Dramatic imagery sets mood of the film

A dark, menacing concrete bunker. A gloomy rehearsal space. A lonely college dorm. An isolated beach house. These very different images from, respectively, “Inception,” “Black Swan,” “The Social Network” and “The Ghost Writer,” both help set a tone and underscore the psychological tensions at work in the films.

And while many of this year’s most talked-about movies seem to trade heavily in an effective use of chiaroscuro and dramatic imagery, none is more overtly concerned with the deepest and darkest recesses of the subconscious than Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.”

“Chris wanted the visuals to match the dark, very complex layers of the script,” reports Nolan’s go-to d.p. Wally Pfister, “but not to make it obviously stylized or surreal just because we’re inside dreams.”

Instead, Nolan and Pfister devised “different color palettes” for each layer, “or different levels of darkness,” explains Pfister. “We begin with Leo on a beach, then cut to the Japanese castle, then to a hotel room and train sequence, and each has a different look. And even though the hotel room’s a day interior, I kept it very dark and moody — even darker than the castle interior. I gave it a very Caravaggio-style feel, with a single light source.”

The R-rated “Black Swan” lives up to its title with similarly dark imagery underscoring the inner psychological disintegration of Natalie Portman’s obsessive ballerina. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique reports that he and director Darren Aronofsky discussed the film’s gothic atmosphere at length and set out specifically to create “a claustrophobic, oppressive quality. I was striving to get a spatially and metaphorically claustrophobic feel, by virtue of exposure and the texture of the film.”

And because the film deals with ‘Swan Lake’ there are metaphors aplenty. “Visual metaphors are something Darren and I have embraced in every film we’ve done — mirrors, reflections and the whole color palette,” notes Libatique about his fourth collaboration with Aronofsky. “So the greens, the magentas are all pointed towards different characters, and then there’s obviously the black-and-white monochromatic look of the swan.”

The d.p.’s visual approach accentuated this limited color palette, which stems from production and costume design “and the color temperature of the lights,” he says.

“In practicals,” Libatique adds, “you work a lot in lower color temperatures where the film renders very warm, but that’s not necessarily what was wanted. The light when it’s neutral should feel established as the white light of the film, and I didn’t want it to be too warm, even in a practical setting. But because we had control over the palette, it separates it from the naturalistic look you see in ‘The Wrestler.’ I like to think of it as naturalism that also speaks to Darren’s natural aesthetic.”

Dark themes and shadows also pervade Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer,” his latest stylish, menacing and pulpy film that was shot in Germany — even though it’s set in Martha’s Vineyard — by d.p. Pawel Edelman. And although very different in terms of pacing and intent, “The Social Network,” David Fincher’s portrait of another kind of obsessive mind, also plunges into the darkness. Shot by Jeff Cronenweth, who lensed Fincher’s “Fight Club” and is currently shooting the director’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” the piece is driven by rapid-fire dialogue and a murky moral center that “often dictated how we shot and how it looked,” Cronenweth reports.

“So our approach was to create something that’s contemporary but feels slightly nostalgic, and to capture the dark claustrophobia and isolation of some of these old college dormitories, which it turn reined in the color palette,” he adds. “We wanted to get a dark look, and when it was possible and unforced, we used as much contrast and sense of mystery as we could in key scenes.”

Cronenweth cites the “coming-of-age” club scene between Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker and Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg where the latter “suddenly realizes what he’s potentially sitting on. We chose to enhance the drama and the sinister message that Justin conveys by using very contrasty lighting. We also created a video of light effects and played it through a SMPTE timecode player into an LED lightbox to heighten all this, and the result was this slightly threatening, Orson Wellesian moment as he brings him out of his innocence.”

Shooting an HD film for the first time was also “another plus,” says the d.p. “I’d shot music videos and commercials with the RED, and I loved doing a feature with it. It allowed Fincher and me to really push the envelope, and we used ARRI master primes shooting wide open most of the time to give it more depth of field. It also gave us more muted colors. You get dark to grays to fall off, which gave the film a very atmospheric look.”

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