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Don't Sweat the Technique


The path toward lensing great films is even more varied than the platforms that distribute them. In the case of Netflix's Blonde, an artful balance between director Andrew Dominik and cinematographer Chayse Irvin, ASC, CSC, created an opportunity for viewers to rediscover the familiar story of Marilyn Monroe under a brand-new light. In developing a visual parlance to support the project's ambition to recontextualize Monroe's historic legacy, Irvin worked within a flow that some might consider more befitting of a jazz musician than a cinematographer.

Based on the fact-and-fiction-blending Joyce Carole Oates novel of the same name, Blonde stands out from other biopics as a particularly pliant playground for visual interpretation. The movie's kaleidoscopic nature masterfully skews the worlds between Marylin Monroe, the studio-system box-office juggernaut, and Norma Jeane, the betrayed little girl who never gives up on her father.

Working with Panavision Woodland Hills to secure a package that included a Panavised Sony Venice and PVintage optics, Irvin used a mix of aspect ratios, formats, color, and a host of optical aberrations to breathe a life into the film that echoes what Oates achieved in her book. Panavision recently reconnected with the cinematographer to explore his creative approach to Blonde and the journey that's brought him to this point in his career.

Panavision: Where did your affection for cinematography come from?

Chayse Irvin, ASC, CSC: My grandfather had aspirations of fulfilling his life through photography. However, the situation in America at the time limited his aspirations and he worked as a bus driver in Detroit. My father is a mathematician and was the top math student in Michigan. He lived in northern British Columbia after immigrating to Canada, where he led a very interesting life as the postmaster general in a small town amongst a rich Native American population. He had sled dogs and made pool tables for the local bar until he decided to study medicine at UBC. Now he's a retired high school teacher of 30 years who spends his days in the garden. My mother is a musician, a jazz vocalist specifically.

Sounds like you were led by legacy.

Irvin: I was gifted the opportunity to observe my mothers creative endeavors and her sincere obsession with continuously rehearsing songs in the music room. She was part of a community of jazz players she spent time with in the studio or doing a set while still finding time to be a painter as well. It means a lot to me to know that on both sides of my family I had very creative people, one photographic and one musical.

Which recalls the striking images you've created at that very intersection, with music videos you've shot for artist like Leon Bridges, FKA Twigs and Beyonc to name a few. How has music influenced your approach toward the craft of cinematography?

Irvin: Coming from a jazz musician, the discipline is a little bit skewed. Its an art form that uses intuition and spontaneity to articulate on artistic whim, which often comes from acting in the moment of inspiration. Most things are really difficult to do in that realm. It's done constantly in sports a player gets the ball and they react to other players spontaneously so they can essentially coerce elements of the game with their play. There's less thought involved because by the time you think about something, its already too late. It's about achieving a certain level of conditioning through practice so that when youre in the game, you perform how you want opposed to how you can. On a cinematographic level, those are the aspects that Ive really latched onto and that I'm hoping to harness even further as I grow.

What is that conditioning for a cinematographer? What keeps you in shape?

Irvin: I learned a lot from others. Not through necessarily observing them on set and working, but through binge-watching films. At some point in my early 20s, it was three movies a day, and I would write down the dynamic of emotions that I felt and save the clip of the film that I was feeling. Then I would read about the cinematographer or directors aesthetic view or approach, because they all basically have certain philosophies.

The ability for individuals like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Alex Webb, amongst other photographers, to use composition with geometric shapes, silhouettes, and positive and negative space while also doing whats called capturing at the decisive moment' is something I've always admired. They can sense something is about to happen, and they pull the trigger just as that moments coming to fruition. Its completely lacking any type of thought and always intuitive

It's different from traditional filmmaking because a lot of filmmaking is about preconception, like architecture you figure out a visual structure and you stick to it rigorously. On things I've been working on, I've taken that idea and I've flipped it, making it less rigor and almost more whimsical. When Im inspired, I need to act on it. Theres a meaning there, and I may not know what it is, but I can sense it. Maybe it will tell me later, but right now it's speaking to me, and that's something I try to stay in tune with.

How do you maintain that tune as you collaborate with different directors and departments?

Irvin: I was 12 or 13 when my parents converted to Taoism and I learned of the Eastern philosophy of Wu Wei. It essentially translates into inaction or non-action but in the sense of flow state. Ive worked with certain directors who have helped me harness a flow state, which to me is the apex of my creativity, a state where the cinematography in the film is almost shooting itself and I don't impose anything. Everything is going to get done as long as you absorb it and let it happen. It's the metaphor of a
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