Matthew Libatique on ‘Black Swan’

Cinematographer talks about his work on the thriller

“I’m a great believer in creating a visual language through atmosphere, and in challenging myself by trying something different with each project,” says cinematographer Matthew Libatique.

Going straight from the big-budget, glossy comic-book stylings of “Iron Man 2” to the lurid undertones of the R-rated, low-budget thriller “Black Swan,” Libatique appears to be living up to his mantra.

The latter film, which earned him his first Oscar nomination, “certainly challenged me,” he says, “especially as I wasn’t familiar with ballet and that whole world — it was all totally foreign to me.”

With its dark, moody lighting and imagery underscoring the inner psychological disintegration of Natalie Portman’s obsessive ballerina, Libatique says he and director Darren Aronofsky “spent a lot of time discussing the film’s visual design, and then we set out specifically to come up with this very claustrophobic, oppressive quality. So 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 ballet in general and “Swan Lake” in particular, 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,” the d.p. notes. “So the greens, the magentas are all pointed towards different characters, and then there’s obviously the black and white monochromatic look of the black and white swan.”

To pull all this together, the d.p. says he “really had to study hard the way camera movement and choreography could work together, and then figure out a way to light and shoot this film in 360 degrees. Probably 85 % of it was lit for 360 degrees, which was a huge lighting challenge.”

Oscar pedigree: Black Swan” reps Libatique’s first nom.

2010 awards to date: Los Angeles Film Critics, New York Film Critics Circle, New York Film Critics Online, San Francisco Film Critics, Austin Film Critics, Alliance of Women Film Journalists

Camera and film stock: Super 16mm with just one ARRI 416. Fuji Vivid series 500 ASA. “I needed a fast stock with as much fidelity as possible,” he explains. “I also used Fuji Vivid 160 ASA a bit for visual effects, to mitigate grain, but the workhorse was the 500 as we needed the speed for the small light sources we were using.”

Key scenes: “The club scene where they’re on the unnamed drug is my favorite, because it contrasts so well with the end of the film. You have the visceral reaction and that freedom that doesn’t exist in the ballet. I love that end scene, too, and it mimics the same palette of the greens and the magentas, and then you see it again when we get to the transformation of the black swan.”

More from Eye on the Oscar: The Director
Jack Cardiff: Painter’s eye view
The nominees:
Danny Cohen | Jeff Cronenweth | Roger Deakins | Matthew Libatique | Wally Pfister

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