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“An Iconic Evita” : American Cinematographer

Madonna - American Cinematographer / January 1997

“The anamorphic format worked very well on this film because I was trying to create a somewhat Impressionistic look [for the backgrounds],” submits Khondji. “A reference from painting on this movie was George Bellows, an American realist painter of the Twenties and Thirties. He was a realistic painter, but realistic in a way that was close to Impressionism. That style worked very well for the early scenes in Evita, which are more idealized; a lot of the film was shot through a glow of light and dust.”

With the format decided, Khondji sought to fully exploit the opportunity to create picturesque widescreen images. His first step was to procure the best possible set of anamorphic lenses. He received ample support from London’s JD & C, a company owned and operated by Joe Dunton, BSC. “Joe provided us with two very beautiful sets of anamorphic Cooke lenses, which is a bit rare, because anamorphic lenses are not always so easy to get,” notes Khondji. “I was very grateful. My camera assistant had done very thorough tests to find the best glass for the picture. The quality of the glass is the most important thing when I shoot a picture, because it’s the glass that makes the image. This entire film was shot on Cookes, except for some scenes later in Evita’s life, when she becomes sick. I shot those darker moments with Zeiss lenses because I wanted a harsher, sharper look.

“In anamorphic, I love the 50mm and 70mm lenses very much, and also the 100mm,” he says. “Wider shots in anamorphic give you a bit of deformation in the image; I really don’t like to use wide lenses in anamorphic, especially if you have to pan or if you’re shooting in a small room. I can’t stand curvature in the image. It may work on certain types of films, but it would look vulgar in a film of this type. I don’t like anything that pulls the spectator out of the movie. A film is really beautiful of gritty reality and beautiful settings,” he says. “Buenos Aires at certain times has a contrasty, back-lit look, almost like in grading. It often just came out naturally without any tricks — shooting at the right time of day with all of the dust. We tried to shoot in warm daylight at the end of the afternoon. The ambience in Budapest is very ‘early-century Europe,’ and it matches very well with Argentina in terms of the architecture. In both places, it was important for us to understand that the light was going to be like a character in the film. Alan is a director who really understands that cinematography can be a strong part of telling the story. That sounds very obvious, but not all directors understand that.

“The big challenge in moving to Budapest was dealing with the difference in the light,” he states. “The light in Buenos Aires is very white, strong and harsh, the way it is in New York. It’s very warm and dusty there, and the buildings reflect the light; it’s a very luminous place. When we arrived in Budapest, we found ourselves in a very blue-green, sad, wintery European atmosphere. I had anticipated the difference, but it was still tricky to make it all look right. To help balance things out, I worked with Technicolor London, which is one of the best labs in the world. The two guys who really helped me were [sales manager] Bob Crowdey and the timer, Paul Swann. In addition to the lab work, I used filtering to balance the lighting between the two places. I used 85 and 81 filters combined, and I pushed the negative [mostly Eastman 5248 in Budapest] half or one stop to give it more saturation and density. Elsewhere on the film, I used the lightest Mitchell diffusion, as well as black and especially white Tiffen Pro Mists. I often used a combination of white Pro Mist and diffusion together with a net behind the lens — three layers of diffusion, but all of them very light. The most beautiful diffusion is behind the glass. Most of the time I work with a black net at the back.”

Khondji mixed his stocks fairly frequently, depending on the situation. As Parker notes with a smile, “Darius is very fussy with the film stocks; he’d be changing them all the time. That’s hard for someone like me, because I work very fast. I’d be ready to go and then I’d say, ‘Oh no, they’re changing the magazines again.'” Pausing for a quick laugh, he adds, “Later,
of course, when I saw the rushes, I knew Darius had been right.”

Khondji, like any cameraman worth his salt, ripostes that the end justified the means. He details,”I used 45, 93 and 48 on the film. The 45 was for all the exteriors in Argentina, 93 for all the interiors, and 48 for background war scenes, controversial scenes, some interiors and overcast scenes. The 48 reacts very beautifully if it’s pushed on overcast gray days. I don’t need the pushing for the stop, I mainly need it for the look. It changes the image structure.”

The cinematographer further enhanced the look of the film with what he terms “a new cocktail” of special processes, blending the anamorphic look with the ENR developing process and a carefully planned use of Arri’s VariCon system to flash the film.