Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical look at a strife-torn Northern Ireland boyhood, marked another step in the evolution of the director’s collaboration with director of photography Haris Zambarloukos, BSC, which now spans eight films and fifteen years. Their previous work was less personal, including Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Cinderella, Murder on the Orient Express, and Artemis Fowl. Still, Zambarloukos says that the duo approached each of these varied projects with the same “intensity of spirit.”
However, he adds, “Belfast was definitely a more intimate experience. Ken loves the process of discovery, to test, plan and rehearse. But on this project, we definitely left a little more room for things to happen by chance. Ken was sharing something of himself with us.”
"FOR BLACK AND WHITE, I PREFER TO ORIGINATE IN COLOR, BECAUSE THERE’S SO MUCH MORE ROOM TO MANIPULATE IN THE GRADE..."
When it came to specific cinematographic choices, the filmmakers opted first of all for a mostly black and white approach. Having used film emulsion on several previous projects, this time they went digital, with an ARRI ALEXA Mini LF, but stayed with a specific set of large format Panavision System 65 lenses, also used on Orient Express and Death on the Nile.
The ALEXA Mini LF works with CODEX Capture Drives to deliver a rich, high resolution ARRIRAW file, which was expanded creative freedom and efficiency when it came to post production. “For black and white, I prefer to originate in color, because there’s so much more room to manipulate in the grade,” says Zambarloukos. “You can make much better black and white when you capture all that color information to begin with.”
The large format sensor also gave Zambarloukos the opportunity to create portraiture in a way that supported the drama and the characters. The portraiture was also in tune with the overall architecture of the image and their choices in terms of composition and movement, as well as coverage, which was minimal.
The Mini LF also fit with the decision to work with a minimal crew and gear in respect of the pandemic. Available light was the norm, and the actual skies and weather were not avoided. Branagh was determined that the point of view was always that of a nine-year-old boy, imbued with a sense of wonder, rather than a documentary aesthetic. In Branagh’s memory, the time and place is often gray, with occasional bursts of color in the movie theater.
"WE CREATED MANY FEWER IMAGES PER HOUR OF FILMMAKING THAN THE AVERAGE MOVIE..."
“We created many fewer images per hour of filmmaking than the average movie,” says Zambarloukos. “So every image has to count. If you’re going to be slow and take your time, then you need to find out where the pace needs to come up, and where the audience needs to feel a more intense connection. And those images that you linger on need to be immersive and layered.
“It seems to me that film overwhelms us today, in modern life,” he says. “But if you stay on an image, and if you don’t repeat that image, it can have a stronger emotional impact.”
The format meant that wide-angle lenses combined with close shots delivered emotion to the audience while still locating the character in the environment. “It makes the eyes sharp and expressive, while the falloff softens the skin,” Zambarloukos says. “It feels immersive and natural at the same time. Meanwhile, there’s the paradox of black and white, which shows how people feel while also being less literal. It concentrates the audience on the human condition. That creates a portrait that is more honest, in a way, than color.
“I think that wide and close has always been a better way of getting a scene,” says the cinematographer. “But it has to be a certain kind of story. If you’ve got action and multiple characters moving around, you may have to step away and use a longer lens and multiple cameras.
“Belfast is such an intimate film, and it was a single camera shoot for the most part. People have remarked on the depth of field in Belfast, but I really feel we added a lot of depth with our blocking. And to do that, you often need to be wider. And often what happens in the periphery of a frame is a different way of revealing events. The medium-format clarity allows you then to really focus in on the emotion. You can tell the story in a very interesting way. It’s a massive step forward in terms of visual storytelling.”
"BELFAST IS SUCH AN INTIMATE FILM, AND IT WAS A SINGLE CAMERA SHOOT FOR THE MOST PART..."
Belfast was recognized with literally hundreds of award nominations, including seven Academy Award nods, an American Society of Cinematographers nomination for Zambarloukos, and a Directors Guild nomination for Branagh. The film took home the British Academy Film Award for Outstanding British Film.