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“An Iconic Evita” : American Cinematographer

Madonna - American Cinematographer / January 1997

Khondji also flashed the film to lend certain scenes a more lyrical ambience. To accomplish this, he used Arri’s VariCon, a compact, contrast-control system which slides into the dual filter stage closest to the lens of any regular 6.6″ x 6.6″ matte box. The VariCon differs from low-contrast filters in that it provides for a continuously adjustable contrast over the entire photometric range of the film without any loss of resolution, and without any effect on the highlights. It differs from standard flashing (pre- or post-exposure) of the negative in the lab or in the film camera magazine in that it adds a controlled, even amount of light during the exposure, and permits the cinematographer to set the desire contrast reduction while observing the results in the viewfinder, in relationship with the actual scenes to be photographed. The VariCon also provides for coloring of shadow areas in the image without affecting the highlights. This feature can be very helpful in situations when extreme contrast compression would result in extreme color desaturation.

Crowdey explains, “Evita is a warmish-looking film by design — it’s a look that suits both the period and the Argentinean setting. Darius flashed the film fairly consistently for scenes involving Madonna, who is in pastel dresses half the time. An example would be the scene in which she’s distributing leaflets from the back of a train in sunlight. That’s very different than the look of the funeral scene, which is lit quite normally. Basically, Darius created a worm, sunny feeling for scenes in which Evita was riding high. He flashed with a very pale lemon color, which edged most of the film toward a yellowish look. We later graded it to make it a more golden color. He changed his approach when things began to go downhill for Evita.”

The cinematographer’s lighting schemes also reflected his desire to infuse the film with a range of moods and tones. With his love of stark contrast, the cinematographer generally eschews fill light wherever possible, and Evita was no exception to the rule. “The architecture in the film is very early-century European, with lots of marble,” Khondji notes. “I lit it all with contrast on one side, but the contrast was still soft, with an extremely soft quality of light. Anamorphic by its nature is beautiful and kind of soft, and I could flash when I wanted to, so I didn’t need much fill light; I used a lot of black screens and flags to eliminate fill. On this film it was always my goal to bring out the architecture with my lighting, but the light was always rather unidirectional. I wanted shadows that looked almost like brownish charcoal. I achieved that mainly by pushing the film and then flashing it to achieve a slight tone.”

The director of photography found his “less fill” philosophy to be well suited to the natural lighting conditions he faced in Argentina. “I love using very natural light as much as I can. I don’t relight exteriors very much unless I’m doing a picture where I want a different look, or if I’m relighting exteriors with primary colors and then timing it in a different way. This film was more naturalistic because there were a lot of situations with very strong backlight. My, concern was to play with the process and go into very deep shadows, while still making the details visible. Because I used very little fill light, we were working with strong lighting ratios. Also, the dust was flashing the image a bit in a natural way.”

When forced by circumstances to boost existing light levels, Khondji’s strategy was fairly straightforward: for day exteriors, he used HMIs; for real interior day shots involving windows, he deployed large HMI sources, such as 12Ks or l8Ks; for other situations, especially interior stage setups and night scenes, he opted for incandescent fixtures. “The crew was fantastic; they really helped me with the setups,” he says. “In addition to the camera operator, Mike Roberts, I had a fantastic gaffer in Peter Bloor. The rest of the team was also very good: the camera assistants, Bill Coe and Alan Butler; the grip, Colin Manning; and the second camera operator, Ted Adcock, contributed immensely.”

Gaffer Bloor maintains that Khondji was “very brave” in adapting to the methods of Parker’s crew. In addition to using the Moviecam system with which they were familiar, the cinematographer also sacrificed his preference for Chinese lanterns, lighting most of the picture with a series of softboxes. As Bloor details, “We really had to keep going, and this system helped us to move quickly. The lightboxes we use are built from aluminum tubing welded together and attached to screens covered by a thick white diffusion called 129; these frames are then enclosed with Styrofoam. The boxes we used on Evita usually measured about eight feet by four feet, but you can make them any size you want. You can also clamp two or three of them together, or hang them up. For close-ups, we might place a Mini-Brute inside with 129 over that as well, creating a kind of double-double-diffusion. We often used very soft Brute bulbs that you can only obtain in America; they create a very lovely, natural-looking light. On longer shots, we’d use bigger lighting units within our boxes to create more punch.”