Director Ari Aster refers to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski as his closest collaborator, as the pair has been working together since they were just grad students at AFI. Aster is more in charge of composition and camera movement, Pogorzelski the lighting and visual look, yet the two get on the same page early in the process as they dream up the visual language of their films.
The duo spend weeks, five to six hours a day, doing approximately three scenes a day, going through the script and carefully re-shot listing the entire film — Aster having already done a pass himself. For “Midsommar,” the two collaborators put themselves in a far more difficult shooting situation than their first feature, “Hereditary.”
Instead of the control of the sound stage, they would be at the mercy of the summer sun, as Aster’s sophomore feature is predominantly set in a remote Swedish village in the height of summer, when the sun rarely sets. Yet, despite working under the same budgetary limitations of “Hereditary,” their new film would require the same precision in creating the film’s distinctive look.
In the case of “Midsommar,” that look would be a particularly difficult tightrope — a modern day “fairy tale” that rides the line of over-exposure and progressively pushes color to technicolor delirium, but without ever feeling “hokey” or painted on.
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IndieWire recently spoke to Aster and Pogorzelski to learn how they pulled it off. The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
Finding the Right Tools
Pogorzelski: Our first conversations were really about the all day [aspect], having everything bright and just shooting something where it’s always daytime and in the sun was very challenging for sure, but that was very exciting for us to think about.
Aster: With “Hereditary,” we were pursuing this look that was almost too dark. We wanted to push ourselves to be ballsy about how dark scenes would be, so that if there was risk of somebody not catching something, for instance in a corner of frame, that was a risk we were not only taking, we thought it’d make it more immersive and encourage a more active audience engagement.
Here we were kind of doing the opposite. Let’s really commit to making this very bright movie and stopping ourselves when the instinct is to pull back, because it’s more eloquent and maintains a certain balance. To allow ourselves to go a little hotter than our instincts would allow, and Pav was really good about keeping us on that track.
Pogorzelski: It was very scary, at every time of the day, to be riding that edge of exposure. But it’s good to be scared I think. It’s good to be doing something, and you’re like, “I hope this works out.”
We tested 35mm film, we tested the Alexa LS and the [Panavision’s Millennium] DXL2s. And I would overexpose all. I wanted to see how they would react in a bright environment and shoot it at noon when the sun was quite harsh, to see the unforgiving image and see which one was interesting. And the DXL2 really gave me something very interesting and beautiful when I brought the exposure to a limit before it started clipping [loss of details due to overexposure]. It was very rich, so we chose the DXL2.
Aster: Part of it is also shooting large format [the DXL2’s sensor is twice the size of a super-35 chip, or frame of celluloid], we were using large format lenses, we were shooting on a large format camera, and so we kind of able to get a slightly more nuanced look pursuing something that could very easily fall into kitsch.
I don’t know if we did fall into kitsch, that’s not my call to make, but that was the fun of this, how close can we come to something almost hokey and that we were pursuing this fairy tale feeling? We never talked about this as a horror film, it was always a macabre fairy tale and how do we achieve that look without it feeling cheesy?
Pogorzelski: We shot those tests with the regular Primos lenses, and then I started talking to Brian, my lens tech at Panavision, I wanted to give the whites a little glow, a little softness.
Aster: Pawel has a really great relationship with Panavision. We did the same thing on “Hereditary,” we were able to take a bunch of the prime lenses that we really like, but that we were wrestling over: “We really love the lens flare on this one, but we love the softness of this one, we love the blacks on this one.” So we were able to go to them and say, can we combine the virtues of all these and remove the things that aren’t working for this film? That was such a fun part of the process.
Pogorzelski: That’s when Brian showed me the Artiste [series of large format lenses] that were just coming out, that were a little bit de-tuned [there are various ways for Panavision to degrade the quality of lens to match cinematographers’ image needs]. We shot with those and what it did is it just lifted the blacks ever so slightly and when the sun hit the white costumes, it gave me a little bit of a glow on them. It was exactly what we’re looking for, this kind of fairy tale image, a kind of magical image.
Riding the Edge of Brightness
Aster: Pawel spent long days in the field alone before we were shooting, seeing what times were best for the light and which areas and so he was in charge of the schedule day-to-day in terms of what we were shooting.
Pogorzelski: Prep was studying and planning for the light, that was a big part of this for me. I had some students go out to the field and do light surveys for me. They were there in the morning, sunrise to ’til sunset, just to see how the light was changing in all the different spots. And then I would look at that and then on special time of days, I would go with my gaffer and do tests with the camera.
What happens if we have an 18K [light], what happens if you have just bounce? What kind of gear do we want to try to control the sun as much as we can? So there was a lot of just testing how we could control this as much as we can, and what’s the best way?
Aster: It was a very painful shoot, really, really painful. “Hereditary” was a cinch compared to this. We built that house on a stage and had complete control. That was a 30-day shoot and we had 18 days on that stage and we could go late if we needed to. There were days where we had 13, 14 hour days. On this one we didn’t have that luxury, you’re going as late as the sun allows you.
Pogorzelski: I think that was my biggest prep was the mental part, I was just, “Okay, I’m going to have to learn to let go.” There’s a hundred extras, so many cast members, so many people. There’s so many things that can go wrong. I’m not going to have full control of things, but I have to just do my best to plan it the way I want it, and then let go, and then trust in the camera.
And that was really huge, because I mean, we tested having in that field having huge condors [large cherry picker-like cranes that hold lights high overhead], like 300 ton trucks to have fly swatters [large frames holding material that cuts or shapes the sunlight], and the amount of time to move those things was just impossible. We had these huge dinner scenes where we’d see 360 degrees around. There’s no way to ever cover the way I would have wanted to, to help with the consistency. So I was like, “Okay, I’m going to be going with bright sun and hope for the best.”
The best answer was having 20×20 [frames], some for neg [cutting light], some for fill [bouncing light], because 18Ks on that big field just didn’t do anything with the distances [we would need them]. We had to bounce [light] off the ground. We couldn’t go with anything up in the air.
We did though have a 18K in the condor that we’d bring in when the sun dipped behind the mountains, and we had to still get a couple close-ups — there’s some close-ups we got when it was almost night, with three 18Ks filling up to background and foreground to still look like day, to finish up the scenes.
Aster: In terms of the color we were talking about technicolor alot. We wanted the film to feel like that three-strip technicolor process. We were thinking about, especially “Black Narcissus,” “Tales of Hoffman,” really the [Michael] Powell and [Emeric] Pressburger color films in general. They’re my heroes and, whenever we start talking about color, I’d always go back to them and ask, “How do we achieve something akin to that look, while also doing something that feels very modern?”
The idea wasn’t how do we achieve that three-strip technicolor look, but how do we achieve the way that looks in our mind when we’re not watching it. Because if you look at those films, the blacks aren’t a deep as you imagine and the colors are, in many respects, less deep than you remember. It’s also just because of what they were able to achieve then, versus what you can achieve now, and it becomes about how deep do you go, how rich to you go, how much do you pull back.
Pogorzelski: There’s a special quality to the colors when shot in three-strip Technicolor, which I knew we were never going to reproduce. It was more of a reference, an idea of how we wanted the colors to act. It was a richness, but without cranking saturation up. There is a color separation in the three-strip Technicolor look. For me, it was more how the skin tones look and how each color would appear. The greens are very important for us because there was so much green everywhere. And in Technicolor, greens look gorgeous, very rich.
I always felt like those Technicolor films don’t have that sheen on the greens. There was a pastel quality to it, and I thought that by using the polarizer filter to get the sheen off of the greens around them and on the face a little bit, just to get a bit of more of that pastel look, really helped. So we would just have a polarizer most of the time, just taking off a bit of the edge of the sun on the skin tones and on the greens around them. And that helped a lot I think.
Aster: Pav and I always want to avoid doing things digitally [in post], if we can do them on set. For this though we knew some of this would be in the DI [Digital intermediate, digital post finishing process, including color grading], so it was about testing and working with our brilliant colorists, we had two on this film, early.
We weren’t watching raw footage on set, we were watching already affected footage to see how that LUT [Lookup Table, modifies digital image based on pre-set mathematical formula] would interact with what we were doing, which was a great thing to have.
Pogorzelski: Joe at Harbor [Picture Company] created a LUT for us that went back to the rich colors of Technicolor three-strip. There was a lot of back and forth early in creating the LUT. We had the camera in prep at the village, and just shot tests, and kept refining and refining, for example the pink colors for the buildings, to find the right ones and the costumes, to make sure it was right of the colors on the whites. It’s very important to do this work with a colorist before when you’re being that edgy and living in fear. You need that safety line, that you know that, “Okay, we can have this covered in post.”
Then it was a constant going back and forth with the art department, once we had the LUT created and showing [them] things. And then it was funny how some of these colors [were] affected. I think the yellows had to be a little bit more red because they wouldn’t show. The red had to be pumped up a lot, the blues had to be brought down a little bit. So now we have to adjust the way we’re going to paint the buildings, so we can act accordingly to the way we want it to be.
How the Look Progresses
Pogorzelski: Some of the first conversations look-wise that Ari and I had were about the vibrant color, but also the progression into the vibrant colors.
We did a progression, where the first part of the film, when they’re in the States and until they get to Harga [the village], was shot at 5K with 35 mm lenses. So standard Primo lenses, and then once they get to Harga, and reveal with that zoom out the village, we went to the 70mm large format to make the scope a bit bigger.
I think it’s just using [large format] lenses that give you a bigger sense of depth. We both love wide lenses. And instead of using what would normally be a 27mm [with a 35mm camera sensor], here we could use here a 40mm or a 50 mm that gave us the same angle of view, but the characteristics would be still those of a tighter lens.
So the focus was a little soft and would roll off more and things perspective-wise would feel more right. You could get these beautiful vistas, but not making things feel like they’re super far away and you could play with focus a little bit more as in a cinematic language of choosing what’s in focus, what’s out of focus. So it just made everything feel, I think, in my opinion, a lot richer.
Aster: There’s a moment [later in “Midsommar”] where one character’s eyes are shut and then they’re opened back up, and when they’re opened back up we pushed further. The last section of the film, I would say, the colors pushed further than they are anywhere else in the film. I call that the “crayola section” of the movie. Like with Powell and Pressburger, the emotional intensity matched by color.
Pogorzelski: It starts at the last dinner when she sits down, and it progressively throughout all that stuff — the sex scene, and then the next morning when he wakes up in the chair — all that stuff starts becoming more vibrant. A lot of it was in production design of how rich it becomes, how much more colorful it becomes.
We also discovered in post that the third act wanted more. We were forcing it to be very bright, and it never felt right. And then we just brought the mids down and the highlights down a little bit to make it a little bit softer, and I think by doing that, the colors became a little bit richer, where they weren’t been forced to be so bright.
Aster: There were things we could only push so far, because again, we were working on a limited budget. Like the colors were going to explode in the costumes, but we weren’t able to go quite that far, only because we only had so much time. It was sad, there were just so many times during this film where it was “pencils down,” you have what you have. That stuff isn’t worth talking about because I’m so proud of what the team was able to do with what we did have.
“Midsommar” is in theaters now.