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‘White Bird in a Blizzard’: Gregg Araki’s Unexpected Experiment: Widescreen Beauty, Classic Composition

For those who know Araki’s films, this one might seem like something of a departure, with its straightforward plotline, lush soundtrack and widescreen compositions, but it has its director’s stamp everywhere.

Filmmaker Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin) has developed a strong following over the last two decades for his unusual independent films. His latest outing, White Bird in a Blizzard, stars Shailene Woodley as Kat, a teenager whose life is forever changed by her mother’s sudden disappearance. For those who know Araki’s films, this one might seem like something of a departure, with its straightforward plotline, lush soundtrack and widescreen compositions, but it has its director’s stamp everywhere—from the story’s intimate focus on the lead character’s interior life, as opposed to the mechanics of the story, to the exacting symmetry of the compositions.

Araki, who still edits his own movies (just as he did in his earliest 16mm outings), always provides his crew with stick figure storyboards that are quite clear about camera placement and composition. “I always use [them] to show people what I’m going for. All my films have been made within a very tight schedule and budget,” he says. “It’s always a challenge to pull it off, so we have to plan what we’re going to shoot in advance.”

Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley) and boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez)

Cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen recalls her introduction to the director on their previous collaboration, Kaboom. “When I learned about this way of working, I was afraid it might feel limiting,” she says. “But it was actually the total opposite! I knew going into every day exactly what Gregg was looking for and what part of the set we were going to see, and that allowed me to be more free in the lighting.”

White Bird starts out in 1988, when Kat’s rather hateful mother, Eve (Eva Green), disappears. The girl and her father, Brock (Christopher Meloni), soldier on, wondering if they’ll ever see Eve again. Meanwhile, we get a sense of Kat’s interior life through flashbacks and present-day interactions with friends and boyfriends.

Valde-Hansen shot ARRI Alexa Log C to 2K ProRes 4444 on SxS cards. While she’d have loved to have been able to shoot in anamorphic format, available resources made it impossible, so she cropped the native 16:9 frame to 2.40 aspect ratio. “Gregg wanted to use a 2.40 frame to open up the space,” she explains. “You see these indie dramas and there’s a tendency to stick to close-ups and not see the environment that the characters live in. The environment is very important to Gregg.”

She says that Araki also likes the way widescreen works when the camera gets in close to either one or a couple of actors. Audiences feel a sense of intimacy—“getting into their heads,” she says—without completely losing detail in the background. “He loves the 18mm lens and wanted to use it as much as possible, and the 2.40 aspect ratio lent itself nicely to that.”

Cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen and director Gregg Araki on the set

Aside from that go-to focal length, Valde-Hansen also carried an Angenieux Optimo 24-290 zoom. “We had to move quickly,” she says, “so it helped to have the zoom. We might shoot a scene on the wide end, and then moving closer just meant zooming in. One of the actors commented on how fast we were able to move because of that.”

The cinematographer tested lenses extensively and found that the primes that best matched the Optimo zoom were relatively old Zeiss Super Speeds. She added Tiffen Glimmerglass 1 for most scenes, too, in order to develop the classical cinema feel Araki wanted for White Bird. Araki describes the look he wanted as “some of the feeling of a Douglas Sirk film,” referring to the director of glossy 1950s-era melodramas whose style has been frequently appreciated and referenced by filmmakers such as Todd Haynes and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Valde-Hansen used ARRI Look Creator and Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve to build her own LUTs prior to shooting. These image augmentations were reflected on set in the monitor and then baked into the dailies. LUTs were used both for technical purposes—fine-tuning the matching between the zoom and prime lenses—and for creative. Araki wanted the flashbacks of 8-year-old Kat (Ava Acres) to be seen through a somewhat intense yellowish cast reminiscent of 1970s photographs such as those taken by Nancy “Nan” Goldin. “We had worked out a specific palette,” Araki notes, “and we wanted the flashbacks to feel like a golden memory of your childhood.” Even if the action in the scenes revealed unpleasant details about Kat’s relationship with Eve, they would still be bathed in warm hues of memory. “Then the present day,” he adds, “is more dark and cold and gloomy.”

Kat and her father, Brock Connors (Christopher Meloni)

During production, these prebuilt looks showed Araki and other department heads how the sets, lighting, costumes and makeup choices would read. “It was really helpful to see how these choices were working while we were shooting the scene,” says the director. “And it was also very useful when I was editing to see the flashback looking close to what the final version of the scene would ultimately look like.”

Valde-Hansen prefers lighting to a standard meter (set almost exclusively at the Alexa nominal speed of EI 800) over working with a waveform monitor. Although she used the false color function occasionally to test for overexposure, she generally treats a digital project as she would a film show. “I’ve tested the Alexa a lot,” she explains, “and you get the full dynamic range and protection in highlights and shadows if you start at 800.”

She notes that she did set the camera at 1600 for one scene of Kat and a boyfriend on top of a car at night overlooking the lights of Hollywood. Without Condors or lifts of any kind, she simply added two small units gelled to match the existing sodium vapor lights. She set the camera at 1600, she explains, not to try to boost shadow detail (which the Alexa’s dynamic range was able to handle) but merely to make the distant lights twinkle a bit more than they did with the EI set to 800.

Filming Shailene Woodley and Shiloh Fernandez

Given the film’s 22-day schedule and Araki’s single-camera approach to shooting, it was incumbent on Valde-Hansen to accomplish ambitious scenes very quickly. “Sandra’s amazing,” he says. “These movies require versatility and thinking on your feet. She always delivers and it’s always beautiful. She can pull a rabbit out of a hat.”

Her approach to a nightclub sequence in White Bird illustrates the point. Most of the film’s interiors were shot inside a warehouse that was only partly converted into a soundstage during production. Production designer Todd Fjelsted “did a fantastic job,” Valde-Hansen says, noting that the scene had to be completed in about half a day. “He took the space and graffitied the walls and put up these crazy 1980s period video arcade games. Then we got rock and roll PAR cans, which are really cheap lights, and hung them on trusses in each of the corners of the space. Some were on Magic Gadgets dimmers, and some electricians were manually dimming up and down with hand dimmers. I own a disco ball and party strobe lights and we incorporated that. Everyone was working together to figure out how to make it work, which is the way I love to work with my lighting.”

All of which was possible, she reiterates, because of Araki’s discipline in sticking to his storyboards. The crew might have to improvise wildly on the day to realize the film’s vision, but the vision itself has been thought out and locked down beforehand. In fact, the cinematographer says, Araki’s style is so specific that “it becomes contagious.”

She elaborates, “When I work with a director, I see it as my job to adapt to their style, but after working with Gregg on a movie for six or seven weeks, I jump into another project and it’s hard to make the shift. For example, Gregg has an obsession with symmetry. If you look at the compositions in his films, so many are perfectly symmetrical. So I’ll finish on a movie with Gregg and move to something else where the director has a completely different aesthetic—but for a while I still have to fight the temptation to compose with absolute symmetry!”