Adapted from Jerzy Kosiński’s novel, “The Painted Bird” comes to life through Vàclav Marhoul’s lens. Shot in black and white, the film tells the story of The Boy as he wanders around Eastern European villages during World War II struggling for survival.
As he suffers through the devastating brutality and horrors of war, it’s Vladimir Smutney’s stunning cinematography and images that sear into our minds — being buried up to his neck, being kicked and punched by bullies as he watches his pet die and watching eyes being gouged out — and those are just some of the wartime horrors he witnesses.
Smutney breaks down what it was like to frame his first film in black and white. “The Painted Bird” premieres on VOD and streaming services on July 17.
What was the first thing Vaclav told you about the film?
The first time, Václav Marhoul told me about his intention to make a movie based on a novel by Jerzy Kosinski — “The Painted Bird”, we had just finished working on the movie “Tobruk.” That was back in 2007 and I already knew about the book. I have to admit that when I read it, the imagination of violence tortured me, but the description of the scenes and how it was written fascinated me.
But, when he talked about making the film, I knew it would be difficult since the storytelling aspect of the novel didn’t have the classical structure of a drama.
What were some of the visual influences when it came to shooting in black and white given this was your first time ?
Typically, the first time you do any film with any new medium, they tend to be stylistically bold because you have a lot of new ideas in your head. But I didn’t have a clear idea or that typical brainstorming of ideas in my head, to be honest.
In the beginning, I did not have a clear idea of how the shape of the movie will be created. But eventually, you add layer after layer and the shape appears.
For inspiration, Václav chose a collection of black and white photos from World War II. Their aesthetic was essential for decision making on how the film looked. We were inspired by several classical movies.
One shot that featured an actor’s head inside of a tree was inspired by the movie “Markéta Lazarova“ by director František Vlačil.
Also, at the beginning of “The Painted Bird” where the camera is watching the boy running was inspired by “Diamonds of The Night” by Jan Němec.
What techniques did you use to capture the horror of war through your lens?
The movie was shot on Arricam Lite and Arriflex 235. For handheld scenes, we used Hawk V-Litte anamorphic lenses. For the VFX and greenscreen shots, we used a digital camera, RED Monstro.
An important decision was to shoot on black and white film negative because the analog image is completely different from the digital image.
Filters were also very important and I used three: yellow, green, and red.
I used the red filter to shoot a key scene – it’s where Marta’s house is burned down and only the chimney remains. The boy wakes up under a tree in the wide shot with a vast landscape. The red filter darkens the sky above the clouds. It creates a contrast between the cold beauty of this image and the situation in the scene. I learned while shooting in black and white, you didn’t need to stick to realistic lighting.
Typically, key light in the interior of day scenes in a colorful movie has to always be from the outside, it is very important to me, as it is realistically motivated by light. With black and white cinematography, it is not always necessary to stick to realistic lighting in my opinion. The lighting must serve the photogenicity of the images — a certain expressiveness of the image combined with suitable alternation of poetic. Often technical errors, for example, sky radiation into an image, can create a beautiful image.
Given the nature of the film, what was the toughest scene for you to shoot?
The most difficult scene was the Cossack attack on the village, the massacre, and the eventual liberation of the village by Russian tanks and planes. We had three full film crews with three cameras, stuntmen, horses, explosions, shooting, and fire. The scene was shot in three days and over that time we filmed around 90 shots.