On Dec. 7, 2003, Eduardo Serra walked away with the cinematography award from Poland’s prestigious Camera Image Festival. Laszlo Kovacs — d.p. of “Easy Rider” and “The King of Marvin Gardens” — was one of the jury members who voted for Serra’s work on “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”
“It’s a beautiful story, beautifully told,” says Kovacs. “Serra did a brilliant job of emulating the visual style of the 17th-century Dutch painters, and the work of Johannes Vermeer in particular.”
The movie focuses on a fictionalized Vermeer (Colin Firth) as he forms a covert relationship with a 17-year-old servant girl named Griet (Scarlett Johansson). When Vermeer chooses Griet as the subject of his next portrait, he manipulates both her emotions and his own, exploiting the sexual tension between them to coax a mixture of sadness, longing, and frustration from Griet that he captures on canvas.
“In preproduction, Eduardo and I immersed ourselves in the art of the period,” says the movie’s director, Peter Webber. “We pored over books with prints of the paintings, talking about the moods we wanted to create in various scenes. Eduardo was obsessed with reproducing the amazing use of light by the artists of that period, and most particularly Vermeer’s use of it.”
“Vermeer’s studio is one of the main characters in the film,” adds Serra. “The painters from that period would work from natural light and would be very accurate in respect to the light. Light would come from one window and they would try to represent exactly what it would do on someone’s face, the wall, the table and objects on it. That’s the story of our film: how the light touches the young model Griet, and how Vermeer captures it on canvas. It’s wonderful for any cinematographer to have such an opportunity to evoke that, especially for those who, like me, work with and respect natural lighting. I had the experience of, in a way, touching Vermeer’s creative process.
“At the same time, I did not want to become too rigidly obsessed with Vermeer’s imagery. The very first thing Peter and I agreed on is the audience shouldn’t leave the theater saying, ‘Every frame was a painting.’ They should leave the theater saying, ‘What a wonderful story.’ I am more interested in making meaning than in making beauty.”
Key tools: Arriflex 535 cameras. Film Stocks: Kodak 5218 for general interiors; Kodak 5263 for Vermeer’s studio; for exteriors, Fuji Reala. All three stocks were 500 ASA.
Aesthetic: “I like to have natural lighting with as few sources as possible. All of my work is from watching the light that exists in real life and trying to translate it onto film.”
Challenge: “Finding that balance between being faithful to Vermeer’s paintings, and giving priority to telling the story.”
Oscar pedigree: Serra was nominated for 1997’s “The Wings of the Dove.”