This month, I’m looking at a film that was on my list for a while. It was brought to my attention by filmmaker and collaborator Bogdan Darev and Filmabee, a platform he founded in 2019. The platform brings together filmmakers, artists, writers, and educators from diverse cultures. And its mission is to help connect these individuals to niche audiences who are most likely to enjoy their work and provide support. It was screening on Filmabee for a limited time and is now available on Apple TV and Vudu.

The Film

Aga (2018), directed by Milko Lazarov and shot by Kaloyan Bozhilov centers around an Indigenous Yakut couple, Nanook and Sedna, who live in a yurt on the snow-covered fields of Siberia. They live as their ancestors did–as reindeer herders, alone in the wilderness, living off the land. We come upon them in the twilight of their lives as hunting becomes more difficult and animals around them die of strange wounds. But they are no strangers to this challenging life. And even while Sedna endures ongoing pain from an injury to her abdomen, what worries them most is the absence of their estranged daughter, Aga.

Records about the Yakut culture date back to the tenth century–they were hunters, fishermen, reindeer herders, and raised cattle and horses. They’ve suffered an all too familiar story. When they first encountered Russians in the 17th century. The Tsarist regime began taxing them, invading their territories, laying claim to their land, and converting them to a Russian Orthodox religion. When they fought back, they were met with an unbeatable force whom also infected them with diseases like smallpox. As a result, they experienced a 70% drop in their population in just forty years between 1642 and 1682.

Discoveries of gold and diamonds brought more and more Russians into their region. By the 19th century, most Yakut had transitioned into a more urban lifestyle.

When Stalin came to power in the 1920’s Yakut territories were officially absorbed into the Soviet Socialist Republic, and systematic persecution began. With help from an armed force of anti-communist Russians, the Yakut were able to take a last stand against the Red Army. They were victorious in their first battle but were ultimately defeated–leaving them vulnerable to ongoing persecution while experiencing another decline in their population. At that point, they were only numbering 236,700.

In the 1970s, their population began to recover. In the 2010 census, almost a million ethnic Yakuts were registered. Those who carry on a traditional Yakut lifestyle struggle with a worsening climate every year.

Aga was shot on 35mm with an Arricam lite package and anamorphic lenses for a 2:35 presentation. I had the pleasure of speaking with Kaloyan last week–the movie’s Cinematographer. I first asked him about the rounded corners included within the aspect ratio of the final presentation. He said he wanted to take advantage of the entire image area on the negative and show that there was no cropping or reframing. To express why this is significant, here is a little background:

There is hardware in an analog film camera that functions as a window–framing the area on the negative where the image is exposed–we call it the “gate.” The corners of the gate are not perfectly square but slightly rounded. Usually, these rounded corners would be cropped out for the final presentation, but Kaloyan opted not to do that. Many of his compositions were dependent on action happening at the edges of the frame, and he didn’t want to compromise that. He was also thinking like a purist and wanted to show that he did not crop his images
This purist approach started with still photography–a medium that largely embraced cropping and reframing as an acceptable standard since its advent. But even then–as early as the 1880s–some photographers didn’t believe in cropping or manipulating their images. These photographers became known as the “purists.” Notable “purist” photographer Paul Strand became one of the movement’s significant influencers in the early 1900s.
Cropping in the motion picture analog era was also reserved for achieving the desired aspect ratio. Another way to achieve 2:35 was to crop off the top and bottom of a 4:3 image (square image). The filmmakers would use 2:35 frame guides in the viewfinder and monitors to set up their compositions. They’d often allow lights and other film equipment to be seen outside the frame guides–a practice used to achieve a certain quality of light or discourage the reframing of their work. And sometimes, the filmmakers would compose for both a 4:3 and 2:35 presentation when making films for both the big screen and TV–resulting in two versions of the film. Cropping and reframing for the sake of adjusting composition were very rare during this period.
Digital filmmaking technology began to emerge with the digital intermediate (digitized film for color grading). Minor creative adjustments to composition became commonplace. And as 4K settled in–major adjustments to composition became prevalent in certain circles–surpassing creative needs into time and budget savings onset. Going to the extremes of cropping a wide shot to get a medium shot, a two-shot to get a single, and a single to get an extreme close-up. Most Cinematographers strongly disagree with this practice–myself included.
Lenses and compositions are chosen to best evoke emotions and authenticity. Visual story arcs in a film are designed around and with these choices. The nuances of lens and composition characteristics play a significant role. For example–the emotional response to a wide lens close up vs. a long lens close up is very different. So, if a filmmaker decides to start cropping in for close-ups, he or she is losing out on this ability to orchestrate emotions. And it risks disrupting verisimilitude in the entire film. The optical characteristics of a zoomed-in and reframed image are very different from an original composition’s optical characteristics. When the two are cut together within a film sequence, it can create a jarring effect that takes the audience away from the story. However, the yin to this yang is–if you want to disorient or confuse an audience intentionally, this could be a technique to use. 

When starting conversations about the cinema language and shot design for the film, director Milko Lazarov gave Kaloyan a lot of autonomy in bringing his own sensibilities to the story. Thus Kaloyan made a bold choice for keeping the camera static throughout most of the film. Compositions were chosen based on certain essential moments in the scene, allowing the characters to stand up out of frame or briefly hang out behind a prop or piece of set dressing. He thought this approach would add a layer of authenticity and gravity to the film while not distracting the audience with camera movement. He also felt that the action in the movie didn’t motivate or need any camera movement. I agree with him, and I think it paid off–the film was a visual feast in terms of location and sets. The fixed camera often forces the viewer to scan the frame and take in the surroundings as if we were there, with them, sitting or standing quietly, just observing. It was meditative while both surreal and authentic. At times you could feel the cold. 

The camera did move in at least two shots in the film. First, in a pivotal moment as Nanook hurries home to his wife. Technically the camera was still static–it was mounted to Nanook’s sled in a fixed position, holding Nanook in a medium shot as he runs behind the sled. This gave us a frenetic feel, complimenting Nanook’s sudden anxiety–also emphasized by the stillness of all the surrounding shots and serving as a visual segue, transporting the audience into the final act.  

Secondly, the closing shot of the film is an aerial. The camera moves slowly out of a diamond mine–where Nanook goes to find his daughter Aga–and into the clouds as the credits fade up. This shot book ends a visual theme through the film, designed by the director to express the decay of culture and environment. It’s one of those visual motifs that can mean different things to different viewers, so I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, for further discovery. That’s part of the fun!

Kaloyan’s lighting was kept simple and motivated to further service the narrative’s authenticity. Outdoor’s on the icescape it was mainly bouncing and reflecting the sun. Inside the yurt, he motivated light from above–augmenting the natural daylight coming through the typical skylight at the yurt’s crown. Kaloyan positioned 4K HMI’s outside–making additional openings in the roof to facilitate different angles. The only instruments he brought inside were reflectors and bounce cards. Otherwise, there were no windows in the yurt. So the only other source of light came from the wood-burning stove and kerosene/oil lamps.

What touches me most about this film is how it invites us to see inside such a treasured lifestyle at a time when its characters and environment are at their most vulnerable. Thank you, Milko and Kaloyan, and cast and crew.

Credits and Specs

Directed by Milko Lazarov
Produced by Veselka Kiryakova
Written by Simeon VentsislavovMilko Lazarov 
Starring Mikhail AprosimovFeodosia IvanovaSergei Egorov 
Music By Penka Kouneva
Cinematography by Kaloyan Bozhilov
Edited by Veselka Kiryakova
Production Design by Agi Ariunsaichan Dawaachu
Production Company: Red Carpet
Release Date: September 4, 2019
Running Time: 96 min
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Camera and Lenses: Arriflex Arricam lite, anamorphic lenses
Negative Format: 35mm
Country: Bulgaria, Germany, France 
Language: Yakut
Reported Budget: EUR 1,000,000 (estimated)

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


I Am Not Your Negro

I Am Not Your Negro fully realizes its director’s conviction. Raoul Peck set out to bring forward a voice from another era—a voice he felt we now lacked and desperately needed. After working with many writers, he feared the project wasn’t going anywhere. But then he was handed an unfinished manuscript by the James Baldwin Estate. It was the novel Baldwin was working on before dying of cancer in 1987. Its working title was Remember This House, and it contained 30 pages of recollections about his friends—civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Suddenly, Peck’s film was upon him.

Sometimes people say I am an activist, I say no, I am a citizen, I take seriously the rights that I have, I take seriously my responsibility. I would love to be able to make horror movies without having to think, like Scary Movie 1,2,3,4,5, or 6, or Toy Story. But I take responsibility. I know the price we pay. I know the price my ancestors paid. I know the price young men like Medgar Evers, young men like Martin Luther King Jr., young men like Malcolm X, the price they paid, the price their kids paid, their whole family paid. How can we just say… well… we can just be happy and profit from whatever is going on? It’s my responsibility. The right to vote—people died for that. I know the price of my ancestors. – Transcribed from a special features Interview of Raoul Peck

And thus, a symphony ensues. Baldwin with his voice and pen, And Peck orchestrating a tale of yesterday amongst a tale of today.

Archived media from the civil rights era—interviews, stills, tv shows, and movie clips—build up the lion’s share of the movie. But to connect the history with what is happening today, Peck included stills and footage from modern-day protests and tragedies and some reality tv show clips. But it was—in good taste—kept to a minimum, not to distract from the actual history. And in the end, there are some very captivating modern-day video portraits.

Additionally, there isn’t a single contemporary interview in the film—scarce these days when it comes to documentaries. But the film is not without its genre tropes. Sequences with atmospheric b-roll garnish the film—mostly scenery as seen out the windows of a driving car. The footage was edited with an astute poetic sensibility and Samuel L. Jackson’s soft voice narration to invoke a sense of—this is James Baldwin driving around pondering the heavy themes of heartbreak that permeated the souls of blacks and empathizers throughout the era.

What touches me the most is the film’s embodied awareness. An awareness I was first exposed to in my late teens, thanks to some socially responsible friends. But this awareness did not come along with a good set of communication skills. And it was only the beginning of an ongoing journey—digging myself out of a deep cavernous pit flooded with naiveté. As featured in this film from a 1968 excerpt of The Dick Cavett Show, here are some words from James Baldwin that have helped me tweak my communication skills and understanding in regards to race.

I don’t know what white people in this country feel. I can only include what they feel by the state of their institution. I don’t know if white Christians hate negroes or not, but I know that we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal to me about a Christian nation. It means that I can’t afford to trust most white Christians and certainly cannot trust the Christian church. I don’t know whether Labor Unions and their bosses really hate me. That doesn’t matter, but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know if the real-estate lobbyists have anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobbyists keep me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know about the textbooks I have to give my children to read and the schools we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life, my woman, my assistant, my children on some idealism that you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen. – James Baldwin


Credits and Specs

Directed by Raoul Peck
Produced by Rémi GrelletyHébert PeckRaoul Peck
Written by James Baldwin,  Raoul Peck
Based on James Baldwin’s unfinished novel, Remember this house.
Starring Samuel L. JacksonJames BaldwinMartin Luther King Jr. 
Music By Alexei Aigui
Cinematography by Henry AdebonojoBill Ross IVTurner Ross
Edited by Alexandra Strauss
Production Company: Velvet Film
Film Festival Release: October 2016
Running Time: 1hr 33min
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Printed Film Format: Digital (Digital Cinema Package DCP)
Language: English
Reported Budget: 1m


Dances With Wolves

Dances with Wolves (1990) led the charge for revitalizing the western genre after it died out in 1980 when bad reviews led to an unprecedented financial disaster for Heaven’s Gate. Cinematographers around the globe eagerly welcomed back the genre—ever nostalgic for the dirt, dust, mud, candles, lamps, campfires, vistas, legends, and every-man heroism that made for a tantalizing big-screen event. For Dean Semler, it wasn’t his first Western, nor was it his last. He had previously shot Young Guns 1/2 and Mad Max 2/3, while post-haste lensing City Slickers (1991), and eventually The Alamo (2004), Appaloosa (2008), and The Ridiculous 6 (2015) while continuing to shoot epics in other genres for industry titans such as John Milius, Randall Wallace, and Mel Gibson. With Wolves, he garnered one of the film’s seven Oscars—out of twelve academy award nominations.

The film was Kevin Costner’s directorial debut. It started as a spec script written by Michael Blake in the ’80s. But after shopping it around, he couldn’t sell it. Costner—a friend from Stacy’s Knights (1983)—suggested he write the story as a novel. Blake conceded, however numerous publishers gave it a pass. Finally, in 1988, it got a paperback release, and Costner purchased the rights. However, development woes continued—due to the western genre’s dead flame—as studio after studio passed on the project. Finally, a deal was struck with Orion Pictures after some strategic management with foreign rights, and production started on July 18, 1989.

Indigenous peoples—mostly Sioux—played all the Native American roles in the film, and Indian communities largely embraced it. So much so that Kevin Costner was made an honorary member of the Sioux Nation. With a twenty-two million dollar budget, it grossed over four hundred million worldwide, and new interest in Native American culture began to manifest abundantly. It wasn’t long before the US National Film Registry selected the film for preservation due to its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.

What strikes me most is the film’s authenticity. Costner wanted the film to look like it was a child’s view of the west—fresh, romantic, and painterly. And he thought the way to achieve that was to be as authentic as possible. Production Designer Jeffrey Beecroft dedicated himself to extensive research to achieve it. And is forever grateful to Dean Semler, often commenting that “It feels like a painter lit it.”

Semler says the look of the film evolved, “Costner had very specific images in mind, and we built on that.” Costner really enjoyed working with Dean as his first experience collaborating with a DP, and he often talks about how gracious Dean was.

The film’s compositions evoked an undying admiration for the subjects and their place in the world. The camera placement, blocking, and lens selection precisely serve this—often looking at the Indigenous and Costner as heroes of great stature.

The editing served the performances. Neil Travis’s strategy was to let things happen without trying to hurry it along with cuts. But to approach the running time the distributor wanted, Travis admits, “it got to a point when cutting scenes felt like losing an arm or a leg.” Eventually, the distributor loosened its grip, and—upon picture lock—Travis found very little that was wrong with it.

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Credits and Specs

Directed by Kevin Costner
Produced by Kevin CostnerJake EbertsJim Wilson
Written by Michael Blake
Based on a novel by Michael Blake of the same name
Starring Kevin CostnerMary McDonnellGraham Greene
Music by John Barry
Cinematography by Dean Semler
Edited by William HoyChip MasamitsuSteve PotterNeil Travis
Production Design by Jeffrey Beecroft
Production Company:  Tig Productions, Majestic Films International, and more
Release Date: November 21, 1990
Running Time: 181min, 236min (extended edition)
Aspect Ratio: 2:39:1
Camera and Lenses: Panavision Panaflex Gold II and Platinum, Primo, C, & E Series Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak EXR 50D 5245, EXR 500T 5296
Printed Film Format: 35mm, 70mm
Cinematographic Process: Panavision (anamorphic)
Country: USA
Language: English, Sioux, Pawnee
Reported Budget: 22,000,000