In Wakanda Forever, the DP changes the look of the normally bright and cheerful MCU. “Light should not fall everywhere.
In the week after Black Panther: Wakanda Forever clinched its spot at the box office, the film’s cinematographer was simultaneously delighted and exhausted by the film’s success.
“This is honestly new to me,” Autumn Durald Arkapaw told IndieWire at the annual EnergaCamerimage Cinematography Festival in Toruń, Poland. “So yeah, I feel pressure, but I guess that’s what you work for, right? If you really want to do great work, push for this moment. And when it finally comes to you, you better put a smile on your face.”
Durald Arkapaw describes her career as “from small fashion films to music videos to indies and studios”. She first attracted attention with her sensitive cinematography on Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto before starring with Elle Fanning on Max Minghella’s directorial debut Teen Spirit. Her work on Loki and Wakanda Forever helped transform the previously bright and shiny Marvel Universe into a darker, even more melancholic look. Using new cameras, lenses and lighting schemes, Durald Arkapaw and her team added nuance and subtlety that performers and viewers alike embraced.
For Loki, Durald Arkapaw was part of a team of Marvel newcomers, including director Kate Herron and production designer Kasra Farahani. Durald Arkapaw consulted with her friend and Black Panther DP Rachel Morrison about Wakanda Forever before meeting up with director Ryan Coogler.
“It was really important to him that that texture of grief be present throughout the film,” she said. “Grief can feel like a dream. That played a big role in our lensing. I’m an anamorphic fan and Ryan had yet to make an anamorphic film. That started our conversation. In a way, he has already given me a framework to push the limits.”
They talked about Alien and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, films that felt naturalistic despite their effects. Durald Arkapaw and Coogler tried to ground even the wildest of Wakanda Forever scenes in some kind of reality: “You see something that looks totally fake, like they’re climbing the hull of a giant ship in the middle of the ocean,” she said “That’s actually what we shot.” They also drew heavily on the dark. “I tend to be more moody, and that was embraced here,” she said. “I always felt like the lighting was a character in the Film is. Light shouldn’t fall everywhere. A character should go in and out of light just like in real life.”
Durald Arkapaw prefers to pre-light stages so actors can get on a clear set and not be distracted by equipment. “But I don’t want to do broad lighting,” she said. “I don’t want to just light the stage with a big softbox that people walk around on and they’re all at the same exposure level, right? I want every face to have contrast and form. There is so much texture and drama in a face. If you don’t create it, you don’t feel the emotion” — as in a searing “Wakanda Forever” speech by Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda.
“That’s my favorite scene,” said Durald Arkapaw. “I was on set and I stared straight into her eyes as she did that. Every time I see this, I start crying.”
She brought in a handheld camera for a funeral scene between Shuri (Letitia Wright) and M’Baku (Winston Duke). “When we were filming this beautiful, intimate scene, I boxed Shuri in the middle for her reporting,” said Durald Arkapaw. “Ryan asked me to show more of M’Baku’s shoulder, to make her stand out. My brain didn’t automatically think so, but in Ryan’s mind, Shuri met M’Baku, who is a huge force in her life. Ryan wanted to show how empowering M’Baku was in that moment to have his big shoulder look over him. I’m watching the movie now and I love this frame. I particularly remember the day he asked for it. It’s just so thoughtful and helpful to the story.”
There is also a shot of Shuri in her lab, where what appears to be a shallow depth of field adds to the uneasiness felt by the Wakandan princess and scientist. “I like to shoot wide open, which in anamorphic shots accentuates that shallow depth of field,” said Durald Arkapaw. “It looks very superficial. For close-ups I tend to use a 35mm lens which is one of the widest for anamorphic photography. In intimate moments, when you’re really close, I think this lens looks beautiful. But I think what you’re more likely to feel is that I tend to like my anamorphs with waste around the edges. It feels like a shallow depth of field, but we also detune the lenses. So there are these deviations and you feel like you’re getting closer and closer to the character.”
On Wakanda Forever, Durald Arkapaw used a Sony Venice and shot 6K with detuned Panavision T-Series anamorphic lenses modified by Dan Sasaki. She could make her own specifications: “How much waste do you want? How far should it reach to the center of the lens? So if I’m taking a picture of you right now and I want it to be blurry on your hair but your eyes to lock – you can do that. That’s how accurate it is.”
If one thing came up in IndieWire’s conversations with Durald Arkapaw at Camerimage, it was the collaboration. She quickly gained recognition from department heads like production designer Hannah Beachler. “This is such a big relationship for a DP,” she said. “Without them there is nothing to light and no space and frame for the actor. It’s not just about making things look good, it’s about this collaboration, working to create a structure that creates a mood. We were fighting over blankets on Loki, so Hannah knew I wanted her here. Her blankets had great texture.”
She also highlighted Geoffrey Baumann, visual effects supervisor, and the entire VFX team. “You’re not combative, you’re not trying to have your own agenda, you’re cooperative,” she said. “That’s why VFX ends up spending hours helping you match your lenses. Vendors don’t usually have profiles for the lenses we use because they’re so unique and so bespoke. For them to take that time, make hundreds of charts, so they can tell how the flares are responding, where the drop is, where the aberrations are — that’s engagement.”
Marvel productions are notorious for being tightly controlled, storyboarded, and pre-ordered down to the nth degree. Did Durald Arkapaw find it difficult to maintain her creative voice on Wakanda Forever?
“I was very fortunate to have ‘Loki’ before ‘Panther,'” she said. “I think there was some support for the next project. The Marvel producers knew how I work, how I like to shoot. Now creating boards and previz is very tedious, isn’t it? I may not agree with some of what we do. Sometimes I think I’m not sure if this works. But at least it’s a framework when you get there.
“There’s a scene in the script where a whale jumps across a highway. They’re underwater, swimming around, and it’s like, ‘What is that? I have no idea how we’re going to shoot this.” Months and months later it’s evolving, you see the effects, and they’re great. That’s one of the reasons you need the Previz.”
Durald Arkapaw was very present at Camerimage, chairing the jury for the TV series competition, participating in Q&A and sitting alongside Claudio Mirando (“Top Gun: Maverick”) and Arnau Valls Colomer (“The English”) Panel by Sony Venice.
“I’ve never been here, I’ve only heard about it from other DPs,” she said. “I don’t think anything prepares you for this experience. To be able to open your film, one of the biggest openings I’ve had in my career, to be with so many filmmakers and craftsmen where you get direct feedback on your work – it’s just so rewarding, encouraging and inspiring. I just had a conversation with Mandy Walker and was so touched to be able to talk to her in this setting and share it.”
The Camerimage screening of “Wakanda Forever” was only the second time they had shown the film after its premiere (“where I was sitting in the very corner”). After weeks of color grading in post-production, of course.
“Your job as a DP isn’t just in production,” she explains. “It’s about enforcing the visual language, the direction of photography, from start to finish. There are so many people working on your final image. You have to be very clear about what you want. If everyone is on the same page, that can happen.”