'Ida' cinematographer was as surprised by his nomination as you were

Posted by · 9:53 am · February 18th, 2015

One of the bigger surprises for many (ahem, not all) people when the Oscar nominations were announced was the inclusion of a little Polish indie called “Ida” in the Best Cinematography category. But the story of how the film came to feature two DPs – Ryszard Lenczewski  and Lukasz Zal – is an interesting one itself.

Unfortunately, Lenczewski has been unavailable lately, but I wrangled up an email chat with Zal about his good fortune. (That's him on the right next to director Pawel Pawlikowski in the photo at the top.) And it's double the excitement for him, too, as he shot the Oscar-nominated documentary short “Joanna” as well. The Polish Film School is taking over! Seriously, though, it was a truly unexpected moment for Zal, of course, to land an Oscar nomination for his feature debut, particularly after the unusual circumstances that led to his assuming the role of cinematographer.

What's more, this rounds out a fairly substantial year of DP conversations for us here at In Contention. I delight in these so much and am so happy they tend to find an audience. I hope you continue to enjoy them as we move forward.

Check out the back and forth with Zal below.


HitFix: What was it like collaborating as dual cinematographers on a project? How did you divide duties or work hand-in-hand?

Lukasz Zal: The fact that there were two DPs working on “Ida” was a coincidence. I was supposed to be a camera operator, Ryszard Lenczewski was to be the DP. He took part in the recces [pre-production location work], prepared everything but his health prevented him from continuing his work. During the very first days, we worked alternately; Ryszard was the DP for 10 days all in all. Everything happened unexpectedly. I was promoted to DP on the second day. After a few days, Ryszard returned to work and I became the camera operator again. Then, he couldn't work again and once more I took over and worked with director Pawel Pawlikowski. I used Ryszard's photos, taken during the recces, to get an idea about locations. I had no time for additional recces or preparations. It became obvious really quickly that Pawel and I got along very well, that the work we had done during those first couple of days turned out great and that was when Pawel and the producer decided to give me a chance. The situation was a bit crazy. I arrived to the set not really knowing if I'd be a DP or a camera operator that day. All I could do, really, was to concentrate and be creative. Later on we had more time to plan, discuss the scenes we were about to shoot and “fantasize,” as Pawel liked to put it.

Was digital always part of the plan or did you at any point consider film? What did you find beneficial about digital with this particular project, and at the same time, what limitations did it place on you?

The decision that the movie was to be shot on Alexa was made much earlier. It was Ryszard's idea. There were many reasons for choosing that particular camera, the most important one being that Alexa's transducer gives picture that is the most similar to the one shot on the traditional stock. The black and white stock available today is imperfect and the whole process is very expensive. Working on a digital camera gives much bigger comfort, like the possibility to shoot many retakes, which is very important while working with an actress who's making her onscreen debut (Agata Trzebuchowska). Not to mention the financial matters. The final result is comparable to the traditional stock but it's much easier to achieve. I, personally, do not see any limitations.

The look of the film is obviously very stark, maybe even austere. What inspired that? Did you reference art work or photography or other films at all?

The style of picture is partly inspired by the films of the Polish Film School. As far as photography is concerned, I would mention Jeanloup Sieff and his black and white photos. We drew our inspiration from the movie entitled “Vivre Sa Vie.” We found the formal decisions made in this movie very bold and incredible. We wanted the movie to be as coarse as possible, deprived of all the visual ornaments, to make it look as if it was shot in the '60s. And I think we managed that. During one of the first showings of the movie, in the post-production studio, someone saw parts of “Ida” and was wondering out loud how was it possible that Agata Kulesza was playing in such an old movie.

There's also a careful geometry, I want to say, to the film's composition. What inspired that and what was that element of the film's look meant to convey thematically?

This particular way of framing was used for the first time while we were shooting the scene at the bus station. We were looking for the feeling of misplacement and isolation and it turned out that so much air creates an incredible mood. We kept using it in the following takes and we were able to see that something unique and interesting is coming out of it. We were very shy at first but grew bolder as we went on. We were building our frames from the scraps of reality with great precision, like posters. We set each frame together, Pawel and I. Pawel has a great sense of pictures.

A lot of people were pleasantly surprised that you got an Oscar nomination. How did it feel for you guys?

I was equally surprised. I didn't expect it at all. I was doing the pre-production for my new film and it was a last minute decision to go and watch the nominations at the Polish Film Institute. Emotions were running high. Firstly, because of “Ida” being nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film. Secondly, the nomination for the documentary entitled “Joanna,” on which I worked as a cinematographer. Not to mention, the nomination for the cinematography for “Ida.” It was incredible and very exciting. I didn't expect to get a nomination for the movie that was my debut. The fact that I could work on the cinematography for that film is the biggest reward for me.

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