One of the things that’s often deceptive about an intimate coming-of-age movie like “Lady Bird” – built on nuanced performances, careful framing, and a subtle bittersweet tone – is the sense that it is somehow less cinematic, or less carefully crafted, than a bigger film with thrilling action scenes and bold camerawork.
For the look of “Lady Bird,” writer-director Greta Gerwig started working a year ahead of time with cinematographer Sam Levy (with whom she’d previously collaborated on “Frances Ha” and “Maggie’s Plan”) to figure out how to turn her somewhat abstract visual concept into a reality. Levy turned to his colorist Alex Bickel (“Moonlight”) during pre-production to develop an unique technical process that could carry Gerwig’s vision through to the finish line.
Gerwig, Levy, and Bickel sat down with IndieWire to talk about about their collaboration on “Lady Bird” and were willing to share before and after images from the color correction process to bring their process to life.
What Does a Memory Look Like
Gerwig: I wanted the film to look like a memory. The thing I kept saying – I don’t know if this will make sense [Gerwig extends her arm and holds her hand as far from her face as possible] – I want the film to be over there.
Levy: Greta extended her hand and made that gesture. I knew exactly what she meant: She’s the viewer, the hand is the screen and she’s totally connected to it, but you are little removed from it also. You aren’t overly removed or too inside, we aren’t handheld, the camera isn’t another person in the room.
Gerwig: I didn’t want [the film] to be intravenous, I wanted to sense the proscenium, to sense the frame, that it was this magic lightbox. We had all this time, because Sam and I both live in New York and we’re friends. I asked him to do this a year before we were in prep, so we had time to shot list, talk, and go to the movies and look at photography and look at paintings and talk about the philosophy of shooting. We developed a shared language.
Levy: We were very concerned that we not use any common place methodology in motion pictures. We didn’t want to use some out-of-the-box, pre-packaged film grain, or the things people just throw at something like a “memory” feeling. Greta was always challenging me, “We have to come up with something unique, that’s our own.” Not that the movie had to look like something you’ve never seen, but the methodology and approach should be our own.
Gerwig: We wanted it to look like a memory, but we didn’t want it ever to look self-conscience. It was about finding this balance.
©Lise Sarfati, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York, and Twin Palms Publishers, Santa Fe
Levy: One way we got at this aesthetic of memory was we were looking at a lot of photos by the French photographer Lise Sarfati, who has all these great portraits of young women from around the 2000s. The photos aren’t at all creepy, it shows they were taken by woman, they are so at ease the way our young cast was with Greta. Through Sarfati’s photos we kept coming back to this idea of “plain and luscious,” that’s what “Lady Bird” should look like, it shouldn’t be dripping with the visuals.
“It Looked Like 2003”
Levy: When we were in the production office, I took some of [Sarfati’s] photos and some of Greta herself from her own yearbook – we had all these high school yearbooks – and started color copying them to put them up on the wall. We had this inexpensive color copier in the production office and I wanted to put all these images up so we could be inspired and dream, see if any patterns emerged so we could get at the aesthetic of memory thing. And what happened right way was the color copies were distressed in this great way. You take theses finely grain images and you color copy it and print it back out and it’s lost a generation. One day Greta said, “you know what’s great about these? It’s so early 2000s and the period of Kinko’s.”
Gerwig: It looked like a memory and it looked like  to me… I would go to Kinkos and make copies of things and decorate my room and my friends would make zines. Everyone was at Kinko’s.
Levy: Over time, we started to see there was a connection here between this idea of memory and these somewhat hand-distressed images. [Colorist] Alex [Bickel] became our Kinko’s guy. While Greta would go out casting, I’d start doing tests and working with him to figure out how could do it.
Adding Alexa Gain/Grain
Courtesy of A24 and Alex Bickel
Bickel: So many people come to you and say, “we’re going to shoot digital, how do we not make it look digital?” That’s a baseline starting point as colorist in 2017, everybody ends up adding some form of film grain. Sam and Greta had done so much tactile visualization of what they wanted the movie to feel like, this whole Xerox idea and wanting a different organic texture – it was visceral and led to developing a different technical processes altogether.
Levy: We shot with the [Arri] Alexa Mini with old Panavision lenses and, in testing different resolutions, we ended up shooting 2k – Arri raw 3.6K was too vivid and too sharp. Alexa has native grain, sort of video noise, any sensor emits video noise. Alex brought up, how do we tease out the Alexa video grain? Instead of adding artificial film grain, but embracing the technology we are using, but in more of a handmade way, not unlike how you’d create this multiple photocopies.
Bickel: So the texture that you end up seeing in the movie is actually Alexa grain. It’s the noise floor of the Alexa – you turn off the camera and you just record it, then you get a black signal and you open it up, there’s still going to be noise in there. What’s great about the Alexa is the digital noise looks really interesting and doesn’t feel all that digital. It feels a little bit more organic than the other platforms. We took that, amplified it and integrated it into the image – you see it a lot in the mid-tones.
A24 and Color Collective
Levy: The technique we ended up utilizing was similar to using an older ENG style video cameras I grew using and learned on, where you could bump the gain to like 12, 16, DB – I always loved to boast the gain and play with the noise floor, it’s sort of a video grain, it’s a texture and it would clip the color fidelity, like a Xerox copy.
Gerwig: It looks painted and almost more saturated, but it’s lost a layer. It looks like a memory and it looked like the time to me.
Printing to Color Paper
Bickel: This summer, when we color-timed, I started to think about what color Xerox machine is really doing and a lot of times it’s kind of minimizing the latitude with each generation removed from the original. We came up with this idea of what if the movie was printed on paper, how would that look?
Levy: The way I had to figure out what Greta wanted, Alex could sense I would have printed the film on paper and scanned each image if that was in any way feasible [laughs], but he created this amazing process instead.
Bickel: One of the throughlines in the DI process was this idea of paper and we ended up in almost every scene we made two pieces of paper, one for the highlights, one for the shadows and wedged it into the color correction process. It became fun, the cool kids world, where she’s hanging out with the cool kids like Timothée Chalamet’s character, there’s always a cyan piece of paper in the highlights and lavender in the blacks. And the Lady Bird world there was more personality, more warmth and humanity, less vogue and more sweet.
Courtesy of A24 and Color Collective
Levy: It’s so cool because there was more detail in my negative, but this printing on color paper process that he simulated in the DI made the slight loss of fidelity feel like the copying process.
Gerwig: I spent a lot of time with Sam and Alex, they’re both artists and I love that film is a collaborative medium. You do have your vision of what it is, but then other people get to bring their storytelling corner to it – “this is how I tell this story” — Alex with color, Sam tells it with color, light and framing.