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Snowpiercer (2013) - DP: Kyung-pyo Hong

Film is still alive with and it's always a treat to see a movie keeping the tradition going. That being said, there's something kind of alarming that's come to my attention now that Fuji is out of the motion picture film game, and it's that EVERY SINGLE MOVIE that shoots on film shoots on Kodak Vision 3 500T 5219. Maybe they throw in 250D for the outdoors stuff, but it's become an epidemic. I know everything makes a pass through intensive color grading these days, but there was something special about the low contrast and milky blacks that we saw in Fuji Eterna 500T in movies like "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (which I'm pretty sure did not go through a digital color grade).

But to get to the point, cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong did some extraordinary work on this film. I'm not familiar with any of his previous work, but "Snowpiercer" showed that he really has what it takes. Someone once told me that there are three basic goals to lighting: 1) To achieve exposure, there's no film if we can't see anything. 2) Aestheticism, we want movies to look good, or at least if it looks bad it ought to be appropriate to the mood of the film. 3) Narrative, you know the lighting excels when it pushes beyond merely making the film look good or establishing a tone and it actually begins to expound on the story, so that as an audience member you are actually taking cues from the lighting that allow you to further understand the characters and situations. Of course this 3-point system is a bit of an oversimplification, but it gets at some truths.

 Torches illuminate the fight scene through a train car.

Torches illuminate the fight scene through a train car.

Achieving the narrative element of lighting can separate great cinematography from good, and it's exactly what makes Hong's work so impressive. Throughout the course of the film he takes us from the dark, dingy muted greens and blues of the back of the train, through the shadowless, and idyllic greenhouse car, the psychedelic nightclub, and finally the engine which at first feels like a heavenly relief from all the human conflict of the rest of the train, but under the surface we see that it's actually an unfathomable Hell. Seamlessly, we move through all these palettes and more, each environment immediately clues us in to what we can expect on that car. The shining moment in the film is when the lights are shut off one by one in the midst of a hand-to-hand fight, leaving our heroes in the dark. But Hong is smart enough not to leave the audience in the dark. We see the bad guys don night-vision goggles and start attacking. He affords us their perspective and we can see the heroes through the goggles swinging aimlessly in the dark. When he pulls out of the night-vision we can see just the faintest slivers of light splashing throughout the room, moving past as the train travels through the tunnel. The fight continues in darkness until finally light is actually physically brought into the room by a team of guys with torches, leveling the playing field. By the end we have an entire scene that is almost dictated by the lighting and beautifully so.

It's that kind of mastery of how lighting tells the story combined with the fact that the film looks gorgeous throughout that make this a really great piece of photography.

 

-Sheldon J.