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American Cinematographer: An Angry Young Man
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Tsotsi
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The filmmakers occasionally worked from Hood’s rough storyboards, which the director describes as “bad South Park drawings” intended to indicate “what the emotional beats of the scene are.” He elaborates, “I had a lot to say about the angles because I feel the way you photograph an actor has a huge impact on the emotion conveyed by his performance. There’s a time when you know you want to be in tight and a time you really want to back off; that decision is emotional, and out of that decision you then compose the image to be also beautiful. I talk with my cinematographer a lot about framing and composition because that to me is part of the emotional core of the storytelling. On Tsotsi, we favored being very wide or pretty tight. There’s not much in between.”

Tsotsi was shot mostly on location in Kliptown, Soweto, during South Africa’s winter. When Gewer began scouting the area, he found himself on some of the same streets he had haunted while filming low-budget features two decades earlier. “In those days, we’d drive around and look for a suitable location — something that could pose as a hospital or police station, for example — and when we found one we’d transform it a bit and just start filming. By chance, we ended up using many of the same sites for Tsotsi, and they hadn’t really changed.”

As they developed their lighting scheme, Gewer and his gaffer, Oliver Wilter, took their cues from the locations, which included an urban train station, a middle-class suburb, and the impoverished township on the outskirts of the city. “The lighting in those areas is all very different,” notes Gewer. “The townships have a mix of sodium and mercury light — oranges and greens — radiating from the big security lights that illuminate these large areas. Even today, many people still don’t have electricity in their homes, so they use oil lamps, candles and coal fires inside. We looked at 8 Mile for the way it made use of mixed lighting; we wanted that kind of texture, as gritty a feel as we could achieve. Tsotsi is an antihero, and we felt it was very important to be honest to the character. We used a lot of sodium and mercury bulbs in practicals on set, but we used them mostly in the background while keeping the skin tones clean and natural.

“Oliver and I have done quite a few productions together, and he and his team were incredible,” Gewer continues. “We were working very fast and usually at night, and we didn’t have Wendy lights or helium balloons, so we lit really big night exteriors with 18K and 12K HMIs, 20K incandescents, and 6K and 4K CinePars that were mounted on high riser stands and kept as far from the subject as possible. This gave us quite an interesting, contrasty effect. The terrain — the fields, the grass and the roads — became quite gritty as opposed to soft.”

The film’s largest setup was a night exterior that appears early in the film, after Tsotsi has savagely beaten one of his friends, Boston (Mothusi Magano), at a neighborhood bar. After Tsotsi runs out of the bar, the camera picks him up and follows him through a dark alley, then down through a river and out across a large, grassy expanse that separates his township from a distant suburb. “We combined two shots to achieve this and used a disguised wipe/dissolve so it would appear as one shot,” says Gewer. “For the first part of the shot, we used a Steadicam [operated by Deon Vermeulen] to follow Tsotsi as he runs into shot and down a narrow alley between the shacks. At the end of the alley, the camera loses sight of him for a moment and wipes over a sheet of corrugated iron, where we dissolve to the next shot. The second shot was done with my operator, Marc Brower, using an Arri geared head on a [31-foot] Giraffe crane. It begins by wiping over the same sheet of corrugated iron [to accommodate the dissolve] and climbs into the air to reveal Tsotsi running away from the camera. He runs down a hill, through a river, up the embankment on the other side, and across a massive, burnt field toward the suburb in the distance.

“As he runs across the field, it begins to rain; we used two rain machines in the foreground to create the effect. This shot was done around midnight on one of the coldest nights of the year, and the water from the rain machine froze as it landed! I was using Kodak’s Vision2 500T [5218], which I rated at [ISO] 400, and lit the scene to about T2. We had to light right from the alley, where we used a lot of small [150-watt, 300-watt, 650-watt, 1K and 2K] incandescents — as well as a few small HMIs for ‘moonlight’  — out to the big field, which we illuminated with a variety of HMIs, CinePars and 20K incandescents.”

While scouting in the township, Gewer came upon a lighting motif that he decided to use throughout the picture to subtly underscore Tsotsi’s psychological state. “While driving around Kliptown at night, we came across a little butchery that was set apart by its green and pink fluorescent lighting. This inspired a recurring theme in our lighting. It’s quite subtle, but you’ll notice a hint of pink light in the background of many shots — we called it ‘butcher’s pink.’ I think of it as a suggestion of the love and compassion Tsotsi yearns for in his harsh world.” It was quite a challenge to get the pale-pink hue to register on film, however. “It’s a difficult color to work with and needed to be carefully exposed and timed to read right on film, even down to the projector lamp; if the lamp was too bright, it would cause the pink to read as an off-white pink. On set, I found myself using two or three times more gels on the sources than I expected to just to get it to read.”

One example of the “butcher’s pink” motif can be seen in a night-exterior wide shot in which Tsotsi follows a wheelchair-bound homeless man under a highway bridge. Many practical fixtures were used in the shot, and one is a fluorescent fixture that casts pale-pink light on a wall far behind the action. “On the wall, we placed practical fluorescent tubes gelled with two sheets of Lee Flesh Pink and enough ND filtration to sufficiently dim the color so it would read as pink on film rather than blown-out white,” says Gewer. “We supplemented this with a 5K Fresnel gelled with two layers of Flesh Pink to create the pink falloff on the wall under the fluorescent light. I believe we also added some CTO to enhance the color. We shot this scene on 5218 and exposed it at T2 to capture the existing lights and natural ambience of the city. To suggest the isolation of the characters in the vast and threatening space, I used 10mm and 14mm lenses for wide shots and long lenses for full shots and close-ups.”

Another place where “butcher’s pink” appears is in the shack belonging to Miriam (Terry Pheto), a young woman in the township. After spotting her with her own baby, Tsotsi follows her home and forces her at gunpoint to help care for his. Though their relationship is initially antagonistic, he is drawn back to her home because it exudes everything that is missing from his life. “Miriam’s shack had to suggest a little nest, a place that had the elements Tsotsi was searching for in life: love, compassion and normality,” says Gewer. “We built the interiors of Miriam’s and Tsotsi’s shacks on a stage, and [production designer] Emilia Weavind and the art department did a fantastic job of it. That’s where we had most of the scenes with the baby, and Gavin wanted to be able to work very closely with the actors on those scenes.”

 

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