Even for a movie told from the point of view of a donkey, “Eo” has an idiosyncratic look. Poland’s Best International Feature nominee at the Academy Awards — and one of IndieWire’s top 10 picks for the best cinematography of 2022 — follows donkey Eo as he changes owners, each as mystifying, arbitrary, foolish, kind, and beautiful as the European landscape itself. The film kicks off in big, bold, alienating strokes: Red strobe lights and alternating camera setups between the ground and God’s-eye view force the viewer to experience Eo’s world in a distinctly unfamiliar way. The film only builds from there, with director Jerzy Skolimowski and cinematographer Michal Dymek finding a series of ways to represent an animal’s view of our human world.
Creating this view took a significant amount of testing, which Dymek jumped into as soon as he joined the project. The film was supposed to be shot in a 2.39 aspect ratio, but Dymek found that the proportions of a donkey’s head were much better served by a 3×2, 1.5 frame. “It’s super tough to compose a good frame, and have a lot of space in the frame [off the donkey’s head]. So I thought it would be good to squeeze the format into a frame that was more squarish,” Dymek told IndieWire.”[The 1.5 format] is like a large-format still photography aspect ratio.”
Dymek wanted to stress both the donkey’s subjectivity and the organic environment through which Eo moves, which drew him to a large format camera and vintage lenses that could warp the edges of the frame and create a sense of how the animal sees and navigates human spaces. Dymek and his team customized an Alexa Mini LF in order to make the portable camera fully mobile and responsive. “We stripped off the whole camera and [took away everything] that was unnecessary. Literally, there was just the camera body, the top handle, lens, and one or two engine motors for focus pulling. With this setup, I could be anywhere, at any time, next to the donkey. It allowed me to be very flexible and quick,” Dymek said. “I could run and [act] almost as a steady-cam operator.”
Dymek took advantage of the flexibility to build out locations in a more 360-degree way and allow setups to follow the intuition of the various donkeys playing Eo — because donkeys are going to go where donkeys want to go. But to create the in-camera look of Eo’s point of view, Dymek utilized a set of older Canon prime lenses. “I needed to look for lenses that would be suited to the large format sensor, and at that time Panavision had like three different sets. One of them was a rehoused set of primes, Canon K35s, which are also photography lenses,” Dymek said. “I found [during testing] that especially the 35mm lens had something super special and unique, [this slight distortion] surrounding the frame.”
The quality of the lenses helped Dymek solidify the visual language of the film, embracing a slightly fuzzy edge and still-photograph quality. Dymek’s images in the film have an evocative quality that also feels heightened, perfectly conveying an animal’s lack of context for human structures and environments but nonetheless needing to move through them. But it was a tricky balance to pull off. “You could only see this [slightly blurred] look when you chose the proper aperture,” Dymek said. He needed to find the exact amount of light to let through to the camera to recreate how Eo sees the world.
But it wasn’t just technical choices that helped Dymek and his team find Eo’s perspective. It was also through the number of ways the camera moves, frames and reframes environments and picks odd angles from which to view fairly mundane actions, like the opening of a barn or a child’s ride through the woods. Dymek is particularly proud of that latter sequence, and how the team created the fragmented beauty of that children’s day out. “I went completely mad, and I shot like I was in a trance. I was shooting from every angle with my friend who shot like everything from a long lens. He did no B camera, but I was in this crazy mode of following every detail the donkeys were doing,” Dymek said.
“I remember when I watched the first draft of the edit, after almost a year of time spent on set with Jerzy and Ewa and the rest of the crew, that moment really moved me. I felt like, ‘Oh my God, so much time had flown by, and here I’m looking at the first result, and it looks amazing.’ There was some poetry in that and real passion for filmmaking. There was real passion for filmmaking in this footage.”