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‘Judas and the Black Messiah’: How to Create a Visual Epic with Not Enough Resources

Director Shaka King and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Sean Bobbitt talk about finding their 1960s Chicago in modern-day Cleveland.

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Warner Bros.

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Over the years Shaka King was developing, writing, and struggling to get “Judas and the Black Messiah” made, a constant source of comfort was the promise of collaborating with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young. And then — scheduling conflicts.

“I had a relationship with Bradford,” said King. “So I would be working with one of the greatest cinematographers in the world, but also someone who was my friend. We were out to everybody, just trying to find a good replacement.”

What eased the sting? King’s agent told him Sean Bobbitt loved the script. “I’d never met Sean,” said King, who was surprised to have lured the DP. “But I knew [his] work. ’12 Years a Slave’ is one of the best-looking movies of all time.”

King sat down in New York with Bobbitt, who was color timing his latest collaboration with Steve McQueen, “Widows.” They instantly clicked in how they saw “Judas.”

King: I showed Sean 200 photographs that were taken between 1967-73 on the west side of Chicago.

Bobbitt: Just looking at those photographs, you could see how this story could be told.

King: In terms of the color, the photos were our bible. Once we saw them, we were trying to replicate the color of the Kodachrome and Ektachrome [still photo stock of the era] feel.

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Warner Bros.

Bobbitt: The really dense blacks and those poppy primary colors, just a little bit faded by time, gave a real presence to the image. We wanted you to feel immersed in the period, but not in a slavish docudrama way. We wanted to draw the audience into a complete world that echoed the tones of the late 1960s. We started to build the look of the film from there.

King: Another incredible source of color in this film are just the ranges of brown skin; that was something Sean talked about wanting to bring to the fore. The fact that we were using this large-format camera, we didn’t have to use a ton of lights, but it’d retain all this information. It’d bring out the blacks of Daniel [Kaluuya’s] skin, those blue-blacks, I mean Daniel’s skin just photographs beautiful, incredible. He could be next to Deborah (Dominique Fishback), who has a lighter skin tone, and we wouldn’t have to pump a lot of light on them.

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Warner Bros.

King: We wanted to shoot on the west side of Chicago, but we didn’t have the money. Most of the film was shot in Cleveland, and lot of the film’s color came from the amazing work of [production designer] Sam Lisenco and the incredible locations.

Bobbitt: What I do, as part of that process of creating the look, is on the location I take a lot of stills. I then process them in Lightroom, doing different grades and looks, so as I’m talking through the different scenes with Shaka I can call up these images, and we have a reference, not just to the geographic shape of the location, but also a rough reference to what the colors might do there. And so the director can look at it and say, “Oh yeah, I like that, I don’t like that, a bit more of this, a bit more of that.” And you slowly then start to develop the look of the film based on the actual locations themselves.

"Judas and the Black Messiah"

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Warner Bros.

King: [The decision to shoot] widescreen was Sean. He was like, I always shoot widescreen. One, you’re able film close-ups and really isolate a character, but you also have landscapes inside. That was all Sean’s idea and decision. Initially, I understood from an intellectual perspective, but then when I saw it framed up, it all made sense because that’s part of what gives the film the [scope] that it has, especially in some of those crowd shots. In the wide profile shot of Daniel, you really feel the space because of that.

Bobbitt: As the operator, I’m drawn to the widescreen format. Compositionally, there’s so much more you can do in terms of building a frame, but also where you put the actors within the frame and that has a tremendous dramatic emotional affect in terms of placement. It also works well with an ensemble cast; you can fit all those people in one frame and watch everything that is happening.

"Judas and the Black Messiah"

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Warner Bros.

Bobbitt: We could fit so much in the frame, but also get very dynamic by a simple pan because of the way the set moves within the frame. If you look at thrillers of the ’60s and ’70s, which informed the language of this film, most were widescreen. Look at how they move the camera. Instead of doing a big track or crane shot, it’s a simple pan and it’s that simplicity that we were looking for.

Then when you decided to go into a close up, particularly when using the a large format camera (Arri Alexa LF), you have a very narrow depth of field, a very narrow focus. The world around the character drops away, drawing the audience’s eye to that person. If you watch the film, we are very careful when we got to closeup. One of Shaka’s great goals was to ensure that both characters of Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) and O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield) were real people. We’re seeing a very human reaction or interaction, so that is heightened by the contrast with the wider frames and deeper depth of field.

"Judas and the Black Messiah"

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Warner Bros.

King: It’s a film that is meant to feel like an epic film, but we didn’t have the money to shoot tons of exterior wides, so those interiors had to be dynamic. That’s what Sean helped me find.

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