness unless that theme inspires a beginning, a void, or a nothingness upon which creation is imminent. 

When I was learning about lighting and its relationship to cinema, I was constantly drawn to a dark aesthetic. Films I was looking at included The City of Lost ChildrenIvan’s ChildhoodTouch of Evil, and Blade Runner. But there was a pang of strange guilt associated with this attraction because I equated darkness with sadness, depression, fear, and all those traditional themes. And I had yet to grasp the concept of darkness as a canvas, upon which an artist that uses lighting instruments can express themselves. An expression that can dictate themes in degrees of light, shadow, darkness, and color with limitless potential–exploring every nuance between a black screen and a white screen.

There is also a stimulating parallel with yin and yang–part of the philosophy being that a balance of opposite or contrasting states is necessary for a harmonious experience, happy disposition or productive outcome–childbirth, for example, requires a man and woman. In Cinematography, the closer we get to having a perfect balance of lightness and darkness on the screen, the better, more comfortable, more at ease, or just neutral the audience will feel. And this neutral place is a standard upon which capture and display devices are calibrated for the industry to exist in a harmonious state of capture and display.

This neutral standard feels like a starting point because we as an audience don’t think about how the sensor or film is initially blank. And without first having this blankness or blackness when displayed or printed, no image would ever exist. And without having light to imprint the dark, there would be no image. Thus, to have an image at all, we must have a certain degree of balance between light and dark.

We even have a unit and method of measurement for this balance in the craft of Cinematography–lighting ratios and foot-candles. A lighting ratio represents the degree of contrast between light and dark. And foot-candles measure the intensity of light falling on a subject. Ratios help to establish and maintain a consistent look for a film, monitored by measuring the foot-candle value in light and shadow. The balance of light and shadow can be manipulated to enhance the emotional response to a scene. Some films maintain the same ratio from beginning to end, while others use varying ratios to complement a narrative and character journey. Figuring this out for each film, planning for it, and letting it materialize onset is a big part of a Cinematographer’s job.

The whole visual style was set out before we shot one foot of film. We talked about the contrast between good and evil, light and dark. How we’d really use darkness, how we’d start out with a black sheet of paper and paint in the light.

–Francis Ford Coppola on The Godfather, cited by The Guardian in “Gordon Willis Obituary”

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), directed by David Lowery and shot by Bradford Young, won the Cinematography award at Sundance in 2013 for the U.S. Dramatic Category and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. In the same year, it littered top ten lists from critics worldwide?many praising it for its fresh look at the Bonnie and Clyde paradigm.

It gives us a contemporary look at a dark aesthetic–an aesthetic that Bradford Young has built a career on. The photography swims with the narrative in a game of hide, seek and reveal. As insights into the plot and characters are held back by quiet reflection and solitude, the photography is dominated by shadows made authentic by using location and time of day. Now and then, as the characters hit milestones along their journey, the screen may get a little brighter, but it’s all very subtle because the protagonist has to stay physically hidden to get what he wants. His wife has to hide too, but she has to do it in plain sight. Her cloak is in deception her surroundings only bright enough to project a facade and dark enough to evoke her secrets. And until she reunites with the protagonist, she is stuck in this duality.

The feel of the movie is intimate and handmade, as if Lowery were renewing, lovingly and poignantly, the landscape’s ruined landmarks and infusing them with his own memories and dreams.-The New Yorker

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Credits and Specs

Directed and Written by David Lowery 
Produced by Cassian ElwesToby HalbrooksJames M. JohnstonAmy Kaufmanmore
Starring  Rooney MaraCasey AffleckBen Foster
Music By Daniel Hart
Cinematography by Bradford Young
Edited by Craig McKayJane Rizzo
Production Design by Jade Healy
Production Company: Sailor Bear
Release Date: Aug 16, 2013 
Running Time: 96min
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Camera and Lenses: Arricam LT, Cooke S4, Zeiss Master Prime and Angenieux Optimo Lenses, Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2, Panavision Primo Lenses, Panavision Panaflex Platinum, Panavision Primo Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm (Kodak Vision3 250D 5207, Vision3 500T 5219)
Printed Film Format: 35 mm (anamorphic), D-Cinema
Cinematographic Process: Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Super 35 (3-perf) (source format)
Country: USA
Language: English


2 thoughts on “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

  1. Matteo,

    I have only viewed Arrival. I appreciate a dark and high contrast image but I need more tonal scale. You can use the whole scale and still render it dark. For me darkness is understood best represented in the context of light not the absence of light.

  2. Cool, Arrival went dark for sure, especially in those scenes at Amy Adams characters house. But at that point, I think it was one of his brighter films overall.

    I need to try looking at it this way too. I like the idea of intentionally bringing a bit of light into the darker areas of the frame to sort of stimulate the negative/sensor and bring some life into the darks. Thus far I tend to just let it go and get buried, but this doesn’t always work for the overall balance of the image. Especially when working with formats that have limited latitude.

    There is also this trend of low contrast darkness, which I’m not always a fan of. Bradford Young has road a fine line there. And now that the new Batman is streaming–there is a lot of conversation going on about it being too dark for home viewing and how this darkness might be getting more trendy than good for story. I’d be interested to find out if they did a version of the color grade specifically for streaming or not. If not, that could explain what folks are complaining about. Artistically I’m not sure how discerning it would be to try and grade a film to accommodate various household viewing conditions, plus mobile computer and desktop viewing. Seems like a losing battle…

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