Moving Image Source has posted an excellent interview with Harris Savides, director of photography of several very good recent films, including Birth, American Gangster, and Zodiac. Excerpt:
Let’s talk about Birth. It’s so exquisitely lit and photographed. The whole idea of looking at faces, and the mystery behind faces, is so important, because that’s sort of the premise of the film: you’re wondering, who is this person? I’d read that you had in mind certain paintings, in thinking about the film.
That was true of a movie I did for James Gray, The Yards. He walked me through a museum once and taught me a bunch of stuff. He wanted me to see things that he liked and appreciated, not only in regard to art, but more in regard to light and the direction of light. And it’s really stuck, stayed with me.
Were there specific painters that stayed with you from that?
Yeah, Georges de la Tour, who uses a candle most of the time. And for lack of a better way to describe it, there’s a kind of muddiness in the black, which is basically the fall-off of the lit part from the candle to the blackness. It’s not a true black. And true black doesn’t exist, really, in the world, nor does it exist in painting at all. Yet in our world, the technical world of filmmaking and video HD, black is really black now. And that seems to be the benchmark for every kind of new technology that comes along is, “Look at how good these blacks are.” They’re almost like anime blacks. It’s very unnatural.
Technicolor had that feeling, the old Technicolor. They were able to get really rich blacks.
But even there, if you go see any of these new restorations, that black still has something that’s relatable in our lives, as opposed to this synthetic black that is very, very contrasty.
That murky black that you’re talking about—it creates a sense of mystery?
Yeah. It’s muddy black, it’s purple-y black. Technically, it’s wrong. But I don’t want to discount the power of that in telling a story.
The interview includes an image of de la Tour’s “Christ In The Carpenter’s Shop.” Below, two more de la Tours, and two screenshots from Birth (2004).