Look of period films depends on character, tone

Look past the corsets and the candles, the horses and the hallowed halls, and really, the only common element in the cinematography of this year’s notable period films is the filmmakers’ attempts to avoid the conventions and cliches of the genre.

Each one — “Bright Star,” “The Last Station,” “The White Ribbon,” “The Young Victoria” and “Public Enemies” — takes a completely different approach to lighting, color palette, film stock and framing. And only one (“Victoria”) claims the Oscar-winning lensing of “Barry Lyndon” as an inspiration.

We saw it again and again,” says d.p. Hagen Bogdanski, who worked to bring some of the “naturalistic beauty” of Kubrick’s candle-lit masterpiece to Jean-Marc Vallee’s sweeping romance “The Young Victoria.”

The main problem with period films is that you’re distracted by the superficial,” Bogdanski adds, recounting that during one scene, when Victoria and Albert begin to fall for each other over a game of chess, he lit 95% of the room with candles and firelight. If the well-lit birthday banquet for Victoria’s uncle, King George IV, seems a bit bright, he responds that this is accurate for a king, because “there would be 20 people standing by, taking care of (the light) and replacing it.”

For “Bright Star” d.p. Greig Fraser, who “literally tried to avoid” period films during the prep phase for romance between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, the goal was for the look to simply be realistic and “true.” Director Jane Campion “didn’t want a film that was bright or dark,” he says. “She just wanted a film that had life and depth and character… It’s a very fine line to tread.”

The two looked at paintings for reference; in particular, Fraser studied Monet’s haystacks. “He painted dozens of paintings of those haystacks in different seasons, and that dictates the look of ‘Bright Star’ more than anything else.”

This quiet, still way of observing something as it shifts before your eyes applies to the framing of both the idyllic nature scenes and the more formal interiors. For Campion, this was a practical as well as a stylistic decision, one she made to help the audience (and herself) grasp Keats’ lush language.

Says Fraser: “Jane quite wisely thought that if she doesn’t understand it maybe the audience wouldn’t either, unless you’re a scholar of poetry. So she decided, ‘Let’s try to keep every other element simple and avoid any flourishes or flounces that are there for the sake of it.’ ”

Sebastian Edschmid, who helped infuse Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station” with its dynamic energy, also steered clear of fancy flourishes — but of the set and prop variety. “There’s one mistake people make when they do period films,” he asserts. “They want to show what they have. If you try to shoot the period film like a film that takes place today, you never would show a car in its full size, because it’s not really interesting… So do you use a wide shot to show ‘we have a beautiful droshky (carriage)’? Or do you stay with your actor?”

In “The Last Station,” about the final days of Tolstoy and his tumultuous relationship with his wife Sofya, they had “big names” like Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, as well as a lot of dialogue. “We were thinking about how to really give the actors all the options, give them a lot of freedom,” Edschmid says.

To this end the main lighting was done through windows. “The theme we have in the movie, that relationship, it is quite modern, so … they needed to be able to move,” he adds

In Michael Mann’s Depression-era gangster picture “Public Enemies,” motion and modernism are taken to a whole new level, and that’s not only because it’s set more than two decades later. The film, like some or all of Mann’s previous three films, is also shot on HD.

Originally, his idea was to have a more classic approach,” says Mann’s longtime d.p., Dante Spinotti. “(But) the allure, the attraction, of HD was too strong.” For one thing, what you see is what you get — “it’s like shooting when you’re screening dailies” — and the sharpness also gives the film a hyper-real quality, particularly during the frenetic car chase scenes lit by high-powered headlights.

I thought it was interesting to approach a period piece with a very modern, updated kind of film language,” says Spinotti. “In a sense it’s an extreme reality.”

The White Ribbon’s” cinematographer Christian Berger and director Michael Haneke also made an unusual stylistic decision: using black-and-white to tell the tale of a northern German town plagued by sinister forces in 1914. For Haneke, as Berger tells it, there was no other option, “not because it was a historical subject; more important is that it’s a degree of abstraction you can approach with that choice.”

However, because of a scheduled TV broadcast, they actually had to shoot the film in color and then digitally convert it to B&W. “In the end I’m very happy with that solution,” says Berger, noting that a 35mm film color negative offers “very rich gray tones … it’s the best of both worlds.”

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