Matthew Libatique, ASC, and Darren Aronofsky look into the mirror for the dark new dance thriller Black Swan

It’s been described as a cross between The Red Shoes and All About Eve, and a companion piece to the Oscar-nominated The Wrestler. No matter. The genre-busting Black Swan, in its most simple form, is a portrait of obsession – so vital to maintain artistic focus in the highly competitive, and insular world of ballet. Set in New York City (where else?), this psychological thriller is a Polanski-esque exploration by one of the industry’s most fearless, and aesthetically risky directors, Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain.) Or as Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, ASC, puts it: “What happens to Nina (lead prima ballerina Natalie Portman) doesn’t happen as the story begins but already exists in her when the audience meets her.”

Back to School

Black Swan marks the fourth pairing between Libatique and Aronofsky, who met decades ago at AFI and went on to immediate acclaim with their film festival hit, Pi. Job number one for the filmmakers was fairly clear: study ballet, especially the early performances of Swan Lake.

“With Darren, I knew I not only had to study the sense of movement and light in a ballet performance but also the core for the action,” Libatique explains. And because Nina is a “bunhead,” the not-so-endearing ballet terminology for a ballerina devoted to dance to the exclusion of all else, Libatique says he had to “find a way to integrate the emotional disintegration of an unstable dancer as she struggles to bridge the gap between the beauty and innocence of the White Swan and the dark side of the Black Swan, all the while sliding into the dark side herself.”

Fortunately, there was never a question that film would be the media. Super 16mm, in fact, using ARRIFLEX 416s, Master Primes and Angenieux Optimo lenses. Fujifilm ETERNA Vivid 500 and 160 was the stock of choice, with the action captured handheld to put the viewer directly in the physical and psychological path of a dancer going over the edge (helped along by rival ballerina, Lily, played by Mila Kunis).

Ballet is a closed loop universe so much of Black Swan takes place on stages, in rehearsal halls, and the corridors in-between. The story is set inside Lincoln Center, but the company used the Performing Arts Center at the State University of New York at Purchase, where Bob Fosse shot portions of All That Jazz. Intercut within the claustrophobic world of rooms and halls are a few pieces of real life – Nina’s daily excursion to and from the apartment she shares with her dancer mother (Barbara Hershey) via New York’s subways, as well as a visit to a very different kind of dance venue, a rave club.

Libatique says lighting the dance sequences was an exercise in blending what was available for performance and what was necessary for film. He says that, ”as with The Wrestler, Darren wanted to go with a very restricted color palette. In this case, we added pink and green to the black and white.”

Gaffer Mo Flam, who set up the picture with Libatique and then moved on to another contractual obligation with John Seale, ASC (with gaffer John Velez taking over), says practical lighting was used as much as possible – every unit on the floor was in someone’s hand. “Most of the stage lighting came from [Electronic Theatre Controls, Inc.] Source Four®, cyc strips, and spotlights,” recounts Flam. “It was all about building a contrast and progression of looks as simply as possible, because we knew there was very little money to bring in extras.”

“Lorne [Lonnie] MacDougall was the liaison between Matty and the house,” Velez adds. “He was a great fit due to his knowledge of Broadway and film lighting. Lonnie trimmed the existing rig and worked a color palette close to Matty’s instructions. Dimmer board operator Lloyd Rothchild, who works for the State Theater at Purchase, was also a big help. Whenever the motion picture world enters the world of theater, it’s a challenge.” Like when the Black Swan team shot in the hall of mirror-like rehearsal rooms. “Fortunately, the school had high ceilings that helped us hide bounces, using mostly Par cans with narrow bulbs, spread out from the center, with crosses to bounce off 12×12 UltraBounce, allowing us to play the angles,” says Velez.

In contrast, the rave club offered few restrictions.

“At one point in the story Nina and Lily have formed a tentative friendship and they attend a dance club where Lily slips Nina a hallucinogenic drug,” Libatique explains. “We shot at Santos Party House on Lafayette Street, below Broadway, and it was fun. The background became three walls of Mylar® that we shook with fans, used paparazzi strobes with magenta gels and green Kinos for fill, sometimes 2.5 down when the paparazzi strobes fired off.”

“We even went extremely low tech with a hand held laser pointer into the mirror ball and a few flashlights,” adds Flam. “One of the great things about working with Matty is that he’s unafraid of extreme contrast. And we certainly had that here!”

The Dance Behind the Lens

Operating on Black Swan was also a study in contrasts – everything from run-and-gun subway shots to tightly choreographed dance sequences.

“Darren and I have done two movies with subway sequences,” says Libatique. “We wanted to use Super 16mm but between permit, manpower and costs, it almost became one of those moments when we walked away. Until I took my Canon 1D Mark IV, which I used to study dance rehearsals, down there and shot. I then rolled it through Technicolor, with Tim Stipan, and pitched it to Darren. It worked. We would shoot the footage clandestine with HD!”

“Matty’s choice of using the Canon not only allowed us to shoot undetected on a New York subway, but the 1D’s low light capability also gave us the opportunity to shoot at a deeper stop,” explains operator Joseph Cicio. “However, using still lenses in a cinematic environment can be challenging for focus. Like the Master Primes, the Canon L-Series are incredibly sharp, but at the time of this production, there was no elegant way to attach a remote focus system and judging critical focus via the LCD screen was tricky.”

Cicio says the solution for the Canon handheld shots was fairly simple, rehearsing the move in Stills Mode to utilize the precision of the Canon’s eye-tricking auto focus (which is not available in HD mode). “It detects very quickly critical focus for the precise point in the frame you are looking at and since we were sometimes shooting Natalie’s close-ups at near minimum focus distances, this became a huge help in a moving subway,” Cicio explains. “When Darren wanted a camera move, I would check focus at the ‘A’ and ‘B’ positions before rolling, take a note of each focus distance indicated at the lens’ sight window and then reference my hand on the focus ring that would correlate the two for the focus shift. This method of focusing and using the onboard LCD screen for operating kept the camera as unobtrusive as possible.”

The dance sequences, however, were another story. Both Cicio and Stephen Consentino had to become dancers themselves, evolving a direct connection with their movement. They watched DVDs, attended rehearsals and studied the grace of the dancer, which was a completely different physicality than used for The Wrestler.

“When you are shooting handheld, you have one eye to the eyepiece and the other open, so you’re blind to everything on your right side,” Consentino recalls. “I had to know what was happening at every moment in the performance to nail the compositions and not trample the more than 30 dancers around us. A-camera dolly grip Ben D’Andrea did an amazing job of guiding me.”

“Darren and Matty are young, enthusiastic, and really pushed the envelope to showcase Natalie’s dance performances,” Cicio adds. “I was in decent shape from mountain biking, but the physicality we all exerted to get these shots gave me an appreciation for the athleticism of ballet.

First AC Aurelia Winborn says the choreography that went on behind the camera was the biggest challenge. “There was myself, sound, dolly grip, not to mention the dancers in and around us,” Winborn says. “I constantly had to figure out the choreography that would work for all of us, keeping in mind that I couldn’t run into the boom and still keep Natalie in focus. Thank God we were Super 16mm and not 35mm.”

Then there was the dance in “the black box,” where Natalie, in her mind, is dancing with this grotesque character on a set that was completely black. “We are always relying on each other when we are shooting,” Winborn offers. “But it was even more critical on this project because if one of us didn’t intimately know the dance in front of the camera and behind, the whole shot would fall apart.”

Taking Flight

All of the above, of course, is merely a prelude to the moment when Nina finally hits the stage for the glorious Swan Lake performance, and amazing, frightening things happen all once. Nina must do a 30-plus pirouette, spiraling inward at the crescendo of the dance, and her mental disintegration.

“We chose to do this Steadicam, because we ultimately had to do a face replacement,” explains Libatique. “Natalie is an incredible dancer but even the best professionals are challenged by a 30-turn pirouette.”

“Darren is extremely particular about framing and composition,” Consentino continues. “We had many multiple high-speed spins around our ballerina, and then had to end the shot precisely squared off to the stage to nail the finish, so there was no room for error. Natalie and all the ballerinas’ performances were so difficult that it would often require a dozen or more takes for them to be perfect. I just never wanted to have a bad camera take and luckily we rarely did.”

Working with the camera team, LOOK Effects VFX supervisor Dan Schrecker placed 23 Vicon MX40 cameras with 12.5 and 20mm lenses, as well as custom mocap markers on professional dancer Sarah Lane to capture the performance and camera move. The captured data was used in conjunction with additional hand-tracking to match on-set performance and drive the CG elements that create Nina’s transformation. In addition, LOOK had to replace Lane’s face with Portman’s. “We chose to do 2D face replacement instead of 3D,” Schrecker says. “After Sarah completed the choreography, Natalie walked through the steps so we had her face in the right angles and in the correct lighting. These elements were shot at 40fps in order to maximize the frames the compositors had to work with  – 48fps was impossible due to the limitations of the camera. A 3D approach would have worked, but that involved scanning, modeling and animating a CG version of Natalie’s face. It worked great on Benjamin Button, but here, simpler was better.”

With the face replacement in hand, LOOK was able to turn their attention to the wings that Nina believes she sprouts as she does her final dance. 3D artist Shawn Lipowski studied the anatomy of feathers and wings and, using Autodesk® Maya®, built a flexible rig that allowed Aronofsky the freedom to direct the wings’ growth. With the final CG lighting and rendering in place, the wings come off as truly realistic – critical to the story’s success.

Editor Andy Weisblum says that, because of the tight budget and schedule, efficiency was the watchword on the set. “It was obviously more important to put the camera in the right spot and get the performance than worry about seeing crew in all the mirrored sets,” he remarks. “So, we worked around it when we got to post. That meant more than 300 VFX shots (to get certain things out of the mirrors or heighten the psychological effect).

“We were working with a 16mm 2.40:1 wide screen film shot on a tiny negative,” Weisblum continues. “While the subject matter was quite different, the visual approach stemmed from what was done on The Wrestler. Darren wanted a vérité aesthetic that was believable as possible. That’s not so common for a psychological film of this genre, but that realism helped us keep in mind that this is a story from Nina’s point of view.

Finishing the DI with colorist Tim Stipan was a bi-coastal challenge that involved Weisblum, Stipan and Aronofsky in New York and Technicolor teams and facilities in New York, Los Angeles and even Vancouver (VFX). At the outset, Stipan sent Libatique a set of scans, which the DP timed with Technicolor, L.A. colorist Jill Bogdanowicz. This set the look of the film, and more importantly the precise color palette.

“Next we had a tech-to-tech session on a speakerphone, with Matty at Sunset Gower [Studios] and me in New York, and timed the project,” Stipan says. “We sent Matty tapes [where he was on location for another project] and had another session, long distance, when we had the project at 90 percent. Because of this [workflow], we were literally able to do the DI in two days.”

Black Swan could not have come at a better time,” Libatique concludes. “It let me blend the techniques I’ve learned over the past few years and adapt them with simplicity to a new set of challenges. It is gratifying to work with Darren again and all he brings out of me!”

By Pauline Rogers / photos by Niko Tavernise/Fox Searchlight