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Monika Lenczewska PSC • Animal

Mar 8, 2024

(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 017)

RESTLESS PARADISE

By Darek Kuźma

Polish cinematographer Monika Lenczewska PSC returned to her indie film roots with director Sofia Exarchou’s exquisitely-crafted sophomore feature Animal.

Lenczewska’s style as a cinematographer has always been fairly difficult to pin down, stretched between celebrated indies – such as the Ethiopian legal drama Difret (2014) nominated for Best Cinematography at Sundance and EnergaCAMERIMAGE, the dark Icelandic comedy Under The Tree (2017), plus top-level films City Of Lies (2018) and the TV series Trust (2018).

After taking a break from feature filmmaking, during which she collaborated on commercials with directors such as Daniel Wolfe for brands including BMW and Nike, becoming the first female DP awarded with the coveted Gold Arrow, and Terrence Malick on Google’s Pixel 3, Lenczewska eagerly reunited with her friend Exarchou on Animal, an emotionally-complex tale of an international group of hotel performers who run entertainment for the guests of a lavish Greek holiday resort.

“I’d rather take more time and adapt a real interior to whatever a project needs than use a sterile studio”

We follow the characters as they prepare a wide variety of enticing performances and intricately-choreographed dance routines. We recognise their camaraderie and learn bits about their individual stories. We see how they work their daily grind in discos or karaoke bars, often hired by the owners to animate the crowds, and then go back home at dawn, dead tired yet energised enough to live through another stimulating and draining day. 

Lenczewska shot Exarchou’s feature debut Park in 2016 and boarded Animal without a moment of hesitation.

“Sofia is the kind of director who lives and breathes whatever she is making. I like to help such filmmakers transform their ideas and passion into visual storytelling. I don’t recall if she’s ever asked me if I want to shoot the film, it was natural.

“She wanted me to be involved from early-on, and flooded me with scouting images, rehearsal videos and photo references. Then, I flew to Greece two months before the shoot started. We broke down the script, and made a detailed shot list. Because of the time we spent on prep, and because we know each other so well, we didn’t talk a lot on set when it came to shoot,” Lenczewska affirms.

The entirety of Animal was shot on-location in Crete and Athens over 40 shooting days from September to November 2022.

“I always opt for shooting in real places,” Lenczewska recounts. “Working on a soundstage is fine, it gives you more control, but it robs you of natural light and the beautiful, inimitable ambience it creates. I’d rather take more time and adapt a real interior to whatever a project needs than use a sterile studio. Luckily, Sofia, and other directors I work with, share this sentiment.”

“I wanted to be spontaneous, to get in the moment, capture reactions, body language and gestures”

Authenticity – of emotions, locations, relationships, lighting, camera work – is an essential part of Animal’s cinematic identity. The film is designed in a way that it gradually reveals additional information about the characters and their worldviews, thus fundamentally changing our understanding of what makes them tick as human beings. 

Hence, it was imperative to make the handheld camera responsive to the actors’ actions. 

“Their movement was partly blocked, yet I wanted to be spontaneous, to get in the moment, capture reactions, body language and gestures, little things that happen when you give the performers comfort and freedom to experiment with their characters,” Lenczewska offers. “I like the state of not-knowing, I prefer to just be there with my camera and respond. When you get into the actors’ rhythm, that’s when the magic happens.”

Animal’s particular visual language – lots of in-camera movement, long handheld takes, making it look as natural as possible, shooting predominantly with one camera – meant that Lenczewska needed trusted equipment. As she has been a proud member of the ARRI family for years, she knew exactly which camera to shoot with.

“I’ve been loyal to ARRI Alexa Mini LF from the moment I shot my first film with it. It’s purely instinctual: it’s fast, has great optics, gives superb images, interacts beautifully with portraits and human skin. It’s good with night exteriors/interiors, and I can set it up by myself to whatever I need,” she declares. “We had a second Alexa Mini LF, operated on occasion by James Wall, but I shot most of the film on my own.”

“When you get into the actors’ rhythm, that’s when the magic happens”

She equipped the Alexa Mini LF cameras with Canon K-35 and FD lenses (20mm-135mm), supplied by Warsaw-based ATM System, with which she had already shot Exarchou’s Park.

“I’m an intuitive DP and I love operating whenever I can, which is especially important on smaller films like Animal where the camera gets intimate with the characters. I like to have a small package, documentary-style, a few lenses and a camera, so that nothing slows me down. The Alexa Mini LF and Canon K-35s worked perfectly without changing the DNA of the story,” says Lenczewska. 

Lenczewska extended her approach to the way she lit Animal and its restless characters, some of whom, as it is slowly revealed, treat the resort as a sort of asylum from the harsh reality that colours them as nothing special.

“I like to mix different light sources, LEDs with HMIs, shape faces or silhouettes with Tungstens. Being flexible was a crucial part of this project as the script was so dense, emotionally-draining, and we were in a constant rush despite having 40 shooting days.” 

Her most used light sources included ARRI SkyPanels (S60-C, S120-C, 360), Astera Helios/Titan Tubes, Chimeras (M w. 5K M40 ring, S w. 2K ring) and a solid Tungsten package – ARRI 10K, ARRI T5 5K, ARRI T2 2K, Parcan 64 1K, Source 4, Blonde 2K, Jem Ball 2K, and a Dedolight kit.

On the rare occasion of lighting day interiors, the kit included ARRIMAX 18K, ARRI M90, M40 and M18, but she didn’t light day exteriors at all.

“Admiring and understanding natural light is my calling,” Lenczewska remarks. “Wherever I am in the world, the sun surprises me, even if only by the way it hits a building and creates a special moment that quickly passes. There’s nothing that’s remotely as beautiful. I believe that if you commit yourself to observing and analysing it, you’ll become a better cinematographer.” 

It was obviously different for the night scenes. “I was fortunate to have great collaborators in 1st AC Kostas Babis, DIT Ivailo Stefanov and gaffer Liviu Popa, with whom I have worked on commercials before. Liviu almost read my thoughts, which was important as in the pre-rigging disco and bar scenes we had to shape the flashy practical sources with our stuff in a way it looked natural and cinematic.

“Harris Savides ASC always claimed he preferred to light spaces, not people, and I do the same. It’s more lifelike. Sure, sometimes it’s hard and you feel that something’s missing. I was never afraid to reset a scene and shape it from scratch. It takes time, but if a director trusts you, you can do it. I encourage young DPs to not be afraid to start from scratch, as it gives you experience and satisfaction, and works for the good of the film,” she adds. 

“I wasn’t like that at the beginning of my career, but after a number of projects you just feel when you should work longer on a scene. Or the other way around, when you should be spontaneous. In Animal I often went with what I had without the perfect lighting, or asked my gaffer to attune on the fly. Many of these shots are in the film.” 

As Lenczewska always puts a lot of effort into pre-grading with a DIT on the set, Animal’s 10-day DI work, completed with colourist Claudio Doaga in Romania, was about enhancing what she captured on camera and balancing out the footage shot over 40 days in wildly different conditions.

“Admiring and understanding natural light is my calling”

“We were able to achieve a satisfying look that met everything Sofia and I had set out to accomplish. I believe that if you put a lot of work into something, it’ll bounce back to you. In retrospect, this wasn’t an easy film but because the whole cast and crew gave their 100%, the result is there.”

Which can honestly serve as a perfect summary of what Animal is, a mesmerizing independent film about a group of flawed and fragile people trying their best to entertain other people, and be the most fun version of themselves before the outside reality comes knocking at their door.

As for Monika Lenczewska, she is currently working on Faithless, Tomas Alfredson’s (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) TV series based on Ingmar Bergman’s 2000 film of the same title, yet another thrillingly divergent project that should test what she stands for in terms of camera movement, approach to light and location shooting. Needless to say, the future looks ‘naturally’ bright for her.

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