Color and Texture: Cinematography of FIFTY 4

FIFTY 4, a fashion film shot by Adnan X. Khan

Mixing fashion, conceptual ideas and a fluid narrative, FIFTY 4 is a freaky little film that I shot in Dubai for director Moe Najati using the RED Epic and four different lens systems—Leica Summilux-C, Cooke Varotal, ARRI Master Zoom and Zeiss Macro (provided by the amazing Asif Limbada at LFP).

I had worked with the same director before on a Volkswagen commercial and Red Bull film. FIFTY 4 naturally became our ‘rebellion’ project! Here was Moe’s chance to explore themes he was interested in personally, and then as the film’s director of photography I could take those thematic abstractions and create a cinematic world wherein menace and beauty collide in explosive fashion! In our preparation of the visual design of FIFTY 4, I thought it fit to achieve this goal using two elements: color and texture.

Watch FIFTY 4:

Even very early on as the director was developing the concept, I felt that color would set the defining look for FIFTY 4. This feeling was validated once he asked me if we could shoot some of the scenes in black and white! Why, of course! I was very interested in the elemental clash between color and monochrome! Style was always an important consideration for this project (wardrobe and fashion consultancy was provided by The cARTel in Dubai)…and we were also aware of the resurgence of black-and-white photography in the fashion world. 

The works of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and Robby Müller served as a guiding light for me in terms of creating a strong sense of color. I felt especially drawn to the glorious Technicolor look of DICK TRACY (1990) and Robby Müller’s luminous cinematography in PARIS, TEXAS (1984). Both these films might appear as absurd reference points, but remember—inspiration can come from strange places! I also really like Storaro’s recent collaboration with the great Spanish director Carlos Saura on FLAMENCO, FLAMENCO (2010), which was yet another stylistic barometer for me in terms of color, texture and contrast.

If my background in lighting and shooting on film has taught me one thing, it’s that the cinematographer should aspire to achieve the look in camera and to not rely on post too much. This is a maxim I hold steadfast even today in the age of digital cinema cameras with RAW capabilities (remember: we shot on the RED Epic).

Fifty 4

I used several color gels on light fixtures to get the look we desired *in camera*. For example, I put the Lee Red 027 onto 1.2 HMI (diffused with 216 and Frost) and had that side-light Leona, our beautiful model, to look like bounce from the red car. We then doubled-up a Full CTB on a Barger 3Lite which was then bounced off a white beadboard to light the other side of the model’s face. A 150w dedolight with full CTB was used to dramatically flare the Leica Summilux-C lens! This was done not just for the cool-factor, but also because I wanted to “dirty up the image” and create a *texture*. (I go more into how else texture was achieved in the second section below).

Fifty 4

For the more grungier scene, I wanted to mix the nasty green spike of uncorrected fluorescent tubes with the hot pink color of the inverted crucifix. In the case of the former, this was achieved by rigging a 4×4 Kino overhead (at 4ft full power) and then gelling that with a Full Plus Green, which augmented the ambient light from the practical flo’s on the sidewall (I had pre-fitted those units with uncorrected 38w tubes to retain the green spike).  In the case of the crucifix above the model, I had our crew rig the pinkish-red flo tubes in the shape of an inverted cross, and then cleverly hide the wires inside the grouting of the wall tiles! Another 4×4 Kino at full power was gelled with Lee Pink 036 and then rigged directly above the model and crucifix, out of frame. Worked like a charm!

The choice of lenses played an important role in creating the texture for FIFTY 4. I used four different kinds of lenses. The Lecia Summilux-C primes were used for the more glossy scenes of the model and the car. I have worked many times with these amazing cinema lenses and their contrast, handling of highlights and delicate rendition of skin tones never ceases to amaze.

Fifty 4

I used the Cooke Varotal 18-100 zoom for this scene because this is an older lens with the classic “Cooke look”, and it had the softness that I wanted. I also knew that it gives a very warm image, and thus it would do full justice to the wonderful set design by our Art Director Sager Al Yaseen! I like the “rainbow” flares this lens creates around light, so that another plus. On the other hand, the Varotal does not handle contrast that well and can go milky in the blacks, which is exactly what I required to add some delicacy to the image.

Fifty 4

Since I knew the director wanted these scenes shot in black-and-white and the art direction and wadrobe styling was purposely minimalist, I elected to shoot on the ARRI Master Zoom 16-110mm because it is very sharp, precise and has rich blacks. We monitored in b&w on set and I used a combination of a 750 Fresnel for the hree-quarter back light, a Dedolight with a snoot shining directly onto the model’s lips and 1.2 HMI through a 4×4 Full Grid as a large single light source as our key. A goal I had for this scene was for the lighting to appear as minimal as possible, whilst also bringing out the texture of the model’s robes.

My personal goal as a cinematographer and the team’s goal was one and the same: to do everything practically! And so it was decided to aside an entire day just to experiment and shoot things such as the eight ball and rubik cube on fire, the vintage phone and other fun special effects. Believe me, everything you see in the final film was achieved “in camera”. It wasn’t always easy, but it was a heck of a lot of fun…and luckily no one died! (That being said, putting the old TV set on fire is one of those “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” stories!)

Fifty 4

I strive to write cinematography notes after every significant project as a record of my thoughts and decisions at the time; and to also, hopefully, provide some useful information to budding cinematographers or those interested in the art and craft of cinematography.

I’m signing off now hoping that my next CineBlog entry can be about my experience working with a new digital cinema camera named after a mythical creature! Starting this weekend, I am shooting what may well be the first commercial production in the Gulf region to film on…the RED Dragon Carbon Fiber camera! Until next time.

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Adnan X. Khan is a cinematographer based in Dubai.

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