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The Beauty of Noah Baumbach’s Black-and-White New York: Using the Canon 5D to Capture ‘Frances Ha’

Sam Levy, best known for his sensitive cinematography on Kelly Reichardt’s hit Wendy and Lucy, recently turned his eye to Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Shot in subdued black and white and co-written by Baumbach and lead actor Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha follows an amateur dancer as she tries to hold on too tightly to her best friend and her youth.

Greta Gerwig as Frances and Mickey Sumner as Sophie

Baumbach, whose resume includes Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale, and Margot at the Wedding, was introduced to Levy by the late Harris Savides, ASC.

“Noah was interested in making a black-and-white film with a small crew and minimal equipment, in the production style of the French New Wave,” says Levy. “He was curious about the Canon 5D as a tool for working this way.”

Levy began his career shooting black-and-white film, both reversal and negative. He was trained early on in Ansel Adams’ iconic Zone System of exposure, a touchstone for black-and-white still photographers. This education provided him a solid foundation in his approach to shooting a black-and-white feature film with a digital camera.

Frances Ha

is in many ways a love story between two best friends. Frances loses Sophie, and then struggles obsessively and unsuccessfully to get her back. What she doesn’t understand is that she hasn’t lost Sophie at all; she just hasn’t figured out how to be friends with Sophie in a new way.

“I shot a series of tests with the 5D to better understand the camera and its dynamic range of exposure,” Levy says. “Along the way, Noah and I discussed using alternatives to the 5D, such as 35 and 16mm film, the Alexa and the RED, but we kept coming back to the 5D. Especially after seeing our 5D tests projected. It was simply the best format for this project.”

The projected Canon EOS 5D footage reminded Levy of a 35mm print struck from a 16mm negative. “Especially in the midtones, the 5D has grain—in actuality video noise—but it resembles film grain. Even properly exposed in strong light, the grain is always there in the midtone. I experienced a similar effect on a different project when I shot on Super 16 and it was enlarged to a 35mm print. The challenge with the 5D was to learn, through testing and prep, what my boundaries were. By the time we began principal photography, I felt I understood how far I could push the image using underexposure and shadow before it became murky and not usable.”

Greta Gerwig as Frances Ha and Adam Driver as Lev

Levy points out that the 5D shoots compressed H.264 files. He chose to use Technicolor’s CineStyle picture profile. “It enabled me to capture the widest dynamic range within the limits of H.264,” he says.

Baumbach is a visually strong director who loves natural-looking images, according to Levy. He embraced the 5D’s imperfections, even when the “grid” pattern of the sensor was sometimes visible in darker, intentionally underexposed scenes.

“It’s a still camera, and video was added as an afterthought—but that worked to our benefit on this project, because it has a natural softness that lends itself to black and white,” he says. “My main concern was that any imperfections—any aspect of the cinematography, for that matter—should not become a distraction to the story.”

Levy had the luxury of spending significant time in prep studying light and making tests in one of the film’s principal sets, Frances’ Chinatown apartment. He also used the time to test how the 5D camera worked with various textures, fabrics and practical lamps.

During the roughly 50-day shoot, Levy worked using an onboard 5.6” TVLogic monitor. DIT and second camera assistant Gregorio Franchetti would transfer files from CF cards onto his MacBook; then Levy could examine circled takes on a calibrated 17” MacBook screen in a controlled environment, checking focus and exposure.

“Very often I could see that midtone grain, which would show up in different and inconsistent ways,” says Levy. “The 5D sensor has a mind of its own, and no two are exactly alike. We wanted to embrace all the aberrations and fold them into the overall look. Using a calibrated monitor and a video scope has become the new light meter, in a way. The monitor didn’t show us exactly what we were going to get. It was a guide. You need to be extremely careful and diligent to protect the integrity of the final image.”

The lenses were typically Canon L-Series primes designed to work with the 5D: a 35mm, a 50mm and an 85mm. Most of the movie was shot with the 50mm, and a few scenes were done with an L-Series 70-200mm zoom.

The 5D did come with some quirks. “It’s notoriously difficult to pull focus on that camera, and David [first assistant David Feeney-Mosier] was brilliant. I still don’t understand how he did it,” Levy says. “He is a master. The Canon EF lenses aren’t cinema lenses. They’re beautiful and they integrate well with the camera aesthetically, but they aren’t designed for pulling focus. We allowed more time to get marks, and sometimes David would need to check his marks after every take. We kept the movement controlled because the camera has more motion blur than an Alexa or RED. We didn’t move the camera unless it was motivated.”

Composition was rarely a point of specific discussion. Blocking was usually the point of departure in working out how a scene should be shot. “Noah’s sense of blocking is impeccable,” says Levy. “We had a lot of fun blocking, and we talked about how things would cut. Then the composition or framing—the way the camera responds to the actor—always seemed to fall into place. We tried to shoot out every scene in as few shots as possible. Whenever we could, we’d try to get an entire scene in one shot, but in a dynamic way. Rather than shoot coverage, we’d try to follow Frances in a pan or dolly move.”

The crew—Levy, Feeney-Mosier and Franchetti—usually worked with a single light, a Tweenie 650-watt Fresnel, sometimes on a dimmer, most often bounced into a wall or ceiling. Black and white meant that the dimmer’s effect on color temperature wasn’t a problem. Night interiors often depended on practicals. Sometimes a white T-shirt on one of the crew members just out of frame provided enough bounce for fill, if the shade was removed from a practical.

“It was nice to work like that,” says Levy. “Sometimes it’s nice to work with a bigger crew, but in this case, everything was designed around a smaller approach. The camera package fit in the back seat of my car.”

The exploration continued after the film was wrapped. For the final grade, Baumbach and Levy worked closely with colorist Pascal Dangin at Boxmotion in New York City. “Once we finished principal photography, we really refined the look of the film,” says Levy. “We told Pascal we wanted the look of Frances Ha to have a silvery glow. His color mastering brought the silver forward in a beautiful way. When I used to shoot black-and-white 16mm reversal film, I always loved its silvery glow, and in classic films of the 1930s, when they are projected, you can almost see and feel the silver. That’s what we were going for. As we timed the movie, that’s something I’d repeat: ‘Let’s find the silver in this shot.’”

Levy realizes that many cinematographers envy him the opportunity to shoot in black and white. “The entire experience was fantastic,” he says. “It was like living in a dream. I’d love to do it again. Black and white has such an elegant simplicity. It allowed us great freedom. We could focus on architecture, shapes and tones of silvery gray.

“I felt like I could get lost in those tones, especially timing the movie,” Levy says. “I felt connected to the past, to the great cinematographers of the 1930s and ’40s. Silver was an important word for me on Frances Ha, and part of me feels like I could spend a lifetime working on that silvery tone.”