Interview on American Cinematographer
ARRI, Canon 7D & Canon 1D mark IV.
Rehearsal footage on Canon 5D Mark II.
Black Swan focuses its lens on Nina (Natalie Portman), a New York City ballerina vying for the lead role in a postmodern interpretation of Swan Lake helmed by demanding artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). Having dismissed his previous prima ballerina, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), Leroy seeks a lead dancer who can embody the innocence and grace of the White Swan and the eroticism and cunning of the Black Swan. Though impressed with Nina’s moves as the White Swan, Leroy feels she is too guileless and repressed to capture the nuances of the darker part, and his eye falls on a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), whose overt sensuality makes her Nina’s main competition. Strangely drawn to her rival, Nina forms a risky friendship that agitates her neurotic mother (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina. Nina’s stress causes her to experience terrifying hallucinations that send her into a psychological tailspin.
American Cinematographer, December 2010. Credits: Stephen Pizzello
To realize this dark story, director/writer Darren Aronofsky reteamed with Matthew Libatique, ASC, his collaborator on Pi (AC April ’98), Requiem for a Dream (AC Oct. ’00) and The Fountain (AC Nov. ’06). Libatique recently met with AC in Los Angeles to discuss Black Swan.
• American Cinematographer: When did you and Darren begin discussing this project, and how did it evolve?
Matthew Libatique, ASC: This property was around for a while. It was originally called The Understudy, and it was set in the theater world. Someone approached Darren about it after Requiem for a Dream, but at the time, it didn’t seem as exciting to me as some of the other projects he was being offered. It wound up on the back burner, but it stayed in his mind, and when he started to get interested in ballet, he thought he could resuscitate the project and set it in that world.
• How has your relationship with Darren progressed?
Libatique: I think we respect each other a lot more now. We used to abuse each other a little bit because we knew each other from film school. When we’re shooting, our relationship is a professional one, not a friendship, and it should be. Luckily we’ve always been able to draw on similar references, which helps to focus us in the same place.
• Did it feel strange to move from big Hollywood projects like the Iron Man films back to an indie?
Libatique: That was probably the best part of the process. I liked that I could come off something as big and chaotic as Iron Man 2 to do something like Black Swan, which was a 40-day shoot. You can take some of the techniques you’d apply on a bigger film and simplify them. On Black Swan, I knew we’d be dealing with small spaces, and that I’d probably have to provide 360 degrees of coverage. A beautiful thing about working with Darren is that he has a visual style in mind, and he’s very clear about what he’s trying to do — there’s no coverage ambiguity. In fact, I wouldn’t even call what he does coverage. His style is more like the European style: you only have a few bites of the apple, so you make them all count.
• What were some of the influences on the film’s look?
Libatique: One of our early reference images came from our collaboration with Rodarte, the fashion designers who created the movie’s costumes. The image was a cube that was pristine on the outside, but had all of these spikes within it. That provided the central metaphor for the movie: a beautiful ballerina who’s holding this pain inside her. There was a yin-yang to the concept that’s reflected in the movie’s black-white chiaroscuro.
Polanski’s Repulsion was also a reference, but Darren and I have talked about that film many times, so it’s always been an influence. We talked about The Red Shoes, of course. I looked at a lot of Kieslowski in terms of the atmosphere and tone, mostly the Three Colors trilogy [Blue, White and Red]. We also looked at a lot of dance films. Darren sent me a foreign documentary by director Donya Feuer called Dansaren (The Dancer), which has a lot of the long-lens, ‘camera in the corner’-style camerawork we wanted to employ. At the beginning of Black Swan, there’s a scene that shows Nina scuffing up her shoes, and that image came straight out of The Dancer.
• What was your primary focus during prep?
Libatique: The most substantial work I did in prep was to spend time planning out the dance sequences with [choreographer] Benjamin Millepied, Natalie and some other dancers. I shot all of that rehearsal footage with the Canon 5D Mark II, which gave me references for the shots we wanted to make. I also figured out a lot of the mirror shots during prep, because we were rehearsing in a room with a three-sided mirror. We worked out how to transition from Vincent to Natalie, or how to do a Texas switch with Natalie — we’d shoot her double from far away and then come around Vincent’s face to reveal Natalie, or we’d have Vincent in focus in the foreground watching Natalie’s double, who was in soft focus dancing in the distance, and then we’d transition over to a closer reflection of Natalie dancing. It’s called a Texas switch because in old Westerns, they’d have a stuntman do a stunt and then pop John Wayne into the frame.
• Where did you shoot the dance sequences?
Libatique: All of the ballet performances were done at State University of New York Purchase College, which had everything we needed, including dressing rooms, cinderblock corridors and the large rehearsal space. We didn’t have the ability to use moving lights there, so we basically used what they had: spotlights, cyc strips, Source Fours [Lekos] and Par cans. Mo Flam was the first gaffer on the show, but he had to leave to do another movie, so John Velez took over.
• How did Super 16mm fit your creative agenda?
Libatique: Darren likes 16mm because it’s small, he can do handheld, and he doesn’t have to wait around for camera setups. We were using real locations, so it helped in that regard, too. The apartment Nina shares with her mother was right next to Prospect Park, and we moved the camera in as though we were documenting real people’s lives. We made it a point to travel from kitchen to hallway to foyer to bedroom to bathroom, but the space really dictated the kinds of moves we could make. I think 16mm creates interesting texture, especially if you expose it correctly. Harris Savides [ASC] is probably the master of it; he’s always pushing the negative so you can see it in a perfect way. One of my goals was to show the grain in a way that was craftsmanlike. I didn’t want it to look underexposed; I wanted it to look like it was a choice, and I think that comes across.
I considered shooting on Kodak [Vision2 200T] 7217 with a rating of 400, but after tests I opted to go with Fuji Eterna Vivid 500  and 160 . I liked how both stocks looked at their box rating in terms of grain and color separation. I had used Fuji on My Own Love Song, and I liked its color properties, so it was really my first choice, but I just had to find out what it would look like in 16mm. Every movie is different, and Fuji just worked better for this one because of the costume colors and our overall palette, which included green, pink, white and black.
a subway reflection captured with the Canon 7D
It was a single-camera shoot except for maybe one day, and our main camera was an Arri 416, which we used with Arri Ultra Prime 16 lenses. We used a Canon 7D or 1D Mark IV for all the subway scenes; I could just carry a 7D and shoot on the subway all day with a very small crew. I did some tests with my wife beforehand to figure out my ASA, my stop, and how I was going to deal with the focus. I didn’t use any rigs with it because I wasn’t trying to shoot in the traditional way. I tested a bunch of different exposures and then brought the footage to Charlie Hertzfeld at Technicolor, who put it in the system so I could look at the highlights, the moiré and the resolution. Then I went back to the drawing board to do more tests. The 7D has more depth of field than the 5D, but I needed that because I didn’t have a follow-focus unit and needed to work really fast. I shot everything documentary-style. I did all the focus pulls by hand, and we’d just look at it on the camera’s monitor. I ended up shooting on a Canon 24mm lens at 1,600 ASA to get as much depth of field as possible at a stop of T81⁄2.
• What was your lens range on the show?
Libatique: Darren wanted to shoot everything on a 12mm lens, like he did on The Wrestler [AC Jan. ’09], but I didn’t think we could do everything on that lens. When we started testing, we looked at a 12mm, a 16mm and a 25mm. We wound up using all three, but mostly the 16mm. We used the 12mm for some of our traveling shots to take the bumpiness out and show more of the surroundings.
• How did your lighting philosophy take shape?
Libatique: The beautiful thing about Black Swan was that I could apply what I’d learned on independent films and what I’d learned on studio films. From a craft perspective, this is probably the most satisfying movie I’ve ever done, because it had some big-movie situations, like the ballet, but in real settings. Before we started the movie, Darren and I went to some stage plays in New York to see how theatrical-lighting designers dealt with live performance. In one off-Broadway play starring Scott Glenn, there was a scene where he walked up to a doorway and this fluorescent glow came on; I was struck by how simple and effective the lighting was, and I tried to apply that kind of approach to this movie. The main lesson I took away was that it doesn’t really matter whether you see the source — the audience will get an idea of where the light’s coming from. Because this movie had a theatrical edge, I decided I could take more liberty with the lighting. I took a naturalistic approach, but didn’t try to justify every source. Most of our fixtures were practical globes, China balls and covered wagons [batten strips with diffusion wrapped around them]. The units we used contained 75-watt EDTs and sometimes clear globes. Practical globes have become really prevalent in cinematography. You can work in a small space and let the light play practically without using Fresnels. I hardly ever use Fresnels any more.
• How much interaction did you have with the production designer, Thérèse DePrez?
Libatique: In prep, our offices were right next to each other, so we had a lot of conversations, and she’d always show me samples of what she had in mind. Darren likes a designer to pitch an idea for a limited palette, and then we all agree on different colors. We assigned some symbolism to the various colors: black represents the darker side of Nina’s character, white is her innocent side, pink represents her childhood, and green conveys envy and ambition. For example, the pink bedroom with all the stuffed animals shows that her mother never let her grow up, and the apartment’s green walls underscore the competitive nature of their relationship. Darren makes bold choices, and I ask myself if it’s too much sometimes, but I trust his instincts.
• The film’s first scene is very striking, with Nina dancing in a limbo-like space that’s illuminated by a single spotlight.
Libatique: The goal was to make it look like one spotlight, but we actually had four operators choreographing four spotlights. We would switch from a backlight to a frontlight, and so on. It was a square room, all black — it’s the space they used for Joe Gideon’s death scenes in All That Jazz. Luckily, it had balconies, so we just put four spots on four corners. We rehearsed the dance with the spot operators, and I would cue them on the walkie. The direct reference for that scene was a 1957 Soviet film version of Swan Lake. For a long time, I thought it was too simple an approach to the scene, but we actually shot that toward the end of production, and I’d already exhausted all kinds of options in the other dance scenes. I had nowhere else to go!
• Mirrors are a big visual motif. Did you avoid camera reflections practically or digitally?
Libatique: We did as much as we could practically, but we knew there would be moments when we wanted to create seemingly unachievable shots, and for those we just removed the reflections digitally with the help of Dan Schrecker, our visual-effects supervisor at Look Effects. A good example of Look’s work is the scene where Nina is rehearsing in front of a mirror, the lights go out, and her reflection starts moving independently; the camera was right where you see the reflection, but Darren wanted to get tight eyelines, so we had to paint ourselves out in post. For other scenes, it was easier to just hide the camera or shoot from angles where you couldn’t see it. We also used one-way mirrors to get a shot where we created an ‘infinity reflection’ of Nina sitting in front of a dressing-room mirror. We positioned Natalie between two one-way mirrors and just shot from behind them. We wanted the film’s horror beats to be a bit more stylistic.
• Did you depart from the documentary approach and relight for close-ups?
Libatique: Not that much. If we were doing a wide shot in Nina’s bedroom, we might have a practical light hitting the bed, and when it was time to do Natalie’s close-up, the light would be motivated by the practical in the wide shot, but I’d just add a bit of diffusion. It was usually that simple. I wanted the film to have a balletic quality but still be as naturalistic as possible. That’s why I kept looking at Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy. In those movies, everything’s lit, but things still look naturalistic. It’s sort of a stylized reality.
• The restaurant & nightclub scenes involving Nina and Lily were a bit more glamorous-looking.
Libatique: In working within a color palette, I naturally play a lot of color contrast. I might combine white light with a background color from our overall palette. In the restaurant, I lit the actresses with a table lamp and carefully positioned China balls, but there’s a lot of green/cyan in the background provided by compact fluorescent tubes that Mo Flam hid here and there. In any space, if I know I’m going to neutralize the actors’ faces, I’m going to put a color in the background. I didn’t do a lot of filtration, so it was all based on color temperature. That’s harder to do these days, because a lot of the film stocks are designed to balance everything out for the digital intermediate.
The nightclub scene was shot in Santos Party House in Chinatown. It was a big space, and inside we basically set up three walls made of Mylar mirror and then crammed in all of our dancing extras. I surrounded the set with green Kinos and four Paparazzis with magenta gels on them, and we just mixed up the rhythm. I would keep the green really down and we’d add flashes of magenta, or turn the green off altogether. It was fun. Technicolor’s Sam Daley pre-pared DVD dailies for us, but digital dailies don’t really tell me where I am with my exposures. To check the exposures, Joey Violante, the head timer at Technicolor New York, would put the footage up on an analyzer for me.
• Did you bring in any outside experts to help with the ballet sequences?
Libatique: We didn’t have any consultants for our theatrical lighting because I didn’t really have enough lights to justify it! I also didn’t have enough time to collaborate with somebody else; I didn’t want to get into a situation that would involve a lot of back-and-forth. When we got to those scenes, I’d literally be shooting something in the dressing rooms with the actors, and then, between takes, I’d run up to the stage area, look at what the crew had put together, and start changing a few of the colors and cues.
For the dancing, in addition to our choreographer, Benjamin Millepied, we had the Pennsylvania Ballet come in to work with us — they were between seasons at the time, and we were fortunate that their hiatus worked for our time frame. They did all the choreography for us onstage while I was playing around with the lighting. While we were shooting all the scenes surrounding the Swan Lake performances in the third act, Benjamin and the Penn Ballet were rehearsing the performances in detail with the idea that Natalie would be inserted into the performance. As our crew pre-rigged around rehearsals, we kept a constant eye on the ballet they were creating so that we’d have a place to begin when I was ready to start setting lighting cues. I wish I could say we did that efficiently, but we did not; in typical fashion, the lighting was created and finalized on the day of [shooting], but a great deal of preparation was done to lay the groundwork for me to be able to work with the guys creatively. Because I was shooting and there was no money for prelighting, I decided I wasn’t going to chase what the ballet company was doing; instead, I listened to the music for cues.
The main lighting source was the cyc strips above the dancers’ heads; we had about eight rows of 1K cinema globes running 60 feet across the stage. We just used different gels and put the lights on different channels; we’d go from a green gel to white to magenta, and we also started to mix them, which was nice. It was less complicated than using moving lights. For one sequence, we combined a moon backdrop with a rain effect that we created by filling a pool of water with broken glass and placing it at the base of the background. We just powered Source Fours into the pool and modulated the water movement with fans.
In the climactic dance routine with the black swan, we had a big sun piece as our backdrop, and we used 2K nook lights in the footlights on the stage. Those came in handy for an earlier scene that shows the dancers rehearsing the number; we didn’t have the set completely built at that point, so I used the nook lights to create nice, hard shadows of the dancers on the back wall. I knew we’d lose those shadows in the full-costume performance of that routine, so I decided to backlight Natalie to make her a silhouette in the middle of the sun, and let all the other dancers have the frontlight. I kept her in the shadow of two light sources to create that symbolic element of light and darkness.
The work of the artist Olafur Eliasson also influenced the look of our ballet scenes. He did an installation at the Tate Modern in London called The Weather Project that was a great inspiration in terms of our stage design; we were impressed by his use of reflection and scale.
• The handheld camerawork really takes the viewer inside the dancing onstage.
Libatique: Every performance was covered in long master shots, which we just augmented with other moves as necessary. To Natalie’s credit, we rarely did more takes for her; if we required additional takes, it was usually for us. She trained for three or four months beforehand, and she did a phenomenal job. We knew we’d be shooting her from the chest up most of the time, but we knew we’d be in great shape, performance-wise, as long as we could see her face and arms. For wider shots, we could just use her dance double. Darren wanted Natalie doing as much of the performance as possible, so he would often stay on her face or torso instead of going to those wider shots. It was important to him to capture Nina’s internal struggle, and Natalie definitely nails those emotions. We did almost everything handheld. The only Steadicam shot is at the climax of the final dance number.
• Who were your camera operators?
Libatique: At the beginning of the film, I had Joey Cicio, whom I’d met on the Iron Man movies. We were looking for somebody who was close to my height and Natalie’s height, because we knew we wanted to be subjective with the camera without looking down at her. Steve Constantino, whom I’d worked with on Spike Lee projects, finished the more dramatic sections of the film — the apartment scenes and so forth. I did some of the operating myself, but very little. Sometimes I’d shoot the rehearsals just to show everyone how we wanted the shots to play.
• What were your goals in the DI?
Libatique: I worked with Tim Stipan at Technicolor New York, and we spent most of our time finessing specific colors. It was hard to get some of the colors just right. For example, we really worked on the red for the sequence in Act 2 when Nina is onstage by herself with the moon behind her. We also did a lot of cosmetic fixes here and there. One of my main goals was to get on the same page with Tim to determine the contrast levels for the entire film. I didn’t want the image to be too contrasty, and if the cinematographer doesn’t sit in on those sessions, most colorists will give the images more contrast because it looks sharper. I was actually in L.A. during that process, but I did two sessions with Tim at Technicolor’s facility in L.A. while he and Darren were in a Technicolor New York suite. They were able to patch the image into the L.A. suite so we could all look at the same image in real time, and I was able to give Tim my corrections over the phone. It was probably the best DI experience I’ve ever had.
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