Ida, about a novitiate nun who discovers a dark family secret, by Polish-British director Pawel Pawlikowski, is up for two Oscars this year: best foreign language film and best achievement in cinematography. Lukasz Zal, one of the two cinematographers on the shoot—who stepped in when director of photography Ryszard Lenczewski fell ill during production—recently took time to answer questions about composing images in black and white, his favorite frames in Ida and the crazy luck that landed him in the D.P.’s chair.
What drew you to this project?
It was a coincidence, really. I was supposed to be a camera operator and Ryszard Lenczewski was to be the D.P. He was the one doing the research, documenting locations. Unfortunately, due to health problems, on the second shooting day he couldn’t make it to the set. (Director) Paweł Pawlikowski and the producers decided to give me a chance to finish the movie as the D.P. I think the second and third shooting days influenced their decision—it was when we shot big, important scenes. Paweł was very pleased with the outcome and a creative understanding was born between us. Of course, I knew I would have to face many challenges. The lack of camera movements, (shooting in) black and white, the very demanding 4:3 format. But the situation I had to face was so dynamic that I had no time for long preparations and, paradoxically, it worked to my advantage as it gave me a fresh perspective. I was able to react creatively to the challenges of each shooting day. It was an amazing time of creative dialogue with Paweł. We had long talks searching for best solutions and something very important was coming out of those talks. The most important creative process took place on set. Piece by piece, we would put this movie reality together. In the evenings, we talked with the actors about the scene we would be filming and in the morning, we were first on the set trying to find the most precise ways of filming it.
The film is shot in stark black and white. Was this part of the project from its inception?
Yes, it was Paweł’s idea to make the film black-and-white in order to make it look like the pictures from the sixties he remembered from family albums. It was very important to him to get rid of any ornaments, to make it simple, austere. It was supposed to be the world Paweł remembered as “uncluttered,” with as few things around as possible. He used to say that he needed a cinematographer who would be like an actor who could create this world, with whom he could fantasize. And I think that this created and stylized world worked perfectly, so it must have been very true. I think what helped us both here was the fact that we both previously made documentaries.
What were the challenges of shooting in the snowy climate of Poland?
Keeping light as soft as possible in the outdoor scenes was a great challenge. We avoided the sunlight. We fought with it every time it came out. I remember that while shooting one of the scenes we built a barricade, almost 30 meters tall, out of dark objects—trucks, black flags, etc.—to block all the sunlight that could reach us.
What was the most difficult scene or sequence to shoot?
All the night scenes, especially those in the hotel, were difficult. It was white with a lot of empty spaces; set design was almost minimalistic there, proper for those times but making working with light very difficult. In every night scene, and this is true for every black-and-white movie, there had to be a source of light present in the frame to make it look real. It’s hard to ask the viewer to interpret the light present in the frame as the one coming into the room from the street. Every time there was too much light on the characters’ faces, the scene looked as if it was shot during the day. It didn’t look right. I faced similar difficulties while shooting scenes in the convent: big, empty spaces, hardly ever broken with props. It was the first time I ever shot in such ascetic spaces. As it turned out, there was an amazing strength in this simplicity and minimalism.
Was there much use of natural lighting?
We practically never used natural light. Wherever we went, the conditions demanded a bit of correction from us.
Though there are moments of motion in the film, much of the film seems to take place in beautiful static compositions—still frames, which have a composed, photo-like quality. What were your discussions with one another and with the director in terms of ideas about the composition and camera movement in this film?
We took a very great care of each and every frame from each take. We wanted the picture to be as simple as possible. It was a very difficult task from the point of view of cinematography. We were left with an actor and a very clean space around him. It was most visible in the scenes in the convent, where the walls were white and practically empty and spaces were filled only with indispensable props. It was a great challenge to compose grand and saturated pictures. Paweł called them “posters,” and we composed them from the scraps of reality we had around us. We set each frame together. Paweł wanted each scene to have a joke in it, a punchline to make those picture as strong as possible. We started each day with looking for the perfect frame for the scene. Eliminating both color and camera movements was done in order to tell the story as simply as possible. We wanted to keep the essence of the scene, its emotions and tensions in single pictures.
Along those same lines, one of the most notable camera motions is the long tracking shot that ends the film, as Ida walks briskly down the street. Is the style of the camera movement here to suggest that Ida is reaffirmed in her faith and in her path at the convent, if she had questioned it for a moment?
I do not really want to interpret this scene. It’s more of an open question, really. Ida knows that she is deciding for herself who she is becoming and that feeling of freedom is the most important in this scene.
There are many wonderful frames in the film: Ida walking through the fields; Ida and the saxophone player sharing a moment against the glass windows. Do you have a favorite frame, scene or sequence?
I like those scenes as well. For me, personally, the scene at the bus station is very important. It was when we started to frame in this strange, disturbing way. A lot of air above the character’s head introduced an incredible mood, isolation and loneliness. It was the moment when we became much bolder in searching for new frames. With time, we knew that this wasn’t mannerism or an avant-garde way of telling the story, but that it actually works and introduces an amazing quality. I like the scenes in which setting the light to make it as natural as possible was challenging. Like it was in the scene in front of the convent, when Ida was standing in front of the figure of Christ. We shot at dawn, with the great help of our amazing crew, and I was able to make it the way I dreamt it to be.