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Color, grain and ‘Raging Bull’: ‘Irishman,’ ‘Joker’ cinematographers dig deep into craft

Cinematographers Lawrence Sher, left, and Rodrigo Prieto
Cinematographers Lawrence Sher, left, and Rodrigo Prieto compared notes on the shooting of their films, “Joker” and “The Irishman,” respectively.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

What happens when you put two Oscar-nominated cinematographers together in a room and ask them to explore each other’s methods? You get a nonstop discussion that drills down on artistry, film history, technical savvy, evolving gear and, above all, process.

In this excerpt from their conversation, “The Irishman’s” Rodrigo Prieto and “Joker’s” Lawrence Sher talked about matching looks in film and digital, and how the beautiful flaws in film color and grain influenced their choices. They also stumbled on a shared origin story.

Prieto: Larry, I found your choice of color, especially the cyan, in combination with this yellow sodium-vapor color, so interesting. Did you apply it differently in different scenes?

Sher: I’ve always loved the way colors mix in films from the 1970s, before we had other ways to clean this all up in post. Because [“Joker”] was set in the late 1970s/early 1980s, I wanted to purposefully replicate those four cornerstone lights of that period in the movie: a sodium vapor burnt orange; the blueish-green cyan that would come from a cool white, uncorrected; the warmer yellow, uncorrected warm white; and then just tungsten lights. They add authenticity but also a dramatic palette I thought in some small way still is comic book-like, even though we very much set out not to make a comic book movie.

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“Joker” offers a new take on the Batman villain, with Joaquin Phoenix in title role.

Scene by scene, Todd [Phillips] and I would talk about what the dominating color would be. For example, the loneliness and isolation that blue makes us feel versus maybe the warm tungsten light when [actor Joaquin Phoenix] is in a different place in his arc early in the film. And later, some of that daylight goes harder and more aggressive from the time he kills his mom, to rehearsing for Murray’s talk show to killing Randall. In all those scenes, the light that’s coming into the apartment is not suddenly more aggressive but we built an arc [with color and light] the way the narrative does with a character.

Prieto: Cyan is sometimes hard to get on a digital camera; it just doesn’t register. But a cool white fluorescent bulb will immediately look quite blue-green on film. But on “Joker” you brought that back in.

Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from “Joker.”
Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from “Joker.”
(Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures)

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Sher: Right, some of it is in the LUT [color grading lookup table] but a lot of it is in the light we added. We were going to shoot film negative up until the 11th hour. Finally, Todd asked me to do some large-format tests. I had a really good experience with the [Arri] Alexa 65 but we really wanted to shoot film in 70 mm. The studio said it would be too much money. So I knew that if it was going to work, I had to work harder than ever before to mimic the film curve.

Thankfully, my longtime colorist is Jill Bogdanowicz who grew up in Rochester [New York] and comes from a family of Kodak color scientists. We tried to figure out what made that curve so film-like and what we could do with the Alexa sensor to mimic that more than we’ve done in the past. What we discovered with the sensors was that a cool white sometimes isn’t enough, so we had to add extra green or extra blue on top of it.

Prieto: In the case of “The Irishman,” the intention was to emulate still photography, at least during the first part of the movie in Frank Sheeran’s [Robert De Niro] memory, before that 1970s centerpiece around the road trip to Detroit and the killing of Hoffa. Instead of going the Super 8 or 16 mm route, we researched still photography emulsions, consulting a color scientist from Kodak, but it was with Philippe Panzini [director of U.S. research at PIX System] in London who we delved deep into what Kodachrome and Ektachrome do in terms of color. We created lookup tables based on that research. I think that there is something in our shared memory of our past that is still influenced by the photos of those times. The colors are very specific and have fixed our actual memories with those hues.

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in a scene from “The Irishman.”
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in a scene from “The Irishman.”
(Netflix)

The tricky part was once I tested the different LUTs on motion picture film, and I liked it and it worked and I showed [Martin] Scorsese and he approved them, then we had to match it to the digital camera because of the necessity of using digital cameras for the de-aging technology, which was 50% of the film. I tested different cameras to see which ones would reproduce the lookup tables and was surprised that in this case it was Red Helium, which is why it became the centerpiece in the “three-headed monster” rig.

“The Irishman,” “Gemini Man,” “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and “Avengers: Endgame” are among the VFX contenders on the Oscar shortlist.

Sher: Did you literally have shot lists where you went from digital to film and back to digital again? Or was it shot in sequence where you said, “This is all de-aging so everything’s going to be shot digitally”?

Prieto: For the most part, I kept scenes that needed de-aging just digital. But, there was one big scene where I mixed film and digital — not from one closeup to another but rather sections of the scene. This is inside the Latin Casino for Frank’s appreciation ceremony. That’s a very long scene and I really wanted a film grain look on that. For every digital shot we had to not only emulate the look of film but also add a grain texture that would match the rest of the film shot on film negative. Every scene that included Hoffa we shot digitally, but the scene when Russell Bufalino [Joe Pesci] gives Frank the ring was shot on film, because it was just the two of them and they were in practical makeup.

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Sher: That’s super impressive. I always feel like film is amazing and digital can look like film but they only really show their deficiencies when you see them cut by cut. To do it seamlessly within a scene seems really difficult.

By the way, I’ve never worked with Scorsese but he is a master filmmaker and has a powerful place in my heart. He’s influenced all of us in so many ways. I got into film in college and literally transcribed “Raging Bull” from start to finish by hand in my dorm room after watching it.

Prieto: That’s my favorite movie of all time. When I saw it in the theaters I was in film school and I was blown away. My birthday happened during the shoot of “The Irishman,” and my wife, Monica, got me a poster of “Raging Bull” and got De Niro and Pesci to sign it.

Sher: I had that poster hanging in my first apartment in L.A.


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