How Vermeer helped call shots

Special to The Times

Based on Tracy Chevalier's popular novel, "Girl With a Pearl Earring" imagines the story behind the creation of one of Johannes Vermeer's most haunting paintings. Adapted by Olivia Hetreed and directed by Peter Webber, the film follows the complicated web of relationships around the acclaimed artist (played by Colin Firth) and a young servant (Scarlett Johansson) swept up into his world as model and muse. So when veteran cinematographer Eduardo Serra (who has photographed such films as "The Hairdresser's Husband," "The Wings of the Dove" "Unbreakable" and "Flower of Evil") got the job to replicate the look of 1665 Holland and to re-create the conditions Vermeer captured in his paintings, one would assume he would have begun extensive research.

Serra says that wasn't necessary. "I'm already very familiar with art history; it's not something I'm discovering or investigating, it's part of my own background. It might surprise you, but there was nothing special to do because Vermeer and the other classic painters were very interested in how to show natural light and respect light," he said, speaking by phone from his home in Paris. "Before then, painting was not realistic, with regards to sourcing light, until maybe 100 years before Vermeer, Rembrandt and La Tour. They were fascinated by light, and they were trying to put into their paintings their interpretation and their admiration for light."

Working on sound stages, it was up to Serra to replicate the look and feel of sunlight pouring through the windows of Vermeer's studio. While he might have preferred to work with natural light, the conditions of the shoot wouldn't allow it. As he explains, "In all my work I am interested in being as natural as possible, what light would really do when coming from a window. That's completely part of my work. So it happens that to film Vermeer's studio I just did what I would have done in any contemporary film in that kind of situation. People see the windows on the left, so the light comes from the left through those windows. Period."

As he elaborates on his methods, his explanation turns more philosophical than technical, "Actually, it was a gift for me to be offered this project. It would be for any cinematographer, but especially for me, because it was paying tribute to the kind of approach I'm also trying -- to respect light, be an admirer of light, a follower of light rather than building light, making light. As I have reverence for and draw inspiration from Vermeer, this was unbelievable, a dream."

Though he is reluctant to reveal his tricks of the trade, he allows that he did not film by actual candlelight, for reasons both practical and artistic. "Candles are very difficult. Real candlelight is very dramatic, like the paintings of La Tour, it's a very strong image. I deliberately didn't want that look because I thought it would be distracting. The most important thing for me on this was not to show a history of art or painting. It was the story. It was a film about Vermeer, not about La Tour. So I used artificial light with as few sources as possible. I didn't try to work with candles, as I have on other films. It would have been wrong; it would have been too much."

With regard to the actual replication of the tableaux that Vermeer captured, Serra again downplays any difficulty in capturing the perfect image. "Light, like in a Vermeer painting, was part of the story. In a way it's about painting, it's about light coming through the window. So I was allowed to be a little stronger, and I was not, as I would with [director Claude] Chabrol, trying to be small and quiet and minimalistic, just to express the story. And of course in some shots we were obliged to duplicate the paintings, because that was part of the story. Those setups were just a matter of angling the light to match the modeling of the painting. It was very simple."

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