The New Black, and White - Cinematography
"It took you two days to drive 750 miles? What are you, driving a dump truck
One of the first decisions Alexander Payne took in making "Nebraska" was to
shoot the film in black and white. He knew it would be a risk, but it was
central to his vision of the story. "Visual style was my window into the
picture," he notes. "Black and white just felt like the right choice for this
film, because that's always how I read it and saw it," explains Payne. "I've
also always wanted to make a film in black and white. It's such a beautiful
format. And this modest, austere story lends itself to a visual style as stark,
plain and direct as the lives of the people in the film."
Everyone involved in the film was intrigued by the idea, despite the
uncertainty that surrounds black and white as a medium in today's film world.
Says Berger: "Alexander has always been interested in an authentic look, but
black and white gives this story something iconic. He and DP Phedon Papamichael
use black and white and Cinemascope to really add to the storytelling. At times,
I was put in mind of John Ford's work or Peter Bogdanovich's Last Picture Show -
it's a film that fits into that kind of American tradition of visual
storytelling. And Phedon is such an amazing DP that it was exciting to give him
this chance to really stretch his talent."
Yerxa adds, "Phedon really has an ability to find beauty in the mundane. I
think the look of the film has the quality of taking you into the Midwest
America in your mind. It allows you to consider what goes into our
quintessential idea of Americana in an inviting and atmospheric way."
If anything the black and white focused the filmmaking even more. "Every
frame was meticulously planned to create this black and white world," oes
George Parra. "Alexander and Phedon are into pure filmmaking. There aren't a lot
of crane shots or steady cams, so it's a very Billy Wilder kind of
The actors were equally on board. "This film is perfect for black and white
because it allows you to focus on human behavior," observes Stacy Keach. "There
are no distractions."
Papamichael, who also shot "Sideways" and "The Descendants" with Payne, says
that Payne talked about black and white from moment one. "That's how he saw it
in his head," he says, "so even though there was a series of struggles about how
to make it happen, that was always the plan."
The specifics of tone and texture emerged from a series of tests. "We did
lots and lots of testing," Papamichael recalls, "to find the particular look of
black and white that was right for the film. There's nothing stylized about it,
though. It's a high-contrast look that supports the human comedy and really sets
Papamichael notes that they all wanted to make the most of the opportunity
creatively. "We definitely knew this might be the only time in our lives we'd
have a chance to make a black and white film, which I think is a dream of a lot
of filmmakers, so we really enjoyed it. At the end, there was the feeling of
'how can we ever go back to making color films again?' It's like a whole new
To fully explore that reality, he and Payne perused film noirs, Italian
Neo-Realism and contemporary American film such as "The Last Picture Show"
(notably, Papapmichael's father shot the sequel to "The Last Picture Show," "Texasville"),
but the biggest driving factor was the characters.
"The way that the black and white works with the texture in Bruce Dern's face
alone, with all of the subtleties of his performance, is so powerful," he notes.
"Equally important was the decision to shoot with anamorphic lenses, which
really lend themselves to these landscapes -- the vastness of them, the power of
the sky, the texture of the fields, the feeling of Midwestern communities."
The decision to shoot with ri Alexa cameras came after extensively testing
color and black and white stock, and realizing digital would offer the most
range and flexibility. In post-production, a layer of authentic film grain was
then added to the digital print to echo the warp and weave of celluloid.
This was the first time Papamichael had shot in the Midwest, and he found
himself charmed by the locales and more so the people. "You have wonderful,
archetypal landscapes, but some of my favorite scenes to shoot came in these
little, powerful moments that are so human," he says.
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