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Journey of Extremes


Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and writer-director Ari Aster began their long-running collaboration when they were both students at the American Film Institute. After making a string of shorts together, they teamed on the lauded horror features Hereditary and Midsommar, which in turn paved the way for their latest collaboration, the feature Beau Is Afraid. The movie, Pogorzelski says, is a beautiful, epic story. It's Homer's Odyssey in the 21st century.

Beau Is Afraid follows the eponymous Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) as he sets off to visit his mother a journey that immediately veers off course, sending him down a twisted, darkly comedic detour through the horrors of the modern world. Pogorzelski and Aster began discussing the project well in advance of principal photography, and they enlisted the camera team some six months before production commenced. Additionally, as they had done on their previous feature collaborations, they again worked with Brian Mills, a member of the Special Optics team at Panavision Woodland Hills, to assemble an optics package that would match Aster's singular vision for the story.

In the lead-up to the movie's release, Pogorzelski, Mills, and 1st AC Dany Racine reflected on the creative partnerships that helped guide Beau Is Afraid from its director's imagination to the big screen.

Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski.

Panavision: Pawel, when you and Ari first talk about a project, does the look start to take form right away?

Pawel Pogorzelski: Ari is very prepared and has a very clear vision. We'll watch a couple movies and send references. He very much knows what he wants, and I have to deliver. What makes me happy is when I show him a test during prep and he says, This is what I wanted but even more.' Then, Im able to push that in the direction.

Dany, how did you become involved in this project?

Dany Racine: This was my first collaboration with Pawel. I heard that Ari was coming to Montreal for his next movie, and I had seen his work with Pawel, so I got in touch with Pawel right away and I made sure I stayed available. I really wanted to do this project.

When you and Pawel first spoke, how did he describe the project?

Racine: Well, he has this very close relationship with Ari, so he spoke about the last projects they made together, and he said that Ari likes to work very closely with the camera department. Really soon after that, he brought Ari into a meeting so we could all chat together about the project myself, the camera operator, Ari and Pawel. We talked about everything: the needs, the challenges, the budget, the actors. That was about six months before we started shooting, so everybody was included very early in the process.

It was very important to Pawel that Ari knew the core of the camera department and would be well surrounded. He needed to make sure that Ari felt comfortable about how we were going to work and be involved in the project. And that was very exciting. There was the camera operator, Geoffroy St-Hilaires, and the second AC, Soupharak Keoborakoth. The three of us were pretty much always in the room with Ari and Joaquin, just living that moment, tight around the camera.

Joaquin Phoenix and director Ari Aster.

Pawel, when it's time to start choosing your lenses, how do you kick things off with Brian?

Pogorzelski: I send the references from Ari over to Brian, and he'll tell me, It's probably going to be these lenses,' but I'll still go and test everything. We'll watch the tests on the big screen here at Panavision, with the director, and then choose which we like best. From there, I say to Brian, Okay, now we have a foundation. How do we push that?'

Brian Mills: From the initial conversation when Pawels sending me references, I'll dig into the vast inventory of our lenses to find that starting point of what might fit the bill. What camera is he planning to shoot on, what era were the lenses built in, what's the close focus, what intrinsic qualities are contained in the lenses? The obvious question to start with is spherical or anamorphic, and from there, we'll narrow it down to a couple series, and Pawel will test to see what jumps out at him.

During that process, we'll also talk about the story. In the case of Beau Is Afraid, there was a lot of talk about how Beau is an insulated character, and that pointed us in the direction we wanted to go. After the initial test, thats when well discuss the possibilities within the lenses that hes chosen to see how we might be able to tailor them to the picture.

For Beau Is Afraid, what drew you toward the Panaspeeds?

Mills: Part of it was format. Pawel was planning to shoot Alexa LF, so we were looking at lenses that would cover large format. Also the speed of the lenses, close focus, usability, and our ability to customize within that series. We've done this process a few times now, and I think it tends to scream at Pawel when he sees the right one. He's never tentative about it. When he sees it, he says, Thats it, right there.' Then we'll start tailoring the lenses to Pawel's liking, and over the course of a few days we'll narrow down exactly the feeling hes trying to evoke from the lenses.

Pogorzelski: Aris very involved with this. His first experience with this was on Hereditary, and now, this is just how we make movies. Hes so visual, and he has a really great sense of taste and knows how his movie will look in the end. I can ask him, What do you think of this direction?' And hell be like, I think it could be a bit softer,' or Can we get the colors to pop more?' It's a collaboration, and Brian's taste also goes into the lenses. He knows he has to push it.

Mills: For Pawel, more is always better than less. Well go extreme and then pull it back
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