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The visual language of film is universal. In “Parasite,” low, flickering light shows the distraught look on the face of the patriarch of the Kim family as the basement floods and his meager possessions are washed away. In “Corpus Christi,” natural light is used as a metaphor to symbolize life. Cinematographers of four of the Oscar nominees for international feature film recount the key moment that communicates the movie’s message in a truly cinematic manner.

CORPUS CHRISTI (Poland) 

Piotr Sobociński worked closely with director Jan Komasa to remove unnecessary dialogue and rearrange the chronology of certain scenes in the drama about an ex-con pretending to be a priest. Static shots and the use of anamorphic lenses made for an aesthetic of modesty. 

Sunlight is scarce throughout the film until Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is called upon to give last rites to a drying woman. Sobociński wanted to contrast this solemn moment, a real test for the protagonist, with the coming sunrise to reflect the cycles of life. “I had an LED light that was controlled digitally and would go from dim light through the colors: blue, yellow, orange, all the way up to white bright light. It was on a dolly and a jib so it would also move,” Sobociński says. “As the lady passes away, the sun rises, and when they hold hands and their eyes meet, that’s the moment when the night turns into day.” 

HONEYLAND (North Macedonia) 

To capture the breathtaking opening scene in Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s sumptuous documentary, directors of photography Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma put it all on the line. Daut follows beekeeper Hatidze Muratova as she approaches a hive on the edge of a treacherous cliff. Ljuma simultaneously filmed her from above as he clung to a rock without any protective gear. 

Ljuma notes that the intimate moments between Muratova and her mother, Nazife, presented their own challenging conditions. “For me, this symbolizes the beehive. Hatidze is the worker bee attending to her mother, the queen bee, feeding and grooming her. Shooting these scenes was very challenging not only because of the lack of light but also all the smoke from the stove was in the room,” he explains, because there was no chimney. “Luckily, we were two cinematographers, and we could replace each other when the smoke made us start to feel dizzy.” 

LES MISÉRABLES (France) 

Shot in a narrow staircase with a large number of young performers, the final scene of Ladj Ly’s debut feature about police brutality in a marginalized Parisian neighborhood is a chaotic confrontation that required cinematographer Julien Poupard to immerse himself in the action to reflect the intense atmosphere. The striking conclusion was filmed without permits in less than two days.

“We begin with a very slow Steadicam shot as we follow the cops going upstairs,” Poupard explains. “We then use mostly handheld cameras as it becomes shakier, with slight crash zooms to create tension. When the kids’ leader goes upstairs to get revenge, we use Steadicam again to create contrast. He walks slowly in this mess, like a metaphor of Gavroche, the character from the novel ‘Les Misérables.’”

PARASITE (South Korea) 

Cinematographer Hong Kyung Pyo, a frequent collaborator of director Bong Joon Ho, says that water and light were meticulously calculated for every shot as the struggling family’s semi-basement home floods and Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho) tries to salvage his belongings while neck-deep in water. 

“We focused especially on lighting in order to convey the feeling of tragedy and the dark fate that lies ahead for Ki-taek’s family after being deprived of their only place to stay,” says Hong. “We made sure that as the water rises in Ki-taek’s home, light gradually disappears. If you look closely at the last scene that captures Ki-taek’s face, you can feel the rhythm of the light. As Ki-taek slowly wades out, looking around the house for the last time and crying, the light also flickers, and once Ki-taek is a distance away, the light on his face also disappears.”