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Camerimage: Why Edward Lachman Stuck to Film for ‘Carol’

Period pic references the world of mid-century female photographers

BYDGOSZCZ, Poland — They say it’s all about the storytelling, and that technology is just one tool for telling stories — but it’s a critical one, says cinematographer Edward Lachman (pictured), especially in the case of “Carol,” which is screening here at Camerimage and has generated awards buzz since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

For example, Lachman considered it important to shoot Carol on Super 16mm film, not on 35mm, and not digitally, because of Super 16’s kinship with the period in which the picture is set: the late 1940s.

“I was trying to reference early color film,” Lachman explains. “I felt that if I shot on 35mm I would have lost the way films looked back then.”

The choice wasn’t unprecedented. “Carol” is Lachman’s fourth collaboration with helmer Todd Haynes. On HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” set in an earlier period than “Carol,” they also went the Super 16 route.

Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, “Carol” is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 semi-autobiographical novel and delves into the then-taboo subject of a lesbian relationship, and — even more iconoclastically — offers the possibility of a hopeful future for such a liaison.

In the novel, Mara’s character is a department store decorator. In the film script, she’s a photographer. That change, says Lachman, melds beautifully with the story because “we wanted to reference the period not through the cinema of that time but through mid-century still photographers, many of whom were women,” including Helen Levitt, Esther Bubley, Ruth Orkin and Vivian Maier — photojournalists who also engaged in art photography.

Lachman considers the camera itself a character in any film, and the cinematographer who also operates the camera can react to performances and establish a close connection with the actors. “The camera is like an actor,” he says. “The operator is experiencing something with an actor on a very immediate level.”

While the cameras on “Carol” stayed true to the photography of the period in which the film is set, the same cannot be said for the lights. “Lighting was naturalistic,” Lachman explains. “We didn’t reference the studio lighting of 40s and 50s films, which would have been hard lighting. ‘Carol’ was as if we had shot a naturalistic film in that period.”

Lachman also paid special attention to color. “‘Carol’ has a color palette you wouldn’t see in films today,” he says. “I gave it a more muted feeling with the way I used gels, working more with magentas and greens and the range of colors of the Kodak film stock of that period.”

Lachman stuck around during post-production to preserve the integrity of the images. “I didn’t want the digital intermediate to embellish what we were doing,” he says. “If anything, I was taking out even more of the color.”

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