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How Cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski Captured the Sublime ‘Ida’

How Cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski Captured the Sublime 'Ida'

Best Foreign Language Oscar frontrunner “Ida” contains an interesting hybrid aesthetic of the old and new: soft light and sharp focus, shot digitally with the Alexa in color and turned into black-and-white in post. It has wonderful contrast and tonal balance. It’s the perfect look for Pawel Pawlikowski’s meditative struggle with memory, history and faith in ’60s Poland, recalling Dreyer, Bergman and Wajda.

Veteran DP Ryszard Lenczewski began by taking 3,000 stills in the countryside and discovering loneliness, sadness and nostalgia, which set the tone for the movie. He was influenced particularly by the work of photographer Cartier-Bresson, who captured ordinary moments using single light sources that contained an aura of the metaphysical.

“When I was on location, I followed my intuition. Everything was very natural,” Lenczewski recalls. “On the other hand, going digital with the Alexa it’s much easier to shoot with low light.  It has very high dynamic range, especially the highlights. And there was such good digital projection during testing that we recognized differences between very sharp lenses and different sources of light and there was no need to transfer to a film print. It was perfect.”
Unfortunately, Lenczewski became ill and was only able to shoot for 10 days and was replaced by camera operator Lukasz Zal, who was quickly promoted to DP. It was the chance of a lifetime but a challenging one. There was no time for rehearsals, little camera movement and lots of long takes. It was simple, stripped down, forlorn, dreamlike, getting lost in vertical landscapes, almost oppressive at times, according to the director.

READ MORE: “Ida” Direct Pawel Pawlikowski Answers 10 Questions

“Very quickly it became obvious that Pawel and I understood each other very well, that we had a similar way of looking for means of expression and thinking about the picture,” Zal explains. “I think that the experience we both had with documentaries played a part here as well. He told me once that my lack of experience with feature film was also an advantage because it meant that I had no bad habits. 

“I had a fresh approach to anything I did, all I knew was the photographs Ryszard took, all the ideas were born as we moved on, we allowed ourselves for the creativity and open mind so we could, as Pawel liked to put it, fantasize. The idea of the 3:4 format came earlier, as well as the idea that the movie was to be shot in black-and-white. I had no influence on that. I didn’t know much about the film then, I even thought that it was to be shot hand held. Instead we had long shots and camera on a tripod. That took me by surprise.”

Inspired in part by the Polish cinema of the ’60s and the director’s memories of the period, they created a mosaic: sparing, minimalistic, with no unnecessary ornaments. They built frames they used to call “posters.” Equally important was the space outside the frame and a set design that allowed them to interpret this space anyway they wanted to keep everything historically accurate at the same time.

“The most interesting scenes for me are those where I balanced on a thin line. In the night scenes I tried to create a realistic picture with saturated nuances,” Zal continues. “When Ida is standing outdoors, at night, in front of the cross I knew that the scene should be filmed in a low key. I was very happy when I found out that modern digital cinemas are fully capable of conveying information in such a low lighting key. A few years ago it was unthinkable.

“The night scenes at the convent are an interesting example. We used candles to light Ida when she was praying. And in the scene where the postulants are bathing we can seen the fire from the furnace reflected in Ida’s eyes and on her face. Such details, brushes of light, many times provided the scenes with the proper dimension.”

Key, of course, was working with the two actresses: Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida, the young novice nun who discovers that she’s Jewish, and Agata Kulesza as her aunt, a heavy-drinking judge responsible for oppressing Polish anti-communist resistance soldiers.

“I had a friendly relationship with Agata Trzebuchowska,” Zal says. “We understood each other [both as newcomers]. Agata Kulesza was very understanding and patient. Once I wanted her to turn to the light in a very specific way and didn’t really know how to tell her that. It was a scene where Agata was lying in bed and was to turn towards the camera. And I asked her, regardless of how it sounds, if she could catch the light with her shoulders. She laughed and said that she never got such a specific task but she caught the light beautifully.

“In this particular case, the rule ‘less is more’ is the film’s value. It’s not a silent film but it evokes this kind of silence in people that stays with them for a long time. Uncompromising search was worth it because both the story and the pictures give the audiences something very important, and that means joy for every artist.”

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