Most cinematographers can only dream of shooting a studio feature in black and white. With “Nebraska,” Phedon Papamichael can cross that off his bucket list. Helmer Alexander Payne always envisioned the tale monochromatically. The decision led to a reduced budget, but the project was eventually feted with six Oscar nominations.
Payne allowed Papamichael more freedom to compose than in their previous forays (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”), and the d.p. says that the b&w approach allowed him to craft iconic widescreen imagery in harmony with the desolate landscapes and the curmudgeonly isolation of Dern’s character, Woody Grant.
“Without the cacophony of colors, you’re not fighting to make an elegant frame,” explains Papamichael. “There’s definitely a poetic power in black and white.”
Papamichael shot on Arri Alexa digital cameras using older rehoused C-series Panavision anamorphic lenses.
“Alexander tells stories about people, about characters with all their subtleties and facial expressions,” says Papamichael. “He doesn’t want to miss any of the nuances of the performance. Our camera movement was very subtle. Nothing is wasted. But you’re always with a character at the moment you need to be, and nothing gets covered up by any kind of style, movement, rack focusing or lighting that would distract or take away from the story. The movie overall is very precisely crafted, and I think that’s why, ultimately, his movies are so successful. You feel the love and the labor, and the thought behind everything.”