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How ‘The Current War’ DP Used Innovative Lighting Techniques for Period Film

The Current War: Director’s Cut” gave cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung a chance to reteam with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon to create an environment in which both could indulge their preference for thinking outside the box for a movie about invention — specifically the race to build the first modern electrical system in the Western world. 

“When I started prepping for the movie, his room was full of photos from the Edison and Westinghouse era,” says Chung, a South Korea native known for his work with director Park Chan-wook. “Our job was to create something new from old. We always overthink and exceed the limit of our boundaries, then work our way down until the camera starts to roll.”

Though the Weinstein Co.-financed film, completed in 2017 and finally arriving in a refined cut Oct. 25 in theaters, takes place at the turn of the 20th century, Chung eschewed a dated look and focused on the movie’s message of innovation and invention.

“I wanted to make the lighting as simple as possible in order to maintain the reality of the movie without compromising the details of dark spaces,” he says. “[Simplifying the key light and focusing] on details of unlit areas without limiting the actors and Alfonso’s workspace, I used small battery-powered LED lights [hidden in strategic places]. I like having contrast, but not to the extreme where all you see is pitch-black in a frame.”

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Chung shot on the Alexa XT Plus with Panavision G Series anamorphic lenses and the spherical Primos. Gomez-Rejon, with whom Chung had worked on the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” initially wanted to shoot on film, but the movie’s budget limitations didn’t allow for using both film and the lenses Chung wanted for the project.

“Looking back, it’s interesting how we shot this movie in digital when the era had no existence of digital format,” Chung says. “But I ended up preferring digital due to all the dark scenes and having to limit my lighting.”

Chung says 90% of the movie was shot on anamorphic lenses to create a shallow depth of field that could offset the sharpness of digital and provide a more natural look. The lightness and short focal length of the Panavision G series allowed for Chung’s close-ups and handheld. “Alfonso likes the wide lens, but not their distortions,” he says. “So I used spherical lenses for wide shots.”

Camera movement and framing were strategic decisions to show actors’ emotions or to employ storytelling techniques. Dutch angles, handheld and locked-off shots were all part of Chung’s “every frame has its reason” style of filmmaking. 

“Dutch angles were not just mere instinct,” he says. “Those shots showed distorted, crooked, uneasy situations. [And in terms of movement], I believe that the camera is also an actor. I would lock off when the audience should observe the scene objectively; the camera was moving when we wanted to put the audience in a subjective perspective or to cope with actors’ emotional states.”   

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