September 12, 2013

Film review. An analysis of the cinematography of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan ( Three Monkeys, Climates) was the winner of the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival were it was premièred. I didn't know the director nor the cinematographer by then, when I first saw the film: it was a really pretty discovery.

The plot. In a rural area of Anatolia,  group of policeman spend the night searching for the victim of a murder whose body has been buried somewhere in the area. During the journeys from one location to another, they chat to each other about trivia and deepest concerns.

Cinematography: Gökhan Tiryaki
Camera: Sony F35 CineAlta
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Format: HDCAM
Film Stock: -

The Director of Photography of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is Gökhan Tiryaki who already worked with director Nuri Bilge Caylan in all of his previous works. To shoot the film, he chose the F35 CineAlta, launched on the market about 1 and a half year before the shooting started and now discontinued by Sony, for budget reasons rather than aesthetic ones: all of Ceylan`s projects are low budget productions; Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is probably the one who costed more because of the technical difficulties of shooting at night and in a car moving. However, Tiryaki managed to do a brilliant job, making the most of the Sony F35, of its latitude, its dynamic range and the low noise in low light condition.

The film doesn't have really a storyline: we follow a group of people searching for a corpse, then, once it is found, they take it to the morgue for autopsy. It is a quite methodical reconstruction of the search in long shots as it was a docu film without having the technical characteristics of it. It tries to be poetry, not literature. Tiryaki did the same with the light: he didn't lit the characters to point out their inner conditions because they are slightly depicted; he instead creates a decadent and beautiful atmosphere which reflects characters' mood. This job becomes even more remarkable if we consider that he used no more than three lights to achieve that.

The film begins with some of the most beautifully lit and composed images I've seen in a long time: urban and natural landscapes filmed in wide angle lenses in which the natural light of the blue hour is mixed with artificial light (lamppost and headlamps), create a nice contrast in light and colour resulting in poetic images that remind me some winner photographs of recent years IPA. The use of on set lights it is a constant throughout the film, just out of the frame or well visible and playing as Key light like the powerful headlamps of one car during the night shots. In these scenes, which fill almost the first half of the film, moon light is used to light the faces of the actors (sometimes more than 10 in the frame in Very or Extreme Wide Shots): this effect was achieved using probably a 100Kw balloon lighting positioned up in a crane,  which definitely raised the cost of the film.

Tiryaki mostly relied on these two lights (balloon lighting and headlamps) to lit the film, filling sometimes with side lights, especially for interior shots: just awesome.
Another brilliant job is the choice of the focal of the lenses: he alternates wide angles lenses, by which he shows us the wilderness and broadness of the steppe making the search of the corpse more dramatic,  with telephoto lenses to make close ups of the characters, from tired or troubled policemen to the worn face of the suspect.

Light is always soft and diffused, apart from some back-lights, even with daylight shots, where the light was diluted by clouds, and a nice yellow cast is present throughout the film, to achieve a film look but also to help the audience to get closer to the characters and to the strange story (yellow is the colour of the family, of what we know, of closeness); the yellow tone only lessen during the closing scene where they execute the autopsy of the corpse: a cold, methodical and technical description of how they find the vital organs of the victim to establish the cause of his death, which, without the slight yellow cast would have been too cold and distant.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is an unique masterpiece, perhaps a bit slow and long but very enjoyable, with a great cinematography that, even if it is not a film for everyone, it is a film every photographer and cinematographer must watch.

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