Two films shot in black and white this year have been nominated in the Oscar Best Cinematography category: Cold War and Roma. Interestingly, both take place in the past. For Cold War, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Lukasz Zal said he and director Pawel Pawlikowski thought about shooting the post-war film in color, but ultimately decided not to. And the reasons are similar to Roma‘s.
“I think we link to this time to the past and in our film we wanted to link to the 1950s and 1960s, and the idea was to build our own interpretation of the world and create this world from memories. Black and white helps so much to add some iconic groundwork,” Zal told Deadline today. “In general this film and this love story was so tumultuous, and we thought we won’t find the color in this. When we started working on this, we did attempt color but after two weeks, we realized it should be black and white. In Poland during that time, it was so grey. It was greenish and black and white. I think it was easier to get into this work and create your own interpretation which exists in memory. We were drawing from that.”
He said and in that way, he can see the reasons Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma shot in black and white as well. “The two films are about memories and feelings which are very deep with both directors and I think it’s very real and honest. Two films that are very personal, and I think that is why.”
Cold War took best director at the Cannes Film Festival and received multiple prizes at the European Film Awards, including Best European Film.
When shooting in black and white, Zal worked with an Arrri Alexa XT camera and Ultra Prime lenses and Angenieux Zooms. “Everything changes when you shoot in black and white — costumes, makeup, hair, production design — because you are looking for the contrast in every place. You are looking at a different reality,” said Zal, who is enjoying his second nomination for cinematography after earning a nomination for Pawlikowski’s 2013 film Ida.
“We wanted to make this film differently than Ida. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves. So Cold War changes in style … so it could go from a documentary feel to highly stylized and more static.”
The love story stars Polish actors Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot who are fatefully mismatched. It is set against the background of the Cold War in the 1950s in Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris.
“When (the character Zula) appears, everything starts to move when she appears,” said Zal, explaining “she is a trigger for the camera. Then it flows and later we just become connected with them.” To achieve this kind of intimacy and also feeling of isolation, Zal said he was cognizant of framing.
“Lenses became more narrow and depth of field became more shallow,” he said. “We completely disconnected her from the background when she was in Paris. When she is back in Poland, we are using wider lenses and there is more air and they become part of the landscape once again. She was someone in Poland, but not in Paris where she was suffocating so we created the feeling of a trap in Paris.”
The result was a beautiful and, at times, haunting portrayal of a post-war romance. The Oscar noms for the film — it was nominated also for Direction and Best Foreign Language film — was a huge deal in Poland, where the director watched the nominations unfold.
“We are in Poland and we all watched — the producer, makeup artists, my wife, my agent, Borys (Szyc, one of the actors), and people from the Polish Film Institute,” he said. “Borys asked us if we wanted coffee and I was like, no we are so excited, we don’t need anymore caffeine!”
On the nominations themselves, Zal said, “We didn’t expect anything. We were putting such heart into the movie and suddenly, we are here. I’m so grateful for Pawel for inviting on this journey, to build this world and to build it together. We had an incredible crew. When we finished (the movie), we were crying. It was something really, really special to all of us.”