Barney Cokeliss is a multi-award-winning director and an accomplished photographer.
Barney’s latest short film, ‘Night Dancing’ has recently won the Frankfurt Biennale of the Moving Image, the LA Dance Film Festival, the Bucharest International Dance Film Festival and the Utah Dance Film Festival, after premiering on at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Leica UK have commissioned Barney to shoot a film with the Leica SL. The Leica SL is much more than a professional still-picture camera with video capability. It fulfils even the most stringent demands of filmmakers as a fully fledged video camera. Barney describes his film as a mysterious nocturnal journey, which he captured on the infamous Noctilux and Summilux lenses. We caught up with Barney to see how the project is going.
Can you tell us a little about the concept of the film you are shooting with the Leica SL?
I’m shooting a kind of cinematic poem on the SL. It’s a nocturnal journey which has taken me to places from New York to Soweto, Paris to LA and beyond. All of the scenes have been shot at night, and I’ve used the SL’s lowlight capabilities, combined with Nocilux and Summilux lenses to take a minimalist approach to lighting, which I love.
How is the project progressing?
Leica is a wonderful brand to collaborate with. The products speak for themselves and the brand has such prestige. It’s also particularly gratifying that the people at the company are focused on quality above all else. They apply that to the work they support, just as much as to the equipment they make. So I feel I’m on my mettle to do my best work!
Which photographers or cinematographers have inspired or influenced your work on this film?
I’m lucky to have worked with some great cinematographers, and double Oscar-nominee Eduardo Serra has made a huge impression on me. Eduardo can create a kind of ambient glow which seems to come from nowhere and yet casts a mysterious, magical light. You can see it his work in ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’, ‘La Veuve de Saint Pierre’ and ‘Defiance’. One of the things Eduardo taught me was to embrace higher ISOs in film-making as they allow you to capture more of the available light and use less added light. Anyone interested in this should get hold of the Screencraft book of interviews with cinematographers – Eduardo’s interview in there is particularly enlightening.
The great Chris Menges (double Oscar-winner for ‘The Killing Fields’ and ‘The Mission’) has also been a massive influence on me and I’m happy to have met him a few times. The way he shot London at night for ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ is particularly inspirational, as is his work on ‘The Reader’ and ‘Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’. Lately, Chris has been making positive comments on Facebook about the SL night shots I’ve been posting. I keep telling him I’m going to put these Menges-Likes on my CV under “Awards and Distinctions”!
As for photographers, there are some wonderful artists working with low-light. Bill Henson is a great example, of course. And Nan Goldin’s mixture of beauty and grittiness, expressive color and realism are something I keep returning to.
What do the wide apertures of the Noctilux and Summilux lenses mean to you?
There’s a special magic that comes from wide aperture lenses. Not only are you able to get a shot in conditions where you otherwise might not, but the image you produce has a quality and feel that you just can’t get stopped down. I love the slight vignette feeling you get when you shoot wide open. It pulls the eye more intimately into the image. And the greater abstraction you get from having more of the image out of focus is something you can be creative with – it’s often what makes a shot for me.
As in film-making, sometimes what you can’t see – but can feel – is even more impactful than what’s clear.
What interplay do you find between your moving image work and your photography?
On one level they’re very different. In film you’re marshaling a bunch of people – there can be up to 100 crew involved in one of my commercials – while photography feels more like a Zen practice.
David Bailey put it well – he said directors have to be like generals and photographers like snipers. I feel my eye and brain get refreshed by going back and forth between the two roles.
The two disciplines inform each other. I like it when my photographs have a narrative feel. Even if you can’t tell exactly what’s happening, I like the viewer to feel there’s something going on.
And I love the photographic element in cinematic storytelling. I’ll often operate the camera myself for that reason – it’s very different to find the frame with the camera in your hand, and to respond to an actor’s performance in the moment.
The thing I find completely absorbing about film is what David O. Russell calls the ‘holy trifecta’ of performance, camera movement and music. It’s hard to beat that trio when they come together!
In photography, it’s distillation – creating one image that somehow resonates. It’s strange, but when I’m flipping through, selecting from the photographs I’ve shot, my eye and brain know when I’ve hit the right one long before I’ve had a chance to think about it. It’s pre-conscious. I guess we’ve evolved to be very quick processors of what we see. That’s important if the image on your retina is of a wild animal and it’s about to eat you!
I have a similar experience when I’m selecting takes during a film edit. The difference, though, is that with film you select a moment with duration – it’s a certain movement, whether it’s of the camera or a person. And that movement creates emotion. Whereas in a still image it’s all much more crystallized. It’s almost like the difference between a solid and a liquid.
You’ve been shooting video on the SL for a while now – how have you found it?
The Leica SL has been revolutionary for me – it’s the first time I’ve been able to have 4k video in my bag with me wherever I go, enabling me to capture full-res video whenever the moment arises. The compatibility with the fast, small M lenses is fantastic – especially for low-light work, or where you want shallow depth of field.
And then, on bigger shoot days, it works brilliantly with cinema lenses – like the Summilux-C primes, which of course are easier for a focus-puller to work with, being so much bigger.
I love the fact that I can use M lenses, get the vibrationless shooting of a rangefinder, and yet also have an SLR-like experience of looking through the lens and composing precisely.
The electronic viewfinder is lovely to look through. And something I find so useful for shooting on the move is the way I can adjust exposure intuitively with the finger wheel. I can choose the aperture I want for the image and let the ISO float according to how I want to expose the image moment to moment. It makes taking pictures completely spontaneous.
I can trust the EVF for exposure, so I no longer have to do instant maths in my head – I just turn the wheel until it feels right. Combined with that brilliant little crash-in button that means you know you’re in focus, it takes hand-held low-light photography into a new realm.
Often I find myself crashing in for focus and adjusting exposure at the same time – it’s like playing the piano with both hands and you feel completely integrated with the camera.
I still love my silver 0.85 M7 – there are so many reasons I adore shooting with that one. I’m kind of obsessed with it, actually. But the SL makes sense on so many levels – it’s now my default camera of choice. If I had to have only one camera, it would be the Leica SL.
How would you describe the emotive potential of low light aesthetics?
That’s a great question. I think it boils down to two things – a reduction in what you can see, and an inherently focused source (or sources) of light.
There is mystery in low-light, precisely because not all of the image is illuminated. Where there is mystery there is magic. And there’s also a natural focus for the eye, since the eye is drawn to brightness, and there’s less of that in the dark.
As for light sources – the fact that in low light the light tends to come from specific places (it might just be the dashboard of a car, or someone’s phone in the street) makes for more directional lighting, and more of a chiaroscuro effect.
And if you’re working in colour, there tends to be more colour-contrast at night from various light sources. You might have orange street light mixing with cool moonlight and something greenish from an LED, say. Colours stand out best against dark backgrounds, so low light is a great context for doing interesting things with colour.
What this means emotively is fascination. The subject then determines whether a particular scene is unsettling or sexy, sad or romantic, lonely or beautiful. So the low-light aesthetic is an intensifier, to me. The one thing I think it doesn’t do so well is comedy – I’m not sure I’ve seen a low-light comedy! Perhaps because comedy tends to be about revelation, whereas those other moods are often about what’s held back.
One other technical element in low-light is the fact that you tend to shoot with your lenses wide open.
So backgrounds become soft and bokeh comes into play, making everything more impressionistic.
In this way, the selective placement of light and selective depth of focus work together to really guide the eye around the image.
I’ve been using Leica Summilux cine lenses a lot this year on commercial projects. In particular for the way they’re designed to work perfectly even when wide open. While one of my big stills discoveries lately has been the Summilux 24mm M lens. I love the way that lens gives you the potential to throw the background soft, while still having a sense of space and depth – even perspective – in the image.
Going mirrorless has been transformative for my lowlight photography. There’s only so much you can see in the dark even with the brightest of rangefinders. That’s why the ability to see what the sensor sees is extremely useful. Light-meters always want the world to be mid grey. That’s why being able to ride the exposure compensation and adjust to what you see in the EVF is fantastic. I don’t even think about metering any more – it’s become intuitive with the SL. I’m usually a good two stops under what a conventional meter would give me, and confidently so because I can see it on that amazing EVF.
What’s next for you, photographically and film-wise?
Photographically, I’m planning an exhibition next year and perhaps a little monograph.
Film-wise, I’m in postproduction on a commercial I shot in LA this month and I’ve just delivered the first draft of a feature adaptation of a rather epic steampunk novel. It’s vividly visual and really emotive – the two things that draw me to a project.
This feature was created in collaboration with Leica Camera UK