Chayse Irvin, CSC Fills his Arsenal with Panavision Tools for BlacKkKlansman

In 1978 in Colorado, undercover police officer Ron Stallworth successfully infiltrated the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. Unbeknownst to the KKK and Grand Wizard David Duke, Stallworth was the only African-American cop on the Colorado Springs force. This true story was ideal material for director Spike Lee, who turned it into BlacKkKlansman, starring John David Washington, Adam Driver and Topher Grace.

 

“This is very much a Spike Lee Joint—it rides the line of racism in America,” says cinematographer Chayse Irvin, CSC. “For me as a cinematographer, it was such an honor to work with somebody with a legacy like that.”

Irvin was visiting with friends in Sweden when he received an invitation to meet the director in New York for a Yankees game. Lee was a fan of Irvin's collaborations with Khalil Johnson, an African-American artist in Los Angeles, particularly on the long-form music video works for Beyonce's “Lemonade” and U.K. artist Sampha's “Process.”

“Spike wanted to inject some of the energy that we had in those works into his film,” Irvin says.

Irvin and Lee discussed the aesthetics of the 1970s era, pouring over period stills and watching films such as The Conversation, The French Connection and even JFK, which got the cinematographer thinking about mixing formats. “I try not to have a predetermined sentiment on a film that then materializes as the aesthetic to apply,” the cinematographer explains. “Rather, I try to use testing during preproduction to grow it. One of the big reasons we shot on 35mm film was because Kodak, Panavision and Company 3 all came together to make it possible, and Kodak had just opened a lab in New York. It was serendipitous and guided me to think that film was the right choice.”

Irvin says of Panavision, “I've never really worked with another company except in the past in other countries that don't have Panavision, but Panavision is pretty much everywhere now. I have collaborated with Jim Roudebush in Los Angeles, Marni Zimmerman in New York and George Rumsey in the U.K. These are the people I talk to about glass, formats and frame rates. They are my right hand. I think I brought something fresh to Spike, because he hasn't collaborated with Panavision on every project—I think this was a treat for him.”

I was really moved by what I saw when I shot 35mm and flashed it and underexposed it. I presented that to Panavision as part of my ideas, and they had my back entirely. That gave me the liberty to attack this film in an honest way without having to get buried in the minutia of everything.

On BlacKkKlansman, Irvin certainly did mix it up. He shot Super 16mm, 35mm, and even Ektachrome. “I found this 35mm Ektachrome via Instagram in someone's garage from some guy on the west coast,” Irvin recalls. “There were only five reels. I didn't have an opportunity to check the stock, and we just shot it. On a whim during the shoot, Spike would say, 'Let's use that Ektachrome here.' I was very nervous—I had no idea if there would be an image—but when it came back, it was striking ... simply beautiful.”

“For the longest time,” he notes, “there often seems to be an endeavor for continuity in photography. I always have tried to break that rule in my work and am fascinated by what happens to the spectator when I start mixing aspect ratios, formats, black and white, and color unexpectedly.”

The Panaflex Millennium XL2 served as the production workhorse camera, mated to a variety of lenses including Panavised Zeiss Super Speed MKIIs, Ultra Speed MKIIs, and PVintage optics. He filmed in the 2.40 aspect ratio in 3-perf. “There is a costs savings involved, but I used that extra negative space on the top and bottom of the frame to exactly compose the frame later in post,” says Irvin, who also brought his personal Arricam LT and Zeiss Master Primes into service on the multi-camera shoot.

As part of his mixed bag, Irvin employed an ARRI and a couple Aatons with Zeiss Master Primes for Super 16mm work. “We were shooting Super 16 Double-X black and white with a zoom for one of the opening scenes,” he says. “To emulate an archival print, I collaborated with Panavision to take one of their ARRI SR-3 Super 16mm cameras and modified it so it had a standard gate rather than a Super 16 gate. The standard gate has a very distinctive border around it. It is just the way I like to do things—through the camera. My fantasy is to go back in time when there were no video taps, less tools and you had to trust the camera operator. That type of collaboration is amazing to me.”

During the extensive testing process, Irvin happened upon a Panaflasher3, which mounts in front of the lens. “This takes more skill to keep consistent on 35mm film because the aperture, filters, and stock dictate the intensity of the LEDs in the filter,” Irvin remarks. “I was really moved by what I saw when I shot 35mm and flashed it and underexposed it. I presented that to Panavision as part of my ideas, and they had my back entirely. That gave me the liberty to attack this film in an honest way without having to get buried in the minutia of everything. I used flashing sparingly. I find if you take a technique like flashing and apply it to at one particular stage of the narrative rather than through the whole film, it is much more interesting visually, when the images have this kind of randomness to them and not so uniform.

“That's the energy Spike was feeding me with,” he continues, “even on that first day of shooting where he said, 'Let's do that Ektachrome right here.' I had not planned for that. I had to react to it. In jazz, they call it 'being in the pocket.' I work with Panavision to put these tools in my pocket, and then when I'm on set and there is synergy, and someone is throwing out an idea, I can reach in and pull out these different tools they have provided for me to give that scene some energy. Panavision works with the cinematographer in a very special way that no other company really can provide. Working with them is like being a member of a special society.”