Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, which took the best director prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is set in Virginia in the summer of 1864 and features a wounded and deserting Union soldier, played by Colin Farrell, taking refuge among the staff and students of a girl’s boarding school, among them Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst.
Coppola was keen to heighten the drama by constraining the atmosphere, emphasizing the heat and humidity and by creating a very painterly sensibility. To help her, she recruited French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who in turn brought colorist Damien Van Der Cruyssen. The two had first worked together at Mikros Images in Paris. Van Der Cruyssen is now colorist and director of DI at The Mill New York. (Check out our interview with the director about making the film.)
An early decision was that the movie would be shot on 35mm film, maximizing the use of celluloid with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The workflow was interesting — the film was shot in New Orleans and processed by Fotokem in Los Angeles with the digital rushes then having to cross the country for finishing in New York.
“On 35mm the lights melt together,” explains DP Le Sourd. “We were able to get a look closer to sfumato from Renaissance painting and the pictorialist photographers like Edward Steichen.
“The 1.66 format helped to capture the loneliness and imprisonment of the women’s monastic life during the Civil War,” he adds. “In a medium shot, the camera could only focus on the gestures and body language, not the set or the landscape. The format captured the intimacy of the women’s gaze and perspective.”
The look of the film was set when director Coppola and her production designer, Anne Ross, researched the period. Le Sourd then joined them to discuss the characters and how they would be reflected in the imagery.
“The exteriors were shot at very specific times of the day,” Le Sourd recalls. “We shot at dusk and sunset to amplify the sense of immediate danger, for example. “At the same time, I had to duplicate the oppressive tone for the interior daylight, and for the night interiors with candlelight. I tried to use as few lights as possible to really capture the most natural aspect of a scene. The challenge was to keep a consistent look without an obvious digital color correction, to keep the sense of the 35mm film grain.”
Le Sourd and colorist Van Der Cruyssen first met in the early 2000s, when the latter was a telecine assistant at Mikros Images working with Bertrand Duval, who graded the commercials Le Sourd was working on. When Van Der Cruyssen moved to New York in 2009 the pair hooked up on a Davidoff commercial, and established a regular partnership.
The team was completed in 2016 when Coppola was invited to direct a production of La Traviata in Rome. She asked Le Sourd to film it. He asked Van Der Cruyssen to grade it. When The Beguiled was planned, everyone was excited to get involved.
How did the decision to shoot on 35mm affect the finish? “It added two days of pre-coloring to balance out the scans,” according to Van Der Cruyssen. “There was a lot of inconsistency in the scans that needed adjustments before Philippe could walk in the room.
“But the benefits of shooting film were great for the overall texture and natural contrast that negative stock has,” he added. “There is a richness in the skin tone that is very difficult to replicate with digital formats. For The Beguiled, Sofia had complete trust in Philippe regarding the final color, and most of the DI was just with Philippe attending,” says Le Sourd. “Sofia came in a few times. She was very discrete, yet very attentive.
“She has an excellent eye and sense of visual direction. I especially remember one comment for a scene that gave the tone to our collaboration: she told me to put my ‘elegance’ filter on. I took that to mean bring down the contrast, keeping it soft, moody yet natural and, well, elegant.”
The DP and colorist were regular collaborators on commercials. Did this mean they had a flying start on the grade for The Beguiled? “Not really,” says Van Der Cruyssen. “In many ways, I’d say I had to unlearn everything I do in commercials. In beauty commercials we always strive for a shiny picture, whereas one of the goals in this movie was to create a look that was painterly and matte,” he explains. “The look was done in camera, so we used very few windows or keys. Philippe and Sofia wanted a natural light, so we tried to avoid as much as possible any digital manipulation. Most of my layers were film grade, video grade, curves and six vectors.”
Both spoke of influences by painters and early photographers like Steichen and Julia Margaret Cameron as key influences on the look. Specific lenses were made and used on set to create a bokeh like a Petzval lens. A lot of smoke was used to soften the atmosphere.
The DP was present for much of the finishing. Le Sourd says, “Color grading is a very interesting process to review your work, and most important to polish it.”
For Van Der Cruyssen, the biggest challenge “was to make the exterior and interior scenes all belong to the same sweaty southern confined atmosphere. The exteriors often felt bright and sunny and too distant from the softer and darker moodiness of the interiors. We had to make the two meet elegantly.
“We chose to have neutral nights rather than cool, to help transition with the very warm candle-lit scenes. This movie is all about low contrast, so we had to find the sweet spot,” he continues. “Toward the end of the movie is a morning scene in the kitchen that we spent a lot of time on. We tried different things but we were not satisfied. It was Sofia with her fresh eyes that helped us to go back in the right direction. We warmed the scene up to fit better with the surrounding sequences.”
The whole project used the FilmLight Truelight color management system to ensure consistency of imagery between viewings and between deliverables. Toward the end of post, the Baselight system was upgraded with FilmLight’s latest 5.0 release, which allowed Van Der Cruyssen to take advantage of the new DRT Family feature in 5.0. This feature ensures that Baselight automatically selects the most appropriate version of a DRT for the particular viewing condition. By switching to the Truelight CAM family — FilmLight’s default Colour Appearance Model — Baselight easily generated the four separate delivery masters: theatrical DCP, theatrical print, Rec.709 video and HDR video.