The touching, low-budget production Ida has made quite a splash at film festivals worldwide, earning universal praise for the beauty of its black & white cinematography, and copious awards, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, the $2m production focuses on Anna, a young orphan who lives in a Polish convent. Before Anna can complete her vows, the Mother Superior directs her to make contact with her only living relative, her mother’s sister, Wanda. Anna learns that she’s actually Jewish, and her real name is Ida. Wanda’s desire to educate her niece about the past starts an unusual road-trip as the pair discovers what happened to their family during World War II.
With his creative vision of supreme importance, Pawlikowski teamed up with cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski, and camera operator Lukasz Zal, to render Ida in black & white, adopting a 4:3 aspect ratio, with locked-off camera, that frames the action in a virtually square box, reminiscent of cinema’s early days. The stripping away of colour, the lack of widescreen visuals, exquisite image composition and framing, combine together to focus the viewers’ attention.
Ida was shot in village and rural locations around Lodz, Poland’s second largest city, between November 2012 and March 2013, over 39 non-consecutive days due to adverse winter weather. For the shoot, Lenczewski selected ARRI Alexa Plus 4:3 cameras, capturing 12-bit ARRIRAW to Codex. Onboard Recorders, with data wrangling and deliverables conducted near-set. Unfortunately, Lenczewski had to leave the production after the first eight days of principal photography, due to health issues, and the rest of the cinematographic responsibilities fell to Zal. Although Ida was composed and shot in colour, the production team were able to see how different colours on-set would respond monochromatically by applying black & white LUTs – prepared by grading facility DI Factory in Warsaw – to HD reference dailies. In the final DI, grades were applied to the colour footage, but viewed through the same black & white LUTs, by senior colourist Michal Herman.
This digital process – akin to the photographic application of filters when striking black & white prints from colour negative – allowed Herman to achieve more accurate shades and textures. “The goal, from the very beginning of production, was to put the best possible image quality up there on the cinema screen, and Alexa with its wide dynamic range and sensitivity, was the only camera for this project,” says Zal. “We purposefully eliminated many elements of traditional cinematography, leaving us just to concentrate on framing, composition and how best to leverage the rich spectrum of black, white and grey tones. We knew that exposing at 800 ISO, in dark and low-light scenes, the ARRIRAW would capture the white and black points we needed. We also knew that resolution and the latitude of the 12-bit ARRIRAW images would allow for better keying and more detailed grading of the contrast in the final DI.”
Along with overall image quality, Zal says there were other, practical considerations for selecting a CODEX-ARRIRAW workflow. “Framing, composition and performance were absolutely vital,” he explains. “We knew we would spend a lot of time finding the right camera angles, that there would be long takes and many retakes. Shooting with film or tape was not affordable on our modest budget. Bearing this in mind, and our quest for the highest-possible picture quality, Alexa with Codex was the best combination. With other recorders you’re never quite sure how robust they will be during production. The great thing about Codex was that it was invisible – it just worked in the background without any problems.”
Ida has proven a resounding success with wins at Toronto, Warsaw, London, and Polish film festivals, whilst Zal and Lenczewski have jointly collected the ASC’s 2014 Spotlight Award and the 2013 Camerimage Festival Of Cinematography’s top honour of the Golden Frog. More recently, Ida won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
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