This story about “Passing” first appeared in a feature about black-and-white cinematography in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
“A flower petal, falling through the air.”
That is one of the sumptuous phrases that cinematographer Eduard Grau employs while talking about the visual style of Rebecca Hall’s “Passing.” The writing and directing debut of the actress Hall (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Christine”), “Passing” is set in 1920s New York City, where a Black woman (Tessa Thompson) meets a Black childhood friend (Ruth Negga), who is married to a white man and living as a white woman in the bigoted society of the time.
“Sometimes a film’s concept translates into the cinematography a little bit,” said Grau, who first wowed audiences as a 27-year-old when he lensed Tom Ford’s elegant “A Single Man” (2009). “But of all the films I’ve worked on, ‘Passing’ is the one where the style and substance are related to such a degree. The whole concept of the movie is about black-and-white and all the shades of gray in between. And so for a cinematographer, to shoot this in black-and-white, it was just a joy.”
Though the realities that Hall explores in the film (based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel) are often grim, the photography consistently emulates that dreamy, creamy flower-petal aesthetic that Grau referenced. “We wanted an image that was not only beautiful but also had some kind of allegorical, ethereal quality to it,” he said. “And apart from the thematic power, well, let’s face it, everything just looks better in black and white.”
And there was even a bolder gesture at play than the monochrome. To heighten the film’s impressionistic mood, Hall and Grau filmed “Passing” in anamorphic widescreen, then chopped 45 percent of the image away to leave a nearly square, 4-by-3 aspect ratio. “It might seem totally counter-intuitive,” Grau said. “But that was our way of finding the exact intimate look we wanted. Anamorphic has a more complex, curved lens, so the depth of field is shallower and the shapes go a bit oval and the flares are horizontal.”
The film was also shot digitally at a softer, less crisp 1.7k resolution as opposed to today’s standard 4k. Netflix, which bought “Passing” after its premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, strongly prefers 4k resolution on its original programming, but according to Grau, “they said 1.7k was all good in our case and they have been amazingly supportive.”
Hall and Grau had collaborated as actor and cinematographer on 2011’s “The Awakening” and Joel Edgerton’s 2015 “The Gift.” We have a similar sense of humor and taste,” he said. “We can both take the piss out of each other. And we’re similar in terms of the kind of movies we like.”
For sure, as collaborators, they watched scenes from modern black-and-white marvels like “Nebraska,” “Ida,” and “Cold War.” Though they also screened David Lean’s longingly romantic “Brief Encounter,” the team was not afraid to lean into the suspense genre while doing homework, especially classic Alfred Hitchcock titles: “Rebecca,” “Notorious,” “Strangers on a Train.”
“Especially as its plot moves forward, ‘Passing’ does take on some elements of a thriller,” said Grau. “And what could be better than black and white when it comes to the core of light and darkness? It brings us back to the essence of photography.”
He pointed out that Hall, while developing the film, refused offers for more money to make the movie in color. “When a director is very stubborn and very visionary,” he said with a smile, “that’s always a path to making really good films.”
Read more from TheWrap’s four-part feature on black-and-white cinematography here: