Ed Lachman Visually Elicits Emotions Below the Surface of the Characters in CAROL

  • December 18, 2015
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Cinematographer Ed Lachman, ASC and director Todd Haynes knew that Super 16mm film was the right medium for Carol that would instill their feature with texture and emotion that they thought would be missing in digital or even higher-gauge film capture. Their choice of KODAK Super 16mm film stocks added to the aesthetics with its living, breathing grain structure that would render the emotions below the surface of the characters. Carol marks the fourth collaboration of Lachman and Haynes, after Far From Heaven , I'm Not There and Mildred Pierce .

Ed Lachman, ASC Photo by: Wilson Webb (Carol © 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved)

With much critical praise, Carol is based on crime novelist Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt , published in 1952, about emotional isolation and the amorous mind while falling in love, which happened to deal with a lesbian relationship. Carol, played by Cate Blanchett, is an unhappily married woman who becomes involved with Therese, a young department store clerk played by Rooney Mara. At first, this setup might seem far from the crime novel oeuvre, but for Highsmith, crime becomes a way homosexual desire gets expressed, with the crime being love itself - a kind of criminal existential state.

"We looked to post-World War II in the late '40s, early '50s in an austere, soiled, muted look of naturalism of still photography; not of the period's cinema, but of the mid-century photojournalists of the time," Lachman explains. "This isn't the over-romanticized view of the past through its cinema, but a look at the times through its documentation by the photojournalists and art photographers of the period."

Rooney Mara stars in CAROL. ©2015 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.

As key visual references, the filmmakers turned to photojournalists of the time who used KODAK film. "They were documenting the urban landscape and experimenting with early color. Many of them were women, like Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt, Ruth Orkin and later Vivian Maier," Lachman says. Those photographers worked with KODAK Ektachrome film when color wasn't perceived as an "artistic" medium.

Photography also became part of the storyline. "Therese is a budding photographer, and we are dealing with her subjective and amorous mind, much like a criminal's mind, where you're reading every gesture and symptom for its meaning - in her case, the fate of her love," he notes. "We see her world opening up through her images. Our approach was to incorporate a subjective viewpoint of someone falling in love, with her infatuation for Carol."

Lachman and Haynes had prior experience with Super 16mm on the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce . The cinematographer recalls, "We ended up projecting Mildred Pierce at the Venice Film Festival, and we were so taken with the feel of the grain structure going through a DI that we felt it captured the feeling of how film would have looked in the '40s if you picked up a photograph of that time."

Cate Blanchett stars in CAROL. ©2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

Lachman explains that audiences are viewing the characters' emotions through the texture of the grain, something they are feeling that is hidden but seeing in the developing emotions of the characters. "I found Ektachrome had a tendency to look cool, so I played with warm and cool colors in the palette of Ektachrome, with magentas, greens, yellows and blues, contrasting them in order to mute colors," he says. "I found that color in negative has a crossover and contamination that you don't find digitally. Digital is pixel-fixated on one plane, and you don't get the mixture in the colors from the grain structure that you do in film. In film, it's finer grain in highlights and larger grain in shadow detail, and that gives a certain emotional quality to it."

Lachman chose a variety of KODAK VISION3 Color Negative Films to work with, including 50D 7203, 250D 7207, 200T 7213 and 500T 7219, which he had developed at New York Film Lab before it shuttered, with a digital intermediate performed at Goldcrest. "I play with color temperature, so sometimes I would shoot 200T outdoors and not fully color correct it later," he points out. "I also give at least a half stop to a stop over in over-exposure to help the grain and saturation of the 16mm film."

Two ARRI 416s were employed with 35mm-format lenses such as Cooke S2 Speed Panchros. The 35mm lenses offered Lachman a more "filmic quality" through the sweet spot of the glass. He also used zooms such as an ARRI Zeiss 16.5-110mm Master Zoom and a Cooke Super 16 10-30mm Varopanchro, which essentially was milled from a 35mm-format 20-60mm that gained a stop to T1.6 in the process.

Lachman stayed away from lens filtration. Instead, he composed shots through windows of cars, diners, apartments, and doors that were splattered in raindrops and street reflections, in winter's weather of nights' condensation, and urban steam. This presented not only an obstructed and inhibited view for viewers, but also for the characters' own views looking outside of themselves. "We referenced Saul Leiter's approach as a street and art photographer, who created these layered compositions obscured by abstractions and seen through reflections," Lachman says. "It was not only a representational view of the world but also a psychological one of someone falling in love and the amorous mind, giving it a textural sensuality."

Director Todd Haynes and star Cate Blanchett on the set of CAROL. ©2015 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.

Lachman attributes the success of creating this style to KODAK film stock, citing a scene, as a perfect example, where Carol goes into a hotel office to get a telegram in the morning. Explains Lachman, "There is a dolly shot where she goes into the lobby up to the desk and gets this telegram and finds out her husband is having her spied upon. There was such a strong exterior reflection on the window in that scene that I wasn't quite sure how much information I would be able to read outside versus inside. Based on my experience with Mildred Pierce , my intuition told me that I could read the detail outside as well as the interior detail, even though there was extreme exposure contrast. Digitally, I would've never gotten the information of detail in the contrast with reflections that I got on film."