“Widows” director Steve McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt have been working together for 18 years. It’s a collaboration that spawned from a friendship based on talking about art, photography, and politics. According to both men, with “Widows” they reached a point in their creative marriage where they barely talk about the look of the film.
“Sean is gorgeous in how he looks at things and what we don’t want to do is something decorative – not interested, we’re interested in getting something much more textural, that you can actually feel it in your hands,” said McQueen in a recent interview with IndieWire. “It gets under your skin, because unfortunately we don’t have smell, but we do have color grading, which is very important.”
One of the things that is important to both Bobbitt and McQueen, who have shot all of McQueen’s films on 35mm film stock, is this work is captured in-camera. It’s rare in a digital age, where so many films’ color story and overall look is manufactured in the post-production color grading process. And yet Bobbitt has an equally close collaboration with his longtime colorist Tom Poole, one of the most well-respected color graders working in movies, which begs the question: What is the role of the rigorous color grading for a DP who creates the look of his film in-camera?
Read More: In ‘Widows,’ Steve McQueen Does More with One Shot Than Most Directors Do with a Scene
IndieWire recently visited Poole at his Company 3 office in New York to look at some images from “Widows,” and spoke to both McQueen and Bobbitt to discuss their collaboration, in an effort to answer this question.
McQueen and Bobbitt are careful not to approach a film with a predetermined look, but rather one that emanates from the soul of the story itself. With “Widows,” that means the city of Chicago itself.
“One is not trying to say anything other than portraying the city as it is,” said McQueen. “Chicago, what’s so beautiful is it’s very gothic, at the same time it’s very modern, and then you have these areas that are very derelict, the southside which is decaying… The palette is such, it’s how do you differentiate, but at the same time merge these environments.”
For Bobbitt, ground zero of figuring this out was Veronica’s (Viola Davis) apartment. The location itself was the personal penthouse of one of the pioneers of modernist architecture, Mies van der Rohe, in one of the last skyscrapers he built (and in which his grandson still lives) along Lake Shore Drive.
“You have the blue of the lake and sky, and it’s all completely surrounded by glass, the interior has a unique sort of blue feel,” said Bobbitt. “All the walls are white and take on the color of everything else that goes on around, and that had a great impact upon me visually the more time I spent there. There’s a lot of very, very cold moments in the apartment, particularly when Viola has been left bereaved, and then the coldness of the apartment was there to reflect that literally. But then there are other times in the evening where there’s the incandescent light is on and the white walls are taking on that warmth, so the apartment had its own life within which she existed.”
While Bobbitt will capture that feel in-camera, he likes to give freedom to the colorist digitizing the dailies and then to Poole in the final grade to interpret his work. Poole will take a first pass on the film, which serves as a starting point for his 12-hour-a-day sessions with Bobbitt.
“We never like anything to look like it’s too heavily graded, it has to look like it could be ambient,” said Poole. “Even when there is a very strong look to a scene, we talk about making sure the grade emulates that photochemical look in a world, unlike what you are seeing so much of today where heavily graded films push the hyper-reality of things. That self-conscience look, for me, pulls you right out of the movie.”
Poole’s first pass often opens up elements of a scene or the location for Bobbitt by teasing out what was already there. Looking at the above still, Bobbitt marvels at how the early morning shot of Davis overlooking the lake, Poole was able to pull out the natural blue of the scene and then to contrast it with the distant orange. Poole said his initial pass was more neutral.
“Sean will be like, ‘Okay, this is a really nice somber moment, so let’s dial it back. This feels a bit too sunny, let’s just go a little bit cooler on it,’” said Poole. “And especially in this film. I mean, you’re playing up a lot of the sort of isolation that Viola has in this apartment. Liam’s character’s [has just died] and she’s in this beautiful apartment, but it’s sterile and cold and lonely, so we played the cooler element up. And that was all Sean’s direction.”
The lighting and color of the space reflects Davis’ character’s emotions, but it also served as a palate cleanser according to Poole and Bobbitt. Davis’ protagonist anchors a multi-character story which forces her from the clean, luxurious lifestyle of the apartment and pulls her into the darker, grittier parts of the city. Bobbitt’s visual design for the film was guided by using the apartment as a counter to define the look of the film’s other, more seedy worlds.
“That coldness and all the warmth, I think, led directly to the lighting concepts of the location where all the widows meet, which used to be where her husband would meet to plan their robberies,” said Bobbitt. “You have a total contrast, where Viola’s house has that uniformity of either the cold or the warmth, the husbands’ liar had a total mix of lighting – fluorescent hues, daylight and tungsten with varying degrees of green within them, but also incandescent lighting and sort of classical theatrical tungsten lighting as well. So that kind of mix created a world that emphasized that chaos of the world the widows had found themselves thrown into and which they were having to embrace.”
Bobbitt builds his lighting around making sure he gets the actors’ skin tones right, as the characters’ faces are the most important part of the frame. The husbands’ hideout presents specific challenges along these lines. It is where the widows – whose skin tone ranges from the alabaster skin of Elizabeth Debicki to the varying dark skin tones of Davis and Cynthia Erivo – meet and share the frame.
“You can’t mess around with the skin tone too much, especially African-American skin tones, which we had a lot of experience working with on ’12 Years a Slave,’” said Poole. “There was a very broad spectrum of skin tones, if you add too much warmth the skin can go very red. If you cool it down, it can go gray and look very ashen, so there’s such a fine line, so we tend to sort of dial the skin tone in the grade first and shape the environment around that.”
While having to create a grade that works for each of the women, Poole is also looking to pull out more of the gritty texture Bobbitt and McQueen want.
“I remember when we watched the dailies, initially the dailies colorist had gone cooler, so it was almost like an ultramarine blue that they were editing with, which looked icy,” said Poole. “Sean and I talked and instantly when I put more warmth back into the skin, the blues go that more kind of aqua-green color and just looks a bit dirtier and dingy. We both instinctively responded to that.”
Poole used power windows to isolate parts of the frame to enhance the color contrast. While introducing overall warmth to the frame, which can seen in the highlights in Debicki’s hair, Poole dialed into bluer, cooler parts of frame, like parts of the wood backdrop, to emphasize the warm-to-cool and dark-to-light transitions in the lighting design.
“We went quite dense, so we just had to lift a few things up by bringing it down just to get that mood and texture in there,” said Poole. “By putting that the contrast in there, you see all that texture in the walls right, so it’s dirty and has the feel Steve and Sean wanted. I did some work on Viola. She’s in the falloff of the frame, so we just gave her a bit of luminance and put a bit more warmth on her.”
According to Poole, the key is that Bobbitt takes this into account and properly exposes each character – controlling how the light’s color and reflection interact with the different surfaces and skin tones.
“I shoot as much as I can interior and exterior with a polarizing filter and by using the polarizer I can affect the amount of reflection off of any surface, but particularly faces so that I can use it to enhance say the reflection of another color of light on the flesh,” said Bobbitt. “And so I’ve enhanced the sort of warmer tones coming in onto the right hand side of her face which gives sort of a separation of the image in the background, but also shows the effect of the location on the person themselves.”
This image of Davis in the lair is a good example, as it shows how the light is actually playing on her skin with different colors giving different colored highlights. Poole then went in with a power window to bring out more of the coolness on her skin.
“Whenever I have a scene that has fluorescent light and tungsten light mixed together the trick is to find other nuance of color which you can see,” said Poole. “We desaturated some of this green so that it wasn’t this sort of teal and orange kind-of-obvious-wash look. The wardrobe is amazing, because you throw in this purple and there’s such a nuance of color, orange and purple are complementary. That’s what [McQueen’s whole team] is so good at, there’s a lot of that throughout the film where my job is made easy just because you have these beautiful offsetting colors.”
For Bobbitt, who has shot digitally on non-McQueen projects, the debate over digital versus film is boring. He sees the two as entirely different entities. For the type of work being done on “Widows,” film is what makes the nuance possible.
“For me, the beauty of the film is simply the fact that it is made of a multitude of layers, and that there are three separate individual color layers, the red, blue, and the green which are doing nothing but taking information for those colors,” said Bobbitt. “Whereas, the pixels are slightly different. You have no depth to a chip. It’s simply one surface and so the information that’s coming in is simply not three-dimensional.”
The ability to get that latitude in the image, but then having all that detail digitized to work with it, is the best of both worlds. Poole doesn’t disagree, but adds this only works if the film is exposed correctly.
“There is more latitude with film, sure, but it can be tough if it’s under-exposed,” said Poole. “Digital is very forgiving now. People are using at these crazy ISOs and there’s a lot of recovery in the low end. Film has to be exposed properly. You can’t undersell how much Sean is controlling this nuance of exposure and color in-camera.”
Both men point to scene at the gym, where a menacing Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya) confronts two men he believes have crossed him and his brother (Brian Tyree Henry). The scene ends in surprising violence.
“Although the events there are ultimately horrific, the build up is unexpected and we didn’t want to foretell what was going to happen by making it overly dark and sinister,” said Bobbitt. “I lit the gym completely with daylight coming through the windows. It’s trying to keep an honesty, a truthfulness to the scene that could be beyond believable to an audience. It needed that reality. But what I think is interesting is to see just how filmic this frame is. It’s just quite clean in the white, but yet still holds all the darkness of the scene and hopefully holds all the different flesh tones correctly as well.”
Poole was able to dig into this image by once again working with the images’ natural contrast to make it even denser and richer in detail, but not in the way you might imagine.
“Sometimes when people like contrast they just lift their whites, crush their blacks,” said Poole. “I tend to like to do my contrast, and a lot of feature guys do as well, with steeper curves, and it gives you a lot of the density, but still preserves detail in your highlights and shadows. You’re sort of setting the mid-tones down, keeping the texture in the blacks and in the highlights. I never like anything to be crushed or clipped.”
One thing Poole does in the gym shot, that he also does with the image above, is add a layer of silver.
“Sean and I have these tricks we play, [using] highlight keys and luminance keys to really run this nice silver aspect through the skin,” said Poole. “There’s a very specific way that Sean and I do it, we call it our secret sauce, which works very well with his aesthetic and how he shoots.”
The above image highlights how important Poole’s black and white photography background is to their collaboration. Specifically, the concept of “dodging and burning,” exposing different parts of the frame differently to create the perfect contrast. “Then he brings out that blue,” said Bobbitt, admiring the image. “He’s a real artist.”