This is the second FRAMES posts about Uncut Gems by the Safdie brothers with cinematography by Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC. The idea of the FRAMES series is to present the highest quality frame grabs along with discussions with some of the filmmakers. In addition to Darius, I include comments here by colorist Damien Van Der Cruyssen, gaffer Andrew Day and first AC Chris Silano.
A persistent theme in my discussions with Darius about Uncut Gems is the idea that background visual elements bring emotion and content to the scene, even when they aren't consciously noticed by the audience. I associate this notion of background with media philosopher Marshall McLuhan.
FRAMES1 discussed bokeh as an example of a powerful background element. This post presents Darius' approach to the night interiors and exteriors, with grain as a key background element.
Uncut Gems is a powerful film by Josh and Benny Safdie that follows Howard Ratner, a fast-talking jewel salesman in Manhattan's Diamond District, as he seeks to make money with a rare gem, while evading dangerous loan sharks. Compellingly played by Adam Sandler, Howard is a charismatic but deeply flawed character, a compulsive gambler willing to risk everything to strike it rich. The Safdie brothers' fifth feature is a funny, whirlwind thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Darius Khondji's cinematography imprints the film with potent imagery that blends gritty and painterly elements. If you haven't already, I urge you to watch Uncut Gems on Netflix.
Darius and the filmmakers made 3 key aesthetic decisions for the night scenes in Uncut Gems:
1. All the night scenes were shot with an Alexa Mini
-- All the daytime scenes -- and all the footage in the windowless Showroom set -- were shot with Arricams and 5219 negative film. Darius pushed most of the negative one stop to bring out the grain.
-- Darius chose to shoot all of the night scenes with an Alexa Mini rated at ISO 1600, with the same Panavision anamorphic lenses.
2. All the night scenes were shot on location
-- Darius sought to adapt his lighting of night scenes to existing urban lighting, and to incorporate city light sources in the frame, through an apartment or car window, or as a background when shooting outside. This approach heightens the gritty realism of the New York nights. (The night club location, which we will cover in the next post, did not include exterior urban elements, which is of course true of most night clubs.)
-- Matching the exposure for urban lighting meant working at a low light level, mostly with LED fixtures.
-- The choice of 1600 ISO ( 1 stop faster than Arri's recommended 800 ISO) facilitated revealing the dark urban night, but also accentuated the digital sensor noise.
3. Film grain was added to the night footage in the DI.
-- Darius chose to add grain to the grain-less Alexa footage. This helped to unify the daytime and nighttime footage, shot in negative and digital, but it also subtly transforms the background of the night scenes.
-- In collaboration with colorist Damien Van Der Cruyssen, Darius chose to add grain from exposed 5219 to the Alexa, creating a unique hybrid texture that combines underexposed sensor noise with the grain of actual film negative.
Location Lighting Package
All the night scenes in Uncut Gems were shot on location, which contributes to the film's realistic feel. Gaffer Andrew Day was kind enough to share the location lighting list:
I am struck by the mix of classical and contemporary tools in Darius' lighting:
-- The Tungsten quartz sources include a range of traditional hard lights with Fresnel lenses, going from 150 watt to 12K, along with Mini Brutes and the precise Source 4. The soft Tungstens include Rifalites and old-school Ziplights.
-- The HMIs feature big Arri fixtures, complemented by Jokers from K5600 Lighting. Soft lighting is provided by Chimera Chinese Lanterns, Pancakes and Octaplus'.
-- There is also a range of Kinoflo banks.
-- The LED sources include Arri Skypanels, Digital Sputniks, Litegear Litemat Plus panels and units from Cineo.
-- Digital Sputnick DS6 units were added in for big night exteriors
-- As discussed in Frames1, Darius made frequent use of battery-operated Astera Titan LED tubes, with additional units brought in as needed.
As we shall see in Frames3, the Showroom sound stage set was mostly lit with LEDs.
Night Interior - Passover
Benjamin B: Most of the film is shot with 35mm negative, why did you decide to shoot the nights with the Alexa?
Darius Khondji: It started with the Passover dinner scene. The location was a New York apartment which had a great view of the city. At first they thought of shooting it during the day with blacked-out windows, but I said: "Let's do it at night with the city in the background". And that’s how I began going to the Alexa, because I knew we'd be able to see the city easily. I wanted to give the directors as much freedom as possible, and the Alexa gave us more freedom to shoot nights.
BB: So you set your exposure to the city background?
DK: Exactly, with the Alexa Mini at 1600 ISO. The lighting inside comes from a pancake above... and also the candles. I used a Black Pro Mist filter.
Andrew Day (gaffer): We created a soft flat source above the table with Astera tubes; we modified the color temperature with DMX to make it work with the candlelight. Being able to tweak the color of the LED sources is really important for Darius.
Benjamin B: LEDs seemed to play a key role in the lighting on this film
AD: Yes. We had Tungsten and HMI on the list, but it was so much more about the LED color options. Those were very exciting for Darius, and for me too! He is so fond of being able to go outside of CCT [Correlated Color Temperature], and to work instead with RGB [Red Green and Blue].
BB: How was it working with Darius?
AD: Darius is an incredibly experienced, working legend. He is a wonderful guy, such an artist, and so passionate.
Damien Van Der Cruyssen was the colorist for Uncut Gems. Damien prepared LUTs with Darius before the shoot, and also timed the dailies. Working at The Mill in New York, Damien used a Baselight from Filmlight to time the dailies, and the final DI.
Benjamin B: The texture of the nights in the film is great, the Alexa footage looks very film-like.
Darius Khondji: We added grain to the digital footage to match the film. At first we tried adding digital grain, but it wasn't as nice as the actual film grain. So Damien, my colorist, suggested adding real film grain to the digital footage, and that worked.
Damien Van Der Cruyssen (colorist): Our biggest challenge was making film and digital look similar. We did a lot of tests with Darius. We tested the Alexa at different ISOs, and it started to feel like a good match to film at 1600. Then adding real film grain over the Alexa helped a lot.
Benjamin B: Where did you get the film grain footage that you added?
DVC: I asked the crew to shoot film on a dark gray background. We pushed that negative, like the rest of the film footage, then added it to the digital footage. Most of the grain we used was pushed one stop.
For the dailies we had the Baselight grain, which is quite good, but for the final DI we wanted to have the same grain on digital and on film. It took a while to really get it right, but in the end we preferred the film grain.
BB: How did you add grain to the signal?
DVC: I put it at 50% gray, so it maps mostly to the mid-tones and the blacks. I overlayed the grain.
I can still selectively take a little less in the highlights and a little more in the shadows
So it’s like an overlay but it’s also, it’s keyed over the picture, so I tend to have that roll-off naturally in the highlights because I feel it’s less distracting
Having grain on a highlight feels very strong very quickly
Is it true to film?
If you look at a print, you rarely see the grain in the highlight
DVC: I mixed black and white digital pixels over the image.
BB: How did you vary the grain effect?
DVC: I can also stretch it out, push the contrast of that loop. On some scenes we pushed a little cooler in the shadows.
We tried to get the grain to match what’s in the image
We didn’t want it to feel like the same grain overlaid throughout the movie, each scene has its little differences so that it doesn’t feel like a cut and paste of the same grain.
BB: And you don't feel the grain in the lighter parts of the Alexa footage. I felt the grain more in the Alexa nights than in the daytime scenes shot on film.
DVC: Darius did feel that some of the daytime footage shot on film didn't have enough grain.
BB: Did you guys ever consider also adding film grain to the film footage ?
DVC: We did think about it... But we resisted that temptation! [laughter]
Film grain is a background that is not usually noticed by audiences because it's made of small elements, and because it changes from frame to frame. Grain's mobility and texture give both life and visual complexity to the footage. I believe that grain engages the viewer emotionally.
In this post I present "DETAIL" frames that allow you to see and explore the individual grain elements, their clusters, their varying colors, their patterns and sizes, by clicking on the frame grab images and magnifying them. The idea is to place the background in the foreground.
The still frame DETAILS in this post don't show the whole story: they reveal the spatial quality of grain, but not its temporal quality. The full impact of grain is best appreciated by watching the trailer above, or, even better, Netflix movie on your largest screen. Nevertheless, these DETAILS will serve to explore the power, color and intricacy of the hybrid grain created for the night scenes in Uncut Gems.
Night Exterior - City
Benjamin B: I love the stark quality of the New York night exterior, when the lovers, played by Sandler and Julia Fox, quarrel next to the taxi outside the nightclub. How did you guys light this?
Andrew Day (gaffer): Darius is very fond of interplay with the real environment
of the city at night. So we worked at a light level that allowed us to hold the city in the background.
We hung our lights on existing structures. We turned off some street lights to control light direction. We hung a Skypanel with a Chimera on a lamp post to create a big pool of light, and some Sputniks off of fire escapes.
BB: You can see two of those sources reflected in the taxi window... I like that strong three-quarter backlight from the right, simulating headlights.
Benjamin B: Here again, you're setting the lighting to match the city background.
Darius Khondji: Yes, I need very little light in digital. We shot this scene without a permit.
BB: I love the wide shot background. It looks like the frame below was shot with a zoom, because of the rectangular bokeh, which is often a sign of a rear anamorph.
DK: It was a Panavision zoom that Dan Sasaki kindly prepared for me.
Benjamin B: The grain is very strong in this image
Damien Van Der Cruyssen (colorist): Darius and the filmmakers wanted a bolder look than in other scenes. I strengthened the grain to play with the emotions of the couple's fight. And I added contrast to the grain, and they liked the roughness of that image.
BB: The grainy, harsher image really works with the confrontation between the characters.
BB: When you zoom into the image, it looks like a Seurat painting. There's a swarm of colors: blue, red, green, violet, pink.
DVC: The mix of colors is gorgeous. It's the city lights captured by the Alexa because we're at 1600 ISO.
Benjamin B: When I saw Uncut Gems projected at Camerimage. I didn't feel the difference in texture between film and digital. Of course, the grain and the anamorphic helps.
Darius Khondji: Yes. I counted a lot on anamorphic and grain to blend film and digital. And also pushing the Alexa sensor.
BB: The grain is so very present, so very strong throughout the film.
DK: Remember that I pushed the film negative one or two stops to bring out the natural grain.
At the same time, I push 2 stops but I only expose for 1 stop, so I clean up the negative before I put it in the bath where I add 2 stops. Therefore I augment the contrast and the grain, so that the grain exists but it’s not too noisy.
BB: We've spoken about this before. You often do this kind of thing, applying two opposite processes at once, like pushing and over-exposing.
DK: That's true. Another problem here is that sometimes with digital the blacks are very gentle, very soft.
BB: We previously spoke [in Frames1] about the bokeh as the invisible background of the image, you compared it to a "perfume". It strikes me that the grain is like the bokeh, it's also in the background and it also brings a lot of emotion to the image, even if you don't notice it.
If the bokeh is the personality of the lens, then maybe the grain is the personality of the negative. But it's strange that you can add that personality to your digital images. It's like putting the ghost of the negative into the Alexa images.
DK: Yes! A grain ghost...
Night Exterior - Suburb
Benjamin B: The scene in the parking lot outside the suburban high school is a gentler night exterior. The frames here show Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler, and his wife, played by Idina Menzel.
Andrew Day (gaffer): We had two Skypanel S 360-Cs on a lift.You see their light on Adam's back. We drove the 360s to the other side of the parking lot for the shot on Idina.
The two 360s on a lift become a large source, almost like a couple of Maxi Brutes going through a 4x8 frame of Magic Cloth or thick diffusion. We had Skypanels on the roof, enhancing the streetlamps. In addition we had some sources doing architectural lighting, creating light and dark zones. We colored them easily via DMX.
The sharp light that Adam’s walking towards is a DS6 on a lamppost. Darius had used the Sputniks before. They’re very punchy, and lightweight so it's very easy to hang them on lampposts, and they're very controllable.
Darius Khondji: Everything was done with LEDs. I had lights up on the roofs very high, and lights hanging on the streetlights. I changed the colors of the LEDs to match the mercury-vapor streetlights in the parking lot. The nights in this film have sources that are very mercury-vapor, this blue with some dirty green. I love to add green to nights.
BB: The color is complex, there's blue with a cyan feel to it, and even some violet.
DK: In fact, I always told my gaffer Andy and my colorist Damien that I wanted the nights to look silvery. It’s not blue, it’s metallic.
BB: I love the zones of light in the background of these images.
DK: I lit as little as possible so as to have a lot of black in the image. I like that it’s like blades of light in the darkness.
Benjamin B: I love the scene when the bad guys torment Howard Ratner in the car. I recognize your colors here. It's beautifully underexposed.
Darius Khondji: What you see in this car at night where the faces meld into one another, is a paste made of under-exposure. The faces are half-exposed, shot at 1600 ASA. It's digital and we added grain, but they were already buried in charcoal, imprinted by ashes in this gold and bronze-colored paste.
DK: When I first started out, I would underexpose by taste, without thinking about it. Then when I met David Fincher on Seven, he told me that he really liked my underexposures, which he expressed as a technical choice. So we did tests, and explored underexposure. Since then I have used underexposure whenever I could. All the nights in Uncut Gems are underexposed.
I can say that I’m now comfortable with underexposure, but at the same time it scares me, which is normal. Underexposure is a zone in which I go to despite myself, in which I find gold and gems. It’s in extreme things that one finds beauty.
This makes me think of Goya...
BB: The Black Paintings?
DK: Yes. I'm going to shoot Goya's paintings at the Prado for an upcoming project with artist Philippe Parenno.
BB: This is hybrid grain, the digital noise from the underexposed sensor gets enmeshed in the grain from the pushed negative that is added to it.
DK: Even I forget that it wasn't shot on film
BB: I love the skin, the flesh colors
DK: There's gold, bronze, green
BB: Those are your colors in that strong texture, it's almost ugly, but it's beautiful.
DK: Extreme beauty is always right next to uglyness.
netflix.com: Uncut Gems
YouTube: The Ballad of Howie Bling - music by Daniel Lopatin
themill.com: colorist Damien Van Der Cruyssen
wikipedia.org: The Black Paintings by Francisco Goya
panavision.com: C series anamorphic lenses
kodak.com: Vision3 500T Color Negative Film 5219
aoassocies.com: Arricam System Users' Guide
arri.com: Alexa Mini
tiffen.com: Black ProMist Filter
astera-led.com: Titan wireless LED tube
thefilmbook: Practical Optics 3 - Introduction to Anamorphic