In the early days of Hollywood’s adaptation of digital cinematography, there were those artists, like Michael Mann and cinematographer Dion Bebe, or David Fincher and Harris Savides, who explored the unique properties of the medium, rather than simply try to make it look like celluloid. Even in 1080 HD-shot movies like “Zodiac” we saw how in low light and a night setting we could peer into this low contrast edge of exposure. While digital couldn’t, and still doesn’t, approach the incredible dynamic range that film negative can produce in rounding out an image’s highlights, there was incredible latitude filmmakers could find in the “toe” of exposure of a digital file.
There is one cinematographer, in particular, who has not only continued to explore the dark edges of the digital image, but used it as a canvas to paint. Bradford Young’s remarkable body of work this decade started off shooting on film, hardly a medium he’s sworn off, with staggering-looking indies like David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and Dee Rees’ “Pariah.” It was Rees’ portrait of a 17-year-old African American embracing her identity as a lesbian, where we see how Young comes alive in night — not in some “Blade Runner” neon-lit way or low-key noir contrast, but in depth, color and texture. In both films, Young pushed himself to experiment with under-exposure and low-con filters, searching for his own flavor of the milky blacks of Savides’ best work. It’s a look so many DPs tried to imitate, especially in commercials, but few made it their own like Young.
On “Mother of George,” due to budget constraints, he found himself shooting on the Red One camera. One of the most striking and unique-looking low-budget films ever made, Young tried doing some of the same things, but with an incredible overhead lighting scheme he found ways to make colors pop and dark skin glimmer. The glowing beauty and life radiating from inside the darkness of the immigrant characters’ struggle was pure Young.
Young has talked about how shooting digital has given him the confidence to go further, having a calibrated monitor and carefully pre-planned LUT he knows just how far he can push it and etch out glowing pockets of light. In many ways digital has become as much a mindset as a medium for him.
Donald Glover has remarked how so often on film sets there is a disconnect between what one experiences on set with the bright cinema lights, and what ends up on camera, at which point, looking at the final image, that artificially lit-world in retrospect makes sense. Yet when Glover walked onto Young’s set for the first-time the world felt like “real life” to him. What’s remarkable is that set was “Solo,” a Star Wars movie.
Young’s evolving practice has meant pulling, as much as possible, the apparatus of filmmaking off the stage — if actors fall in and out of the often practically lit set, so be it. Yet, while the set of “Solo” might have felt realistically lit, there is an endless array of pockets of light give the film a sense of night-time wonder in the otherwise bleak setting. Young’s images maybe dark, both in look, and sometimes emotional content, but they are alive. Those glowing pockets he and his long-time colorist Joe Gawler have learned they can etch out of a RAW digital file.
“I would say Brad has the most committed negative of any DP that I get to work with, there’s not a lot of latitude, but he and I have found this fun space to play in the dark that most people won’t go,” Gawler told IndieWire. “People that are familiar with my work with Brad come to me, ‘Oh, I want you to do what you do with Brad,’ and I start to go there on their footage and they all get scared. They can’t do it and end up back off. Brad’s not afraid of anything, so he makes these bold choices, but as an overall piece everyone responds to it. It’s a gift.”
That boldness is not simply aesthetic, it’s personal. Young is committed to the vision of long-time collaborators like Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “When They See Us”) and Andrew Dosunmu (“Mother of George,” “Where Is Kyra?”), but more than most cinematographers he doesn’t hide that his cinematography is a form of self-expression. For example the one light-bulb lit apartment in which we are forced to search the frame for Kyra (Michelle Pfeiffer) is as much about Young creating “a more antagonistic relationship with the system” at a dark time in America, as it was Dosunmu’s exploration of how the system has worn out his depressed protagonist.
“There’s something about his work, there’s a spirituality to it and what he’s trying to communicate, what he’s trying to create as an artist,” Dosunma told IndieWire. “Brad got into this because he wanted to use those tools to express something personal for him. He’s very adamant about being on a job or shooting things that he’s able to communicate with his community of filmmakers and beyond, it’s absolutely necessary for him.”
For Young, the first African American to be nominated for Best Cinematography for his work on “Arrival,” his work is not simply artistic expression, but exploration of the form and how it has been used to portray minorities by a dominant white culture. His practice, at the moment not simply being about finding a style in the dark side of digital, but deconstructing and repurposing the extreme power, that has been use historically both for good and bad, of the tools of his trade.