By Darek Kuźma
BIFA-nominated DP Magda Kowalczyk becomes our guide through the everyday life of a British dairy cow and her calf, in director Andrea Arnold’s affecting and acclaimed documentary Cow, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on 8 July 2021.
The ordinariness of cows, the sheer obviousness of their service to the world of humans, makes a documentary attempting to observe their grace and the challenges of their lives a tough balancing act. How to sympathise with animals that seem to exist for the benefit of their milk and meat? Yet Arnold’s film is both a realistic view of the unending process of producing milk and all that is attached, including breeding, dehorning, grazing, growing old, and an emphatic glimpse into dairy cows’ mundane life cycle that may not be as different from ours as we tend to think.
Arnold had originally wanted to make a documentary revolving around an animal for years, and considered making one about a chicken, but ultimately kept coming back to a cow. As it was going to take to take several years to shoot, the director’s trusted collaborator, DP Robbie Ryan ISC BSC, could not commit to the project. A casting call was ordered and the producers decided to entrust the project to Polish-born cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk.
“My mom was a documentary filmmaker and editor, and I never imagined myself doing anything else myself,” says Kowalczyk. “I was born and raised in Warsaw and didn’t know much about cows, but I loved Andrea’s work and I knew I’d be able to commit to the project, to give her what she wanted, and that I’d be able to support her.”
The shoot began after particular prep for the film. This involved choosing a dairy farm in Kent, selecting leading cows (Luma and her calf Malu), and establishing a flexible routine of returning for a few days a month, especially when something interesting was about to happen, such as the insemination process. And, needless to say, it was an adventure.
“When you make a documentary with humans, it takes time to earn their trust, learn their ways. It’s very different with cows. They are shy, but also curious, interested in new things, new people. And they don’t notice a film camera, at least not as something that looks at them.”
“The film is a creative collaboration and it’s my interpretation of Andrea’s vision”
There were times Kowalczyk felt the cows behaved like humans would. “When you see a cow giving birth and then taking care of her calf, checking its dung, teaching it how to walk or socialise with other cows, you observe a maternal bond and see natural instincts kick in. I always believed this is human, conditioned by culture, society, but it’s not,” claims Kowalczyk. “Luma and others got used to my presence, I felt they liked me to be around them. But at times they clearly wanted to be left alone. Like when they were separated from their calves – I remember they seemed mad, ashamed, alone.”
Which is something that Arnold wanted to emphasise: that cows are not only milking machines, but living beings that deserve our respect for what they are forced to do to make our lives that little bit better. Kowalczyk tried to show it with her images.
“I tried to be a documentary DP and at the same time stay connected to the visual style Robbie and Andrea perfected over the years. I only adjusted it slightly to depict the world of cows, like panning from Luma’s face to what she sees instead of doing a POV shot. The film is a creative collaboration and it’s my interpretation of Andrea’s vision.”
Kowalczyk reminisces that the style nevertheless altered throughout the shoot. “Initially, I tried to frame the humans from waist down, or with their heads just outside the frame, or through angles that seemed natural for how a cow would see them. I didn’t want them to be characters.
“At some point, however, Andrea said we had to make the farm workers more identifiable, as they seemed too aggressive, that my way would work in a short, but in a feature it makes people disconnected. She was right, the footage showed we needed them to be visible.”
The foreseeable unpredictability of the shoot was something Kowalczyk took into consideration when picking a Sony FS7 camera for the production.
“We tested 16mm film and it looked magnificent, but shooting on celluloid was too risky considering the location. So I chose to rent a reliable digital camera that wouldn’t be costly if something happened on the farm. Cows are big beasts that are not aware of their size. They wouldn’t harm a fly, but are easily scared. I saw one time how a terrified cow lead others into a sort of stampede. There’s always time to run, but, what if the camera was left in their path?”
“I crave old photographic lenses, the way they slightly distort images and diffuse light unevenly”
All day exteriors and interiors were shot in 4K on the Sony FS7, with night scenes shot using ARRI Alexa Mini, with a solid set of tried-and-tested Zeiss lenses: Zeiss Planar 50mm and 85mm, Zeiss Distagon 25mm and 35mm, Zeiss Jena Flektogon 20mm, Zeiss 135mm.
“Andrea said she wanted to see the world as much through a cow’s eyes as much as it was technically possible,” explains Kowalczyk. “I crave old photographic lenses, the way they slightly distort images and diffuse light unevenly. There’s something unpredictable in them. They’re perfect for an imperfect view of the world.”
Having such equipment on the set of a realistic documentary, Kowalczyk did not need large light sources, yet she used some to give Cow a more filmic look.
“For day scenes I had three 650W Redhead and several small 160LEDs. Back then LED light was very expensive and not as renowned,” says Kowalczyk. “For night scenes I trusted Alexa, but I still needed some light for the exteriors on a field. I used 2kW Blondes, 1kW Fresnels and 20×20 LED panels.” When the footage finally reached colourist Ian Pinder at Golden Wolf it proved more than enough.
Cow took four years to shoot and was set to be released in 2020, but we all know what happened that year. So Kowalczyk’s journey will extend into 2022. But she does not mind, she is proud of the work.
“I was 15 when I saw my first Andrea Arnold film, and I was mesmerised. Now I’m a part of her film. I mean, wow! Sure, at some point I had nightmares about not being able to capture all of the interesting stuff at the farm, but when I saw the first edit, I knew we were fine.”
Kowalczyk’s BIFA nomination for Cow thus seems to be only the beginning of many other journeys to come.