For the wintry, subdued tones of Inside Llewyn Davis, writers-directors Joel and Ethan Coen turned to Bruno Delbonnel, ASC, AFC. Delbonnel’s elegiac work on the picture is nominated for an Oscar®, BAFTA, and ASC Outstanding Achievement Award, and he took home the Bronze Frog at the 2013 Camerimage Festival. He has earned three previous Oscar® nominations for Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In a career spanning more than 20 narrative films, Delbonnel has shot film on every project but one.
Inside Llewyn Davis was reportedly made for a relatively modest $11 million, over the course of 42 days, mostly on practical locations. The filmmakers envisioned a tale infused with sadness and regret, set in the folk music milieu of Greenwich Village in 1960. In the story, talented singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis endures a variety of difficulties – such as the recent loss of his duo partner to suicide, and the inadvertent escape of his benefactor’s cat. Trying desperately to make it big, he travels to Chicago for a last-ditch audition for an influential promoter.
Delbonnel crafted imagery that is low contrast, with little or no sunlight. That approach fit well with the short New York winter days, which only provided about six hours of daylight.
“I don’t like the term ‘look,’” Delbonnel says. “To me, a ‘look’ is just fashion. You see it in fashion photography. It’s just an aesthetic, and in a couple of years it will be something else. It’s about emotion and the story. For Inside Llewyn Davis, I was looking for sadness, so I had to define it. Is it yellow? Is it green? I had to find a way to make this sadness with color and density and contrast. That is my job as a cinematographer.”
As has been his practice since Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), Delbonnel shot the entire movie on a single film stock, KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219. The lenses were Cooke S4s and the cameras were ARRICAM ST and LTs.
“On Harry Potter, the set was so big and there were so many visual effects, so the 500-speed film made life easier for everyone,” he says. “The grain structure is the same whether it’s an effects shot or not. 5219 is a beautiful stock, probably the finest, so why not keep going with it? My eyes are used to those lenses and how they work with that stock. I know I can be very fast with it because I know exactly what I’m going to get. And especially for Inside Llewyn Davis, there is a continuity I had to keep throughout the story.”
After a very short prep period, Delbonnel identified a five-stop range for the general ambience during the first week of shooting. “I have to have an idea when I start,” he explains. ”Sometimes the idea is not as clear as it should be, but I know where I’m going, basically. The main idea for me here was no sunlight. It was all ambient light and fill light, basically – very, very soft light. I defined a contrast ratio that would allow me to work a little bit more during the DI process. I always have this in mind when I light a scene – I have to stick to five-stop range. I fill the black when I need to fill the black. I soften the contrast when I need to soften the contrast.”
Master DI colorist Peter Doyle came to Technicolor New York to time the dailies. Much of the blue was drained from the image to create the wintry feel. Skin tones were kept more natural, however. “I wanted the images to be somewhat disturbing as well, so Peter and I left in a lot of magenta,” says Delbonnel. “It’s a very unusual color in the movie. Nobody likes magenta. On top of this, we put cyan. And we could mix those as long as the skin tones are not very influenced.”
The 5219 film’s ability to gather a rich amount of information is key. “A five-stop range allows me to play a lot with the DI. I can push it, or reduce contact even more, because I have all the information in the negative,” he says. “If you don’t have all the information, and you kill the blue, it’s going to be massively grainy, because you’re basically killing one layer. You need to expose everything.
“That’s the way I work,” he adds. “My work as a cinematographer is to tell the story with all my tools. And that’s why I like the DI, because DI is a step beyond chemistry.”
Delbonnel sees a parallel between cinematography and painting. “I don’t consider myself an artist – I wouldn’t dare say that – but I ask some of the same questions as a painter,” he explains. “It’s not about the technique. We are good technicians or bad technicians. When you go to an exhibition and you stand in front of a painting, you have a feeling. You might like or dislike it without knowing exactly why. Think of an abstract painter like Mark Rothko. Sometimes it’s only squares and rectangles of color. But we feel something – enthusiasm, sadness, happiness. It’s amazing that he could achieve this with only squares of color.
“That’s what I’m looking for in a movie,” continues Delbonnel. “I’m far from being as brilliant as Mark Rothko. But I think that’s a good way to approach a script. How does this script and story make me feel? What kind of emotion? And then, I’m going to pursue that way. Sadness is a common feeling among all people. The goal is to find what is universal about all of us, across cultures.
“For Inside Llewyn Davis, I want the audience to see sadness,” he says. “It’s not about the New York folk music scene in the ‘60s. It’s much deeper than that. It’s about this man’s life, and that’s what is so strong about this movie, I think. That’s my reading and my understanding of the script and the story, and the images are my visual interpretation.”