Matty Libatique’s Swan Song

Matty Libatique’s Swan Song

Articles - Cinematography

Matty Libatique, ASC was a still photography hobbyist in elementary school. He played the guitar in high school and dreamed about making it his life’s work. Libatique belonged to a film club in college, which screened and discussed movies.

“That’s how I saw The Conformist, including the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro (ASC, AIC),” he says. “I realized how important the relationship between a director and cinematographer is while watching that film. In time, I came to understand that cinematography is like learning to play an instrument. When I was learning to play the guitar, I’d reach a plateau where I felt I couldn’t learn any more. Then, if I was persistent enough, I’d pass that plateau and begin another journey.”

Libatique met Darren Aronofsky during their first day at AFI in 1992. The two collaborated on a few short films while they were students, and would later work together on Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. This fall’s Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, marks their fourth feature film together.

“Darren told me about his idea for Black Swan about 10 years ago,” Libatique recalls. “The script was originally about actors in the live theater. Darren became fascinated by ballet and switched the focus to that world. He felt that, dramatically and visually, ballet would provide a better canvas for the drama.”

Libatique and Aronofsky decided to shoot Black Swan in Super 16, as it would enable them to cover scenes with a handheld camera that moved in tune with the ballet dancers while capturing an organic film look, including nuanced colors and contrast.

“Darren has liked the Super 16 film format for as long as I’ve known him,” says Libatique. “We produced Pi in Super 16 format on black and white film.” Aronofsky also opted to produce The Wrestler, which was shot by Maryse Alberti, in Super 16.

Libatique photographed cast members rehearsing ballet scenes with a digital still camera. The images gave him mental and physical pictures of what to anticipate.

Black Swan was shot in 42 days primarily at practical locations, ranging from the apartment in Brooklyn that Nina (Portman) shares with her mother to Lincoln Center, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where ballet rehearsals and other scenes were filmed.

Libatique covered everything from ballet to drama scenes with a single, handheld ARRI 416 camera mounted with a Cooke lens appropriate for the setting. The sole exception was a big rehearsal scene that he filmed with two ARRI 3416 cameras in order to give Aronofsky options for intercutting shots from different perspectives.

There was no video village. Aronofsky stayed close to the actors, so he could see the expressions in their eyes and on their faces. They used handheld monitors to check composition. Serendipity played a role while they were filming a scene where the ballet dancers are rehearsing for the final act of “Swan Lake.”

“I intended to use a front row of floodlights to create multiple shadows of Nina as a visual metaphor for the shifts in her personality,” Libatique says. “When I saw the film, the other ballet dancers were in between the footlights and Nina. I realized that was 10 times better. Nina is the only person who wasn’t masked in shadows.”

Front-end lab work was done at Technicolor in New York. There were no dailies. Libatique relied on verbal feedback from dailies timer Sam Dailey.

The negative was scanned at 3K resolution and down-rezzed to 2K for DI timing.

“During our first meeting, Matty told me, ‘It’s a dark, psychological thriller with beautiful people,’” says DI colorist Tim Stipan. “He stressed that it is important for the audience to see expressions on faces and unspoken words seen in their eyes.”

Libatique was shooting Cowboys and Aliens in New Mexico when the edited film was ready for DI timing at Technicolor in New York. He flew to Los Angeles on weekends and spoke with Stipend by phone and timed the DI while watching images transmitted with a high-speed data link (T-VIPS) projected on a large screen.

“We wanted to be sure that we were being true to Matty’s vision, because the audience reads images as though they are words,” Stipend says.

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