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Behind the Lens: City of Life and Death

COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : Behind the Lens: City of Life and Death
CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: City of Life and Death -- Cinematography Feature


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City of Life and Death Trailer


Creative COW's Debra Kaufman communicated with cinematographer Cao Yu via email and translator.


Creative COW: How did you get brought onto this project?

Cao Yu: In 2003, immediately after we finished the shooting of Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, Lu Chuan told me that he would like to make a film about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. But we gave up the idea quickly as that is one of the most politically sensitive topics in China. To make a film about it would face the strictest political censorship and the most picky critic reviews. That project was just too big a challenge for us to handle at our age. Besides, it was too expensive.

When Kekexili was awarded the Best Film and Best Cinematographer Awards at Taiwan Golden Horse International Film Festival, we were encouraged to pick up the topic again. It took Lu Chuan four years to finish the screenplay and secure a 15 million USD funding. We could finally start the shooting then.


How did the projects you've shot thus far in your career prepare you to shoot City of Life and Death?

Neither Lu Chuan nor I had worked on a similar project. We learned while shooting.


Tell us what was behind the decision to shoot in black and white instead of color.

After reading the screenplay, my first reaction was that it should be in black and white. I thought it was a film about faces--the faces of the people who survived or died in the war. The faces showed the inner thoughts of the people in the war. They were abstract, but poetic and sacred at the same time. Compared to color, black and white is purer and thus more suitable for the reflection of people's inner thoughts. Besides, as the film was about the massacre, there would be many violent and bloody scenes. Shooting in color would accentuate the violence which I am afraid would be too strong for the audience.



All images courtesy of Kino International
All images courtesy of Kino International. Please click above to enlarge.


I understand you shot the movie with film. What can you tell us about your stock decisions?

I used Kodak Vision2 5201 50 D and Vision2 5217 200T negative films to shoot. Via a Digital Intermediate, we achieved black and white imagery and used Kodak 2383 print stock. When released prints, I chose bleach-bypass to avoid color in black-and-white images caused by colorful positive picture 2383. This is the best way to reduce saturation and color cast, and increase chiaroscuro and grain.


All images courtesy of Kino International
All images courtesy of Kino International. Please click above to enlarge.


What were your lens choices?

I used ARRI/ZEISS MP and Cooke S4 lens mostly. I found out that the differences in lens on black and white films play a part in hue on color films. When I shot war and massacre scenes, I used Arri/Zeiss Master Prime, 16mm -- 100mm. It could catch all the facial expressions most clearly. The feature of high contrast is just like cool tone on color film. I chose Cooke S4 for shooting the scenes to express love, warm and feminine scenes. Especially the scenes of Kadokawa making love with the comfort woman in the comfort house, the beautiful flare of Cooke S4 gives audiences a warm feeling. It looks like warm tone on color films.


All images courtesy of Kino International
All images courtesy of Kino International. Please click above to enlarge.


ZEISS MP and Cooke S4's 27mm, 40mm and 75mm are the focal lengths I used most frequently. For the interior scenes, I shot in a wide open way. For exterior scenes, I used T2.8 mostly. I used lens 27 and 40 with unthreaded holes T1.3 and T2 to film close ups. I enjoy the feeling of being right on top of the scenes, while giving a poetic effect to the background. The result of the combination is pretty good. It gives audiences a unique mixture of poetry and reality.

I also used zoom lenses on occasion. They are Angenieux Optimo 17-80mm and 24-290mm.


As a cinematographer, what were your inspirations in shooting this movie? What inspired the look of the film?

Robert Capa's battleground photos were the inspiration for City of Life and Death. His famous quotation "It's not that you couldn't shoot well, it's that you didn't shoot the scene close enough," is my principle. Closer, closer, and sometimes I would bump into the actors. There's a scene in which Japanese soldiers stab and kill Chinese captives. When a Japanese actor fell down to the ground, I was still approaching him with the camera. I didn't even realize that I was sitting on the actor's back until the director said cut.


All images courtesy of Kino International
All images courtesy of Kino International. Please click above to enlarge.


Robert Frank's The Americans is also an important reference for me. His work is completely different from Robert Capa's. It's sad but also poetry. I love his black and white style. He uses a low contrast effect. The fine grain makes the images very quiet and soft, but somehow it also shows the powerfulness.

The legendary Chinese photographer Lu Nan's (a Magnum photographer) work On the Road: Chinese Catholics also inspired me. His work gives me a feel of God, sublime diety which expresses human dignity. People under candlelight look very mysterious in French painter Georges de La Tour's pictures. Many night scenes of this film were imitated the light from de La Tour's pictures.

These are still photographers. Pasolini's Il Vangelo secondo Matteo [The Gospel According to St. Matthew] is the inspiration from motion pictures for me. Both Lu Chuan and I love the power and poetry feel of this film. The uses of depth of field in this film inspired me a lot. Thus, there are many close-up scenes and full shots in City of Life and Death as well.

The war scenes also refer to Saving Private Ryan. Some scenes from this film show all the characters' activities and the result of their activities in one shot by pure shooting instead of editing. So Lu Chuan and I decided to use long shot to film the war scenes. Usually, four cameras would shoot one after another from separated areas.


Where was it shot? Film stages? Location?

Lu Chuan doesn't like to shoot films in a studio or on film stages. Indoor scenes were shot in Tianjin as there are well-preserved British, American and French concession areas from WWII. The location was set up in Changchun in northeast of China. That area was the first place occupied by Japan. When the Asian Pacific War broke out in 1941, that area had already been controlled by Japan for 10 years. Lu Chuan believed that the area could bring the film an unspeakable strength. Compared to other places in China, the bright sharp sunlight in Changchun was exactly what I wanted.


What was your lighting kit? What was your philosophy behind the lighting?

Because of the color temperature problems do not exist on black and white films, I only consider the lightness. Thus, I used HMI and tungsten lamp together.

In general, I like the lights' effect of being realistic and poetic. So I always follow the rules of natural light. When I needed to make extra effects, I would exaggerate the lights. When I need to make mysterious environments, I would use a lot of backlights. White and black smoke could be used for shading from unwanted sunlight in war scenes, or used for making highlights and shadows.

For interior day scenes, I used 24 Dino Maxi Brute with 18k 2k par lighting from outside of the window to the inside. Fill light was provided by the Chinese lanterns which hung on the roof and were hidden from the furniture.

For interior night scenes, I used candles, Chinese lanterns, and 24 Dino Maxi Brute as light sources. For exterior night scenes, I used a lot of fire and torches as key lights of actors. Then I used 24k and 24 Dino which hang on the truck crane to light those giant background architectures.


What was the shoot schedule?

The shooting was from October 2007 to June 2008. It was a long period for shooting. There are so many epic scenes with large numbers of people.


Were these challenging to shoot?

Lu Chuan and I had not previously shot scenes with large numbers of people such as the massacre scenes. Among the extras, 1,600 were soldiers from People Liberation Army who played the soldiers that were killed. Another 200 were normal extras and they played the refugees.


What ended up being the most challenging scenes in the movie?

The church scene was the most complicated case in the whole film. I used almost all the lights I had. When we went to see the location, Lu Chuan and I were shocked by the beautiful sunshine through the church's windows. The lights symbolized hope, holy and pure. Both of us would like to use this kind of lights on the scene [when the women volunteer to become prostitutes to save the rest of the captives]. But there were two skyscrapers to the south of the church. Sunshine could only get through from the windows every day between 10:15 to 13:10.

Also, the church looked very dark when there was no sunshine. We needed to use many other lights for shooting. My gaffer Chen Tianming, who shot To Live and Shanghai Triad, as well as Red Rose White Rose filmed by Christopher Doyle, worked very hard. The church didn't permit us to use any cranes nearby, and Chen Tianming had only one day to prepare. He built up a high platform with 70 steps around the church. He also finished all the wire arrangement work. Because color temperature problems do not exist on black and white films, I only need to consider the lightness problem. Thus, I used HMI and tungsten lamp fixtures together.

On the south of the church, there were two 18k and two 12k par lights illuminated from the highest window. Three 24 Dinos and three Maxi Brutes were standing outside of the church's three big windows. On the north of the church, nine Maxi Brutes were imitating the natural light from the northern sky through Rosco's 3030 diffusion. On the east of the church, a 24 Dino imitated lights from the second floor window. On the west side of the church, two 12k par lights imitated light from the highest window. When all the lamps with different color temperatures lighted up, the church looked magical and chaotic. Each morning, I turned off all the HMI lamps and 24 Dinos near southern windows first. When the sunshine appears at 10:15 sharply in the church, the whole crew started filming like crazy. We had to shoot the scene of John Rabe and Jiang Shuyun speaking in front of the cross and prostitutes' hands slipped through sunshine. When the sunshine disappeared, we turned on all the lights and kept shooting until late.

There's a scene in which [Japanese soldier] Kadokawa sees his friend kill the woman who hid in confessional. This scene was shot at night. All the interior scenes inside of the church took us seven days with four cameras to shoot. Camera A and B are ARRICAM LT. Camera A used Angenieux Optimo 24-290 to shoot the close-up scene of hands. Camera B used Optimo 17-80 to shoot full shot on gfm's seven meters high crane. Camera C and D are old-fashioned ARRI 535B and Moviecam Compact. They were set on a J.L. Fisher Model 11 dolly. I used master prime lenses to shoot medium shot and full shot.


How did you watch dailies?

We transferred the prints to SD tapes through Da Vinci to watch.


Were you involved at all in the finishing of the movie?

Shooting in black and white is so different from shooting in color that I almost started to learn cinematography from scratch again. I took part in the production from the very beginning to the end. During preproduction period, the production designer Hao Yi and I took pictures of all the makeup and costume plans and did some experimenting with aging the construction material by graying it and also adding gray by using smoke. During post production, I spent three weeks doing color grading.



City of Life and Death has played at numerous film festivals, beginning with the Toronto Film Festival in September 2009 and continuing with festivals in San Sebastian, Athens, the Hamptons, Pusan, Warsaw, London, Seattle, Paris, Melbourne and Helsinki. The film also played the AFI Dallas International Festival. Since its 2009 release in China, the film has had a limited release in several foreign countries. Kino International released City of Life and Death in New York on May 11 and in Los Angeles on June 14.

The critics have praised the film for its handling of a difficult topic. "Watching this film, you are reminded of how much needless explaining characters do in American cinema," said New York Times critic Mahnola Dargis. "He is an extraordinary visual artist and here, working in wide screen and shooting in black and white, he singles out specific images -- dead and naked prostitutes stacked in a cart like wood, a sole dead woman tossed in a ditch -- that encapsulate a multitude of horrors."

The Rotten Tomatoes review said the film "is a bold re-creation of these events, told with startling humanism through the eyes of both victims and occupiers." "As harrowing as it is breathtaking, City of Life and Death is a war movie for the ages," said film critic T'cha Dunlevy in the Montreal Gazette.

"City of Life and Death isn't cathartic," concluded Dargis. "It offers no uplifting moments, just the immodest balm of art. The horrors it represents can be almost too difficult to watch, yet you keep watching because Mr. Lu makes the case that you must."





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