‘Mother!’ Cinematographer Used Color, Focus to Create Scary Mood

mother! BTS
Courtesy of Lynsey Addario/Paramount Pictures

Viewers of “Mother!” may feel unsettled as they watch the movie unfold. In fact, their discomfort may remind them of other films created by the director-cinematographer team of Darren Aronofsky and Matthew Libatique, including “Requiem for a Dream” (2000) and “Black Swan” (2010).

Their sixth feature, set for release by Paramount on Sept. 15, stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a couple living a private life until unexpected visitors (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) arrive, changing everything in a very disturbing way.

“Most of our conversation leading up to production was about camera language,” says Libatique. As they did for “Swan” and “Pi” (1998), Aronofsky and Libatique filmed on Super 16mm and stylistically restricted compositions to close-ups, over-the-shoulder and point-of-view shots to intimately connect the audience to the narrative. Handheld cameras were used, and framing was informed by each character’s needs.

These strict aesthetics were applied during a three-month rehearsal in Brooklyn, where a scale blueprint of the house in which the film takes place was sketched out on the floor. “We constructed every shot to be 360 degrees and to move throughout the house with very few stops,” says Libatique, who, along with camera operator Chris Moseley, shot an entire version of the movie in prep.

The house has an important role in the story; it’s an extension of Lawrence’s character (Mother). Unable to find the right location, the production constructed the entire first floor from the ground up in Montreal for daytime sequences, then later built the full three-story house on a soundstage for night scenes.

Libatique says working with a shallow depth of field was crucial, since the plot unfolds through Mother’s eyes. “We wanted to bring the attention toward her even if she was surrounded by others,” he explains. “We tried not to deviate from our plan but ended up augmenting it to include wide shots when she was alone in the scene.”

Color, or the lack thereof, was balanced with warm white light to introduce the main characters and their environment. Then as the story progresses, rich hues were methodically blended into the visual palette, emphasizing the terrifying atmosphere surrounding Mother.

“The film begins very controlled. She is somewhat measured, and there is a connection between Mother and house,” Libatique notes. “The photography is meant to draw you into her character and ultimately, as the intrusion of humanity happens, it’s accompanied by an intrusion of color.”

To emphasize the layered allegory further, the film stock was rerated and underexposed until the third act. “We pushed the film one stop further to gain a thicker negative and saturate the color disparities,” Libatique says. “As a byproduct, you get an increase of contrast. I hope it’s subtle, but the color and skin tones get a tad redder when someone enters the house. By the time it’s all over, the carnage is predominantly red, the purpose being a visualclimax mimicking the ascent or descent of the narrative.”

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  1. One of the key reasons that shooting on negative has been killed off (for all but rare exceptions like this) is that producers hate allowing a DP to bake-in any look at all. Even Netflix’s partner tech specs for original programming define a digital workflow that basically hands the look to post, where creative producers make the call, with DP not invited to grading sessions. It’s been that way for many years now, and just as digital technology has democratized all things creative and knocked out all barriers to entry, it has also politically shifted control away from artists and into bean counters who want shows to look like whatever is this week’s look. Decision makers now know just enough about cinematography to destroy it for those who actually are career- invested in the craft. After all, it isn’t film that is expensive, it’s skilled filmmakers.

  2. Jim says:

    I like that they still use Super 16mm on major features like this…makes it look more organic, grainy and distinct now, when most films look HD crisp. That made “Black Swan” special, too.

    If you think, that these aesthetic things are not important, then you should see “The Circle” with Tom Hanks, shot by Libatique, too. It’s one of the ugliest and boring-looking films I saw in a while, mostly because of the flat, texture-free RED Camera cinematography. In saw some great-looking films shot with RED, but most look ‘flat’ and the colors don’t pop. Arri Alexa doesn’t convince me either, especially “The Revenant” didn’t look as good as the hype wanted you to believe. Digital is still not quite where the best 35mm film stock is in terms of look, organic feel and richness.

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