Ending an 87-year drought, the Academy finally nominated its first African-American cinematographer, Bradford Young, for his dark, richly textured work on Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction hit “Arrival.” Young had already picked awards twice at Sundance for his lensing on Dee Rees’ “Pariah” and shooting Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George,” and David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” the same year, and he served as Ava DuVernay’s cinematographer on “Middle of Nowhere” and “Selma.” With Oscar in sight, Young spoke with Variety from London, where he is currently filming a little project unofficially known as “Han Solo,” a new chapter in the “Star Wars” franchise.
Personally and historically, what does this nomination mean to you?
It’s a tough question that I’ve been thinking about a lot. It’s always an honor when your peers recognize the hard work you put into the films that we make, so that part of it is an honor. The historical part of it, though, I still haven’t really wrapped my mind around. I still have a lot of questions about why I am the “first” African-American to be nominated for a cinematography award. In some ways, it’s deeply troubling to me, so I find it hard to be so celebratory about it. But just in terms of your peers saying to you that your hard work is being recognized… that part of it, for me, means a lot.
Do you think there are specific obstacles for African-Americans in cinematography?
Yeah. I just think that our work goes massively overlooked because most of our work doesn’t adhere to conventional photographic technique and knowledge. And so our frames that have deep, rich intention generally are considered “underexposed” or “technically insufficient.”
You take someone like Ernest Dickerson. It’s a crime that he wasn’t nominated for a film like “Malcolm X,” or Arthur Jafa wasn’t nominated for a film like “Daughters of the Dust,” or Malik Sayeed wasn’t nominated for a film like “Clockers.” Twenty years later, you find a new generation of filmmakers who are using those films as referential landscapes. Some of the work that’s nominated this year, “Clockers” was a big reference for those films. I think the downside is that it took our country seven generations to recognize what black technicians and black cinematographers bring to the table.
It’s sort of shameful that we can’t celebrate in our moment. I think it takes a real decolonizing of the mind. We have to decolonize the conventional knowledge to the point where works by a cinematographer of color, work that is directed by directors of color, material that is written by people of color—when those things come together, you see great work. But I think it’s going to take some time for us to be in a place where [black] technicians are recognized for what they bring to the table. Especially cinematographers, who, in general, I think consider themselves artists.
It’s a journey, because we don’t go to traditional American film schools. We don’t enter into the traditional route. So I think we, in general, socially, are forgotten, so if we don’t come out of those institutions that are considered those that generate good, conventional cinematographers, we’re sort of just lost. That’s the tragedy of it. For me, I just sort of slipped through the cracks, but there were so many before me who should’ve been honored, should’ve been recognized. That’s the part I’m wrestling with, to try to unpack.
Those three cinematographers you mentioned all went to Howard University, as did you. I’m not an expert in cinematography, but to my eye, the common visual link is hyper-saturated color. Do you think that’s an accurate way to describe their work? How would you describe the commonality between those three men, your work, and the Howard school of cinematography in general?
At Howard, you spend upwards of four—sometimes longer; ten years—studying ways of exposing black skin. And so it’s just like anything else: If you’re in the workshop for that long, you’re going to have a lot to say just because of the rigor and the time spent and the hours spent exploring those ideas. I think what we discover in our work—and from being exposed to African filmmakers, to third-world filmmakers—is our hue is a reflection of every color of the rainbow.
Our job is to sort of extract that hue from skin tone. It’s a beautiful opportunity for us to find this deep, rich nature of our skin tone by operating in the shadows. I think what you find in films like “Belly” or “Clockers” or “Mo’ Better Blues,” “Malcolm X,” “Daughters of the Dust” is that we’re exploring how color resonates deep in black skin tone. It’s all there. You just have to figure out a way to pull it out.
Again, if you’re in the workshop for 20 years and that’s all you’re doing, you’re going to find a sweet spot that’s uniquely yours. It’s not like Malik or A.J. or I all have similar sort of styles. We all have different voices because we come from different places in the world. We have our own experience, but I think the common link is that we understand that, within the spectrum of black skin tones, there’s an infinite array of skin colors you can extract from it, and we develop our own unique photographic techniques to bring that to the surface.
And it’s a challenge to convention. For us, that’s all we know, so it’s just a practice that we continue to engage with. It’s something that we continue to wrestle with and make better, as any artist would.
It seems you’re selective about what you shoot. There don’t seem to be any work-for-hire projects in your filmography. What goes into your decision-making process?
I always say that if I can see myself in the film, then it’s probably a film worth doing. Most scripts, it’s hard for me to see myself in the story. If you look at the films that I’ve shot—somehow, someway I’ve found myself in the film. It doesn’t have to be on the surface—it can be sort of deep, meta, into the story—but if I catch a feeling from the literature, I try to let that lead the way.
What kind of partnership do you like to forge with directors? How much latitude do you like in determining the look of the film?
I’ve tried to forge deep partnerships with directors I’ve worked with because I generally want to give as much of myself to the project as I can. In order for me to do that, I kind of feel like an actor — I feel like I have to trust you in order to do that.
Friendship or deep collaboration, for me, is a big deal, and so once we get to shooting, because I’ve spent so much time talking to you — not just about the look of the film, but with questions like “What’s your worldview? How do you see raising kids? What kind of music do you listen to?”— you can develop a visual style out of general questions that seem un-photographic, but they are. They help me invest that much more into telling a story visually.
Once we get to shooting the film, it’s sort of an unspoken experience. I’m carrying the baggage of the director. In some way, I’m embodying the director. I become the director’s second voice, or I become the director’s eyes. I always feel honored, because I’m given a lot of leeway to bring a lot of visual opinions to the story, to executing the film. That doesn’t happen all the time, but I’ve been fortunate enough to work with directors that give me a lot of room.
Denis Villeneuve always seems interested in alien textures and landscapes. How did the two of you come together on how “Arrival” would look?
[Production designer] Patrice Vermette definitely had a lot to do with that. Because [Denis and Patrice] work together so much, a lot of that sort of structural work had already been done when I got to the table. The interior of the ship, for example, is a structural decision that had already been made, which was the starting point for me because it gave me a better understanding of how they operate. These are extremely architectural, visually savvy filmmakers. They believe in shape, form, space, lighting. Specificity is a deep part of their practice.
I’d already had four or five books in the corner that I thought I might use one day if somebody offered me a science fiction film, so I just brought those up. It was a good marriage, tonally, because of some of the stuff I saw that he and Patrice had already done. One of those references was [photographer] Martina Hoogland Ivanow. Her book, “Speedway,” was a big reference for the film. It had all the sorts of tonality, in terms of darkness. The way she extracts information from shadows, we got to do the same inside the ship. You have this vessel that’s dark on many levels, but the walls of the ship are jet-black, so how can you add more atmosphere to those environments so it doesn’t become a sort of black that doesn’t have life or a darkness that doesn’t have life, but a darkness that has something in it?
When I saw the design of the ship, I knew I had the right reference. I showed it to Denis and Patrice, and they really liked it right away, and we just kept on that track throughout. You really see a lot of her photographic technique. On my end, it’s really present in the film.
“Arrival” and “Selma” are both studio movies, or released by studios, but made at budget levels considerably lower than the average for science fiction or historical films. What kind of adjustments were necessary for you to shoot those films?
I didn’t really have any studio experience before “Selma,” but that never really felt like a studio film, so by the time I got to “Arrival,” I still didn’t feel like I was making “a studio film.” I just felt like I was making a film with my friends. I felt like I was making a higher-budget indie film, that’s what it felt like.
We had a pot of money to make the film, and obviously science fiction requires a few more dollars, but this never felt like we were making “a science fiction film,” if you know what I mean. We said we were making “a dirty science fiction film.” I think the word “dirty” says it all. We were going to break away from a lot of the tropes and make a more grounded science fiction film, something that Denis would call “slightly boring.” Slightly mundane. So it never felt like studio films. It just felt like two friends who got a few more dollars than we expected to make a film somebody had written in their kitchen on the weekend.
“Selma” felt the same way. I never felt the deprivation in terms of money or resources. It felt like it was right for the story that we were trying to tell. The money that we had for “Arrival” probably wasn’t enough, but for the kind of movie we wanted to make, it seemed pretty luxurious. [Laughs] Because who gets to make a low-fi, analog science fiction film with that much money? It doesn’t happen all the time.
There are effects, but it’s not effects-driven.
Yeah, it’s not an effects-driven film. Those effects in the film are really anchored in the low-fi, analog quality of the human story. If somebody told you they were going to give you $50 million to make a procedural drama about a melancholy intellectual, you’d be like, “Wow, that’s a lot of money.” The reason why it’s a lot of money is because you’ve got to put in a spaceship and some aliens and they’ve got to float and you do all that other stuff. But, in general, we were just making a film about somebody who’s questioning the mortality of humanity and of their children.
There seems to be a shift in your photography between the framing portions — which remind me of your work in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” — and the segments where Amy Adams is communicating with the aliens. Is that true, or is there more of a continuity to the look that I’m not really acknowledging?
No, that’s a good observation. I think, with “Arrival,” there’s quite a bit of me continuing my practice as a cinematographer, as an image-maker, in terms of how I deal with darkness. That’s consistent. That’s been consistent since my first films, like “Pariah,” “Black Sheep,” all the way to “Arrival.” It’s these ideas, this exploration of darkness that I carry with me through every film.
I think what’s interesting or unique about “Arrival” is that there are some things that I’m doing inside the ship that I’ve never done before and I was quite frightened to do, like spotlight actors and work at an exposure level that was slightly over-exposed. I’m not used to doing that, and those are things I would normally, intuitively not do. So what you’re seeing in “Arrival,” if I had an analysis of my own work, is quite a bit of my cumulative value as an artist is in the shadows.
In “Arrival,” there’s sort of a new approach for me in dealing with certain levels of brightness that that ship gave me an opportunity to explore. There’s one angle in the ship where I was at home, and that’s those angles where I’m looking at the screen and people are back-lit, things are quite shadowy. That felt really natural to me. On those days we were shooting on the set, I would feel comfortable and it would be helping Denis unpack the nuances of how do we get shots to tell the story. But the shots where I was looking away from the screen, and our characters are front-lit, that was a nightmare for me, and it forced me to ask myself questions about lighting that I didn’t really have answers for, so I was wrestling with my own internal thing.
I also had to be a helpful visual storyteller for Denis, so I think you see some intention in my work because it was such a, in terms of logic, very black-and-white shooting style. It forced me to be on one end of the spectrum and on another. That was a difficult juggle.
Can you say anything about “Han Solo”?
I’m excited about the film, but I can say nothing. [Laughs]
You can’t deny that you’re the cinematographer who’s been hired, though, right?
Yeah. That’s as much information as they’re letting out, and I’m going to leave it at that.