BlacKkKlansman

Chayse Irvin csc
Teams Up with Spike Lee

By Fanen Chiahemen
Article from the Canadian Cinematographer the oficial from the Canadian Society of Cinematographers CSC

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Spike Lee and Adam Driver on the set of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

BlacKkKlansman, the latest feature from provocateur director Spike Lee, tells the strange- but-true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who in the early 1970s infiltrated the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan, even becoming the head of a local chapter. In the film, John David Washington plays Stallworth – Colorado Springs Police Department’s first black officer – who pulls off the deception by convincing KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) over the phone that he is white, while fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who is Jewish, acts as Stallworth’s stand-in at Klan meetings. The movie premiered earlier this year in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, going on to win the festival’s prestigious Grand Prix award.

Lee reached out to New York based Chayse Irvin csc to shoot the project after seeing the music film Process that the DP had shot in 2017. Irvin suggests his mash-up style, which he also brought to the shoot of Beyoncé’s 2016 film Lemonade, appealed to what Lee had in mind for BlacKkKlansman. “The only conversation Spike and I had was the idea of mixing different formats,” Irvin says. “It’s something that I’ve done a lot in previous work, and I think he really liked that. I just bring to the table every single camera and lens option available, and I allow the process to grow from within itself and the experience of digesting and absorbing all the images from the testing period informs all those choices.” As a result, BlacKkKlansman’s visual style is what Irvin describes as “very much an expression of jazz. I view it more like music,” he says. “That was our approach; we were just like a jazz band. Spike was Miles Davis, I was John Coltrane, and the production designer was Cannonball [Adderley.] We’re all just making an album on the set of the session, so the construction of it is more about being present and in the moment and trusting each other and reacting to things that you experience.”

Shooting began in October 2017, with Ossining, New York, selected as the main location. “It just had a very old city centre and it resembled Colorado Springs, and it was also within the

Spike was so happy. He couldn’t remember the
last time he shot on film. He got so excited
about it. On a daily basis, he was talking about
how awesome it was to shoot film. He was like,
‘I love it, this is me again.‘

requirements of shuttling the crew up there and not having to put people up, so it was kind of a perfect setting for us,” Irvin says. After Irvin’s extensive testing in preproduction, the decision was made to shoot BlacKkKlansman on film. “When I started screening the tests, I was really moved by the images that were created using a Panaflasher 3, which is a newer flashing product from Panavision, and the 35 mm with the flashing just became really emotional to me,” he says. “Those images became hypnotic and beautiful, and to me that’s actually one of the most important things in my approach to shooting anything, is that it accesses the spectator’s unconscious more so than their conscious. So I talked to Spike about shooting on 35 mm, and Kodak got involved – they had just opened a lab in New York, and once I heard that, it just felt like there were all these signs saying it was possible and it wasn’t going be too extraneous on the production.

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John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s
BlacKkKlansman, a Focus Features release.

“Spike was so happy. He couldn’t remember the last time he shot on film. He got so excited about it,” Irvin recalls. “On a daily basis, he was talking about how awesome it was to shoot film. He was like, ‘I love it, this is me again.’ So he embraced the idea, and it was really Kodak, Company 3 and EFILM all coming together with Panavision to make 35 mm possible. All these companies just gave and gave to the film. They’re entirely the reason it is what it is now.”Irvin ended up shooting with Panavision PVintage lenses and Panavision Millennium XL2 cameras for A and B shooting. He would also exclusively operate his own Arricam LT as a C camera when a third camera was needed. As well, he flew in an Aaton Penelope belonging to a friend from Stockholm, which he used for interior car work. “It’s really difficult operating handheld in cars because the camera needs to be really small. Not just skinny and short, it has to be the right length, as well,” he says. “The Aaton Penelope is just the best camera I’ve ever used in car interiors because it’s a very thin camera, and the way it reloads,

the threading happens in the magazine, so you just click the mag on, you don’t have to rethread it. And it has onboard batteries.” He used Zeiss Standard Speeds with the Penelope. “They’re one of my favourite vintage lenses; they’re very small. It’s not a high-speed lens, but it still works for most situations and it’s really just a tiny optical housing, so it was great,” he says.

When it came to lighting, the DP says the locations they were shooting in informed his approach. “Usually I let the spaces tell me how they’re going to be lit,” he explains. “If I see a lot of windows, I’ll know that I’m going to be using some big sources from far away, and I’ll light the scenes using that. And if I’m in interiors, I like to use top lighting and rig single sources or multiple sources, like arrays of LEDs. I only usually use LEDs close to the actors. I try to operate all my LEDs wirelessly through a RatPac system so that once the actor’s on set there’s no flying in a ladder or tweaking the angle of something. I can open up my iPad or iPhone and just log on to the network and adjust the intensity exactly the tenth of a stop that I need for the shot and the colour temperature. It’s just been a great tool for me, and also I think it shows respect to the people in front of the camera.”

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Director of Photography Chayse Irvin csc on the set of BlacKkKlansman.

Cinelease provided most of the HMIs, SkyPanels and incandescent light fixtures, but Irvin also owns LiteGear he’s been collecting over the years. “I handcrafted a lot of, like, 4’ by 2’ panels that just have LiteGear ribbon taped onto the top of it. They’re so lightweight that they float before they fall,” he says. “They’re great tools because on location a lot of times I’ll just tape or Velcro one of these sources to a ceiling. Most times I don’t just use one, I’ll use several and I’ll make a 4x4 or a 6x4 source and I’ll do a teaser around it. And a lot of the time I don’t diffuse it. I think that’s something that a lot of DPs and gaffers do, but I actually really love the quality of the LEDs because what ends up happening is if you space the LEDs apart perfectly, they cancel the other shadow out, and it creates this kind of texture, especially on African American skin. It’s really rich and it just pulls the depth out of skin tones.”

Although Lee usually shoots with two cameras, Irvin says he personally prefers the single camera approach. “I pay a lot of attention to composition, and with two cameras it’s a compromise, and the lighting and the composition can be a real challenge,” he says. “Then I started really thinking about it, and it seemed like a challenge that I had accumulated enough experience to take on.

We were just like a jazz band. Spike was Miles Davis,
I was John Coltrane, and the production designer
was Cannonball. We’re all just making an album on the
set of the session, so the construction of it is
more about being present and in the moment and trusting
each other and reacting to things that you experience.

So we had an A and B operator – Ricardo Sarmiento was on A camera and Kerwin DeVonish was on B camera – and these two operators have been working with Spike for many, many years. I really got along with them, and they got it.
“I had a conversation with Spike early on that I really wanted to take some risks on the film,” Irvin continues. “Because the biggest danger that I see in two-camera shooting is you fall into this really formulaic form of coverage and composition, and you end up boxing yourself into corners. Whereas I talked with Spike early on about using the A camera to take massive risks on each scene. Like maybe we’d shoot it at a different frame rate or a different shutter speed, or we’d put the camera on the ground and crop people or compose the shot in a different way. We would try to contrast the coverage as much as possible. We would compose one character from a low angle and the other character from a high angle to really give a particular style to it; it was sort of arbitrary in its idea, but I think it’s what keeps it really honest and fresh.”

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(l-r.) Director Spike Lee, actors Topher Grace and Adam Driver
on the set of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

In post, Irvin worked with Tom Poole, who he says is “probably one of the best colourists in the world if not the best, and he brought us into Company 3 and just gave us five-star treatment and all the time we needed to finish and to make all the tweaks.” Irvin was also grateful for the creative freedom he got from Lee, both during production and in post. “He has amazing reverence for cinematography, and he treated me with the utmost respect,” the DP recalls. Having grown up watching movies like Clockers and 25th Hour, Irvin says he has long been a fan of Lee’s, but it wasn’t until he shot BlacKkKlansman that the DP understood what is behind much of the director’s success. “I’d never worked

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John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s
BlacKkKlansman.

with a director of his experience before,” Irvin says. “And he taught me so much about collaboration. That’s the lesson I learned from him. It wasn’t necessarily a filmmaking thing; it wasn’t a technique or a tool or a shot or a way to work with actors. It was none of that. It was strictly life shit. He has people on his crew that are PAs that have been working with him for 25 years. There’s no filmmaker out there that has that much compassion and admiration and respect for his crew. It’s like these people are his children. I’ve worked with filmmakers who treat the in- dustry in a very professional way; Spike keeps it personal. And I think that’s really special. So I think the greatest lesson that he taught me was the way he works with the people that he surrounds himself with.”

Irvin also discovered, partway through the BlacKkKlansman shoot, that the film had personal resonance for him. “At first, I didn’t know what the film meant to me, it wasn’t that apparent,” he says. “But as I started shooting the film, I’ve sort of seen my father in it. And the story was of my father’s generation. My father’s a black man from America, and he moved to Canada in the ‘70s and met my mother, who’s Canadian. His version of America that he abandoned, at least in part because of racism, was embodied in this film. My dad’s getting old, his health is fading, his memory is fading, and I was just amazed I had this opportunity to create something for him and honour him.”